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Nathan Crowley: The Architect of Gotham City
Nathan Crowley is a production designer. Born in England, Crowley now lives in California. But work on four consecutive movies filmed in Chicago over the course of almost five years—Batman Begins (2005), The Lake House (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and Public Enemies (2009)—has conveyed the status of honorary Chicagoan upon him.
Before we explore what Crowley has been up to during his tenure in our city, he first makes clear what a production designer does: “The production designer is in charge of the feel and the look of the entire picture, from locations to the set, the physical sets, the film sets, props, the set dressing, and into postproduction in terms of visual effects for the entire look. It’s done in conjunction with the director of photography and the director themselves. Really, it’s about creating a world for the story to inhabit.”
Possessing the keen eye and creative powers of a serious visual artist, combined with the unbridled enthusiasm of a kid who’s been set loose in the world’s largest toy store, Crowley has transformed Chicago into Gotham City, designed and supervised the construction of a modernist glass house over a lake in a Cook County forest preserve, created all of Batman’s futuristic vehicles (the Batmobile, the Batpod, and even the flying vehicle from The Dark Knight Rises, dubbed “the Bat”), and turned the clock back on an entire block of Lincoln Avenue outside the Biograph Theater to make it look almost exactly like it did the day John Dillinger was gunned down in 1934.
Crowley earned a degree in three-dimensional design in England, then came to live in America in 1990. He found a job drafting for a film studio and “it kind of went from there.” In 2001, Crowley met director/writer Christopher Nolan and worked for him on Insomnia (2002), a thriller starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams. The two men hit it off and developed a close working relationship that has led to them making three more films together (with more on the way).
The next project the pair collaborated on, Batman Begins, was the film that first brought Crowley to Chicago. Although the production did relatively little location shooting in Chicago, Crowley spent weeks prowling the city, studying it and getting ideas for a giant model of Gotham City that he and Nolan would build together back in Los Angeles. Falling in love with the city’s beautiful and unique architecture, Crowley combined key elements of Chicago’s buildings and infrastructure with his own fertile imagination to create the dark, hallucinatory dreamscape that is Gotham City in their first Batman film.
The model was crucial to their vision of Gotham City and to the film, because one thing Nolan and Crowley agreed on when they first set out to revive the Batman story was to keep the use of computer-generated effects to a minimum. “We have this policy of realism. Trying to not play the audience out. The essence of Batman is that he has no superpowers, so you really have to ground him in hard reality and things we know and cities we know to make him not invulnerable.”
Another thing that soon became obvious to them was that Chicago would play a larger part in the film: “We knew we liked Chicago a lot. We went there on the first film primarily to do the car chase on Lower Wacker, because it’s so fantastic, and then ended up shooting more stuff there. We were on top of the Jewelers Building shooting the scene when Batman initially reveals himself in Batman Begins. After we shot that scene it became very clear that Chicago had a lot more to offer than we realized.”
Crowley became even more enamored of Chicago on his next film, The Lake House, in which architecture and the love of architecture is an integral part of the story. The Lake House, which stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, is a romantic fantasy revolving around a stunning glass house that sits on poles above a small bucolic lake (hence the title of the film). Reeves plays an architect who moves into the eponymous lake house, which was his boyhood home and was designed by his cold and distant father, a famous modernist architect, played by veteran film actor Christopher Plummer.
As Reeves moves back into the house, which has been abandoned since his mother died many years before, he discovers a letter in the mailbox from the previous tenant, played by Bullock. Confused by this note, as the house has been deserted, Reeves sends a return letter asking Bullock what she is talking about. As their correspondence continues, they gradually realize that Bullock is actually occupying the house two years after Reeves, and that some sort of mysterious power embedded in the mailbox is allowing them to correspond through time. They soon fall in love and try to unravel the mystery of the mailbox in order to allow themselves to meet in “real time” and consummate their newfound love.
Many critics have derided the film, but if you buy into the premise (Hey, it’s a romantic fantasy, people; it doesn’t have to make sense!), The Lake House is a very sweet and tender film that features beautiful cinematography, extensive use of Chicago locations, and Keanu Reeves’s best performance to date as an actual non-computer-generated human being.
