Attention, world: New York is playing your city, and it’s doing such a good job, you may not even know it. In the most recent television season, the Big Apple has served as a believable stand-in for Washington, D.C., Chicago, Iowa, West Germany and Belgium, among other locations.
With many TV productions leaving Hollywood, there are more series filmed in New York than ever before -- even ones set in cities that look nothing like New York. And that means production crews have to get creative when it comes to finding the right backdrops. Local production workers say the key to scouting locations for shows like “The Americans” and “The Good Wife” is to find settings that won’t give away the fact that you’re actually shooting in New York.
“It’s about finding something generic,” said Aidan Sleeper, a New York-based scout who has worked as an assistant location manager on CBS’ “The Good Wife” and HBO’s “Girls.” “It’s about finding a place that doesn’t look unlike another place or too much like New York more than anything else.”
Business is booming for New York-based scouts, but it wasn’t always like this. In the 1990s, producers fled U.S. cities in droves, opting for cheaper locales in Canada and even overseas. Movies and TV shows set in New York City would often end up being filmed in Vancouver, Toronto or on a backlot in Hollywood. But thanks in part to aggressive tax-incentive programs rolled out in the early 2000s, the reverse is true today: New York City, with its uniquely diverse landscape of urban neighborhoods, towering skyscrapers and park spaces, is now a stand-in for cities and towns all over the world.
"We’re looking for something that has at least one strong element we can build on," Sam Hoffman, senior producer of CBS’ “Madam Secretary,” said as he explained the pivotal roles the art department and visual effects team play in helping to fake certain locations on the show.
With the help of the production design and visual crews, TV shows can take a simple wall in Brooklyn and turn it into a wall surrounding an American embassy in Yemen that's under a Benghazi-like siege, as they did on "Madam Secretary."
The final scene of the series finale of USA's "White Collar" had con man Neil Caffrey (Matt Bomer) strolling through the streets of Paris. Except, "White Collar's" version of Paris was the cobblestoned Stoned Street, located in New York's Financial District, with the Eiffel Tower added to the background in postproduction.
Because there often aren’t any perfect stand-ins for other cities, scouts tend to focus on finding locations that fit the specific needs of the script. For example, Nick Carr, who has been scouting in New York for over a decade, says that if he needs to find Chicago warehouses, he’ll just go to where the warehouses are in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Sunset Park or Dumbo.
Start Spreading The Tax Breaks
In the 2014-2015 television season, 46 prime-time and digital series were shot in New York, according to the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting. There’s been a dramatic influx of film and TV projects into New York since former Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a city tax credit program in 2004. The program makes it cheaper to film in New York than many other places, in particular California, which was late in the game in the tax-incentive race. The Golden State didn’t have a competitive incentive plan in place until 2014, the same year TV pilot production in Los Angeles dropped to an all-time low.
But LA’s loss is New York’s gain. In 2012, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo increased the state tax credit program to 30 percent, and the state puts aside $420 million a year for the incentive program. Moreover, the TV shows that are produced in New York City are mainly based in Brooklyn and Queens because that’s where the studios maintain their permanent sets. The closer they film to the studio, the cheaper and easier it is.
“Logistically, it’s just so much easier to get somewhere in Brooklyn right next to the stage than to have them travel across to the Bronx,” Carr said. “Going into Manhattan ... is always a million times more expensive.” Carr also noted that Brooklyn is considered hip now, which is also part of its appeal.
Because of the tax credit regulations, most production tends not to stray outside the city and state. That’s OK, however, because it’s easy to find a lot of different and distinctive looks within the five boroughs. “It’s a big enough city and there’s a lot of diversity,” R. Richard Hobbs, a New York-based location scout, said.
Below are a few of the New York-shot series whose production crews were recently tasked with finding non-New York locations.
'Madam Secretary' (CBS)
This political drama, which stars Téa Leoni as the U.S. secretary of state, may be produced in New York but it is actually set in Washington. Almost every episode features scenes in a foreign country. So the location teams have to find pretty much the entire world within New York.
When scouting for locations to stand in for D.C., senior producer Sam Hoffman and location manager Steve Weisberg told International Business Times that they look for areas with monuments or government type buildings. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side in Riverside Park near West 89th Street, is the site of a ceremony to be seen in the Oct. 4 second-season premiere featuring guest-star former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Hoffman and Weisberg also revealed that the show often uses Fordham University’s campus in the Bronx as a stand-in for Georgetown University in D.C., where Tim Daly’s character taught throughout the first season.
For international locations, they scout all over the city. Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island was turned into the Andes in South America for an episode. (The script originally called for Paraguay, but they couldn’t find a rainforest in the middle of February in New York.) The aforementioned Yemen wall was found across the street from the show's State Department stage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The art department worked with Hoffman and Weisberg to turn a foundry with a cobblestone entryway into a street in Belgium.
“That’s one of the really fun elements of this show, the adventure of trying to make foreign lands without having to drive too far from where we are based,” Hoffman said.
The complete first season is available on CBS All Access.
'Mildred Pierce' (HBO)
In the past, Los Angeles would stand in for New York, but the opposite was the case on the 2011 HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” which was set in 1930s California and starred Kate Winslet as the eponymous character. It’s because of this reversal that location manager Joe Guest said this was one of his favorite projects.
The series found its California setting in lower Manhattan, Westchester County and Long Island. The Gables neighborhood in Merrick, Long Island, stood in for Glendale, California, the home of Pierce and her family. Guest said they chose the Gables because the homes were period-appropriate California-style bungalows, most of which featured their original Spanish-style roofs and stucco architecture.
“The architecture was basically there and we just augmented it,” Guest said, explaining that they trucked in palm trees, banana leaves and period vehicles, and installed new period roofs on some of the homes to create the Southern California feel.
Peekskill, New York, a town north of the city in Westchester County, played Downtown Los Angeles. “Peekskill has some really some great older architecture that really matched what we found in our research,” Guest said, pointing out the presence of period art deco architecture. “There’s not even much of that left in New York City anymore.”
When a scene set in Downtown LA called for more substantial buildings and skyscrapers, the show filmed in Manhattan’s Flatiron District -- around Madison Avenue and 26th and 27th streets.
In the final episode of the miniseries, Mildred Pierce's daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) made her operatic debut at the Philharmonic Auditorium in LA. This theater is no longer standing, so the show used the United Palace Theatre in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. The theater's exterior was surrounded by California buildings through visual effects.
Available on HBO Now and HBO Go.
'The Americans' (FX)
Like “Madam Secretary,” the FX series “The Americans” is set in the Washington metropolitan area; however, it takes place in the Reagan era. The show’s main characters, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), Soviet spies posing as an American couple, live in suburban Falls Church, Virginia; in reality, their house can be found in White Plains, New York. Martha, the woman to whom Rhys’ character is secretly married, lives in an apartment that can be found in the Carroll Gardens area of Brooklyn.
The show tends to use the Upper West Side, particularly around Columbia University, as a stand-in for the capital. Most of the time, however, the series does a lot of shooting in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. It has filmed at Cadman Plaza Park and Borough Hall in Brooklyn and on Randall's Island. In the second-season premiere, the Jenningses took their children to a theme park in Alexandria, Virginia; filming was done at Adventureland in Farmingdale, Long Island. For the third-season finale, the series shot scenes set in West Germany in Queens, location manager Michael Fucci told DNAInfo.
Seasons 1-3 are available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.
'The Good Wife' (CBS)
CBS’ critically acclaimed series “The Good Wife” takes place in Chicago. The grand ballroom of New York’s famous Plaza Hotel was the location of the Cook County Bar Association fundraiser gala in the second-season episode “VIP Treatment.” The legal drama also used the home of a couple living in Fresh Meadows, Queens, in “Whack-a-Mole” in Season 5, to stand in for the home of one of Alicia Florrick’s (Julianna Margulies) clients. In the sixth-season finale “Wanna Partner,” East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, building known as The 1896, Studios & Stages stood in for the real Chicago police facility called Homan Square, which, per the Guardian, has been described as a “secretive interrogation facility.”
Seasons 1-5 are available on Amazon Prime Instant Video. Season 6 is available on CBS All Access.
In the fourth season of HBO’s hit comedy “Girls,” the show found Iowa -- where the lead character, played by Lena Dunham, was supposed to be attending graduate school -- in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, when the real University of Iowa wouldn’t allow the series to shoot there.
Available on HBO Now and HBO Go.
'Boardwalk Empire' (HBO)
HBO’s Prohibition-era drama “Boardwalk Empire” was mainly set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but filmed in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The crew constructed a sprawling replica of the Atlantic City boardwalk on an empty lot in Greenpoint. Over its five seasons, the series filmed around New York City. According to DNAInfo, parts of Prospect Park, Brooklyn, stood-in for Havana, and Staten Island was a substitute for Chicago.
Available on HBO Now and HBO Go.
'Marvel's Daredevil' (Netflix)
There are television series that are set in New York but still have to cheat, like Netflix’s “Daredevil,” which mainly takes place in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
In the series, Hell’s Kitchen, destroyed during a big alien battle in “The Avengers” (a movie set in the same Marvel Comics universe), is in the process of being rebuilt. Wanting a darker and grittier look, producers re-created Hell’s Kitchen with scenes shot in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan. For example, the characters frequent a dive bar called Josie’s that’s supposed to be in Hell’s Kitchen, but the bar used, the Turkey’s Nest. is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The show also has filmed in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, especially by the docks.
“The Hell’s Kitchen of the early comics, with its tenement buildings and clotheslines between buildings is gone,” Steve DeKnight, first-season showrunner of “Daredevil,” said in a description of the series released by Netflix. “The area has been gentrified, so it is not at all like you see in the comics.”
Season 1 is available on Netflix.