Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Mel Madness

By Deena Dasein

MAY 29, 2000:  "Oh God! OHHHHHH GOD! OH GODDDD!!" She sounds like someone suffering a massive heart attack or in the throes of religious ecstasy. At 8:35 on a sunny spring morning, dozens of people gather on a small patch of Lincoln Park that abuts a line of high-rises near the corner of Fullerton and Lakeview. The middle-aged woman, in slacks and upswept hair, moans: "He's right there, he's right there!"

Looking closely, it's easy to see that indeed HE is there -- dressed in a black leather jacket, jeans and a black baseball cap jauntily pulled down low on his forehead. He turns away, revealing a blue work shirt a few inches longer than his jacket, covering his famous derriere. "I'm going to go home and dream," the woman says by way of a goodbye.

Those not gawking at Mel Gibson are doing the pushing, pulling and building necessary to make a movie. A huge fan is moved near the path that leads to the 151 bus stop on Sheridan; Chicago is known as the windy city, and Hollywood must, if nothing else, provide stereotypes. Actual briefcase-toting commuters are warned to stay off the path and told to walk on the grass. A gaggle of trained pigeons is set on the grass near Lakeview. In assorted colors, they're visually indistinguishable from those flying rats that call the park home. Surrounded by four net-wielding pigeon wranglers, the dozen well-trained birds stand around for hours without a fuss -- and like all of the other extras, make no attempt to go native.

An extra with long blond hair, wearing khaki pants and a V-neck sweater, stands with her baby-stroller prop on the path, waiting. Waiting is everyone's major activity. Another extra, an elderly lady with a fixed sweet smile and a beige handbag, shoes and hat, sits on a park bench for hours -- her expression never changing.

Gibson sits down on the bench with her. He looks very upset and confused, ignoring her and the blonde with the baby carriage. It's a scene. That was the rehearsal.

The scene is played again a bit later, after Gibson returns wearing a black trench coat and looking like the ad exec he plays in the movie. The storyline is hardly the crucial element -- the stars are. The question suggested by the movie's title, "What Women Want," is probably best answered as Mel Gibson, the lead actor. His co-stars are two other Academy Award winners, Marisa Tomei and Helen Hunt.

A romantic comedy, "What Women Want" is just the sort of movie that director Nancy Meyers ("The Parent Trap," "Father of the Bride"), who also co-wrote the screenplay, is known for. Gibson's character is a male chauvinist who has lost his edge. His T&A view of women isn't working for him anymore, not in his personal life or in his ads: He can't figure out what women want.

Gibson is the star attraction for the hordes of gawkers whose numbers swell as the day wears on. Everyone places themselves on first-name basis with him. Far more than some Hollywood icon, Gibson is the vortex of a major movie conglomerate, a postmodern version of the studios' once vertical monopoly. Sure, he's an actor with a long list of star turns, who has served as major face-fodder for innumerable movie mags. If all goes as scheduled, he should have four films out this year. He's also a producer -- his company, Icon Entertainment, bought the script for "WWW" and is part of the production team on the film. And Gibson is a director, most famously for "Braveheart," in which he also starred.

Most of the observers from the neighborhood come with a prop -- a dog, camera or toddler in tow. Or a cell phone, which they use to call everyone on their speed-dials to tell them they're on the set with Mel Gibson. Eavesdropping on all the Mel-chatter, there's a strict gender gap. The men, like two guys in suits, ties and crisp white shirts -- recent University of Illinois grads turned copier salesmen -- say something on the order of "he's not very tall." Females, like three women in medical garb, are visibly excited by their Gibson sighting and exclaim variants of "he's so handsome" and such a "good family man."

Residents of the building, notified days before the shoot begins, talk about it excitedly in the lobby and elevators. "About ten women told me," one of the doormen relates, "'if HE needs some place to relax, or shower (ha, ha), he can use my apartment.'" Another notes that female residents keep asking him to give Gibson the key to their apartment. Several days into the shooting he observes that "people seem to be wearing their Sunday best everyday; women have been spending a lot on makeup." On the front line and clearly deserving combat pay, not all of the staff are annoyed. One is clearly caught up in the excitement, hanging around long after his shift has ended.

It's no accident that this tiny corner of Lincoln Park-the grass-surrounded path, a high-rise building and the street separating them-is ground zero for a major Hollywood movie. Cities and states compete fiercely for the right to serve as movie locations. The State of Illinois maintains a Film Office to pitch the woo. Ron Verkuilen, its enthusiastic head, also helps scout locations and provides local contacts to facilitate the complex needs of moviemakers.

Chicago also has a film office, which handles the tactical aspects of traffic control and security. It's the city that is responsible for removing dozens of scarce parking spaces from neighborhood streets. And why are your tax dollars at work on such frivolous endeavors? One major reason, Verkuilen says, is that they provide jobs for a host of locals -- like the thirty-two teamsters from local 714, the Movie Trade Show Division, who worked on this film. Or businesses, whose trucks, such as Evanston Awning Company and ShowBiz Chicago, were parked in the "restricted" parking spots. Or Jeffrey, who describes his responsibility for filling up the stars' trailers with beverages and snacks as "a high-class water boy." His company provides a tent load of such snacks for long days on the job.

