Public Enemies is now in theaters!

I had been waiting a long time for the release of Public Enemies, and I wasn’t disappointed. It is a dark and riveting roller coaster of a film that held my (and the audience’s) attention throughout, despite the fact that we all knew how it was going to end. (At least I hope we all did.)

My pining to see Public Enemies began last summer, after I interviewed the film’s Production Designer, Nathan Crowley, just after principal photography had wrapped in Chicago.

Nathan described the effort he (and many others) put into creating a vision of mid-1930’s Chicago that would satisfy the exacting standards of Michael Mann, a director known for being a bit of a stickler on period (and overall) details. “I think it’s the most work I’ve ever had to do in a period film in terms of having to alter locations,” Crowley told me.

Ironically, most of this “alteration work” involved the locations where pivotal events in the Dillinger story actually happened. The tasks included prepping the Little Bohemia Lodge up in Northern Wisconsin (the site of a furious shootout between bank robbers and G-men) for a fake Hollywood gunfight, including all the requisite bullet holes and broken glass. “There were still bullet holes in the walls there [from the the 1930’s].”

Clearing out and restoring the decrepit and abandoned old Lake County, Indiana jail was another big endeavor, but it was the block of Lincoln Avenue outside of the Biograph Theater in Chicago that provided his biggest challenge.

Basically, what he (and Set Decorator Rosemary Brandenburg) did was completely roll back the clock on the entire block to how it looked the night Dillinger was gunned down. “So we had to facade up all the buildings around the alley where he was shot, had to change 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 and we had to cover that up.”

Keep in mind that this is smack dab in the middle of Lincoln Park, one of the original  “overgentrified” (to put it politely) North Side Neighborhoods, and the businesses involved were mostly high end (or at least high volume) stores, bars and restaurants. Crowley himself was rather amazed, “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, but it was definitely an inconvenience. And the traffic flow down that street is horrendous. But you know the city really worked with us and somehow we managed to do it.”

Not that there was a choice in Crowley’s mind that the job needed to be done, “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.”

Colleen Mastony of the Tribune has a very nice rundown of the major locations used by the film here, but one that wasn’t mentioned is Union Station, whose Art Deco style offices upstairs from the station (left abandoned by Amtrak several years ago) filled in as J. Edgar Hoover’s offices in Washington, DC (it was refreshing to see a film portray Hoover more like the evil, power mad S.O.B. that he was-BTW).

The most dramatic use of the station, however, was for the scene where the Texas Rangers arrive in Chicago. Nathan elaborates, “There’s a scene where Melvin Purvis, the lead agent, brings in some help from the Texas Rangers because to fight Dillinger they need some men who understand how to gunfight, not like the young FBI guys… To me it was like the cavalry arriving. In Union Station there are certain platforms that still have the old Victorian arches on them, the big steel glazed arches and they still have the steam openings, the little slits, in the ceiling. So we found the largest still running steam engine in the world and it just fit into Union Station, so we brought it in and the Texans get off this enourmous steam engine and march across the grand hall of Union Station [MC-the site of the famous “baby carriage scene” in the The Untouchables].”

The thankless job of Production Designer on a period picture:

The train sequence was very dramatic, and Nathan and company endeavored throughout the film to be as accurate as possible, but no matter how hard you try; this site and this other railfan discussion forum illustrate how you can never satisfy those in the know.

Public Enemies was actually the 4th film in a row that Crowley had done in the city, so he was used to facing big challenges in Chicago; since he had already created the look of Gotham City for Batman Begins, designed and overseen the construction of a modernistic glass house on stilts in a forest preserve lake for The Lake House, and been in charge of Production Design for The Dark Knight (he also designed the Batmobile and the futuristic BatPod).

Check out Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition for more about Nathan Crowley and his amazing 4 year tenure in Chicago! Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition is now available for pre-order.