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How ‘The Irishman’ Production Designer Transformed New York Into Detroit

Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” looks at the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a union man gets involved with mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Along the way, Sheeran and Bufalino end up crossing paths with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose disappearance remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the 20th Century.

Production designer Bob Shaw had to scout locations in New York and New Jersey that would stand in for key locations set in Detroit and Philadelphia.

“The great thing for me on this, was that there were a lot of territories that I was familiar with.” Shaw said, explaining his parents were from the area in Pennsylvania. ” I knew what that looked like and Frank’s house. Even things like the casino, it was down the street from where my aunt lived in Cherry Hill, NJ.”

Shaw said “A lot of things spoke to me. You see little bits of things and you associate it with something you’ve seen,” he said. “We had a lot of time to scout the location. [Producer] Richard Baratta was a former location manager so he instantly knew how much time we would need to scout. Kip
Meyers and I spent lots of time driving around looking at things. We needed to pick multiples of everything because there were so many short scenes in the movie, that we knew, we had to find five-period gas stations. We were looking for buildings that looked like they were gas stations.”

Shaw used over 295 filming locations for the movie that starts in the ’50s and spans five decades. He had to make things look like they were of a certain era and lucky for Shaw, he had the budget to transforms businesses and places that worked for the film.

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“Most of it was about transformation,” Shaw said, noting Howard Johnson’s chain of motels and hotels. “It had to be a Howard Johnson’s. There was this rundown motel. Most of those places don’t have an outdoor pool, but we found this place with a chainlink fence. The pool had a cover over it, but no water.”

Shaw said he worked with his team to resurface the concrete area and painted the colors to match those of the Howard Johnson’s chain of that time. “There are so many times where you think you’ve found a solution, but you’re not really allowed to execute it,” he said. “We were allowed to do what needed to be done in this film.”

Another scene in the movie is Lake Orion, where Hoffa owned a home. Shaw found a lake near Putnam County that was the right house for the shoot.

“I was aware of that lake,” he said. I’ve filmed on it for an episode of ‘The Sopranos.’ I pointed the scouts to it. There were still a few wood-frame properties. Most houses on the Lake side have been changed and mini-mansion. But there was this one house that still had the right wood-frame.”

The lobby of the Bronx County Courthouse was used for the scene where Hoffa testifies before congress, The Red Fox Restaurant, where Hoffa was last seen, was in Suffern, New York. “We had to control traffic and transform the other buildings around it to give it that period feel.” Shaw said.

For scenes set in Florida, Shaw said, “I’ve attempted to recreate Miami in New York and it’s not the optimum way to do it. We didn’t try for this.” Instead, they went down to Florida.

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