Joliet prison is a 'Break'-out star
By Maureen Ryan
Tribune staff reporter
Published August 24, 2005
JOLIET -- For Australian actor Dominic Purcell, getting into character as a Death Row convict isn't difficult.
Purcell, one of the leads in the new Fox series "Prison Break," is filming key scenes in the Joliet Correctional Center cell briefly occupied by serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
One day, "I got on set and the makeup person refused to go into the cell," he recalled. "I said, `What's going on?' and she said, `That's where [serial killer John Wayne] Gacy was.' "
"This [place] is here for you," he noted, gesturing to the thick walls and barbed wire around him in the Joliet prison yard. "It has a resonance."
The actors on "Prison Break," highly anticipated fall show that debuts at 7 p.m. Monday on WFLD-Ch. 32, say filming at Joliet has been an invaluable aid to their performances. Walking around the 147-year-old prison complex, which has been occupied by several Hollywood productions since it stopped housing prisoners three years ago, it's impossible not to feel the vibe left behind by thousands of convicts.
"I'm not from the hardcore Method school of acting where I'm sleeping in the cell every night," said Purcell's co-star, Wentworth Miller, as a makeup artist preps him for the cameras in a trailer near the prison's massive "sally port," or truck entrance. "Really, all you have to do is hear that cell door close once, hear that bang."
"Prison Break" is the latest in a string of high-profile projects that have added to the prison's already impressive Hollywood resume (the complex earlier had cameo roles in "Natural Born Killers" and "The Blues Brothers"). In the last 18 months, Joliet has hosted film crews from the features "You Are Going to Prison" and the Jennifer Aniston-Clive Owen vehicle "Derailed," as well as the "Prison Break" pilot, which was filmed in December, and the ongoing series, which has occupied Joliet since June.
In the last nine months, reports Chicago-based freelance location manager Brady Breen, the prison's barely had a day off.
"This is not the only closed-down prison in America," Breen noted. "People are coming to this place, to work with this [Illinois Department of Corrections] staff. From the governor's office on down, people are willing to do whatever it takes to make things happen" for filmmakers at Joliet.
Like another Fox series, the thriller "24," "Prison Break" is a highly serialized adventure story, in this case the tale of a structural engineer, Michael Scofield (who's played by Miller), who holds up a bank and gets himself sent to the fictional Fox River Penitentiary in order to spring his brother (played by Purcell), a convict on Death Row. Buoyed by positive buzz about the show's unique story and distinctive look, the Fox network is giving "Prison Break" a huge marketing blitz and is obviously hoping for a major hit.
"TV series have a brief window to get viewers to latch on to a show," noted Rich Moskal, head of the Chicago Film Office. "One way to get a noticed in a hurry is to have a compelling look."
"You could not recreate this set on a soundstage somewhere in Los Angeles," said Miller. "I think working in Joliet lends the project a degree of authenticity and integrity that you can't put a price on. It's a character itself. I'm not sure I believe in the idea of haunted houses, but if there were ever a place that's haunted, it would be Joliet. You have 150 years of pain and violence and fear that all took place in one location."
When he was finally sprung from the makeup chair, Miller spent much of a recent afternoon filming a brief dialogue scene with co-star Sarah Wayne Callies, who plays a prison doctor.
As the actors, who were separated by a chain link fence in the middle of Joliet's expansive exercise yard, repeated their lines of dialogue in take after take, the limestone walls -- quarried by prisoners when the structure was built in 1857-'58 -- gave off a soft golden glow in the late-afternoon light. Dozens of extras wearing prison garb lolled on old wooden bleachers, while swarms of technicians stood at the ready to move lighting equipment or spray actors with fake sweat, even though the temperature hovered over 90 degrees.
Though the massive, square bulk of the prison can be intimidating -- everywhere one looks, there are thick walls topped with barbed wire -- there's also an odd Victorian beauty to the place, which was built by Chicago Water Tower architect William Boyington. The round guard towers that loom over the four corners of the prison yard look just like the turrets of a medieval castle, and every nook of the complex reveals telling details, such as the elaborate Gothic script on the incongruous suggestion box in the main lobby, or the crossed keys carved into a wall over the prison yard.
"There's so much history," said actor Amaury Nolasco, as actors blocked out a scene in a second-floor hallway earlier in the day. "Every cell has its own story."
Standing in one of the cells, let alone Gacy's reputed home ("it has the best light," noted Purcell), is not for the faint of heart. Even standing in a cell with the door open can create an immediate feeling of claustrophobia. The prison yard, which is surrounded by buildings housing everything from a former auto shop to a chapel to an old prisoner-staffed mattress factory, is not necessarily welcoming either: A sign there announces that "Inmates Approaching Incoming Aircraft Will Be Shot."
The sign wasn't created by the "Prison Break" art department. The dark brown paint covering the solid iron cell doors, metal bunks in each cell, the clipboard in the lobby listing the prisoners who, as of Nov. 5, 2001, presented "Extremely High Escape Risk[s]" -- all these things are just as they were when Joliet, thanks to budget cutbacks, closed down three years ago.
All those perfectly preserved details, not to mention the wealth of filming possibilities in the extensive complex, are a treasure trove for the "Prison Break" creative team.
"The narrative feel of the show is a big, epic story," said Paul Scheuring, "Prison Break's" creator and executive producer. "The facility contributes to that -- it's epic in design."
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