Sunday, August 7, 2011
My day on the set of "The Dark Knight Rises"
This weekend was a pretty big one for "The Dark Knight Rises" production in Pittsburgh, as on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the movie took over Heinz Field and thousands of extras were used. I was one of roughly 15,000 participants to join the production on Saturday, an interesting but taxing day spent in the blazing heat.
In deference to those who hate having these things spoiled for them (and probably a few non disclosure rules), I won't discuss anything that happened from a plot standpoint other than what is already public knowledge. Even so, there's plenty to speak about, some good, some not as much.
My call time for the day was a relatively late 9:45. Since this was the weekend and there would be no rush hour traffic to speak of, I left my house at 8:30 and made it into the city by 9:15 - record time! Once in the city, however, things slowed to almost a dead stop. I spent the last three miles of the trip in my car for almost two hours, behind an agitated group of people in cars all headed for the same parking lot. Once I did make it to the Civic Arena - former home of the Penguins and the production parking lot - I was then diverted to yet another lot a few miles away.
The parking system for this film was handled atrociously - the Penguins routinely bring nearly 19,000 people into the same area of the city with only expected delays, and at least eight times a year the Steelers host almost 70,000 fans on the North Shore. Because of this, I'm sure that there's already a system in place to handle a great number of people making their way to one general location. Whoever was in charge of parking on this day failed in a number of ways.
Once I did manage to park (check out the "Batman Parking" sign at the top...does that mean Batman has his own parking spot in town??), I caught a shuttle (a school bus) with a few dozen other extras and made my way to Heinz Field, the setting for that day's filming.
Over the last few weeks, I've received e-mail after e-mail telling me what I could not bring to the set. After breezing through the "check-in" lines at the stadium, though, it's obvious that I could have brought pretty much whatever I wanted in with me. I saw logos, bottles and cameras, all of which we were warned not to bring. Nothing was done about any of these as far as I could see.
As I entered the stadium, a few random production assistants told those entering to take seats anywhere they could find one, and I made my way to section 111, which would be a fantastic place to catch a Steeler game, as it's very close to the 50-yard line:
After I found my seat, the waiting began, as it does with any movie set. It rained for a few hours in the morning, but the sun was coming out when I took my seat and it just got hotter and hotter as the day wore on.
Most of what was filmed on this day, as was reported by many different outlets, was a "kickoff" scene for a football game hosted by the Gotham Rogues, a team that just happens to have the same color scheme as the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the Steelers are in town for training camp, a number of them were on the set for some cameos earlier in the day. Wide receiver and future Hall of Famer Hines Ward, though, had a pretty significant role this day, which surprised me. He stuck around until the early afternoon and was a part of several different scenes. It took me a little while to accept that it was him and not a stunt double/stand in, but at one point he came out and addressed all of us in the stands via the stadium's PA system, at which point everyone went crazy. It was fun to see Hines running around out there and having a good time.
Another familiar face from the Steeler family was there for a while, too: former head coach Bill Cowher, who in this movie is the head coach for the Rogues. At one point, Cowher came out to raffle off prizes, which was pretty surreal - of all the things they could have this guy doing on Saturday, he was calling out numbers for stupid prizes while we all razzed him ("nice pick, Cowher!") from the stands.
In between shots, we were entertained by "Dante the Comic", who was easily one of the worst comedians I have ever had the misfortune to see. I'm not sure if he was having a heat stroke on the field or if he was actually trying to be funny, but he didn't seem to know what was going on at any point. He had Dane Cook syndrome in that he repeated himself over and over again for no apparent reason. I don't envy his position, as it was his job to keep thousands of unpaid extras happy in broiling heat, but wow! was he bad. At one point, as he desperately grasped for ideas, he shouted "anyone here think they're a good singer?", at which time we were all regaled with horrific versions of "Redneck Woman", "God Bless America" and "Here We Go", an annoying '90s-era Steelers fight song.
After around 1:00 in the afternoon, about a third of the crowd began to trickle out of the stadium, much to the dismay of overstressed production assistants who tried to keep them around by saying things like "think of all the fun we're having!" The overbearing heat, though, won out, and most people did whatever they wanted during the day no matter what the PAs tried to get them to do.
