The Biography of Chicago’s Marina City

Flying car sequel
October 15, 2006

Frame from Allstate television spot (2006).

In 1979, for The Hunter, a film starring Steve McQueen, a car was sent off the 17th floor of the west tower parking ramp at Marina City and into the Chicago River. Stephanie Simpson did not see this film until 27 years later but when she did, it would inspire her.

(Left) Frame from 2006 Allstate television spot.

Simpson was an art director from 2003 to 2011 for Leo Burnett Worldwide, the Chicago-based advertising agency with headquarters across the street from Marina City. Working on television spots for Allstate Insurance Company, she wanted to create homage to classic chase scenes from films such as The French Connection and The Hunter.

For more than 50 years, Burnett has helped Allstate sell insurance. But the first time they pitched the idea, in 2005, of sending a car off a Marina City parking ramp, Allstate turned it down.

“It was part of a larger campaign idea that they decided not to go with,” recalled Simpson shortly after leaving Leo Burnett. “But then when it was time to...go back to the client with new ideas, I think it was about a year later, 2006, the agency really had a lot of heart for the idea and went back to the client and they said, oh yeah, we remember that, we like that.”

Working with writer Jeff White, Simpson set out to create a spot to sell Allstate’s “accident forgiveness” option. They hired Phil Joanou to direct. Joanou’s directing experience includes feature films such as Gridiron Gang and music videos for U2.

“We liked how we interacted with him on the phone,” said Simpson, “and we liked his ideas, and he is from a good production company – I’m sure that had something to do with it – and so all the stars aligned and his vision for it was aligned with our vision for it.”

They also liked Joanou’s experience with cars and big productions, according to John Pratt, a freelance producer for Leo Burnett. “He basically had the background of what we were looking for. He had a film background, as well as a commercial background that we felt was right for this spot. He understood about high-speed car racing, big stunts, because obviously we shot the car off of the tower twice. He had those key elements that we were looking for.”

Stephanie Simpson (2011). Photo by Steven Dahlman. Jeff White Phil Joanou Al Cohn and Mayor Daley
Stephanie Simpson Jeff White Phil Joanou Al Cohn (right) with former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley

Marina City cautiously receptive

Once it was decided Marina City would be the location, it was up to location managers Al Cohn and Brady Breen to make it happen. Cohn made the advance arrangements – with Marina City, Chicago police and fire departments, Coast Guard, a salvage company, and others – and then Breen managed the location once filming began.

Armed with a presentation by the special effects crew of MJZ, a commercial production company based in Los Angeles, it was Cohn who had to sell the commercial property management at Marina City on the idea of letting them launch a car off its parking ramp.

MJZ had done tests in Los Angeles and had made the case that the stunt would work. “I was really able to go in there with an excellent presentation by the effects company,” recalled Cohn in 2011. “They had done their homework and were very professional.”

Marina City’s management had two big concerns. “Just make sure that whatever we did – number one, it would be safe. Of course, we shared that concern. And number two, that we would return the property in the same condition as when we found it if not better.”

But they were receptive, says Pratt. “Obviously, they had done this before because basically the [story] board was based off the movie The Hunter. Granted, I’m sure the same people weren’t around at the time. But I think their initial [reaction] was excitement, to be a part of it and hopefully they could make it work.”

Three days of filming culminate in splashdown

The Marina City scenes were filmed over one weekend in mid-October 2006, following a day in Chicago’s financial district and another day shooting the chase car – a light blue 1971 Chevy Malibu rented from a classic car owner – racing up and down streets in the Loop.

Then early on a Sunday morning on October 15, 2006, starting between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., a crowd of about 300 people lined Wacker Drive between State and Dearborn Streets, watching a crew of 150 film the stunt from seven camera angles. There was one camera on the parking ramp, three along the Dearborn Street Bridge, one on the roof of 55 West Wacker diagonal from Marina City, one southeast on Wacker Drive, and one camera mounted inside the car.

A pressurized air cannon propelled a black 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass off the 17th floor of the parking ramp. It executed a graceful somersault and plunged into the Chicago River, where Chicago Police tugboats helped retrieve it. The car was then hooked to a cable and lifted by crane onto Dearborn Street.

The Oldsmobile had been heavily modified. Fluids were removed, making it more environmentally friendly for the Chicago River. The engine was taken out to make the car lighter. The rear end was filled with foam to make it float and easier to retrieve when it hit the river.

The air cannon – something new for the stunt, as in 1979 according to Pratt, “they put a brick on the gas pedal and hoped for the best” – was bolted to a main support post of the parking ramp. There were two loud explosions, once when the hydraulic device struck the rear of the car, and again seconds later when the car struck the water.

