tribeca film festival 2016

Girls Producers on Shooting in NYC, Location Cheats, and Allison Williams Being Barefoot in Chinatown

The producers of Girls pull off no small number of subtle feats while making their show — including convincing Allison Williams to walk barefoot through Chinatown in the remarkable recent episode “Panic in Central Park” — and that made them ideal guests for the first episode of The City of Scenes, a new limited-run podcast jointly produced by Vulture and Bloomberg that discusses TV and film made in New York City.

Vulture’s Jada Yuan and Bloomberg’s Katherine Oliver — a former film commissioner for NYC — talked with Girls executive producers Jenni Konner and Ilene Landress about the logistical challenges of shooting in the city, their favorite location “cheats” (i.e., parts of upstate New York and Staten Island that they’re pretending are Iowa), and much more. Listen to the episode above or read the transcript below, and check back Friday for the second episode featuring Jessica Jones creator Melissa Rosenberg.

Katherine Oliver: We have a couple of producers with us today who have made New York City a main character in their show. We’re lucky to have Jenni Konner and Ilene Landress of HBO’s Girls with us today. Jenni honed her skills working alongside Judd Apatow on his series Undeclared, essential watching if you haven’t seen it. And Ilene’s New York shooting experience dates back to The Sopranos. Great to have you both on the show with us.

Jada Yuan: Welcome.
Ilene Landress: Thank you.

Jenni Konner: Thank you. Let me clarify for you that Ilene’s New York shooting dates way before The Sopranos. We always say, and I mean this in the best way possible, that she is wildly overqualified to work on Girls.

Ilene Landress: You’re too kind. I’m happy it’s in that light and not just aging me back to the days of, dare I say, The Equalizer

JK: I wasn’t doing that. I was just saying, The Sopranos is probably your best credit.

KO: A producer of long standing in New York.

JY: So I wanted to start off, Jenni and Ilene, with your recent episode, which I loved, centered around Allison Williams’s character Marnie called “The Panic in Central Park” because I think it’s such a perfect encapsulation of a New York City adventure. Just for listeners, Lena Dunham wrote it and it’s basically a short film about Marnie running into her ex-boyfriend Charlie, who’s played by Christopher Abbott. And what I love about this episode is that they start off in Bushwick, they go to the Plaza Hotel, they steal a rowboat in Central Park, and then it ends up with Marnie walking barefoot through Chinatown. And just as a fan, I want to know, how much of that was shot where we are supposed to believe it was shot? Is that really Chinatown? And what was the conversation you had with Allison Williams like?
JK: Well, first I’m going to jump in and say it was brilliantly directed by Richard Shepard, who is one of our main directors here and has great film references all the way through, so between Richard’s film references and Lena’s Panic in Needle Park, we came out with a great episode. For us, it’s also the most fun to do these ones that are like little movies. One of the great things about working with HBO is that they let us do these weird, wacky episodes where we can just have one character, and it’s kind of great.

JY: And Richard did the one called “One Man’s Trash” with Patrick Wilson, which is also another classic episode.
JK: And I also live with him.

KO: How convenient. 
JK: But yeah, Ilene, this is what she does that’s incredible. We write whatever we want to write, and she finds a way to do it. We were not in fact in Central Park, but it sure does look like it, doesn’t it?

IL: So here’s one of the things about the park. It’s funny because this is one of our favorite episodes, and it seems so nicely and neatly contained, but if we deconstruct it — I always hate to take away the magic of just watching it on television — but if we deconstruct it, it took place in a lot of places. That lake and that park is in Staten Island. Where the boat goes over is in Staten Island, but where Marnie goes underwater is actually in the swimming pool at London Terrace, which is on 23rd Street between Ninth and Tenth avenues. When they walk out of the Plaza Hotel, yes, they’re really inside the Plaza Hotel, they’re really outside the Plaza Hotel, they really walk down the street there, but when you see them head off towards the park, we pick them up actually in the park in Staten Island. But the interesting part about the park in Staten Island is that it was actually designed by the same designer as Central Park, so when we found out we couldn’t shoot in Central Park, you start looking for parks that have boats, because we needed boats, and parks that would let us shoot. And then we couldn’t go in the water in either place, and we really needed to get the actors in the water, so through the magic of the movies, we dumped them out of that rowboat onto basically a deck, a little flotation kind of deck, and had the stunt guys there catching them so that they don’t go into the water. And then you go to a swimming pool and you black out the pool and get an underwater camera, and there’s your magic.

