The man who arranged
gunfights on the el,
demolition in the loop,
and “Transformer” battles
on Wacker Drive
explains how the
CFO got it done
Rich Moskal helped to present the Windy City as a place of beauty, romance, destruction, and chaos in more than 5,000 films, TV shows, web series, and commercials while serving as Director of the Chicago Film Office over the past 23 years.
He also retired this month, creating one of the greatest challenges that the CFO has faced in decades. No doubt, the man is a tough act to follow.
The process of hiring a new director begins with creating a job description. At first glance, the mission is easy to explain — provide support to movies and programs in Chicago. But behind the scenes, there is a sprawling, complicated, and delicate load of details.
Moskal got it done by wielding the expertise of a production consultant, the wits of a municipal fixer, the compassion of a community organizer, the charm of a salesman, and the aptitude of a logistical engineer. He recently told Reel Chicago about some of the more unusual demands he faced along the way.
“Generally speaking, whenever a film company wants to do something, it’s going to be outside the realm of what’s normal, acceptable, and what is sometimes legal,” he says. “There is no guidebook.”
Coordinating plane crashes on Martin Luther King Drive, authorizing skyscraper demolition in the loop, and clearing the way for epic destruction on the Michigan Ave. Bridge are just a few of the obstacles that the office overcame during his tenure.
One of his first big challenges occurred during production for Mercury Rising in 1998.
“The climax of the movie was these bad guys chasing Bruce Willis on the CTA Blue Line,” he says. “The State of Illinois granted them the reversible lanes on the Kennedy and the CTA let us use a small stretch of train between the highway.”
To pull it off, they shot the sequence at night and shuttled CTA passengers around the closed section of the line on busses. The cooperation reflects a delicately choreographed agreement between multiple parties working with the Film Office.
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By the time NBC’s Chicago Fire staged a plane crash-landing on Martin Luther King Drive in the early 2010s, Moskal says that supporting such stunts “had become routine” for the CFO.
Or so it seemed.
“I learned a lesson the hard way,” he recalls.
On the day of the shoot, WGN’s Skycam traffic helicopter spotted the scene from the sky. The chopper crew thought the wreckage was real and sent live footage to the morning news studio. Larry Potash and Robin Baumgartner momentarily reported the “plane crash” as a breaking story.
“The reporters mentioned that everything seems pretty well at hand because police officers and fire fighters were walking around with coffee,” Moskal recalls. “They were a little peeved, like, ‘you should have given us heads up. Now, we do.”
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Behind the Scenes
Chicago Fire is an essential part of an ongoing production boom that, according to Moskal, results from the local production community’s strong work ethic, the state’s generous tax incentives, and Chicago’s unique beauty.
“The elevated transportation gets us stuff no other city has,” he explains “Spiderman 2 came here just for the train sequences because they wanted a fist fight on top of a car on a train snaking through skyscraper canyons in Manhattan that didn’t exist.”
But looks will only get you so far.
When deals are being made, Moskal and the CFO were frequently called in to assure filmmakers that the city would work with them.
“The key decision is beyond the tax credit and the budget,” he explains. “Producers say, ‘this is what we want to do, and if you can make it happen for us, you got it.’”
Although he admits that a degree of “glamor and celebrity accompany big budget productions and high profile TV,” the majority of the office’s work involves “taking a practical approach to find a reasonable solution to how they want to accomplish their film.”
“After the excitement and prestige,” he says, “it’s about problem-solving, relationship management, keeping a cool head, and entertaining unreasonable notions.”
The first step is the permit application. In addition to proving that the city will be insured during production, the filmmakers must describe “all the where, when, and how, as well as a request for services” that will be needed to complete the project.
Upon receiving the information, the film office determines the proposal’s workability and seeks the approval from all the relevant government offices.
This is when the Fire Department, Police Department, the Department of Transportation, and any number of other departments get involved. From parking and access to licensing and safety, it’s a workload.
“Keeping in mind that the people who need to join in the effort are within the city government,” he says, “it’s not their role to just accept that people want to base jump off the top of Willis Tower (Transformers) or blow up a downtown building (Dark Knight).”
The process of reviewing and approving permits is sped up on a “very abbreviated timeline,” but the lengths vary per project. “Most TV shows have eight days to prep an episode,” Moskal says. “Studio features have months to plan that out.”
Along the way, there is an ongoing, multi-party negotiation.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
For Transofmers: Dark of the Moon in 2011, Director Michael Bay and Paramount Studios went well beyond the required solution.
After requesting to close the Michigan Ave. Bridge for seven days to shoot a battle between the autobots and decepticons, Bay not only agreed to reduce the duration to three days, but he also went out of his way to create a “major spectacle and destination” by turning the shoot into a “special effects side-show.”
“People were flying in and booking hotel rooms that overlooked the area,” Moskal recalls. “Michael Bay walked up and down the road with a megaphone addressing the crowd — ‘are you ready!’”
