From the romantic quirkiness of “Annie Hall” to the Machiavellian ladder-climbing of “Wall Street” to the gritty desperation of “Dog Day Afternoon,” New York has long served as a character in cinematic storytelling. But, as a slew of this year’s awards-contending pics can attest, re-creating these eras on film is no leisurely walk in Central Park.
“Greenwich Village, let alone the whole city, is completely different now,” says Jess Gonchor, production designer for Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” (pictured), which is set during the American folk music revival of the early ’60s. “It’s so visually noisy there now. The quaintness of the West Village is completely gone. I had to find some pockets of New York City where I could take the city back in time.”
Gonchor says this meant re-creating the famed Gaslight Cafe, which closed in 1971, and other essential elements for the film, in the East Village, Harlem and “every borough except Staten Island.”
But while one Gotham-set film this season calls for relative quiet, another calls for the city that never sleeps. David O. Russell’s me-decade caper “American Hustle” takes place in ’70s New York, but “it’s not the same gritty crime-ridden ‘Taxi Driver’ side of the ’70s,” says production designer Judy Becker. “It was discos and clubs and aspirations, and it was exciting.”
Becker moved to New York for college in 1982 and her early memories of the city informed the look she created for “Hustle,” which was mostly filmed in the Boston suburb of Worcester, Mass., where architecture of the period is more abundant.
“I remember what the old Italian and French restaurants looked like, most of which are gone now, and the general feeling of pizza shops, coffee shops, diners and small businesses on every street,” Becker says. “I remember meeting cool career women who lived in nice postwar white-brick buildings on the far Upper East Side, much like (Amy Adams’ character) Sydney does.”
Becker also drew from New York-centric films of that era, particularly Martin Scorsese’s 1982 “The King of Comedy.” Scorsese’s latest, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is set in the relatively recent era of 1980s-early ’90s New York.
“There are two different versions of the ’80s,” says “Wolf” production designer Bob Shaw. “There’s a campier version where there are these terrible color schemes where everything is peach and aqua … and there’s this other part with Calvin Klein, Armani. The film has a comic edge to it where sometimes you want to emphasize that train wreck of style. But you also don’t want to distract from the scene and make it about the wallpaper.”
Interiors weren’t much of a problem (he’s worked on such projects as the pilot for TV’s “Mad Men”) but exteriors were more difficult, Shaw says, because “the city really changed dramatically after 9/11… you can always find something to shoot in front of, but you can’t find that many things in a row.
“I haven’t come up with an answer on how to hide Muni Meters,” he laughs.