And even the movie’s harshest detractors will agree that the lake house itself is a fantastic piece of architecture—one that Crowley designed himself and a set construction team built in a little over two months on a small lake in a forest preserve near the suburb of Palos Hills. The house was built on pylons on the shore of the lake; then the area underneath the structure was excavated so that it then sat above the water.
It was an arduous process that Crowley felt was important for the sake of the film: “Early on I decided to expend most of my portion of the budget entirely on building the house, and I’d rely on Chicago to provide me with the rest of the film as a location, because there’s plenty of great locations and great architecture to complement the design of the house. So we built in Maple Lake, which is in a forest preserve. It was a complicated process to build a house, and we didn’t have much time—we had about nine weeks to build it. It was a large undertaking, but the whole film revolved around this house, so it was very necessary.”
After filming was completed, Crowley and crew dismantled the house and returned the lake to its previous state. The task of building the house and the entire story of the film had an especially surreal resonance with Crowley, whose father and grandfather were both architects. “It was strange to read the script because my father still has a glass house in London that we lived in when I grew up. I grew up in a glass house! I mean, we have a great relationship, but it was an interesting parallel in terms of modernism. . . . And we had to create this book for his [Keanu Reeves’s] father, so I tried to persuade my father to give me all of his work so I could create the book, but my father didn’t want that kind of involvement. I think he kind of regrets it now.”
The wide range of Chicago’s architectural styles was also a great help to
Crowley as he created the look of the film. “I always call Chicago ‘the Rome of the US,’ because it’s got such a wide variety of architecture done by a varied assortment of great architects in such a small area, so you get to observe the great history of the last century’s architecture.”
Crowley’s next Chicago project was the celebrated blockbuster The Dark Knight, on which he continued his journey of discovery through Chicago architecture, focusing even more intently on the city’s wide array of modernist structures. This aesthetic break from Batman Begins (and all previous Batman films) was brought about by the continuing evolution of the Batman story. “In Batman Begins, we’d obviously taken on this whole franchise, and we kind of saw a way into it in terms of an origin story.
Chicago seemed like a logical place, and we relied on some of the old architecture. The city of Gotham had, like most cities, a broad range of historic architecture up through the modern. So in The Dark Knight we really wanted to make a continuation of that story. We really wanted to describe Gotham [visually] and that maybe we should not feature some of the old architecture, that we should play it more clean and stick with Modernism.
We thought we should use these buildings that say, ‘This is a modern city, this is a thriving modern city’ and really take the Gothic out of Gotham.”
The first way that Crowley and Nolan took “the Gothic out of Gotham” was by relocating Wayne Industries into the Daley Center and Bruce Wayne’s residence into the IBM Building, a classic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe design. Nathan first noticed the IBM Building the night when they were filming Batman Begins on the top of the Jewelers Building. “When you look at it at night it looks like it’s floating, especially from high above.” Another change from the look of the first film was that in The Dark Knight, most of the action takes place during the day. “The whole thing about Batman Begins is that some of the best scenes are when he doesn’t reveal himself, and night is very useful for that. So in The Dark Knight, once we started down the path where we knew we were making a film about the workings of a city, there was a conscious push to say, ‘Look, if we’re gonna reveal Gotham, we’ve got to find a city and we’ve got to push the city and use the city, and shoot during daylight and really reveal it in that sense.’”
This revealing of Gotham required them to do much more location filming in Chicago, shooting in the city a total of 13 weeks as opposed to just three for Batman Begins. The Dark Knight was the largest film shoot ever in Chicago.
Cooperation of the city, businesses, and local citizens is an area where
Chicago really shines. This was reinforced to Crowley during the shooting of the fourth film he worked on here, the period action drama Public Enemies, a retelling of the John Dillinger story with Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI man Melvin Purvis. During that shoot, Crowley and set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg worked to transform Lincoln Avenue outside of the Biograph Theater back to how it appeared in 1934, and then they had to completely abandon the elaborate set during a holiday weekend in busy Lincoln Park. “We had to open up the street to traffic, close down the center lane, and put all our stuff in the center. You know how many hundreds and thousands of people walked past the set? Because we had to open up the set so people could walk through it, but no one destroyed it. It was pretty impressive, you know. And hats off to the location department, the city, and the police for making that work.”