KO: Unbelievable.
JK: If you knew the number of meetings we had about this, because, first of all, we don’t do that many stunts. We certainly don’t do underwater stunts. We couldn’t do it where it was supposed to be, so we had to fake it in all of these places. But my favorite moment is when I was called down to the set for a rehearsal and Ilene had had the boat from the park that they fall out of shipped over to us at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City for rehearsal, so the actual boat that we flipped is sitting in the middle of our sound stage, so the actors could practice and feel what it felt like. It’s pretty crazy. But the one thing to make it easier on ourselves was to go to one of the park lakes that actually has boats. That’s about as close to reality of what there was. But what’s interesting about Clove Lake is that it has stone bridges like Central Park does, so it was a pretty good match. And it was dark outside.

IL: Staten Island also did very well as Iowa.

JK: Iowa. We were on the ferry.

IL: We’ve actually played Staten Island for Staten Island in one or two episodes, and then the rest of the time Staten Island has been a lot of other places.

KO: That’s the versatility of New York City, but it’s also to the creativity of people like you on these shows to imagine how you can reinvent these locations to double as other places. 
JK: Well, that’s what Ilene does. We dream it, and she makes it happen. I went to Tokyo for vacation and fell in love and I thought, Oh my God, everyone here is a Shoshanna. We have to send Shoshanna to Tokyo. And when I asked Ilene, I was so sure she would be like, “We’re going to shoot Tokyo in Harrison, New York.”

KO: But I remember having the conversation with Ilene and I said, “You could do Tokyo on Staten Island. There’s a Japanese rock garden on Staten Island.”
IL: We did have that conversation.

JY: I don’t think one Japanese rock garden on Staten Island suffices for all of Tokyo, does it? Or is it possible?

JK: We got to go to Tokyo, and it was very special for all us.

IL: Tokyo was great. And I breathed a sigh of relief when Jenni came back form Tokyo, because for four years, they kept talking about Shanghai, and Shanghai was one of the few places I probably could not pull off on Girls that easily. So when they finally said Tokyo, I was like, Okay, this is probably something I can work with.

KO: But you did shoot in Chinatown and you had Marnie walking barefoot. Was she really barefoot, and how difficult was it to subject Allison?
JK: She had very light ped things on her feet. We have these things that our wardrobe department uses that are brilliant that you can’t see that we’ve used before. It’s still closer to the ground than you want to get in New York City.

IL: It’s kind of like a moleskin patch.

JK: It’s not my dream, and it’s not as thick as those sneakers that look like feet. You know, those ones that have toes in them? It’s not like that. But there was some level of protection between the ground and her feet. 

JY: I liked how authentically black the bottom of her feet were when she arrived and had the conversation with Desi.
JK: That was authentic.

JY: I think we’ve all experienced that.
JK: But we’ve shot a lot of that apartment, of that exterior. It’s always great. We go usually super early, and it’s kind of great.

KO: The apartments that you use, are they real apartments, or are they sets, or a combination?
JK: It’s a combination.

IL: Yes, it’s a combination. To this point, because we’re in the sixth season, our main characters live in sets, although we go to the specific exteriors all the time. And I say sets except that we do go through the front door, we do go up real staircases. We’ve used Marnie’s real staircase. We’ve used Hannah’s real staircase. We’ve used Shoshanna’s real staircase. But then once you get inside, we’re generally on a set. 

KO: And you need the consistency.
JK: But when we shot the Patrick Wilson episode, for example, we shot at a beautiful brownstone in Fort Greene, and we shot the whole thing there.

KO: Now, you’ve had Jessa and Adam on a non-date in Coney Island and Elijah, finally, on a date with a real love interest played by Corey Stoll in Times Square. What were those shots like, and how challenging? I mean, Coney Island and Times Square, a lot of people.
IL: You know, those are actually sort of easy ones, I hate to say. Coney Island, the day we were there it was kind of closed down, so the hard part was we just had to open the park that we were going to use, so we were a bit limited. And pretty much all of the people you see are our extras.

