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Is city short of space to shoot?

Chicago natives Andy and Lana Wachowski say they want to shoot here, but there's not enough space

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

10:33 AM EDT, November 2, 2012

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According to Andy and Lana Wachowski, most of their films are set in Chicago — although none have actually shot here.

When my colleague Chris Borrelli asked about this for a piece that ran in the Tribune last week, Lana Wachowski replied, "There are no soundstages, not big enough ones anyway." And then to underscore her point, she instructed Borrelli: "Write that down."

This wasn't the first time the filmmakers expressed frustration with Chicago. A few weeks ago on WBEZ's Afternoon Shift, she talked about their initial desire to set the "Matrix" trilogy in Chicago. "But Chicago back then was not really a very film-friendly city. And it still isn't."

Chilling words for anyone who works in the local film industry. Particularly since the Wachowskis — who already have their base of operations in Chicago — are setting things in motion for their next project, a sci-fi trilogy called "Jupiter Ascending" (starring, per IMDB, Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum).

"We've been battling to try to get Chicago to build stages in order to create an industry," Lana Wachowski said in that radio interview. "We would do all our films there if there (were) good, proper stages, but they, you know, politics in Chicago ..."

At that point Andy Wachowski jumped in. "And Americans don't pay enough taxes, that's the problem. We need to subsidize our film industry, citizens."

It wasn't clear if he was being facetious (Illinois currently offers a mid-range 30 percent tax credit), and the Wachowskis have not responded to my requests to discuss their concerns in further detail.

But they've put the issue out there in blunt terms, and it raises the question of whether the city can accommodate big blockbuster films that want to shoot more than their exteriors in Chicago.

Cinespace, the sprawling new soundstage complex that opened last year in North Lawndale, has been touted as a facility that could do just that — though it remains unclear if it has enough stages that are built, ready and unoccupied to satisfy producers.

Marvel was in Chicago last summer scouting for "Iron Man 3" and the news was not encouraging. Before retiring this year after two decades on the job, Joe Amari was the senior location manager for the state film office, and he was the one who scouted with the studio representatives.

"Cinespace said to Marvel, if you come, we'll build it," he told me. "But does a film want to commit to something that's not there yet? Marvel didn't. The producer said there's just not enough space for something this big. And from what I understand, this next Wachowski thing is huge. It's a giant superhero kind of a movie; 'Iron Man' said the space here just wasn't enough, so that's what I'm gauging (the problem is) for the Wachowskis."

And in Amari's words, "That does limit us. At this point I don't think we're ready for the big, big, big special effects 3-D-type stuff — you need a lot of space and a lot of quiet. Cinespace is an excellent soundstage; they just don't have enough overall space. If they're in a position to build more, I bet they will. But that's a big investment. Is it profitable to build more space? I don't know. If you get a superhero movie and then you don't get anything for four years, that space is empty." ("Iron Man 3" ended up shooting in North Carolina and Florida.)

There is no question, however, that Cinespace has been wildly successful in terms of television. Four series shot here in 2012, three of which set up shop at Cinespace — including NBC's "Chicago Fire," which is still there. ("The Mob Doctor" on Fox shoots out of Chicago Studio City, a separate facility on the West Side.)

It's hard to know which of these series will last. But decisions will be based on ratings and have nothing to do with the quality of Chicago's crews or soundstages. Alex Pissios, who runs Cinespace, told me that networks have been calling him in recent weeks to discuss space availability for upcoming pilots. The possibility of yet more TV work in 2013 looks very real.

Cinespace's ability to fit the needs of bigger films appears to be improving, as well.

"We currently have five stages built out, and two stages under construction," Pissios said. "One of the five could handle a larger production, but 'Chicago Fire' is using it. They have become a very large production compared to other television shows. The two under construction could easily handle a 'Transformers' or 'G.I. Joe' type of production."

I asked Pissios to respond to Lana Wachowski's statements about the lack of space.

"All I would say is, come see the facility." I was under the impression they — or their producers — had toured the facility.

