Wednesday, April 6, 2011

LOCATION: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – PITTSBURGH


The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
It was announced yesterday (Tuesday, April 5th, 2011) that Christopher Nolan would be filming the next, and final, installment in his Batman trilogy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To many people this came as a bit of a surprise considering the previous film, The Dark Knight (2008), was primarily filmed in Chicago, Illinois. After the prominent and publicized featuring of the windy city in The Dark Knight, people just assumed that was going to continue doubling for the famed and fictional Gotham City. What people fail to understand is that location filming means your sets can’t be changed. There is an element of control that is taken away from the filmmakers in terms of visual challenges and keeping it fresh for the audience. To stay in Chicago would be like filming Pirates of the Caribbean series on one island. There are only so many locations, angles and lighting tricks you can do before the setting begins to overshadow the story and characters.

Wayne Enterprises?
Photo by L. Lynch
In the fall of 2009 I was staying with a relative while working on a novel. He lived just outside of Pittsburgh, on the cusp of George A. Romero’s original Zombieland. Although most of my time was spent working on my project I did manage to visit Pittsburgh during my stay. In passing it appears to be just another city with bridges, waterways, stadiums and skyscrapers. Just like any other city, you have to go into it to discover its true character. The first thing that stood out to me upon arriving in the city was a tall, black, glass building, which I later discovered was the PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass) Complex. To me it looked like the real headquarters for Wayne Enterprises. The buildings sleek, dark, modern design screamed BATMAN to me. I remember thinking, “This is where they should have filmed the new Batman movies. At least some of the scenes anyway.”



Photo(s) by L. Lynch


Photo by L. Lynch
As I continued exploring the city I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of bridges in close proximity to one another. In the main downtown district there are ten major bridges, but throughout the city of Pittsburgh there are approximately 446 – earning it the nickname “The City of Bridges.” This accounts for many new options open to the filmmakers in terms of accessibility and capturing the story visually. Even the elements of their design and construction add a dynamic element to the urban landscape, creating many dark and shady corners for menacing action, or invigorating chase sequences to occur. It would exceptionally challenging, and quite lame to try and recreate new sequences on the streets of Chicago, especially after the armored car sequence from The Dark Knight.

Another thing in Pittsburgh’s favor is that the city is on a peninsula, surround by two rivers (the Monongahela & the Allegheny), which combine to make the Ohio River. This continues with the continuity established in the first two films of the series while broadening the scope of the scenery and potential for new action sequences. Across the river, to the south of the city, is Mt. Washington, which overlooks the city. All of these factors make Pittsburgh a very cinematic city and that isn’t even considering what’s happening in the city.

In many ways Pittsburgh is very similar to Chicago. They are both what I consider “weekday” cities. That means, unlike Boston or Manhattan, a majority of the people working in the city live in the surrounding suburbs, making it less crowded in the evenings and on weekends. That kind of luxury could never be afforded in NYC even on a short-term basis. With the city streets clear after 5PM, that’s twelve hours every night to film in a unique, tangible location, and double on weekends. Because of the lack of humanity on the streets after dark both cities are fairly clean as well. This allows for a more controlled filming environment. More attention can put into setting up the shots and action sequences instead of helping out with the cities sanitation efforts. The dark desolation on the city streets is also used to enhance the atmosphere of the picture, adding to the foreboding sense of crime and danger.


The accessibility afforded to filmmakers in smaller Mid-western cities over coastal ones such as New York is practically priceless in terms of its benefits. When you compare films like The Dark Knight to other superhero films like Superman (1978) or Spider-Man (2002) there’s no comparison in terms of production quality. Both Superman and Spider-Man used NYC as a backdrop for their storylines and action, but most of that is fabricated on sets and soundstages. They used a few shots of landmarks to establish the setting and then edit with interiors or SFX recreations. Of course featuring New York adds clout to the picture, but its not lasting and in the end less significant. Utilizing actual cities gives a whole new dimension to the film and allows the audience to get absorbed more easily because there is a sense of familiarity blends with their mind. This actually heightens the tension and excitement because not only are they relating to the characters, but they are also relating to the environment. 

Opting to film in an actual city of a smaller scale than New York is one of the best decisions Christopher Nolan made for this film series. Deciding to film in multiple cities under the banner of Gotham was brilliant. This allows him to broaden the cities fictional landscape with each film, presenting it as the expansive city it’s made out to be in the comics. There are reports that some filming will take place in Chicago, as with the first film, as well as in the UK. Just as The Dark Knight did with Chicago, The Dark Knight Rises (2012) will shine a spotlight on the overlooked gem that is Pittsburgh and capture it in a way that other films only could superficially. Because of this TDKR will become synonymous with the city and lead the legacy of other films from the area, including: Sudden Death (1995), Groundhog Day (1993), Striking Distance (1993), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Robocop (1987), Gung Ho (1986), The Deer Hunter (1978), and of course the Living Dead series to name a few. 

Gotham, err... Pittsburgh Skyline
Photo by L. Lynch

2 comments:

  1. How do you come up with this stuff?!!!! I love it! Pittsburgh will certainly offer a dark and seedy setting when necessary, but also supply some enchanting "city-like" cosmetics if need be. They got a bad guy yet?

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