Inspiration for our screenplays comes from many places. Our flawed families, war, comic books and even other filmmakers are popular fodder for creativity. Many writers also draw from their own life experiences and often, the city in which they grew up leaves an indelible mark on that experience. Today we’re looking at how the city of Chicago shaped the films and careers of three incredible filmmakers.
Come experience Chicago with top filmmakers, industry professionals and mentors at the ScreenCraft Writers Summit.
Hughes was born February 18, 1950, in Michigan, but moved to Chicago as a teen. After attending college in Arizona, he returned to Chicago to work in the city’s thriving advertising industry before writing, then directing films.
In the 1980s, John Hughes’s coming-of-age films about teenagers defined a generation. Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles are all set in and around the Chicago area. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is like a visual love letter to the windy city, since so many of its set pieces take place in iconic Chicago locations.
The three John Hughes films in which actress Molly Ringwald starred put her on the cover of Time magazine and made her a household name while inspiring young people to be better versions of themselves.
Though the characters portrayed were not always politically correct by today’s standards, Hughes took seriously the trials and tribulations of being a teenager and consistently validated young people in his films. In an op-ed for The New Yorker in 2019, Ringwald wrote, “That two of Hughes’s films had female protagonists in the lead roles and examined these young women’s feelings about the fairly ordinary things that were happening to them, while also managing to have instant cred that translated into success at the box office, was an anomaly that has never really been replicated.”
30 years later, Hughes’s teen films are strongly etched into the souls of all people who saw them as teenagers themselves.
His other films, like National Lampoon’s Vacation (1985) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) resonated strongly with adults and drew great box office, but his most financially successful venture of all was the Home Alone (1990) franchise, starring a young Macaulay Culkin who is left at home when his parents forget to take him on vacation with the family.
Hughes died of a heart attack in New York in 2009, but his films will live on for generations to come.
Let’s look at the amazing, cerebral scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) when Ferris, Sloan and Cameron visit the Chicago’s Art Institute.
Born February 5, 1943, in Chicago, Michael Mann got his B.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin. He sparked to film when he saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove. It was the 1960s and he realized movies could be more than entertainment; they could, “Make an individual statement of high integrity, and have that film be successfully seen by a mass audience all at the same time.”
Avoiding the Vietnam War due to his asthma, he went to study at the London Film School. But it was his first feature film, Thief, that brought him back to Chicago. The city came to life vividly in his mind.
“I had a visual appreciation for scenes in Chicago, A steel bridge on a rainy night, the spaces, the way snow fell on the prairie outside Chicago. But I didn’t put that together with film. I wasn’t doing anything with a visual medium. I was an English major caught in the anguish of not having any idea what I wanted to do with my life.”
Mann will always be associated with the pastel colors and sexy pop tunes of TV’s Miami Vice (1984-1989), but he’ll probably be best known for that famous meetup between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat (1995). However you think of Mann, his strong visual and gritty sense of storytelling came from his days in Chicago.
Let’s take a look at this heist scene from Mann’s first feature, Thief (1981).
Though Christopher Nolan was born in London, England, on July 30, 1970, he lived between London and Chicago as a kid because his mother was American. After studying English literature at college in England, he made his first feature film, Following in 1998. He followed up with the stunner Memento in 1990, that tells a murder-mystery backwards.
After that, he reinvented the Batman franchise with Christian Bale as the caped crusader, making Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
While none of the films mentioned are set in Chicago, it is the location where Nolan created the fictional Gotham City. Chicago’s architecture and versatile landscape only needed minor alterations to create the Gotham City he must have visualized in his mind when he was a kid, reading the comic books.
You can read about his Chicago shooting locations on Polygon’s website.
According to Today.com, longtime Batman illustrator Neal Adams agrees that Chicago is better-suited for the fictional city than New York. “Chicago has had a reputation for a certain kind of criminality. Batman is in this kind of corrupt city and trying to turn it back into a better place. One of the things about Chicago is Chicago has alleys (which are virtually nonexistent in New York). Back alleys, that’s where Batman fights all the bad guys.”
Chicago has so much to offer as inspiration for a visual art form and one thing is clear, Nolan knows how to make a city or a location a distinct character in all of his films.
Let’s take a look at Nolan’s take on Gotham City in Batman Begins.
Feeling inspired by Chicago? Why not come and experience the city with a great group of filmmakers, industry professionals and mentors at the 2020 ScreenCraft Writers Summit, April 24 to 27.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards