John Brinkman is a self-proclaimed history buff. His brainchild – Chicago Film Tours – presents a fascinating take on Chicago. Littered with interesting facts, like the story behind Oz Park and the origin of those little Oscar statuettes, the Chicago Film Tour fills in the gaps for Chicago natives and gives visitors a run-down on Chicago’s place in the film industry. From the Uptown neighborhood to Lower Wacker Drive, the tour bus navigates the streets of Chicago with movie clips to supplement the scenery. John Brinkman talks about the film scene in Chicago and what inspired his popular tour.
F: On your website, it says you grew up in a community that produced recognizable names in the film industry…
Yes, I grew up in Franklin Village, Michigan with Sam Raimi –the director of the Spiderman series, as well as the recent Drag Me To Hell. Sam moved in before the 4th grade and I went all through high school with him. Another good friend is Josh Becker, who does independent movies. Actor Bruce Campbell was also a classmate.
F: What made you decide to turn your love of movies into a business? What had you previously done?
I was an executive for an auto-parts supplier, and you’ve seen what’s happened to the automotive industry! General Motors, Toyota – those were all my biggest customers. For the past year or so, I’ve been looking for something to do. I almost opened up a coffee kiosk in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I wanted to do something that was different, something fun.
My Dad and I went on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, Austria, years ago and had a memorable experience. While thinking about my next career, my daughter suggested moving to Chicago and starting a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off tour. So I was talking to my buddy Josh, and Josh goes, “Well, do you know anything about the Chicago film industry?” And – just off the top of his head – he starts rattling off about Colonel Selig and Broncho Billy Anderson. So I said, “OK, maybe there’s something here!” I check to see if there’s a film tour, and there isn’t. So I started putting it together with my daughter; we took her car and started mapping it out.
I liked doing all the research for the tour; I thought that part was fun. Everyone says, “Oh you’re living your dream!” Having a film tour isn’t my dream, but it’s a lot better than selling ball-bearings, the way I look at it. It’s original.
F: So what would you say sets Chicago apart in the history of the film industry?
The infancy of it as well as the longevity. The center of the film industry began with Edison in New York. Chicago had the World’s Fair and the Columbia Exposition right around the time nickelodeons were invented. In 1896 Selig did his first movie, and 1893 was the Columbia Exposition. 80 years later you had the John Hughes era and recently, Dark Knight and other blockbusters
F: Your site and the tour have a lot of fun movie facts. Where do you get all your movie facts? What are some of your favorite facts?
My director friend Josh had a lot of information, and I also used IMDB. Once I decided on the movies I wanted, I focused on the obscure facts, like the fact that Vince Vaughn’s father played Jennifer Aniston’s dad in the movie The Break-Up, or the fact that Alan Ruck was 29 years old when he played Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I like the building facts as well. I like the weird little things like John Barleycorn’s used to be a Chinese Laundry in the back. Wrigley Field wasn’t built for the Cubs; the Cubs moved in two years later.
F: As the proprietor of Chicago Film Tours, you must have a very curated Top Ten movie list. What are some of your favorite movies?
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Stalag 17 are terrific. Groundhog Day, which was filmed up in Woodstock, is a Top 10. Great Escape is probably one of my favorites. I tend to like comedies, war movies and dramas.
F: Have you seen many movies while they’re being filmed in Chicago?
I went to the Chicago Film Office here and introduced myself to them. One of the things I try to do is to find out what’s filming here so that when people take my tour, I can be up-to-date on what’s filming in town. I went to the red carpet event for Public Enemies, and I got a picture of Johnny Depp.
The only thing filming right now is Nightmare on Elm St., and that’s mostly up in the northern suburbs.
F: It seems like the same places are repeatedly used in movies…
Those have the flavor of the era. My buddy Josh explained all this to me. Look at it from a location scout’s point of view. You want to use existing buildings that are around. If I have to change the facade, put up an awning, or if I have to take away Starbucks or Subway – fine, as long as the architecture is there.
F: The Dark Knight seems to be one of the more popular movies linked to Chicago. In your opinion, what are some of the parallels between the fictional Gotham City and the real Chicago?
I live up by Division and Clark. It’s weird to see people my age sleeping on the sidewalk, then walk four blocks over to the old Playboy Mansion. When you look at the Narrows, that’s a parallel. Gotham City is obviously a fictional city, but it’s known for skyscrapers and lots of activity. I think that’s Chicago personified: Chicago is a vibrant city.
F: If you were directing a movie set here in Chicago, what kind of movie would it be? Plot? Cast? Genre?
Actually one of the things I’ve done is outline a screenplay! It’s like Sex in the City but for guys. It would be humorous and telling; it would be a slice-of-life story. I would probably not have a lot of locations; it would be set in some guy’s backyard with the city as a backdrop.