Though two-thirds of the 130-person crew here are locals, people brought in from L.A., including the actors, producers and technicians, spend much money in the city's eateries and hotels. Verkuilen gets some estimate of what the movies leave in the state, but can't estimate the third benefit to the local economy -- how the movie itself serves as tourist advertising. Chicago's popularity with filmmakers, Verkuilen says, is based on three factors. One is the city's depth of technical and acting talent. Also, celebrities enjoy hanging out here. There are enough top restaurants and hotels and worthy diversions for them. For the two weeks that he was in town, Gibson got to see a play, checked out the Blue Man Group and did the Harry Caray star-turn, singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at Wrigley Field.

But the Chicago area's major draw is its sights. Specific locations are selected by specialists, such as "WWW"'s production designer Jon Hutman. Like Verkuilen, he is an architecture buff who delights in his job.

"In the script, Nick Marshall, the character that Mel Gibson plays, is an advertising executive, bachelor, ladies man. He has a very slick bachelor pad and likes to listen to Frank Sinatra. So there's a certain kind of neo-retro look to his apartment," Hutman says, explaining his choice of the Mies van der Rohe building in Lincoln Park.

The high rise was chosen for its quintessential Miesian less-is-more look, but, against Hollywood's less-is-a-bore ethic of excess, the building never had a chance. Days before the main invasion, it was given a fussy makeover, with a black fabric awning covering its steel canopy and truckloads of assorted greenery, planter boxes and trellises filling in the open expanses of the building's exterior. "It's obscene," says one resident. "All that stuff is ugly. I don't think we need to gild the lily," adds another, who's lived in the building for almost all of its four-decade existence.

"Our grass isn't green enough," grouses a building worker, showing me the new sod they'd put over the building's three-week-old, still very green sod, in the parkways. Innumerable pots of tulips and short shrubs were placed over the double-sod, and all of it is enclosed in that Daley favorite, wrought-iron fencing. Round-the-clock security was hired for this landscaping. One of the guards had been doing more arduous work a few days earlier, when the movie used Marshall Fields as a location. There had been plenty of gawkers there too, but when one of them asked him what was being shot, he replied, "a commercial... for tampons," and they quickly departed.

"I was very into the idea of showing the range of Chicago architecture," Hutman says, "with Louis Sullivan on one end -- Nick's office is set in the Rookery, done in the Louis Sullivan style -- and Mies on the other end. This scene [the one on the park bench] is kind of the critical scene in the movie. He sort of gets electrocuted and he can then hear women's thoughts. He has just entered the world for the first time and he is walking through the park and is surrounded by women. He can hear everything that they are thinking. We loved that he was across the street from Lincoln Park, we loved the residential feel of the neighborhood, and we felt that the building was representative of this sort of milestone moment in Chicago architecture, and really consistent with Nick's cool bachelor pad."

With tons of equipment, armies of workers and food to nourish them, shooting on location resembles a military invasion. Sure, war is a hell of a lot more exciting, but armies don't pay to use your house. For the pleasure of seeing a movie made up-close and personal and for suffering numerous inconveniences like the need to sneak in through the back door or via the basement, and having very bright lights glaring into your bedroom late at night, movie companies compensate the locals.

How much did the building owners get? Far less than it would have cost to re-create the location on a back lot at Paramount, where the indoor scenes were shot. All told, given the fees for extra days, the total came to $26,000. Divided among the residents of the thirty-story building, it would just pay for them to see "What Women Want" when it comes out this December -- anyway, the money's being put into the building's general fund, so renters receive nothing for their trouble.

The second Sunday dawns gray and drizzly. A huge crane arrives to help pour water through a pipe that simulates rain. Together with nature's moisture, this will be the thunderstorm where a lightening bolt will give Gibson the ability to hear what women are thinking. But the drizzle fizzles out and they decide to do the weather via computer. How much does this one non-scene cost? The best estimate I can get is "quite expensive!"

By Sunday evening, the crew is in a collective bad mood. They've all steeled themselves, knowing it's going to be a long day's journey into night. The Chicago shooting will be over by morning, when all the permits run out. The food guys are told to stay until 6am.

"It's the worst movie I've ever been on," a grip says, before adding, "Each movie is the worst."

Tomei and Gibson are doing scenes at 10:30pm on Fullerton, about 2 feet outside the glass-encased lobby. The area is lit up like frozen fireworks. Half the neighborhood is out there, too, standing across the street and crushed inside the lobby.

During the rehearsals and shooting, the crowd was a focused gathering, as though they were at a championship basketball game that had gone into overtime. By midnight the filming is still going strong, but the crowd, facing Monday morning jobs, begins to thin out rapidly. Most are long gone before the camera stopped rolling as the night sky was lightening -- at 4:30am. When Monday's commuters walk out of the building and along the park path to their bus, all they can see are littered traces of the star-filled night.


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