Chicago Loopster chats with Chicago film expert Patrick McDonald
Patrick McDonald is a film critic for Hollywood Chicago and a tour guide for the Chicago Film Tour, which highlights movie locations from the famous to the obscure all around Chicago. He answered a few questions about Chicago’s lengthy history in film, and what the future holds for movies made in the city.
How did you get started with Hollywood Chicago and with the Film Tour?
Hollywood Chicago and the Film Tour are two distinct elements. For Hollywood Chicago I am a film reviewer and writer on the site, for the Chicago Film Tour I joined it when a guy named John Brinkman from Detroit noticed that Chicago did not have a film tour. I just basically answered an ad and became his primary tour guide. This is our second season, so that was in April of 2009
Are there more Chicagoans or tourists on the film tour?
Well interestingly enough I think it’s a mix. If it’s a Chicago person, they’re more of a film buff, seeing different parts of the city based on where the locations were, and we go into neighborhoods were some Chicagoans don’t necessarily go into because they have the film sites. With the out-of-towners it’s a mix of tourists and film buffs.
What are some of the most popular sites and features on the film tour?
I think one that generates the most “oohs and ahhs” is Hotel 71, where Bruce Wayne has his apartment in The Dark Knight, because it’s very distinctive and very obvious that it is that place. The Uptown Theatre also generates a lot of interest because of its unique position in the neighborhood and the fact that it’s been shuttered for a number of years. The Essanay Studio is probably one of the most well-preserved silent film icons in the country. And naturally the Biograph Theatre where Dillinger was shot is one of the prime elements in the tour.
What Chicago film sites are people most surprised to learn about?
I would say absolutely the Essanay film studio. Most people don’t have any idea that Chicago was once a film capital when the movies were first starting out. Two film studios in Chicago were putting out about 400 films a year up to around the second decade of the 20th century. Most of them were gone by the 1920s.
There is a resurgence in bigger movies filming in Chicago – What are some of the benefits that are drawing filmmakers back?
What happened in Illinois’ case was that a couple of very prominent movies had Chicago settings but they were shot in Toronto. The big one was “Chicago,” the 2003 Best Picture where not one frame was shot in the city. That got the legislature spurred on, with the help of lobbying from some agencies here, to get tax incentives in place so that filmmakers could come in and use the city and still get the kind of cost relevance that would make it essential for them.
Does Chicago allow more disruption of the city to draw filming than New York or other cities?
I know that Mayor Daley is making an effort to be more accommodating to movie crews and I think that Transformers was a way to show the rest of the country that Chicago is serious about being a filming location and that they will cooperate and will give them the cityscapes that they need to shoot bigger pictures like Transformers 3.
Are there downsides to filming in Chicago?
Film tax breaks have become a big issue for the states. There are currently 44 out of 50 states that offer some kind of tax incentive to filmmakers, so the competition is pretty intense. I would say Chicago’s biggest disadvantage is the months between December and May, or however long our winter lasts. That’s exactly why the studios closed in the early 20th century; there simply wasn’t a vehicle to shoot year-round here. I think that atmospherically, Chicago offers so much that a lot of filmmakers are willing to overlook that.
What are your favorite movies filmed here?
My favorite Chicago film is “Medium Cool,” which is sort of a cult film from the late 1960s directed by Haskell Wexler. It was a sort of a prose poem to the city. He took the situation around the Democratic National Convention of that year, with the Vietnam riots, and formulated a fictional film around those events. It’s a very fascinating snapshot into that time in the city. In fact I believe that was a film that was not pleasing to the first Mayor Daley because of the image of Chicago being a center for that situation.
I also love how John Hughes would use the city, both in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and in “Ferris Bueller.” I think that he made love letters to the city in those movies and that he wanted to make sure that he showed it off in the way that it needs to be showed off. I’m a big fan of that aspect of it, especially after delving into the tour and revisiting many of those films.