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Period TV Dramas Tap Into New York City’s Vibrant Past and Present

New York City stars as itself in a distant era in a number of new TV series on tap for this year and next. Producers say that with a little legwork, a little creative thinking and some digital wizardry in post-production, it’s not hard to turn back the clock for location shoots in the five boroughs.

HBO is revisiting the city’s glossy and gritty music scene of the late 1970s with “Vinyl,” the Bobby Cannavale starrer from the “Boardwalk Empire” team of Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese. Netflix is portraying the early stirrings of hip-hop in the Bronx and environs around the same time with Baz Luhrmann and Shawn Ryan’s “The Get Down.” TNT last month launched the cop drama “Public Morals,” Edward Burns’ love letter to his home town, set in the early 1960s.

“I’ve said for years that the best co-star any actor can have is a New York City street corner,” says Burns, who wrote and stars in the series about vice cops. “There’s just an energy to the city — a look and a feel. No matter how good the production designer is, it’s very hard to recreate the look of a sidewalk that was put in in the 1850s.”

Winter says the process of finding late 1970s-suitable locations for “Vinyl” has been tougher than it was in finding 1920s locales for “Boardwalk Empire.” There’s been more of an effort to preserve turn of the century buildings and interiors than there have been for the more recent past. Perhaps the biggest challenge the “Vinyl” production design team, led by Bill Groom, has faced is that the New York City of today is so much more spruced up than it was 30-plus years ago.

“We have a team of people that goes out and put garbage on the street and adds graffiti to pretty much anything that doesn’t move,” says Winter. A lot of fixes can be made in post through CG, such as adding a grungy look to buildings that have been power-washed in the modern era. “Usually you use digital technology to make things look better — in our case we need to make it look worse,” he says.

Burns was determined to lense much of “Public Morals” on location. He started by walking around key neighborhoods and snapping pictures with his phone. He hunted for streets with at least three or four buildings in a row that could pass for the early 1960s with minimal touch ups. Then, location manager Stuart Nicolai scoured those neighborhoods for interior locations that could also work — a corner bar, a barbershop, a grocery store.

Burns established a strict rule for production — any time they went out to shoot on location, they would spend the whole day in the same spot. Otherwise, moving trucks and equipment even a few blocks cost precious time and money. That meant that there had to be numerous locations within walking distance to allow for a full day’s work. Burns rewrote numerous scenes to change settings to accommodate his no-moving rule.

Walker’s, a vintage bar in Tribeca, became a frequent “Public Morals” shooting site. All it took was the removal of a few flat-screen TVs, signs and lighting fixtures. “We just had to expose the old bones of the place,” Burns says.

Exterior locations required more work, including the removal of signs and awnings. So much TV production is going on in the city these days that New Yorkers are generally accommodating to the needs of producers, Burns and Winter say. Period projects tend to draw more onlookers because they stand out more.

Winter often runs into crews shooting other projects in his own neighborhood.

“I’m always seeing crew people that I know,” he says. “It’s nice to say hello and how are you. It reminds you that it’s a very tight-knit (production) community here.”

(Pictured: Edward Burns on location with ‘Public Morals’)

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