If there was fun to have during this day (and there was), it was during the actual filming. I am, in general, a fan of director Christopher Nolan's movies, and I was impressed to see how he handled everything going on this day. He seemed to me like a very no-nonsense director, and he treated the crowd appropriately - he explained just what was/would be happening, and he reiterated several times just how dumb it would look on camera if people in the crowd made fools of themselves during a shot by smiling, laughing or looking at a camera when it wasn't appropriate. He even laid into some of the crew members for not listening to him when he was giving instructions for a scene. He did more than act sternly, believe me; it just seemed that he had a plan in mind and he was going to see it through no matter what occurred.
Tom Hardy, playing the character Bane, was in one of the scenes filmed this day, and afterwards he, too, addressed the crowd. He seemed genuinely happy to be on set and in the city. He spoke of how grateful he was to be in the movie, and how much he enjoyed spending time in Pittsburgh. He said all of this while wearing his full Bane costume, including the S&M-like mask, which was a little peculiar. I guess the mask took some effort to get off.
At different points in the day, prizes were raffled off to members of the crowd. These prizes ranged from honestly pretty cool (a car, a poster autographed by Bob Kane) to somewhat cool (iPods galore) to just plain weird (a cardboard standee of Michael Keaton...that had been rained on). Several boxes of comics were given away, which were all referred to as "vintage". I suppose that one person's definition of "vintage" can be different from the next's, but I don't generally consider comics from the '90s to fall under that category. "This box of comics", the comedian's girlfriend said at one point, "is literally worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars!" A hundred issues of Legends of the Dark Knight from 1997? Probably not. But hey, it's great to see that old falsity that comics are automatically worth money being perpetuated.
One of the coolest things being given away this day had to be official Gotham Rogues t-shirts, and everyone wanted to get one. There was, though, a disproportionate amount of shirts given away to one section in the corner of the end zone. The gold shirt simply had the Rogues team logo (a masked bandit) printed on them, and they looked slick - and depending on if these are mass marketed at any point, they could end up being a big collector's item. The aforementioned end zone section, though, got at least 80% of the few hundred given away, for reasons that perplexed most of us. At the end of the day, I saw a group of five people leaving the stadium, each with at least one shirt. One person from this group was wearing one shirt and carrying two others. In my section, not one person got a shirt, much to my consternation.
I don't blame the people who happened to be sitting in the right sections this day; if I was there I would have snagged as many as I could. But I still can't figure out why no one thought to bring a box or two over to the other 12,000 people who waited through the same conditions. Oh well...I suppose we might see some pop up on eBay pretty soon.
After filming ended for the day, the headache of getting back to the parking lot began, and it really highlighted the lack of organization that was evident throughout the day. Production assistants inside were telling us that we wouldn't be able to win the "grand prize" raffle of a trip to the movie premier because we had to leave. PAs outside of the stadium weren't sure why we were filing outside. No one knew what bus was heading to specific parking locations. People were pouring out into the street, given the blessing of one assistant while another told us to wait in line.
Eventually, though, we made it onto a bus, and after crawling through heavy traffic and crowds on the North Shore (there for a sold-out Pirate game), I was on my way home. Once I got home, I saw that I had an e-mail waiting for me asking me to return on Sunday - this time as a paid extra. I would have jumped at the opportunity, but the film office had closed by that time...which was fairly frustrating.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this day on the set. I feel that I had the appropriate expectations for what the day would bring, and there were plenty of positives to be found. It was particularly fun to see Hines Ward run the field and Bill Cowher shout into a microphone. I enjoyed Christopher Nolan's level of involvement and getting to see Bane and all of the special effects that took place on the field. I could have done without the incessant pandering of the on-field "entertainment", many of whom, at various points, made it their mission to say things like "how lucky are you guys to get a chance to be here? This is something you'll remember for the rest of your lives!" I would have much rather they said something to the effect of "thanks for taking time to help us with this movie!"...it would have come off as much less tacky and disingenuous.
Out of all the productions I've been a part of as an extra, this was by far the most unorganized. It was also the biggest and most complicated, and I suppose some of the chaos can be blamed on that fact. The Dark Knight rises has a production budget that probably exceeds that of everything else I've ever done put together. This is going to be a tentpole movie that will most likely gross a billion dollars in revenue. It was worth the hassle to be a part of it for one day - I just hope that the organizers learned from their many mistakes.