"Not everybody. One of them has. I don't think Lana has been here. And they came when we first bought this place, so over a year ago, when there really was nothing. Remember, this is a 58-acre site with 1.5 million-square-feet of buildings, so there is tons to cover, and we have been full blast since we opened."

Cinespace got an initial $5 million infusion from the state.

"We are not looking for any financial assistance from any entity at this time," Pissios told me. Privately, he indicated that in addition to possible TV shows next year, he was also in the final stages of talks with three big-budget movie projects — one of which is based on a major book property. If it comes through, it would be a huge get for the city. Pissios expects that one will shoot in Chicago entirely "from A to Z," but nothing is certain until the contracts are signed.

As for "Jupiter Ascending" and the Wachowskis, most of the soundstage work will be done in the U.K., where Warner Bros. owns a 160-acre production facility. It is one of the largest in Europe with nine stages, one of which has 45-foot ceilings and another that is essentially a gigantic water tank. All eight "Harry Potter" films as well as "The Dark Knight" were shot there. These films, of course, are Warner Bros. properties. So is "Jupiter Ascending."

Financially, you see how it would make sense for a studio to shoot in a facility that it owns. No matter how much space is ultimately available in Chicago, those kinds of considerations may always win out — although it is possible that if Cinespace continues to build out, the Wachowskis might be in a position to make a decent case for shooting a least a portion of the soundstage work in Chicago.

Lana Wachowski did at least offer this piece of news when she was on WBEZ: "We're going to shoot all our exteriors in Chicago." Rich Moskal, of the Chicago Film Office, tells me filming is expected to start next summer and will last about four-six weeks.

Festival: Comedy

The lineup for this year's Chicago Comedy Film Festival is a shaggy dog affair, including a pair of wearing mockumentaries: "A Portrait of Female Desperation" (about a filmmaker who turns the camera on her man-crazy roommate) and "Red Balls: The Chronicle of the Chicago Underground Dodgeball League" (entirely improvised and a good example of what a riddle the unscripted format still is when it comes to shaping a feature film). There is one legitimate documentary on the schedule, however, that pulls its own weight: "Road Comics: Big Work on Small Stages," about a trio of stand-up comedians who have no name recognition but eke out a decent living traveling from club to club. Also on the lineup is "Bad Parents" starring Janeane Garofalo as a soccer mom in over her head, followed by a Q&A with writer-director Caytha Jentis. The fest runs through Sunday at the DePaul University School of Cinema and Interactive Media. Go to chicagocomedyfilmfestival.com.

Festival: Polish

The world's largest Polish film festival takes place every year in Chicago. The 2012 fest includes 70 features and documentaries, including "My Father's Bike" (three generations of men come together after a marriage dissolves); "Big Love" (a toxic romance between a teenager and a biochemist); "Letters to Santa" (a comedy of interrelated stories in the vein of "Love Actually"); and "Fear of Falling" (a young TV anchor grapples with his father's diminishing mental state). Through Nov. 18 at pffamerica.com.

Festival: Hackman

Raised in Danville, Ill., Gene Hackman hasn't acted in a film since 2004, and last year he told GQ that he has retired. When urged by the interviewer to do one more film, he replied, "I don't know. If I could do it in my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything and just one or two people." Some of his best performances live on this weekend as part of the Embarras Valley Film Festival in Charleston, Ill., which is dedicating its focus to all things Hackman with screenings that include "Unforgiven," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Hoosiers" and "The French Connection," along with a Hackman exhibit at Eastern Illinois University called "Gene Hackman: From Danville, Illinois, to Hollywood." Go to castle.eiu.edu/evff.

Election night

The Midwest Independent Film Festival has a special election night screening of the Kartemquin documentary "As Goes Janesville" about the closing of an auto plant in Wisconsin, and the town's efforts to redefine itself in the wake of the recession. The screening includes a post-show Q&A with the filmmakers. Tuesday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema. Go to midwestfilm.com.

nmetz@tribune.com

Twitter @NinaMetzNews