Heinz Field gets roughed up in Batman filming


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It was every football fan's nightmare, and every director's dream: terror and destruction on a beloved team's home field.

Explosions rocked Heinz Field and panicked spectators tried to flee amid screaming, scrambling and near-trampling, only to find the exits blocked by armed terrorists.

It was Saturday's installment of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," his third and final Batman movie filming in Pittsburgh through Aug. 21. The fans were assembled for a game between the make-believe Gotham Rogues and Rapid City Monuments.

"Forget Hollywood. You guys were great. I'll come to Pittsburgh any time for extras," an assistant director said after he led the crowd through three takes of a single reaction shot.

More than 10,000 extras who had been bused from the Civic Arena had been warned by an announcer not to mug for the cameras. "If you say 'Hi, Mom,' you're going to look like a fool. ... This is a scene of sheer horror."

PG VIDEO: MOVIE SHOOT AT HEINZ FIELD

In between takes, however, terror receded as smiling fans under umbrellas relaxed not far from the assault-rifle-wielding bad guys on the field. The crowd ranged from 14 years old (the minimum age) to senior citizens, although the majority were in their 20s and 30s.

A gridiron reunion

While end zone lettering spelled out "Gotham Rogues" and the park was decked out with homemade signs such as "Rogue Rage," "Rogues Gallery" and "Rogue Nation," it sometimes felt like old home week.

Extras in the Rogues' colors of black and gold cheered as some Steelers players, including Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward, appeared as Gotham teammates.

Bill Cowher returned for his first coaching gig since leaving the Steelers after the 2006 season. Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, reunited with Mr. Cowher as an assistant Gotham coach.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dusted off his Washington & Jefferson College skills and played a kicker for the Monuments, the Rogues' rivals.

Instead of Terrible Towels, fans were given gold hankies to wave. As expected, whole sections of extras were moved between shots to allow the camera to make it appear that the stadium was packed.

Before the afternoon mayhem, the morning was dedicated to the beginning of the game that was destined to be cut short by explosions on the field.

On the kickoff, Mr. Ward received, blowing past the mayor as he returned the kick. That scene was repeated many times over about three hours, with extras putting on coats they had been instructed to bring to simulate the cold during each take, then taking them off between to try to cool off.

Medics treated numerous cases of heat exhaustion; it felt like a steamy 89 degrees by 5 p.m.

As the hot afternoon wore on, the crowd -- which in the morning passed the time during a rain delay by practicing the wave -- grew restless and irritated when some sections weren't getting water fast enough. There were prizes and raffles throughout the day, but long stretches of inactivity provoked chants of "We want Bane!" and "We want T-shirts!"

Three Tumblers -- vehicles that look like a camouflage Batmobile -- were brought out on the field to entertain the crowd, but were not used in the filming. At one point Hines Ward rode atop one, looking like he was having a grand time.

There were several rehearsals for the bombing scene.

The announcer shouted out what was going to happen and gave the fans their cue to change from cheering to screaming: "Hines is running down the field ... you're cheering ... boom! boom! boom!"

Finally the special effects team got the explosives set, and about 60 bombs went off, seeming to blow a gaping hole in the field. The crowd screamed, freaked out and tried to flee amid the debris as instructed.

The morning operation

The fans had lined up outside the Civic Arena early Saturday morning to board buses for Heinz Field, making it seem like game day. They had been cautioned to expect filming to last until 7 p.m. or so.

"This is very exciting but can be tiring by the end of a big day," unpaid extras were told in a packet they received after being chosen online.

They were promised some stadium food -- hot dogs, burgers, pretzels, ice cream and water -- and chances to win prizes from raffles, including a grand prize of airfare and tickets to the U.S. premiere of the movie in July.

The influx of so many people caused traffic tie-ups. By 10:30 a.m., there was gridlock Downtown and traffic became congested again in the evening with the Pirates game and concerts.

Fans who had signed up as extras online lined the sidewalk along Mario Lemieux Place, three and four across, from Centre Avenue to Bedford Avenue.

But boarding of the vehicles was a well-oiled operation, with the line moving at a relatively brisk pace as full buses left for Heinz Field every few minutes or so. As instructed, many fans wore black and gold, which they had no problem finding in their closets. One caveat though: No Steelers logos.

Waiting to board a bus, Jeannette Walker, 51, and Cindy Witham, 40, and their children, Jaime and Levi, respectively, were hard to miss. They wore black and gold wigs, their faces were painted black and gold, and they wore black and gold boas and clothing.

Ms. Walker and Ms. Witham, both rural postal carriers from Northern Cambria, Cambria County, took the day off Friday and drove with their children about 100 miles and stayed with Ms. Walker's daughter at her place Downtown.

"We wanted to be a part of the movie. I plan on starting as an unpaid extra and leaving as a paid one," she laughed.

She said they realized it was going to be a long day, but, "That's OK." However, one discomfort had already arisen: "It's hot in these wigs," she said.

Further down the line, Peggy Graham, 54, of Ohioville, Beaver County, waited patiently. She's no neophyte movie extra. She and her then-boyfriend were extras in the "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh," the 1979 comedy filmed partially at the Civic Arena.

She was resurrecting her movie career at the urging of her 24-year-old daughter, who accompanied her. As for "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh," she never saw the movie "so I don't even know if I was in it."

She did take something away from the experience though -- her then-boyfriend is her now-husband.

The Steel City may be playing Gotham City, but it's just one stop for "The Dark Knight Rises" which started production in India, England and Scotland and also will shoot in New York and Los Angeles.

After taking Monday and Tuesday off, the film will roar back to life Wednesday, this time Downtown.

Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office, emphasized that, during shooting, "Downtown is open for business. You will be able to get to any store, any business, any place you need to get Downtown.

"You might be held up for a few minutes standing on a corner, waiting for them to finish something. You will be escorted if you need to cross a place where they're shooting to go where you want to go."

Parts of Forbes, Oliver, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh avenues, Smithfield and Wood streets, William Penn Place and Cherry and Strawberry ways will be closed at various times through Aug. 21.

Mr. Nolan has said "The Dark Knight Rises" will be the conclusion to his Batman trilogy.


Staff writer Lillian Thomas contributed. Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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