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On Location

The University's hallowed halls and campuses are a favorite with movie, TV and ad producers.


by Ryan Haggerty

Mary Jane Twohey, Northwestern University’s broadcast relations director, was on the phone with a representative from a film company hoping to shoot a movie in which one of the main characters was a student about to begin his freshman year at Northwestern.

Twohey, trying to determine if the University should allow its name to be used in the film, jokingly asked, “Is the student a serial killer?”

“Well,” the film rep replied, “he’s not a serial killer, but he is accused of murder.”

With that, the movie’s chances of being set at Northwestern were dead.

“Serial killers and accused murderers,” says Twohey, recalling the conversation, “are on the ‘no’ list.”

“Fathers carrying beer into a dorm room where there’s a naked girl? That’s a no, too,” says Alan Cubbage (GJ78, 87), vice president for University Relations, laughing while referring to the opening scene in American Pie 2, the raunchy comedy that begins with a beer-toting father walking into his son’s dorm room only to find him in bed with a girl, a scene that was supposed to be set at Northwestern until Cubbage and Twohey nixed the idea.

Cubbage and Twohey, the self-described “gatekeepers” of Northwestern’s cinematic image, approve or deny all requests to use Northwestern’s name, colors, logo or campuses in movies, television shows and commercials, standard practice at most major universities. 

For a wide range of reasons, from the large number of Northwestern graduates working in the entertainment industry to the unique buildings on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses, the University tends to be a popular choice for location scouts and film writers looking to set a scene or develop a character’s background.

Characters have attended or graduated from Northwestern in the films Proof and The Devil Wears Prada, and Northwestern has provided the backdrop for everything from a scene in the movie Major League to a McDonald’s commercial aired during the 1993 Super Bowl in which Michael Jordan and Larry Bird play H-O-R-S-E inside Welsh-Ryan Arena for a Big Mac.

“We scout Northwestern all the time,” says James McAllister, a Chicago-based location manager who worked on the remake of Miracle on 34th Street and Soul Survivors, which were both partially shot on the Evanston campus. “A lot of times in a film you’re looking for a wood-paneled room or a stately room, and Northwestern seems to have a lot of those. There’s a lot of classical architecture, and both campuses are beautiful.”

Determining whether Northwestern’s campuses can be used as a setting, even if the University is not identified in the shot, often boils down to logistics, but granting permission to use the University’s name can be a “nuanced decision,” Cubbage says, requiring a close look at scripts and an evaluation of whether the University is represented fairly and accurately. “Is this appropriate? Does it reflect well on us? The use of the University’s name is something we guard closely,” Cubbage says.

Some requests — such as a proposed B-movie in which monsters crawl out of Lake Michigan to attack female students — don’t have a chance. But the decision to turn down a film company’s request to use Northwestern’s name is not always as easy as scanning the script for lake monsters or accused killers.

In the 2003 release Cheaper by the Dozen, Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt star as the parents of a family of 12 that moves to Evanston so Martin can take the football coaching job at his alma mater, which was supposed to be Northwestern. However, the movie’s portrayal of Evanston as an uppity, exclusive suburb and two scenes in the script involving the “Northwestern” football program — one in which the athletic director tells Martin to stop worrying about his children’s adjustment to new schools and to start focusing on the upcoming game, and another in which an alumni booster drops the keys to a brand-new luxury car on Martin’s desk following a big win — concerned Cubbage. After discussions with the athletic department, Northwestern turned down the request, passing on the opportunity to be prominently featured in a PG film that had a domestic gross of $138.6 million.

“They really wanted the movie to be set at Northwestern, and by and large, we knew it was a perfectly harmless movie,” Cubbage says. “But those two scenes absolutely set my radar off. Some people might argue that we should’ve done it because it would have been a lot of publicity, but those scenes and the portrayal of the town bothered me.”

Still, some films, such as the 2005 release Proof, are relative locks for approval.

When representatives of the movie approached Cubbage about using Northwestern’s name and requested a school sweatshirt for the movie’s star, Gwyneth Paltrow — who, as the daughter of a brilliant but insane mathematician played by Anthony Hopkins, chooses to attend Northwestern over the University of Chicago — he and Twohey were thrilled. After some back-and-forth with the writers about a line in which Hopkins calls Northwestern’s football team a “disaster,” the movie was allowed to use the University’s name. As it turned out, the line about the football team was cut. So, unfortunately, was the scene in which Paltrow wears the Northwestern sweatshirt, eliminating a prime promotional opportunity for the University. “Believe me,” Cubbage says with a laugh, “if we’d gotten a shot of Gwyneth Paltrow in a Northwestern sweatshirt, you’d be seeing a lot of it in Northwestern admission brochures.”

Although Cubbage and Twohey have to be deliberate in evaluating requests from film and television companies, the real work starts once they’ve given their approval. Cubbage keeps a cardboard box stuffed with Northwestern T-shirts just inside his office door, ready to be shipped overnight to keep pace with Hollywood’s fast-paced production schedule, and University Relations is poised to provide the filmmakers with everything they need, from fake diplomas to Northwestern knickknacks.

Sometimes hours of work translate into only a moment or two on screen. Stacia Campbell (WCAS80), general manager of Students Publishing Company, which oversees production of the Daily Northwestern and the Syllabus yearbook, supervised the creation of a fake page of the Daily for The Devil Wears Prada. The page flashes on the screen for just a second while the character Andy Sachs (a Medill School of Journalism graduate in the movie) arranges her clips prior to a job interview.

But even that work pales in comparison to the effort needed to shoot a scene on campus. Dozens of the production’s crew members descend on the location, bringing their trucks, trailers, wires, cameras, microphones, costumes and everything else needed for filming. Northwestern charges a daily fee for filming, plus expenses such as the removal of furniture and signs and making security personnel and electricians available, not to mention arranging parking for the film crew.

There are some limits on filming on campus, however: No displacing classes that are in session, and no filming during reading week and exam week. As Cubbage says, “If it’s going to interfere with the University’s main purpose, education, the answer is no.”

Still, the location scouts keep coming to campus, and the requests to use Northwestern’s name continue to arrive. McAllister, the location manager who has worked extensively with Northwestern, says the University’s popularity with the film industry goes beyond attractive campuses and interesting architecture and can be traced to the responsiveness of the University Relations staff.

“They understand what we need,” McAllister says. “They’ve been through it enough, so they know all the questions they need to ask ahead of time. It’s a very easy working relationship.”

Ryan Haggerty is a Medill School of Journalism senior from Buffalo.

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Drea de Matteo as Gina and Matt LeBlanc as Northwestern alum wannabe Joey in "Joey and the Big Audition."
Drea de Matteo as Gina and Matt LeBlanc as Northwestern alum wannabe Joey in "Joey and the Big Audition." Photo by NBC Universal Photo: Mitch Haddad