In Chicago's streets, a thriller shot in a single take
A young director and his cast dash through the busy city – catching bystanders unaware – for a film about a kidnapping.
It's just after 6:30 on a cold Chicago Friday morning as director Aram Rappaport waits for the sunrise to hit the right point. Once the light is "dewy" he'll start filming the opening scene of the crime thriller "Helix." But the pressure is on: He won't get a second chance to get it right.Skip to next paragraph
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That's because this 20-year-old, first-time director is making his kidnap drama in a single take – without any editing. Once the camera starts rolling, it's nonstop action through the streets of Chicago – including a race down Lake Shore Drive and a two-mile chase sequence on foot – until the final scene 85 minutes later.
After five days of trying to film "Helix" in its entirety, the predawn crew is bracing itself. Despite having a police escort and crew members fanned out across the city, each day of filming has brought close calls – or minor disasters. On Tuesday, the cameraman blew over. "A 40-mile-an-hour gust came off the lake and literally knocked him over," says producer James Toland. "The camera flew sideways. So we had to scrap that one."
During another attempt, the film's beat-up-looking star, Alexa Vega ("Spy Kids"), was near the beach when a concerned man on his bike stopped. Fortunately the camera had momentarily panned away. "He asked, 'Are you OK? Are you OK?,' " Vega recalls. "And I whispered, 'Yeah, I'm fine. We're shooting a movie.' " Still concerned, the man hesitated. "I'm OK," she whispered again, waving him away. Reassured, he veered out of the shot just in time.
In the end, Mr. Rappaport will pick the best version of the individual shoots. "It's like putting on a play in Chicago," says Mr. Toland. "We just took the realm of the theater out into the city."
Their approach reflects a heightened interest in experimenting with filmmaking techniques and trying to generate buzz around a project, says David Tolchinsky, chairman of the radio, TV, and film department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The most striking example is "The Blair Witch Project," the low-fi horror made with hand-held cameras that became a huge hit. For more recent examples of novel approaches, Mr. Tolchinsky points to films such as "Russian Ark," shot in a single take, and "Timecode," a film that split the screen into four frames to show four concurrent story lines unfolding in real time.
Dawn's light, camera, action!
Back at the shoot, Toland sits in his car waiting for the steadicam camera to roll. He's part of a caravan that will follow the action through the city – and he's almost out of gas. He glances at the needle on his fuel gauge, which has sunk below the red line. "Oh, I've got time," he says. "I know my car."
Joggers drift past, unaware of the small band of filmmakers gathered on the beach. The sun crests over Lake Michigan and paints a wall of skyscrapers pink. "This is the magic hour. Cue the sun," Toland says. Then, a voice over the radio says: "OK, here we go. Action!"
The first scene is shot on the beach, and the actors and cameraman jump into a purple Jeep splashed with bright yellow flames. The Jeep tears off down Lake Shore Drive with the caravan trailing behind. The vehicle weaves in and out of traffic as wind whips through the actors' hair. "This is the most stressful part of the drive," Toland says. The needle on his gas gauge sinks lower.