The Bronx County Courthouse, with its neoclassical majesty, needs no dressing up to double for 1930s Chicago.
On a muggy August afternoon, the “Boardwalk Empire” team makes the most of the granite-and-limestone steps leading into the courthouse, converting it into the setting for a scene featuring Al Capone turning himself in to face the tax evasion charges that ultimately landed him in Alcatraz. Shot from the south side, all the location needs to evoke 1931 is an assortment of period cars, appropriately attired extras and a few window air conditioner units removed via CGI from an apartment building in the deep background.
Director Tim Van Patten and crew are set up in a pop-up tent off to the side. Van Patten scrutinizes his monitor as they shoot take after take of “Boardwalk’s” Al Capone, actor Stephen Graham, swaggering up the steps while being mobbed by reporters and onlookers. (This Al Capone speaks with a British accent when the cameras aren’t rolling.)
“Boardwalk” has cornered the market on 1930s-vintage cameras on this day. Bulbs are popping right and left, adding to the feeling of frenzy around Graham. A few dozen extras sweat in costumes made from the heavy textiles of the era, fortifying themselves with water and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches between takes.
The Capone courthouse scene will account for only a few minutes in “Boardwalk’s” eight-episode final season, but the attention to detail is exacting. Van Patten and his crew communicate with the shorthand of people who have been collaborating for years. The camaraderie among the group is underscored as Graham asks fellow cast and crew members to sign his “Boardwalk” season five poster before he wraps his last day of shooting.
“Boardwalk” creator/exec producer Terence Winter credits New York City lensing officials with making it easy to find locations and facilitate work. “There is no way we could have done this show anywhere but here,” says Winter, who was an exec producer of “The Sopranos,” which filmed in New Jersey and New York, prior to “Boardwalk.”
During its five-season run on HBO, “Boardwalk” has been nothing short of a gift to New York’s production community. The pilot, directed by Martin Scorsese, set the tone for transporting viewers back in time to Prohibition-era Atlantic City — an expensive proposition that requires a small army of set and costume designers, location scouts, consultants and other production staffers.
HBO took the audacious step of recreating Atlantic City’s boardwalk as it looked in the early 1920s as a standing outdoor set built on an empty parking lot in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.
“Boardwalk’s” home base is Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, where the two-story, wood-paneled Onyx Club set has been a big focus of action for the past two seasons. The show has frequently ventured beyond the studio gates to location sites in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Island, the Bronx and Queens. The process involves a hunt for buildings that retain period architectural and design touches — such as an apparel shop in Brooklyn with original walls and ceiling moldings that lent them to becoming a speakeasy for early episodes.
This year the show erected another boardwalk recreation along a coastal strip of Far Rockaway, Queens, for scenes depicting Atlantic City in 1884 and 1897. HBO has spared no expense in letting producers get the look and feel just right. And Winter also notes the skill it takes among the “Boardwalk” ensemble of actors to convincingly portray characters from a distant time.
“I’m still in awe of everything we’ve been able to do,” Winter says.