North Riverside Mall doubles as movie set

Matt Damon shoots scene in shopping center's food court

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By BOB UPHUES

You don't need a vaccination to get inside the North Riverside Park Mall. While that might seem an obvious statement to make, some shoppers on Dec. 8 were confronted with signs saying vaccinations were necessary to enter certain areas.

That's because for several hours that morning, the shopping center was turned into a Hollywood movie set for the filming of Contagion, an action-thriller about the international outbreak of a deadly virus, starring Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltow and Jude Law.

"We had a lot of customers asking where to go get vaccinations," said Lidia Darkova, marketing director for the North Riverside Park Mall. "It took a long time for the crew to take down all the signs."

While it took all night to get the shopping center transformed into "Willowbrook Mall" for the shoot, filming only took about an hour, Darkova said, wrapping up by 9:30 a.m. so holiday shoppers wouldn't be inconvenienced.

"One of the things we told them was that we wanted it done before the mall opened," she said.

Jeannette Sprovieri, of Berwyn, was at the mall bright and early, at about 7:40 a.m. She wasn't there to stargaze; she's a regular mall walker. She walked into the food court, where her mall walking regulars meet for coffee, "and all the chairs are up on the tables, and I'm thinking, 'What the hell is going on?'"

Told that a major motion picture was being filmed that morning, she was impressed.

"They should have told me; I'd have worn something different," Sprovieri said.

She took a spin around the upper concourse of the mall, remarking about the many signs referencing contamination. Security guards stood sentinel in front of J.C Penney - where one scene was filmed, according to Darkova.

And nearby in a former bank space across from an ice cream store, Sprovieri said, the crews had set up what looked to be some kind of MASH unit, with tables and gurneys and extras wearing surgical masks.

By 8:30 a.m., onlookers were shooed away from the food court, where director Steven Soderbergh oversaw the shooting of a scene with Damon. If the scene makes it into the movie, it'll only amount to a minute or two of screen time, Darkova said.

The cast and crew for Contagion have been all over the Chicago area, particularly on the North Shore and in nearby Western Springs, in recent weeks, shooting scenes for the film.

Negotiations with Warner Brothers began six months ago, Darkova said. She was approached by a location scout from the film studio who told her they were looking for a two-story shopping center for a "tiny" scene.

Beginning the evening of Dec. 7, trucks and crews pulled up to the mall and worked all night, covering up storefronts and hanging banners and signs. The crew breakfasted inside a food court restaurant before the morning shoot.

Darkova said she didn't get to meet Damon but did meet with Soderbergh after the shooting was over.

"I was amazed at how much preparation there was for a scene that will probably be no more than a minute or two in the film," Darkova said.

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