If you’ve gone for ice cream at Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, caught a show at Greenpoint’s Newtown Barge Park or, for any other number of reasons, walked down Commercial Street in the last year, you’ve probably noticed the set for the upcoming HBO television show Boardwalk Empire. At least part of the set—the show’s namesake boardwalk, to be specific.
Boardwalk Empire, premiering September 19 at 9:00 p.m., takes place in Atlantic City in the 1920s at the brink of Prohibition, and stars eccentric favorite Steve Buscemi and young hunk Michael Pitt. Behind this project are creator, executive producer and writer Terence Winter and executive producer and director Martin Scorsese, who have pooled their expertise to make what—based on the award-winning actors and producers equation—is forecast to be the next big-buzz show. Modeled after the book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson, the show combines characters based on actual people—some of whom retain their real names and some of whom don’t—plus political and pop-culture figures such as Warren G. Harding and Eddie Cantor.
A single episode of Boardwalk Empire takes twelve days to shoot, and of those twelve, two are shot on the boardwalk in Greenpoint. “The boardwalk is the flagship set of the show. It’s not the one that we shoot on the most often . . . but it’s sort of our emblematic set,” Production Designer Bob Shaw said. The crew also utilizes the streets around the boardwalk for exterior shots, and they sometimes turn Greenpoint concert venue Warsaw into a faux nightclub replete with a stage show and all.
As the most crucial of things often happen by chance, this was the case with discovering Greenpoint’s Commercial Street lot location for the boardwalk. “It was purely happenstance that we ended up in Greenpoint,” Shaw said. Production Manager Harvey Waldman spotted the large vacant space on his way to work one day while avoiding the early morning BQE traffic. Before that, they were considering spots like Asbury Park and Floyd Bennett Field, both of which ended up being impractical for a host of reasons.
“The Greenpoint site has some features we didn’t even realize would prove to be as important as they are,” Shaw said. The site has enough space to build the boardwalk and also has adequate support space for the cast to be dressed, made up and fed. The extra space has allowed the cast and crew to be contained within the site and not be spilling out into other places.
HBO is currently thinking about gearing up for a second season, but in the meantime, the boardwalk set is on a time-out. Windows have been boarded up and a roofing company came to ensure that everything is leak-proof. “Right now if you went on the boardwalk, it would look like a community in Florida that was breaking for a hurricane,” Shaw said.
For Shaw, who has worked on The Sopranos, Mad Men and Nurse Jackie, among others, building the boardwalk was a milestone. “It was the biggest thing I’d ever done,” Shaw said. “Building the boardwalk is the kind of thing that doesn’t normally happen in television, or anywhere really. And it’s pretty unusual to have built a large outdoor set like that on the East Coast,” he added. After all, it’s not just by chance that the film industry picked up and moved to sunny California where the weather would be more favorable for shooting all year round. Recently, in the lobby of the Kaufman Astoria Studios, Shaw caught glimpse of a picture from 1917 or 1918 that was said to be the last outdoor set built in New York prior to the boardwalk.
The crew shot in Brooklyn probably more than anywhere else because of the beautiful old period buildings and spaces. “You can’t underestimate what a treasure trove of architecture there was for us in Brooklyn. I just don’t think it’s there on the West Coast,” Shaw said. No matter the coast, working on this project was clearly a feat unparalleled. “This really was sort of a dream design project because things like this just aren’t made very often anymore, and it’s rare to have the opportunity to work on this kind of thing,” Shaw said.
Be sure to catch the season premiere of Boardwalk Empire September 19 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.
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