How do you go about recreating Hell’s Kitchen in New York from 40 years ago? That’s the problem writer / director Andrea Berloff had for her vision for The Kitchen’s late-‘70s setting which meant getting all the details right. However, “It was not just a period piece that lives in that time because we’re dealing with very contemporary themes. It has to evoke that era but feel accessible and fun and look good to audiences today. So we took what was, to our modern eyes, the best of the 1970s,” she says. That strategy melded well with the noir styling of the graphic novel on which the story is based, all of which was dramatically captured by director of photography Maryse Alberti. “Her work is amazing,” adds Berloff. “She knows how to make these scenes look beautiful yet hard and gritty at the same time. We really handed her a tall order.”
Recreating Hell’s Kitchen had the production mining locations in Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan, including Harlem and the area historically known as Hell’s Kitchen itself though more recently referred to as Clinton. To some among the cast and crew, these environs are familiar. Star Melissa McCarthy’s first New York apartment in 1990 was on 46th street in the heart of the Kitchen, and supporting actress Margo Martindale recalls youthful nights of music and bar-hopping there in the mid-70s because of its proximity to Times Square.
Producer Michael De Luca, a teenager at the time, growing up in Brooklyn, still feels “a kinship to the period,” he says, while offering, “I was what they called the ‘bridge and tunnel’ crowd. We didn’t make it into Manhattan much. I came from a neighborhood that was definitely mobbed up, guys you wouldn’t look in the eye and that sort of thing. They had a presence. But I probably would have been terrified to go into Hell’s Kitchen in those days. When the different immigrant groups settled in New York everyone retreated to their own neighborhoods and it stayed very tribal. You kept to your own area and rarely ventured out.”
Production designer Shane Valentino and locations manager Ryan Smith collaborated with the filmmaking team to find workable streetscapes for recreating Hell’s Kitchen . So much has changed, but, notes producer Marcus Viscidi, another former resident, “There are still pockets in the city where the old buildings are still standing. Maybe now there’s a Starbucks or KFC on the corner or a more contemporary building that would interfere with our ideal scenes. Shane created an incredible amount of signage and set dressing; he turned things completely around. People who had lived in those neighborhoods for years came out to see what we had done and were just mesmerized.” Something as simple as a phone booth, once a common sight and now a cultural relic, drew curiosity and delight from onlookers. Period cars like Gabriel’s Chevy Nova, Agent Silvers’ blue Dodge Aspen and a new model Cadillac for Coretti’s driver completed the street scenes, and skylines were digitally adjusted and augmented.
Crowds came out in droves for a scene shot on Lexington Avenue in which Gabriel guns down a pimp on the sidewalk. Other key sites included People’s Park on East 141th Street, an office building on St. Ann’s Avenue, Capelian Grocery on East 138th Street, and residences on East 139th and 152nd, all in the South Bronx. Paradise Catering on Avenue U in Brooklyn filled in for Coretti’s home base and scenes of the Irish gang’s hangout at Owen’s Pub were filmed at the Irish Haven on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. Staten Island provided an American Legion outpost for scenes of a union hall. The production also caused a stir by staging what looked like the sale of the century at the Esposito Meat Market on Ninth Avenue and 38th Street, a butcher shop that has been in business at that location since 1932, when they put up signs dropping meat prices to 49-cents a pound. They had a hard time convincing some of the locals that it was indeed too good to be true.
The Kitchen is reviewed here