On my way to work yesterday I passed by a swath of destruction left by a giant robot battle. The robots haven’t actually been created yet, but the piles of debris and wreckage are there, waiting for them.
The wreckage, huge slabs of upended concrete and twisted metal (actually Styrofoam), sat charmingly in a small parking lot just off the corner of Michigan and Wacker. Next door, a Corner Bakery hummed with the morning rush as disinterested wage slaves shuffled in line to get coffee. Tourists stood across the street, snapping pictures. Camera crews and movie tech staff ran around, doing God knows what.
The only sign of the giant robots who made this mess was in the back, beneath what looked like an overturned CTA bus (again, probably Styrofoam). It was a giant hunk of sculpted blue plastic with orange dots on it. Some day, somewhere in California, an Autobot or Decepticon will be superimposed onto that blue plastic.
Transformers 3 is creating such temporary, underwhelming destruction all around Chicago. Just last week, on the way to a movie for work, I called my co-worker to ask about tickets. He’d gone on ahead and was in a cab to the theater. When he picked up, I couldn’t hear a word he said. All I could hear was him trying to shout over the roar of machine guns and explosions. He was caught in the (very safe) cross fire of a battle between not-yet-realized giant robots.
Now, I hated the first Transformers movie. I didn’t think I could possibly loathe anything the way I loathed that movie. Then I saw Transformers 2, and I experienced a hatred so overwhelming, so transcendent, that in the depths of my seething hate, in the towering flames of my acid rage, I glimpsed the very face of God. He looked like Michael Bay.
Still, even I was excited to see the set. Blockbuster movies are such mysterious things, that even the worst of them (Transformers 2) occasionally makes you go, “hey, how’d they do that?” The answer, apparently, is Styrofoam and computers.
Transformers 3 is the fourth movie set I’ve stumbled upon. About ten years ago, my family and I happened on the set of Hannibal (the Silence of the Lambs sequel) in Florence. It was dark and we were cordoned off down the street from the set, but in the distance we could see Anthony Hopkins in a fedora and trench coat.
We stayed and watched for about two hours as they filmed the scene again and again and again. Each time the director yelled “cut!” the cobblestone streets had to be hosed down and the light sources adjusted. A helpful production assistant told us that streets look better on film when wet.
Said helpful production assistant told us that the scene involved Hannibal Lector stabbing one of the extras milling about. I put my money on an old lady standing beside a column. I was convinced. So much so, that when we went to see the movie in theaters, I thought I’d have to contain myself from yelling “YES!” when we watch Hannibal violently stab an old woman to death. Sadly, the old lady lived. Some other dude got stabbed, in a scene so dark, so different from the camera angle from the set we saw, that it wasn’t until the scene was over that I realized it was our scene.
It also lasted about a minute. One minute. They must have filmed for hours that night for the grand sum of one minute of film, for a scene that could have easily been left on the cutting room floor. Michael Bay knows how many hours of filming they wasted on scenes that did end up on the cutting room floor. And it was at that moment that I realized I never, ever, ever wanted to direct a movie (not that anybody’s asking, of course).
Anthony Hopkins-as-a-crazy-genius came back into my life a few years later when I was in grad school. Proof was filming at the University of Chicago and I came by the set on my way to class. My normal route through Harper Quad was blocked off, but I stayed to watch anyway. Gwyneth Paltrow sat on a bench in the center of the quad, Jake Gyllenhaal stood next to her. Fake trees hung about them. The real trees in the quad’s center had been pulled back and clipped to keep them out of the way. Surrounding Paltrow and Gyllenhaal were the extras, some doing Tai-chi, others pretending to be students walking to class.
The director yelled “Action!” and as Paltrow and Gyllenhaal talked, the fake students pretended to go to class. I, a real student really trying to go to my real class, was not allowed across the quad. Which is for the best, since I would have just started yelling “I LOVED YOU IN BUBBLE BOY!” at Gyllenhaal until wrestled to the ground by security.
My co-worker Chris and I also happened upon the set for Public Enemies a couple of years ago. They were filming the aftermath of Jonny Depp’s John Dillinger getting gunned down in front of the Biograph Theater, which they were filming at the Biograph Theater. Which is very meta and kind of creepy. I hope that if someone ever makes a biopic about me (they won’t), they won’t film my death where I actually died. Especially since there’s a high likelihood that will be in the bathroom of an Omaha Taco Bell.
Watching all these scenes unfold as they’re filmed is weird. You see the puppet strings, you see the man behind the curtain. You see how fake, how vast, how tedious, how amazing in its intricate falseness the whole thing is. And then watching it in the theater, you wait for that recognizable moment, that moment of connection, that same thrill you get when you see a place on screen you’ve been.
For me, though, it never comes. As with Hannibal, the angle is different and the wrong person gets stabbed. I don’t recognize it. I don’t feel like, “I was there!” Despite seeing the man behind the curtain, I’m still just entranced by that big green gaseous head.
Which, after yesterday, is kind of a relief. When I finally see that set in Transformers 3 (I will watch it on an airplane), I don’t have to worry about feeling a twinge of recognition and pride. I don’t have to worry about feeling a connection to that (almost certainly) awful movie. All I’ll feel is nausea. Rage. Loathing. Hatred.
And I will be happy.