Chicago Tribune story about Allstate car stunt published the next day (October 16, 2006). The cost of the commercial was estimated at around $1 million. Phil Joanou told the Chicago Sun-Times, “We’re trying to create a cinematic experience. If I were shooting this for a $50 million movie I wouldn’t be doing it any different.”

The stunt was done twice, the first car taking off at about 8 a.m. and the second around 9 a.m. Both cars reportedly went off flawlessly. James Dando, a tourist from Toronto, asked Chicago Tribune entertainment reporter Terry Armour, “Does this happen all the time in Chicago? It’s just something you don’t see every day.”

The crew had to finish before 10 a.m. when the city raised the bridges on the Chicago River to let sailboats pass through.

As she watched from the parking ramp on monitors with the client, the stunt, says Simpson, “went amazingly well.”

The only problem was that one of the cameras did not get the shot on the first try. “There was a bit of tension,” she recalled with a laugh. “The important thing is, the second time, everything worked.”

(Left) Chicago Tribune headline – and photos by Chuck Berman – on October 16, 2006, the day after the stunt.

This series of photographs by Chicago Sun-Times photographer Brian Jackson shows two “takes” of the stunt from different angles. In the first two images, the car flies off the west tower parking ramp, past the east tower and AMA Plaza.

By the third image, with the State Street Bridge in the background, the car is upside-down. In the fourth image, the car has landed in the Chicago River.

Stunt for Allstate television spot (October 15, 2006). Photo 1 of 4 by Brian Jackson. Stunt for Allstate television spot (October 15, 2006). Photo 2 of 4 by Brian Jackson.
Stunt for Allstate television spot (October 15, 2006). Photo 3 of 4 by Brian Jackson. Stunt for Allstate television spot (October 15, 2006). Photo 4 of 4 by Brian Jackson.

Air cannon used to propel car off parking ramp for Allstate commercial (2006). Leo Burnett Worldwide. Frames from a Leo Burnett Worldwide video, The Making of Marina Towers...

(Left) The air cannon used to propel the car off the parking ramp.

1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass departs west tower parking ramp in Allstate commercial (2006). Leo Burnett Worldwide. A 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass departs the west tower parking ramp.
Oldsmobile airborne in Allstate commercial (2006). Leo Burnett Worldwide. The airborne Oldsmobile with Marina City’s east tower in the background.
View captured by camera inside car in Allstate commercial (2006). Leo Burnett Worldwide. A camera inside the car caught this view when it was upside-down on its way to the Chicago River.
Chicago police boats fish car out of river during filming of Allstate commercial (2006). Leo Burnett Worldwide. The car sustained significant damage when it struck the water. Chicago police boats arrived immediately to help fish it out of the river...

(Right) As seen by a Fox News camera, the car is pulled by crane from the river.

The stunt was not the end of the day for the film crew. They quickly moved to Wacker Drive to shoot a scene of a fender-bender caused by a rubbernecking motorist distracted by the movie stunt.

Car in Allstate commercial is pulled by crane from Chicago River (2006). Fox News.

Reaction

The spot aired for the first time during the Allstate Sugar Bowl college football game on January 3, 2007. Allstate, says Simpson, “loved it. They seemed really happy.”

“I think there was excitement across the entire city,” believes Pratt. “It was good for the city...it was good for Allstate. It was good for Phil Joanou and the production company. It was good for Leo Burnett. So it was a big shoot for everybody involved.”

Allstate claims it got “millions of dollars in free publicity” and that in January 2007, sales increased 28 percent over the previous year.

(Right) Nine angles of the stunt performed and captured on October 15, 2006, for a television commercial for Allstate Insurance Company.

How helpful was Allstate and Leo Burnett with the historical account of this stunt? Well...

To say Leo Burnett did not cooperate with this article is putting it mildly. For more than two years, Marina City Online attempted to contact various people and departments at Leo Burnett, by email, telephone, and regular mail, without any response. When they did finally respond, they refused to provide any information, arrange any interviews, or refer interview requests to specific employees.

In explaining why they could not provide video or high-resolution still frames from a “behind the scenes” video that had been produced about the stunt, which at one time was available on YouTube, Leo Burnett’s Michael Shanahan claimed that if the video appeared on this website, they would have to renegotiate with Screen Actors Guild for payment to actors in the video. When contacted for comment, the SAG office in Chicago initially said they would look into it and then refused to say whether Shanahan’s claims were valid.

Shanahan threatened to request MCO remove from its history pages low-resolution images from the video and the TV spot, despite this site’s clear educational purpose – generally considered “fair use” of copyrighted material.

The media relations department at Allstate also refused to provide any assistance with this article.

Last updated 9-Sep-18

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