It was just about a year ago that my husband and I spent a few exciting days hanging around downtown New Haven, Connecticut in the vicinity of the Yale University campus. The fact of our being in New Haven wasn't in itself remarkable or exciting — it's our home turf, as we work there and live in the surrounding suburbs — but the city had been transformed by the magic of cinema, and that was exciting.
For roughly two weeks last summer, shortly after Yale commencement turned this normally bustling college town summertime-sleepy, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas brought a huge production crew to town to film some major scenes for the fourth Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While New Haven has been used for film shoots before, nothing of this magnitude had ever come to town.
Prior to the actual filming, a large production crew spent time in the city getting set up. Chapel Street, New Haven's main shopping thoroughfare which borders the Yale campus, was transformed into the home of fictional Marshall College, the school at which Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones teaches archeology. It was fascinating to watch our trendy boutiques and the local Starbucks turned into barber shops and storefronts circa 1950-something. The attention to detail given the transformation was nothing short of fascinating: in addition to the care taken to disguising and re-decorating the storefronts, crews re-painted the fire hydrants and street lamp poles, and put black tape over the white parking stripes on the street. Tractor trailers full of camera equipment, lighting equipment, sound equipment, and materials with which to decorate the sets began to arrive. If you ever wondered where those multi-million dollar film budgets go, this would have given you a good idea of how the money gets spent.
As interesting as it was to wander around campus at lunchtime and watch the crews prepping the sets and unloading equipment, the real excitement came a week or so later when Spielberg and company showed up. People came downtown in droves to see if they could catch a glimpse of Harrison Ford and just generally partake in the excitement. Harried production assistants spent a great deal of time keeping the crowds at bay and answering an endless stream of questions from curious onlookers. Those of us who knew our way around some of the less public parts of campus were able to glimpse (at a distance) some of the shooting. We did get to see Shia LaBoeuf's stunt double close up and personal one day (dressed in his biker leathers), and were ultimately rewarded with a brief glimpse of Harrison Ford, who was fairly reclusive during the shoot. We think we may have a photograph of the back of Mr. Spielberg's head, but that may be wishful thinking. Spielberg, it should be noted, was extremely gracious to the many fans who came to watch and was seen signing autographs and chatting with onlookers when time permitted.
It was a bit of a letdown when the crew finally left town. We read in the local papers that the film would be released a year later, and that just seemed like too long to wait. But time passed quickly, as it has a habit of doing, and on May 22, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opened in theaters nationwide. The first New Haven showing drew quite a crowd, and while we couldn't bring ourselves to make the midnight showing, we did manage to wrap up our Memorial Day weekend by taking in a show Monday evening. While we could have seen it at the suburban multiplex close to our house, we chose instead to see it downtown in New Haven, with the hometown crowd, as it were.
So how much fun was it to see "ourselves" on the big screen? Well, it was a blast. There was a moderate audience for the screening we went to, and the first appearance of Marshall College was met with a smattering of applause and some whispered excitement throughout the theater. The scenes filmed here form the heart of Indy's time "at home" during the film, and one of the chase scenes — the first with Mutt (LaBeouf) and Indy together — takes place in the heart of Yale's campus.
The audience clearly enjoyed recognizing familiar locales. That scene where they go flying up the steps of a building on the motorcycle? That's the main entrance to Sterling Library, the university's main library. The scene where they lay the bike down on the floor and slide? The Commons, where my husband and I attended a dinner a few weeks back. And on it went. Those who stayed for the credits broke into applause again when the Connecticut crew's credits rolled by. While the New Haven scenes don't add up to a large percentage of the film's two-hour run time, they frame one of the film's exciting set pieces, and that's pretty cool. While the folks who live in big cities like New York and Los Angeles might be used to seeing their neighborhoods on the big screen, New Haven's close-up was rare enough to be a pretty big deal.
As for the film itself? Well, Indy is an icon, and while this wasn't the best film of the franchise, there is something satisfying (and maybe just a little bit wistful) about seeing the gracefully aging Harrison Ford don that fedora again, perhaps for the last time. While much of the action was preposterously over-the-top, it was also a lot of fun. This is, after all, nothing more than a big summer popcorn movie, from the man who invented the big summer popcorn movie 33 years ago with Jaws. As such, it fit the bill nicely.