With the New York skyline changing on a daily basis, lensing in the Big Apple can be a tricky, painstaking task. Yet with the city’s 2005 Made in New York incentive program in full swing, 129 films have taken on the difficult job of transforming Gotham into a vision of the past, present and future — mixing practical locations, visual effects and studio space to achieve the desired effect.
“We Own the Night” director James Gray was scrupulous about his vision for 1988-era New York City. “I think period movies are often done quite wrong,” he says. “I view history as an accumulation of detail. And what I see all the time is, ‘It’s 1972 …’ and then you hear awatcha, awatch and everyone’s dressed in bellbottoms. That’s not the way the world is! Some people are cutting-edge in 1972, and they wear that stuff and listen to Curtis Mayfield, but most people look like 1960 or ’50. And that was the struggle: the creation of a sense of history that (extended) from 1988 before.”
That meant attention to the smallest detail, including changing all the visible “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs.
“The producer would come up to me with his hair falling out and go, ‘Jimmy, that costs $40,000! Will anyone notice?’ And the answer is yes, they notice all the time, they kill you for it,” Gray says.
“American Gangster” production designer Arthur Max also made sure to change street signs — as well as the lights themselves — to re-create Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas’ 1970s-era Harlem.
“Having spent my early days as a student in New York during that period, I knew those locations very well,” Max says. “But the problem was that Harlem has been so gentrified. Most of the killers, drug dealers and hookers are gone. Now you can get a good latte and a panini there, so it was difficult to use the actual locations.”
Instead, Max moved Lucas’ center of operations 20 blocks north from the original address — 116th Street and 8th Avenue — to 136th Street. He also used all five boroughs as well as Governor’s Island and Newark to portray Lucas’ Harlem-based drug empire.
“We would always come up against new buildings and new building projects. In one case, we scouted this vacant lot on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and it was fine, then six weeks later there was a building there. That happened on many occasions all over the place. In the end, I found the nitty gritty of what Harlem was in the late ’60s/early ’70s in Newark.”
Newark also proved to be a saving grace for “Across the Universe” production designer Mark Friedberg, who searched everywhere for a location to double as the Times Square of the ’60s.
“We just couldn’t find that old, seedy place that Times Square used to be, so we ended up using streets in Newark.” But re-creating the old storefronts, particularly the sex shops, proved trickier than expected. “The location we worked in was this very pious Muslim community, so we had a lot of explaining to do, and we had to get it down right away,” he says.
Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Hoax” also harks back to pre-Giuiliani New York, which meant taking locations like Central Park and “messing it up just a little bit because (the story) took place before they cleaned up the city,” explains production designer Mark Ricker.
Disturbing one of the last green areas in Gotham is not an easy task due to the Central Park Conservancy’s restrictions on the use of heavy equipment on grass or the addition of any plants. That’s one reason “The Brave One” production designer Kristi Zea decided to find another location to shoot that film’s pivotal murder sequence, which takes place under a bridge in Central Park.
“We wound up shooting in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park because they were a lot more lenient about equipment and how we were going to be able to work inside the park,” she says.
Obstacles for contempo productions “Michael Clayton” and “Enchanted” — which focus on two very different aspects of the city’s personality, one strictly corporate, the other more fanciful — involved working with Midtown Manhattan crowds.
“We shot a couple of takes of George Clooney walking down the sidewalk without controlling the crowds, but then people started to recognize him, so we had to quit,” says “Clayton” production designer Kevin Thompson.
Pedestrians were no less curious about the sight of Amy Adams emerging from an actual manhole in the middle of Times Square.
“The (extras) in the immediate foreground were our people, but at a certain point you can’t control the crowds,” says “Enchanted” production designer Stuart Wurtzel. “It’s Times Square — it’s a very difficult place to get completely empty.”
That’s exactly the challenge that faced “I Am Legend,” in which Will Smith wanders through a deserted New York City. Although they relied on a set to simulate post-apocalyptic Times Square, production designer Naomi Shohan was able to empty key areas of the city, including the Grand Central Terminal viaduct, Herald Square and Washington Square Park.
“The most difficult thing was arranging to close down those principal parts of the town,” Shohan says. “There was a lot of diplomacy and support from the city of New York for us to be able to pull that off.”