JY: That was a question I had.
JK: Times Square, we’ve shot in Times Square a few times and there’s this weird mentality there, because it’s Times Square, that everyone just moves out of your way if you’re shooting. It’s like they’re expecting you to be shooting at all times. People literally just formed a circle and kind of watched. We also shot Hannah and her father this season walking down the street in Times Square. It’s actually been so simple. There are places that we go that are much more difficult because of different kinds of street traffic and a different kind of awareness of Girls, but Times Square has been actually, I think — I mean, Ilene, tell me if I’m just totally misguided, but it’s been fairly simple when we’ve shot there.

IL: No, you’re totally right on point. 

JK: We’re also always roaming free when we’re there, so it’s great. [Note: We couldn’t actually figure out what Jenni said here.]

IL: One of the things that we do in Times Square that helps us help ourselves is that we don’t go in with a lot of equipment. The Elijah–Corey Stoll shoot was just with a steadicam and kind of a minimal crew. Same thing with Hannah and her father walking down the street. We don’t go in there and park a lot of trucks. We go in there with really minimal stuff and a minimal crew and we go for it and make it as naturalistic as possible, which is very different from moving the whole circus in there and doing — Katherine talked about Spider-Man. Well, we’re not doing that. 

JY: So you’re saying that circle that gets formed when they’re kissing, was it just natural or did you actually have to tell people to do that?
IL: Well, we had extras.

JK: We had extras, but people were happy to fall into that circle.

IL: Yeah, I mean, when you’re talking Times Square where we’re standing, it’s a lot of tourists, too, so if they see something happening— first of all, being in Times Square with a camera, everyone is in Times Square with a camera. I think also because ABC, Good Morning America shoots so many remotes out there and stuff, people are just used to seeing cameras. And then they see two actors, and, you know, we kind of get the shot before anybody really realizes what we’re doing.

JK: Absolutely. We’re in, we’re out. And also, yeah, they’re just used to spectacle. In Times Square, there’s always someone literally in a bikini with painted body.

KO: Or less. 
JK: Yeah, people are like, who cares about you? You guys are wearing clothes.

IL: Basically, we’re just trying to keep the carts and characters out of the shot. It’s not that big of a deal. There are way worse places we’ve been.

JY: How protected do you have to be in that kind of situation to prevent people from spoiling what’s going to happen, from Instagramming or Snapchatting what’s going on?
IL: On that, because we didn’t identify ourselves — I mean, obviously to the city we identify ourselves in terms of permits, but in terms of the people that were there, like Jenni just said, we get in, we get out. We’re gone before anybody really knows what we just did. Unless they really recognize Andrew Rannells, and they might, but they might think, Oh yeah, it’s Andrew Rannells, but he’s a Broadway star.

JK: Right, like it wasn’t one of our main regulars. It wasn’t one of the girls. And the other thing is that we exist in, especially in Times Squares, this alternate universe where truly no one else knows what’s going on. First of all, we don’t run a spoiler-y show. Like, Ilene did The Sopranos for all of these years, and they had to really be careful because they were killing people off. Our show is not that full of surprises. There are emotional surprises, but it’s not that full of “who killed who?” So the only one we were trying to be really protective of was the Chris Abbott one because that felt really special to us.

KO: We were just going to ask about that.
JK: But Chris looked so different. It was unrecognizable. Like, I think someone posted something, but he just didn’t even look like him, and I think we said, “Oh, he’s visiting sets.” But when he was in a scene with five guys or with Marnie or whatever, no one batted an eyelash, especially where we were shooting because that was a pretty industrial neighborhood, so really no one could have cared.

IL: Yeah, and a couple of times with him walking back and forth when we were in the East Village and stuff by the Italian restaurant, he had a sweatshirt on or he put a baseball hat on, so he didn’t stand by the monitors or the chairs or anything. We kind of kept it a little bit under wraps.

