‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Set Visit: Hines Ward, Bane, Batman and exploding football fields

PITTSBURGH – The last thing you’d expect to see in a Christopher Nolan movie is a football game. Certainly, not an NFL American football game.  Visiting the set of “The Dark Knight Rises” last August delivered exactly that, however. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field was subtly transformed into the home stadium for the Gotham Rogues as the faux franchise took on the rival Rapid City Monuments.  If you’re curious about the final score, I couldn’t tell you.  The villainous Bane (Tom Hardy) appeared, literally destroyed the football field and made a big speech letting everyone know his plans.

Chances are the game was called due to the dreaded “act of god” clause.

Before these dramatic events, director Christopher Nolan and special effects supervisor Chris Corbould (“Inception,” “Casino Royale”) have fashioned an intricate set up where the football field will explode as a Gotham Rogue receiver thinks he’s taking the ball in for a touchdown.  Physical bombs will go off destroying turf and creating “ditches” big enough for stuntmen to fall into.  When the receiver gets to the end zone he’ll turn around to discover the entire field has collapses behind him killing hundreds of people.  According to the unit publicist, this shot will occur only once so there is a lot of prep work to get it right.   What’s most surprising is that the surviving receiver will be played by none other than Steeler legend, two time Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward.

[Amateur photo of Bane’s tumblers on Heinz Field during “The Dark Knight Rises” shoot.]

Obviously, Corbould’s safety record no doubt assured the Steeler organization that Ward would be fine no matter what or it could have been the lockout that summer which let everything slide by. Ward wasn’t the only Steeler or notable participant for the 2,000 plus fans to get excited about that day.  Unfortunately, for the Steelers AFC rivals, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger survived the experience.

“We”re not going to be blowing him up, although he was he was here this morning,” prodder Emma Thomas says. “It”s a shame you got stuck in traffic. We just shot all the Steelers for the national anthem moment and he was here.”

Former Steelers coach Bill Cower was on the Rapid City sideline and current Steelers Willie Colon, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel participated as extras. Even 31-year-old Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl took part playing the kicker for the Monuments.  To say the city embraced the production was something of an understatement.

Thomas says it’s “great” to be in Pittsburgh and the city has served a very important purpose in Nolan’s vision for “Rises.” She notes, “One of the biggest reasons we came here was that Chicago — we had a fantastic time there and we loved it, but we literally have shot every inch of that city. We don”t want to be retreading old territory, whether that be visually or in terms of the storyline. We want this to be a stand-alone movie that just doesn”t feel like something anyone”s seen before.”

[Amateur photo of the explosion rig set up on Heinz Field during production of “The Dark Knight Rises.”]

Little is still known about the exact plot for “The Dark Knight Rises” except that it takes place a number of years following the events in  “The Dark Knight.” Bane is a new threat to Gotham City and Bruce Wayne and Batman (Christian Bale) also find the mysterious Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman, played by Anne Hathaway) clawing her way into the game. “Rises” also features a new love interest for Wayne, Miranda Tate (although assumed to be Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter Talia Al Ghul, played by Marion Cotillard) and a potential ally in Gotham City cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldmon), Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) return for the final installment in the trilogy.

[An official Gotham Rogues athletic T-shirt used by the production of “Th Dark Knight Rises”]

A startling development for Warner Bros. and the production were the massive amount of youtube videos and photos on Twitter and Facebook that proliferated online during the production.  Like many filmmakers, Nolan treasures his secrecy and Thomas admits it’s not something they were prepared for in the slightest.

“Certainly with this film, because of the property and because of the success of ‘The Dark Knight” [there is] definitely a whole different level of interest,” Thomas notes. “But also, every time we make a film, every two years, what”s interesting to me and what I find fascinating, is that technology has changed. Twitter wasn”t a big thing even on ‘Inception.” It certainly wasn”t on ‘The Dark Knight.” It just seems to me that there”s so much more.  People communicate in a whole different way now.”

It doesn’t help that “Rises” has shot a great deal during the daylight in downtown Pittsburgh and New York.

“On ‘The Dark Knight,” for example, we were shooting mostly night shoots in the Loop in Chicago, so there was no one around to take photos,” Thomas recalls. “There were a few die-hards that would come down to the set and be there for everything, but this is slightly different. We”re shooting in the middle of the day and in the middle of Pittsburgh. Where, on ‘The Dark Knight,” if someone had taken a set photo, it might end up online maybe the next day or maybe a couple days later. But now, I”m literally looking on the computer and, a half an hour after we”ve shot something, it”s everywhere! It”s crazy! And I think it”s a bummer, personally. I love that people are interested and excited, but I”d prefer people waited for the movie.”

That was on reason the production decided to release the first photo of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman because the character would be part of a massive outdoor scene. Thomas says, “We”re not often reactive, but we were trying to be proactive there. We didn”t want the first still out there of Anne — of the character — to be the stunt person.  We wanted it to be Anne herself.”

[Read: Anne Hathaway says this is Christopher Nolan’s Catwoman]

As the day progressed, Bale, Hathaway and Hardy all appeared and discussed their roles and “Rises.” To say they were cagey and gave little away is something of an understatement.  What was most interesting was Hardy’s description of Bane’s now iconic mask.

“Rises” takes place mostly during a Gotham City winter.  On this day, Pittsburgh is humid and hot. It’s at least in the mid-80’s and the humidity can’t make it feel any better. When Hardy appears to give his big speech at the end of the scene he’ll be wearing a very warm coat that’s hardly appropriate for a Pennsylvania summer.

“It’s very, very, very hot. Yeah. We’re all getting very hot,” Hardy admits. “You think about the [soldiers though] in Afghanistan and Baghdad, and you think about what they have to wear, well then it’s actually not that bad, is it? But it is hot. It’s hard to breathe.”

Hardy also revealed that when his mask is on he can’t hear anyone nor can anyone hear him speak. We’re later told his part will be dubbed in.  In fact, when Hardy gives his declaration of war on Gotham City after the big explosion no one can understand what he’s saying. Hardy is speaking almost in gibberish and that was a purposeful choice to keep key elements of the film’s plot from the 2,000 or so extras in the stands (extras who ignored the rules and took many videos and photos of the days proceedings).  

[Read: Tom Hardy says he doesn’t want to compete with Heath Ledger]

Before Bane, though, the Rogues and Monuments had to meet their sad end.  After a few rehearsals, Ward catches the ball and races through the elevated portion of the field while explosions rip to the left and right of him.  If you were a Steelers ticket season holder in the stand you held your breathe hoping the future hall of famer made it through safe and sound.

[A CG filled shot from a “Dark Knight Rises” trailer featuring the scene in question. There are some digital additions to the stands besides the extras there that day, but wouldn’t this game be sold out?]

Judging by his 46 receptions and 2 touchdowns this past season, I think he was slowed down more by Father Time than anything to do with his “Rises” participation.

“The Dark Knight Rises” opens nationwide and in IMAX on July 20.

[Read: Q&A: Christian Bale says he’s going to miss wearing Batman’s rubber suit]

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