Despite the effort involved in the transformation and the risks in leaving it open to the public for that weekend, Crowley felt that the needs of the film required it to be done: “Historically, we really can’t fake the Biograph. It’s not the place to do it in the John Dillinger story. You kind of have to take a couple places that big things happened in his life, the Biograph being one of them, and film there. We looked at options like faking it in Milwaukee, but it’s an injustice to the Dillinger story to start faking stuff like the Biograph; if you do, you’ve kind of sold out at that point.”
Once Crowley and Brandenburg had resolved that morphing the street outside the Biograph was necessary, the big job became how to bring it about. That block of Lincoln was in one of the trendiest and busiest shopping districts in the city, teeming with high-end retail and high-volume bars and restaurants.
“We really thought, We’re going to have to somehow turn this street back in time,” Crowley recalls. “We and the city worked out a way of doing lane closures so we could facade half the street! We did all of the buildings around the alley where he was shot, the exterior of the Biograph, and the interior lobby. We put cobblestones down, we put the tram lines in, we had to take out the lamp posts; we had to do all this stuff—the traffic lights, there was a McDonald’s there, we had to cover that up. I’m astonished that everyone went along with it. I guess people who work on that street really understood where we were trying to go with it. It was definitely an inconvenience, but I think they were excited. There is a sort of excitement in the [Chicago] community that allows us to work in these places.”
In addition to being responsible for the overall look of exterior and interior sets and locations, the production designer also has dominion over the props and other set pieces. For some movies, this can prove to be a huge task, such as in the Batman films, when Crowley had to design and arrange for the fabrication of all of Batman’s vehicles. “Probably the hardest things to do in those Batman films, as far as taking the most time, [were] designing the Batpod and the Batmobile, because you’ve got to design them, model them, and then you’ve got to build them from the ground up as a working vehicle.
And they’re fast, they really do go a hundred miles an hour, and you want that reality. You don’t want a digital car. That’s very important to us.”
Not that playing with models and designing the kind of fantasy vehicles you dreamt about and drooled over as a kid is a punishment or anything. “It’s also great fun,” Crowley says. “You get to design the Batmobile first, and then you persuade some crazy engineers to build it, and then you get to drive it [laughs]. Yeah, some of the funnest things are the cars and bikes, although you can’t drive that bike [the Batpod from The Dark Knight]; it’s impossible. . . . No one else would go near it apart from that French stunt driver [Jean-Pierre Goy], and he spent six months with it learning how to handle it. It might look good, but in terms of a bike design I don’t think anyone should copy it.”
And if the proceedings didn’t have enough of the aforementioned “little kid loose in the toy store” vibe, Crowley mentions where the balance of this work took place: in Chris Nolan’s garage. “When we first started Batman Begins, we converted his old two-car garage with a washer and dryer in it, and we just put some workbenches in there. Because he was still writing the script, we wanted to get going on the Batmobile, so we just started building models in there. And the garage was a pretty rotten place back then. It didn’t have heat or air-conditioning. When the maid had to do the laundry, we had to go out for the afternoon. Then, after Batman Begins, he spent some money on it and turned it into an art studio, and now it’s lovely. It’s got fans, it’s got a kitchenette. It’s all fantastic now, but it started out with bare concrete and drywall and it was a moldy place to make models.”
So the Batmobile was born in a musty garage? “Oh, yeah, it’s great. We did The Prestige in there too. It’s good because he likes to work in a hurry and he has a big family. He also likes doing a lot of rewrites, so his office is right next to the garage and we can communicate and it’s kind of private.”
His tenure in Chicago has definitely endeared the city to Crowley. “I love
Chicago. If I have big-city work to do in a film, it’ll definitely be one of my first stops.” One of the many reasons why Crowley is so enamored of working here is that the best film locations are often rather close to each other, and the congestion is relatively minimal. “I love Chicago because I can walk to work, and I know everyone in Chicago likes to complain about the traffic, but compared to other cities it’s fantastic.” One thing Crowley won’t miss about our fair city? The same thing Chicagoans themselves decry. “I’ve been here for four years in a row running. I don’t like the winter;
I’m fed up with the winter here.”
Although the third installment of the Batman franchise used locations other than Chicago, given Chicago’s prominence in the film industry, Crowley may still have to brave our chilly temps yet again.