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Productions are not always so much fun for residents and passersby, but Moskal works with the filmmakers to reduce the disruption of daily life as much as possible.
Their biggest challenge usually involves a problem that plagues the city year round.
“Parking is almost nine times out of ten the issue,” he says. “There have been plenty of times when Alderman said this is unfair — too much parking is going to be taken away.”
Although film permits are not subject to Aldermanic approval, Moskal admits that “nobody likes having something plopped in front of your door” and always avoided putting an Alderman “into a spot where they’re taking heat.” The issue is especially true in “neighborhoods that just suffered through some three-month sewer replacement project.”
To compensate for the inconvenience, the Film Office frequently posts signs and door-to-door notifications about the impending shoot, and production companies often provide shuttles to transport people to their cars or downtown.
Additionally, according to Moskal, “a lot of things happen on the front lines that are beyond what you’d expect.”
“On-the-ground location managers and teams fix small problems, not just to remain gainfully employed, but also because it’s the right thing to do,” he continues. “Out on the set of Chicago Fire, a cop assigned by the Department of Special Events helped a woman with her groceries because he knew she couldn’t park near her house.”
One of the greatest tests of this coordinated effort occurred during two-weeks of “solid, really hairy helicopter stunts with doubles hanging from cables throughout the loop” for the Wachowski siblings’ Jupiter Ascending in 1998.
Filmed at the dawn magic hour — “that window of beautiful purple magenta sunrise across the sky between 5:45 and 6:30” —the scene eventually became “a major operational concern, tangle, and negotiation.”
“The Police Department, Fire Department, and the Department of Transportation were boots-on-the-ground to make it all happen,” says Moskal. “Even though it flies right in the face of what they’re trying to do on a daily basis.”
The result, he continues, greatly improved “the reputation of the city to accomplish big things” and, perhaps best of all, “the filmmakers themselves were ecstatic.”
“The Wachowskis wanted to present the city in all its glory,” he adds. “I cannot think of any series of shots that made Chicago look better.”
It’s not surprising that a film by the Chicago-born and bred Wachowskis — who Moskal describes as “very cool, cooperative, and gracious” — ranks among his favorites.
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Other local success stories include the series, Lovecraft Country — “a mash-up of Lovecraft stories set during the 1920s Jim Crow era” — filmed this year in the Pilsen neighborhood.
“HBO transformed a two-block stretch of 18th Street with period cars, signage, and a very old-school style to make it look authentic and cool.” Moskal says. “That was almost a half million dollars of local spending, and people saw the benefit of their presence.”
The City That Works
Born and raised on the city’s north side and educated at St Patrick’s High School and Loyola University, Moskal seems most excited when he’s talking about community triumphs.
Name-checking the likes of Cinespace, Chicago Filmmakers, Stage 18, the Wachowskis, IFP, 2112, and Kris and Joe Swanberg, he declares that, “the city’s name means something incredible in terms of talent and really hard work ethic.”
“Productions like The T are hardly a novelty at this point,” he explains. “Chicago is a place of origination for web series, shorts, and feature length narratives.”
When asked about the CFO’s greatest achievements, he mentions the Independent Film Initiative, the Artist-in-Residence program, and the Millennium Park Film Series first.
“There’s nothing more fun than seeing 20,000 people come out for a screening,” he says, “and that was also a great way to introduce local filmmakers.”
Moskal plans to continue being a part of the Chicago film industry, but he is reluctant to mention specifics.
“We all start looking over our lives and think, ‘hey if I want to do something different, I’ve got to seize the moment,’” he explains. “For whatever reason it started to feel like this is a good time to do that.”
He admits to being a “sucker for the Odd Couple and Albert Brooks movies” and lately has been getting into “early silent films and German Expressionist stuff like The Cabinet of Dr. Kalgeri.
But this does not mean his passion for the Windy City has been diminished.
“I’m always get excited when I see Chicago on film,” he says.
If the guests who attended his going-away party at the end of November are any indication, the city appreciates him right back. Film industry leaders, old friends, production professionals, coworkers, and city officials packed Block 37’s AMC Theater to wish him well.
Mayor Emanuel proclaimed November 30th to be “Rich Moskal Day,” The Fugitive Director Andrew Davis wrote a touching message of gratitude, and Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Michael D. Simon presented Moskal with an official street sign.
Holding back tears, Moskal informed the crowd that it was probably the most difficult presentation he had ever given.
“I am really proud, even in a small way, to have played a part, as we all have, in this community’s successes,” he said. “All of it was worth it, because it showed Chicago as having the most talented, hardest working crews in the country.”
Continuing with jokes about old jobs, shout-outs to coworkers, and gratitude for various commissioners, he concluded by emphasizing the importance of truth and toasting everyone with the words, “here is to a fearless tomorrow … journey on, my friends.”
Click here to see photos from Rich Moskal’s retirement party at Block 37’s AMC Dine-In Theater.