JK: And he looks like the most handsome guy of everyone in the East Village. Like, he just looks like a super-handsome version. Like, Adam you can’t hide because he’s enormous, so the minute Adam is walking down the street, it’s a thing. We don’t reveal a lot on the street, so it’s fine, but Adam is much more a force that we have.

IL: Yeah, there’s a lot of guys who kind of look like a version of Chris Abbott. Adam, not so much.

KO: Probably now more so after the popularity of the show, too, you know, sort of the copycat thing. 
JK: And Chris is so amazing. I don’t know if you saw Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

JY: I thought he was great.
JK: He’s so great in it. He’s such a talented actor, he can kind of do anything, and I think there’s a transformation in him. And it was also really nice for us to complete the circle of the work with him.

KO: Now, Jenny, you not only serve as a producer, but you’re also a writer on the show, so has there ever been a location that you wanted to use so badly that you wrote a story line just to involve it?
JK: Yes, it was called Tokyo. I go big or go home. The two places I wanted to film, and one worked, was Tokyo. And then one that didn’t work was Marlow & Sons. And those were two places that just I loved. For the most part, turns out, it’s not a show about me. For the most part, we’re basically just asking people we know what a location would be. Where would people be at this age if they were all meeting for a drink and they were all coming together? So we ask them.

JY: And it’s mostly Bushwick. 
IL: The actors don’t know anymore. My assistant, who’s an associate producer on the show, is very good at this because he’s a bit of a foodie and he’s kind of the right age. If he doesn’t know, it’s within one degree of separation.

JY: So you just have to keep hiring a young’un every year?
JK: And we do. There’s always people a million years younger than us. They’re better than we are, so we let them do their jobs.

IL: The other thing, it’s kind of funny, is we get blamed for the gentrification, Girls-ification of certain places where we’ve never actually been, but people just assume we’ve been there, which is kind of funny sometimes. 

JY: Didn’t that happen with the actual Grumpys, which is not where you shot?
IL: We did shoot in the actual Grumpys.

JY: I think there are several actual Grumpys maybe, and I went to a different one really hoping that it was the right one.
JK: We shot in the city. We shot in the one near Broadway Stages.

IL: Yeah, there’s one in the city on 20th Street, but the Broadway Stages one, they were great. That was a very good collaboration. But plot-wise, when we had Ray move on to his own place, we actually shoot in a place called Speedy Romeo, which has an amazing look. It’s really more of a proper restaurant, but we turned it into a coffee place.

JK: They treat us like kings.

KO: Now, both of you have shot in a lot of different places around the world, and nothing beats the locations in New York City, but to make it possible you need to have a strong crew base. Can you talk a little bit about the New York crew base and how they’re different from others?
JK: Well, I’m going to let Ilene address that, but first I want to just sing her praises on something. We have an amazing crew, and our crew gets along like no crew I’ve ever seen in my life. And they’re so kind with each other and such family and no one even sleeps with each other. Like, that’s how much they’re a family.

KO: Now you’re giving too much away.
JK: And one of the reasons is because Ilene and our other producer, Regina Heyman — Gina, to me — I think that they crew up in a very particular way. I would argue, and I may get an argument against this from Ilene, but I find it to be a very female way of crewing up, which is very specific, which is very concerned with the best versions of everyone, but it’s the best versions of everyone and how they get along with the best versions of everyone else. So does this grip get along with this gaffer? These are the questions that I think women ask that men don’t ask. In my experience, working with male producers, they are just like, “Get me the best of this, get me the best of that, get me the top one of this.” And we get the best, but we also get the best who all get along and respect each other and there’s no tension on our set. And so I’m not sure that answers our New York question. I will let Ilene answer that, but I do think that there is something inherently female in the way these two women crew up, and I think we are all huge beneficiaries of it.

IL: Thank you for the huge compliment.

JK: Do you agree? You can fight me if you want.

IL: I don’t know. I don’t ever really think of it as female or male, but I will give you my spin on it, which is putting together the right people for the right job. It’s kind of like organizing the right cocktail party or the right dinner party, which I must say that there’s nobody more brilliant at organizing a dinner party than Jenni Konner. I think you’re a far better cook than I am.

JK: I think that’s female instincts.

