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Batman v Superman based filming in Detroit

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice based production at Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Detroit, making use of a generous filming incentive payment in the process.

Zack Snyder’s film pits Batman and Superman against each other in a clash designed to set up a series of new movies featuring characters from the DC Comics universe.

Warner Bros. plans to emulate the spectacular success Marvel has built with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the rest of the Avengers team.

Pittsburgh and Chicago previously took turns standing in for Gotham in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of movies Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Chicago also became Metropolis in Man of Steel, Snyder’s previous Superman film that introduced audiences to Henry Cavill as the iconic American hero.

Snyder’s Batman v Superman team drew up a shortlist of North American cities that could stand in for both Metropolis and Gotham for the shoot.

“Ultimately it was down to Toronto and Detroit,” says Bill Doyle, who was both production supervisor and supervising location manager on the film. “We knew Detroit could play as Gotham with ease, but we were happily surprised to see in how many ways it could play Metropolis. 

“The icing on the cake was the studio facility Michigan Motion Picture Studios. We were able to take over the entire complex and we ended up using every square inch of the property in some way. It was the perfect combination.”

At the time, Michigan offered a generous filming incentive programme and Warner Bros. secured a support payment of around $35m on a planned spend in excess of $130m.

All seven stages of Michigan Motion Picture Studios were used for the ten-month shoot, along with 20 acres of back lot and 80,000 sq ft of office space. 

Sets for villain Lex Luther’s headquarters and the offices of the Daily Planet, where Clark Kent works with Lois Lane as a reporter, were built into the existing studio space.

Filming also took place around Detroit for several weeks, with on-location sets including Wayne Manor and the Wayne Mausoleum.

Central challenges were a particularly harsh winter and the fact that production coincided with Detroit’s broader economic problems, as in mid-2013 the city became the biggest in the US ever to declare bankruptcy. However, Doyle is full of praise for the city authorities and the assistance they provided for the shoot. 

New Mexico also became a key filming location for scenes that were originally planned for Morocco. At the time, media reports suggested studio executives decided a change was needed when the Ebola crisis took hold in western Africa.

In common with Morocco, New Mexico is one of the few locations in the world that offers desert landscapes at a production cost viable to a project on the scale of Batman v Superman. Marvel was in fact a previous visitor, first for Thor and then to shoot studio work for Avengers Assemble.

“We were building a warlord’s castle in a very remote part of southern New Mexico called Playas,” Doyle recalls.

“Like any remote location, manpower, materials, food and lodging are always few and far between. Most of the crew had a one- or two-hour ride to location every morning and every night, but we were able to secure housing for 50-plus crew members in a recently closed mining community in the Playas area.” 

New Mexico seems likely to retain its production appeal partly because of its 25% filming incentive (rising to 30% for TV shoots). In contrast, Michigan’s finances present a different challenge. Detroit has much in its favour in terms of striking architecture and city culture, but Film Detroit is also planning a local filming incentive in a bid to sustain its production appeal. 

The city will host Transformers 5 in the coming months, but only through deals made between Paramount and Michigan authorities before the state’s incentive was withdrawn.

Warner Bros. has followed Marvel’s example and chased generous tax breaks to the UK for both Wonder Woman and Justice League Part One. Marvel now largely bases its superhero movies in Atlanta, Georgia, after shooting several films in London. Location options in years to come will depend on the all-important combination of tax credit support, world-class studios and a skilled local crew base. 

For more on filming in Michigan see our production guide.


Images: Warner Bros. Pictures/Ratpac-Dune Entertainment/Ratpac Entertainment