Many members of “The Irishman” team have been to the big Oscar dance before. Moreover, from the in front of the camera stars to behind the scenes crew, a slew of talent have already been nominated or won Academy Awards. One exception is production designer Bob Shaw.
A two-time Emmy winner for his work on “Boardwalk Empire” and “Mad Men,” Shaw previously worked with director Martin Scorsese on “The Wolf of Wall Street.” With “The Irishman” he was really about to put his New York Metropolitan roots to work as the production had to find over 100 locations to stand in for Philadelphia, New Jersey and specific East Coast landmarks from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Shaw jumped on the phone a few days after he learned of his Academy recognition to discuss the difficulty of making a period piece in the modern-day New York area, his favorite sets and more.
The Playlist: What was your reaction to your first Oscar nomination?
Bob Shaw: It was pretty exciting. I had tried not to think about the possibility so I went to sleep. Regina, our decorator, was up waiting. I just figured if anything happens someone will call me or text. It was great. It started with one text from a neighbor who happened to be watching TV and then the rest of them. It was busy for the next two hours. Including my favorite was an adorable message from my two-year-old grand nephew that was, “Congratulations, Uncle Bob!” That made my day. It was great.
That’s pretty early for LA, but at least it was good news.
It was a great wake up call. It was good.
You’d worked with Scorsese previously on “Wolf of Wall Street.” When did he approach you about “The Irishman”?
He had talked about “The Irishman” at least two and a half or three years before it actually happened. I had a meeting in his office. It had to be two and a half years earlier. This had a long gestation period.
Did you think it was a dicey project or were you confident it would happen?
No, it was ready to take off a couple of different times. One year I just kept passing on things because I [couldn’t] tell what was going to happen and that was all fine. Once we got going with Netflix there were a couple of little hiccups, but I was quite sure we were doing once we finally got that up and running.
What would you say the difference is in terms of what Mr. Scorsese was looking for on “Wolf” as opposed to what he was looking for on “The Irishman”?
“Wolf” was all exuberance and excess and “The Irishman” was just the opposite. He wanted everything very real, he wanted nothing flashy, and he wanted to make the point that these people were engaged in this illegal activity and they live very compromised lifestyles. But that they were trying to stay under the radar. They didn’t want anybody knowing what they were up to and that the rewards were relatively small. Hoffa’s in a different category but for most of the people, you see that Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) just has a regular suburban home and he went from one urban Philadelphia home to a suburban house. Nothing special.
I want to say, is it covers 40 years? It’s a large time period.
It’s in the 40, 50-year range.
How difficult is it in 2018, 2019 to find what you needed for the 1950s and early 60s today?
I keep saying the net is closing and that it gets harder all the time. Fortunately, this didn’t really have a lot to do with New York or Manhattan because that’s really next to impossible anymore. It gets harder all the time. I always say that I can give people “The Beverly Hillbillies” as much as they want, but I can’t give them a complete set. You can find it in individual buildings. I would say “The Beverly Hillbillies” because the mansion, Jed comes from one side. Mr. Drysdale comes from the other. You can never look left, you never look right, you never look behind you.
Was realizing what you had to recreate and what you could use with found locations the hardest part of the job for your team?
No. It was fortunate again that we weren’t dealing with Manhattan. In dealing with Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, we were able to find a neighborhood in Queens that did provide an environment, did have a corner store and did have the right kind of houses across from one another. Miraculously, trapped in time, they even all still have those fiberglass awnings over the front doors. So the fact that it wasn’t a big scale gave us a better shot at finding things. It’s all bits and pieces and trying to find enough to stitch it together.
What was the one set that you were most proud of in terms of what you stout to accomplish?
There were probably two things. What’s funny about this is that we were trying very hard to be authentic and very carefully looking at the historical models of certain things. The two sets where we varied the most from the original or from the research were the Villa di Roma and the Latin Casino. The Villa di Roma, we just needed something more evocative, more suggesting of the period or suggesting of, it sounds funny to say, the romance of the mob. The real Villa di Roma was a very plain, boxy restaurant with fluorescent lighting and not very cinematic. So we took license and created our own Villa di Roma, which I keep saying was the greatest hits of New York Italian restaurants that I remember, most of which are gone. A restaurant in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn that had murals on the wall. The tiles from another restaurant which used to be on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. The ceiling from another place. Just a lot of details pulled together like mental shopping. “I want this, I want that.” A lot of it was things I just remember.
What was the second location that you’re most proud of?
The Latin Casino. The Latin Casino was also in New Jersey. The funny thing about the show is there was a lot of my background that was familiar to me. I was born in Philadelphia. My parents lived in South Jersey when I was a young child. The Philadelphia neighborhood was familiar to me. My aunt lived down the road from the Latin Casino, which was a little boxy building that looked like a supermarket that just had a big sign in front of it.
It was almost like a catering hall, a low drop ceiling. Our big, curved ceiling and our large, curved show curtain that we made were much more of a fantasy version of it. We looked and looked and we’re not finding an interior to work with. Then there was this one banquet hall in Harlem that the location manager said, “Are you sure you don’t want to look at that one again?” We went and originally I’d dismissed it because of this big, curved, almost Radio City-like ceiling. Then I said, “Let’s go with it.” There was no stage. There had been a stage in the space years before, but they blocked it off and turned it into another rentable space. So, we had to make the stage and we had to make the curtain for that round shape. I guess it was riffing off of the curves of the ceiling, a complimentary curve on the show curtain. The original Latin Casino did have those shiny, satin Austrian drapes. We did take that from the Latin Casino and added a little more glitz to it.
It was [cinematographer] Rodrigo Prieto who said, “I’m thinking that the table lamps should be red.” I said, “Red? Hmm. Seems unlikely.” He was perfectly on target and it pulled everything together with the reds we had on stage and pulled it into the audience. That wasn’t my call and it was one that raised my eyebrow a little bit, but it was a very good call.
“The Irishman” is available worldwide on Netflix.