On a quiet winter’s night in Kew Gardens, Queens, a bungalow on Park Lane South burst into flames. Firemen rushed to contain the blaze, and police stood by while the suspected culprits—KGB agents from the Cold War–era Directorate S—escaped into the darkness. But the conspiracy went deeper than that: Cable network FX perpetrated this act of retro domestic terrorism for its new drama The Americans, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as an ostensibly boring suburban couple who are in fact deep-undercover Russian spies. (Though mostly set in the D.C. area during the Reagan years, the show shoots in New York. ) The Commies were aided by the Bloomberg administration, which does its best to coordinate all sorts of cinematic mayhem here, to the delight of pyro-happy Hollywood. With more TV shows than ever filming in town—25 this season, according to the city—and less real-life crime and conflagration to contend with, pretty much anything can happen. “There’s a film liaison from the city who deals with Grand Central, one who does subways, one who does the Fire Department,” says New York City production manager Christopher Goode.
That said, “Anything that involves pyrotechnics is going to be harder to do,” says special-effects designer Waldo Warshaw. Some properties are fake-destroyed while others are destroyed-destroyed. According to location scout Nick Carr, the FDNY has practice houses out near Fort Totten in Queens. “I know The Bourne Legacy shot out in Staten Island. They built a house there and burned it down,” he says. Sometimes the properties are for sale or awaiting demolition. “I worked on I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and found a building that was boarded up. We paid the owners, removed the boards.” After the shoot, says Warshaw, “you restore it. There are ways to do that so you have no damage.” This involves trick windows that shatter and emit smoke and flames. The Americans’ house is still standing (though word on the set was that the flames were bigger than had been intended).
The night after the Queens shoot, the Reds struck again, this time blowing up a car on Union Street just off Columbia in Brooklyn. Goode recalls how, for 2007’s Michael Clayton, “Mercedes gave us a brand-new car to destroy. I was like, ‘Just give us a shell,’ but they wanted it to look as realistic as possible. So we loaded this $110,000 car up with explosives.” For The Americans, the car wasn’t really blown up; computers did that later. To simulate the explosion, a propane cannon was fired into the air. Local resident Matt Heindl only found out the Cold War was back on when he couldn’t find a parking space on the block. “We walked right up to a safety meeting they were having,” he says. “They kept emphasizing: ‘Do not burn the buds off the trees. The neighbors are watching, and they get upset if we do that.’ ”
*This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.