Imagine waking up to see a hovering helicopter just outside your window at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
Last Sunday, Apr. 22, the Harvard Bridge was closed to the public from 9 a.m.–3 p.m. while the new movie 21 by Columbia Pictures was being filmed. For most of the morning, the crew’s helicopter circled around the bridge to shoot the grand opening scene of this movie, previously titled as the Untitled Blackjack Picture.
21 depicts the lives of five MIT students on the MIT Blackjack Team set during the 2006-2007 school year. These students train to become card counting experts and put their skills to test in Las Vegas casinos with enormous success. Actor Jim Sturgess plays the protagonist Ben Campbell (analogous to Kevin Lewis in the book). The other four members of the team include Kate Bosworth as Jill Taylor, Aaron Yoo as Choi, Liza Lapira as Kianna, and Jacob Pitts as Fisher. Kevin Spacey stars as Mickey Rosa, the MIT professor who mentors the team, and Lawrence Fishbourne acts as a security guard in Las Vegas.
The movie is loosely inspired by Ben Mezich’s non-fiction book Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, which is about the original MIT Blackjack Team from the 1990s.
The crew shot about 45 seconds of footage on the bridge, which includes the opening scene of the movie and an unrelated second scene in the middle of the movie. Various police forces, including the City of Cambridge, Boston Police, Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Massachusetts State Police, maintained a closed-off bridge during this time period.
One side of the Harvard bridge temporarily opened up around 1 p.m. to pedestrians after the first shot of the opening scene of the movie was complete. It was closed again around 1:15 p.m. for the second scene from the middle of the movie, which involves the main character thinking and contemplating on the bridge.
The opening scene of the movie includes an aerial shot of the protagonist biking across the Harvard Bridge. By using a helicopter to film most of the opening scene, the crew was able to get a sweeping shot of the Charles River, the Boston skyline, and the MIT campus before zeroing into the main character. The helicopter hovered around the bridge for most of the morning.
On the set at the Harvard Bridge scene, there were 70 extras and 130 crew members present. Nine stunt drivers were hired to simulate efficient traffic for the helicopter aerial shot. The extras acted as pedestrians on the bridge or drivers to simulate regular traffic.
“It doesn’t pay much, but I have fun doing it,” said an extra who was driving a dark gray Nissan Ultima on the set. He said that extras are hired by what the crew needs on a daily basis. In this case, the crew specifically needed more dark-colored cars, which was how he was hired for the bridge scene.
Additionally, current and former MIT students developed a particular interest in this MIT-centered film. In a different scene, Henry H. Houh ’89 played a small speaking role as a card dealer in a Chinese card house. “It was supposed to be set in Chinatown (in the movie). I dealt cards to the main character, and I actually got to say a few lines.”
According to Houh, there were other MIT alums on set with him, which included Albert M. Chan G ’99, who played a card dealer role similar to Houh’s. Chan did not have a speaking role; however, he did deal cards to Kate Bosworth’s character in the scene.
Houh also saw one of the founders of the MIT Blackjack Team, Bill Kaplan, as an extra in this same Chinese card house scene. Kaplan is not a graduate of MIT, but he was one of the original members of the Blackjack Team. “I think he heard about this movie through a friend and called in to be an extra,” Houh said.
Jefferey K. Ma ’94, one of the actual members of the famous MIT Blackjack Team and the protagonist model in Mezrich’s book, visited the set both in Boston and Las Vegas. In fact, the crew decided to have him star as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas in the film. “It is pretty ironic that he is playing this extra role,” according to Cid Swank, the spokesperson for the movie. “People who recognize him will notice this when they see him in the movie.”
During the film shooting, many passersby lingered by the Harvard Bridge, trying to catch a glimpse of any celebrities or some sort of action. Naresh Chennamsetty, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, was watching from the Cambridge side of the Harvard Bridge with a few other MIT students. “We live in Ashdown [House], so we could see that something was definitely going on at the bridge. Our housemaster told us to check it out, so we’ve been here for a while waiting for some action,” Chennamsetty said.
The filming started on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas and is scheduled to wrap up today in Las Vegas, according to Swank. It is scheduled to be released in theaters sometime in 2008. The director is 33-year-old Robert Luketic, who also directed Legally Blonde.
Most of the film was shot in Boston and Las Vegas, Swank said. Although the characters in the movie are MIT students, most of the MIT campus scenes were filmed at Boston University. The crew could not get the Institute’s permission to film on campus.
“To my understanding, MIT doesn’t want any movie filming on campus because it is intrusive to the learning environment,” Swank said. The last time the crew shot around MIT campus was on March 19, on a nearby sidewalk.
Also according to Swank, the movie was formerly called Untitled Blackjack Picture due to legal issues with obtaining the name the crew originally wanted, which was 21. The name 21 was owned by someone else, and the crew had to legally purchase the name before they could name their movie.