IL: It is about putting together the right dinner party or the right cocktail party and having people who will play nice together. You want people to disagree, but in a really constructive, productive way. It’s not like you just want one opinion. You want varied opinions, but you also want people where there’s some give-and-take.

JK: Yeah, but I would argue that that is a female—

IL: A female thing? Okay, I’ll go with you on it because I just don’t know any other way. There’s no argument there. I have to give Gina a lot of credit for the crew, especially in this coming year, where Jenni hasn’t even met a lot of them yet. Because it’s our last season and because New York is so busy, some of our regular crew are on other jobs and they are just not available to start with us. And I think Gina is doing a great job really spending the time to pull in people who will be good fits for this show. And I think Jenni did make a good point where people will just say, “Get me the best of this, get me the best of that.” I don’t really know what the best of this or what the best of that is. I just know how to do it so it’s the best person for the particular job.

JK: Right, but I’ve never heard a male producer say, “Treat it like a dinner party.” That’s all I’m saying. Maybe you guys can all argue with me. I think it’s a big gender divide.

JY: I see what you guys are saying. 
JK: It’s one of the reasons that we try to use as many women as possible.

IL: What I would say to Katherine’s point about New York is it’s grown so much in, I could say, the last ten years. It’s grown so much even in the last five years.

KO: There are almost 40 shows in production right now, so you’re competing. It’s awfully crowded out on the streets of the city, which is good.
IL: It’s very crowded.

JK: You want to know how crowded it is? Two years ago I walked into the trailers of White Collar because they were half a block from ours.

JY: You just accidentally walked in?
JK: I walked into the producer’s trailer of White Collar, and I was like, Wait a minute, this isn’t …

IL: Wait a minute, this is a nicer trailer?

JK: Exactly. That’s exactly right. Why is this trailer so nice?

KO: It’s a great business for New York, and there’s so much talent here, so it’s amazing that you’re giving these people opportunities to practice their craft in so many creative ways.

JY: You were talking about going into your last year, and I’m curious for both of you: What are your favorite places to shoot in and around New York? And also, what are your favorite cheats? Places that you’ve been able to pretend are other places in New York?
JK: The favorite places to pretend are other places?

JY: Yeah, in New York.
IL: Iowa is probably our best example.

JK: Iowa was pretty impressive, yeah. Harrison, New York, for Michigan is not bad.

IL: Yeah, Harrison has been a lot of things, and Harrison will continue to be a lot of things. Iowa is actually an interesting case study because all along we planned on going to Iowa. We had very high hopes of going to Iowa. One of our assistant location managers was actually from Iowa, and when he went home for the holidays, we sent him scouting. We had pictures. We were planning on going to Iowa. And then we got toward the end of the season when we were actually going to go to Iowa and I kind of looked at them, and everybody was tired and we were sort of stressed out because it’s a long schedule. And I looked at Jenni and Lena and I said, “Do you really want to go to Iowa?” And one of the reasons we weren’t going to Iowa at the beginning, even though those episodes were at the beginning, was because the corn needed to grow. We needed corn fields. Corn fields aren’t there in April. Corn fields are there in August.

KO: Yeah, I think there are corn fields, there are farms on Staten Island. 
JK: Ilene had a second unit on all of the corn fields.

IL: I corn-field-ed my little heart out up in — I don’t know where we were — in New Paltz or so.

KO: But then kudos to you again for going upstate to Westchester, to Long Island. You were on Norfolk last season. It’s not all about shooting in the five boroughs, but it’s nice to spread some of the wealth and spread some of the cheer to some of the outside locations in New York.
IL: One of my favorite cheat places, and we used it extensively on Mildred Pierce and we’ve used it a couple of times on Girls, is Peekskill, New York. Peekskill is a great cheat town. It’s a great little town. It’s right by the Hudson there.

KO: It’s nice to be able to support those communities and the businesses that are there when you go up there. 

JY: And also are there corners and restaurants that you love to shoot in, that make you really happy to shoot in?
IL: I like going to Williamsburg.

JK: Williamsburg is great, and Greenpoint is great. We always have such a great time.

IL: Williamsburg is great because on a nice day when it’s been a day shoot in Williamsburg and then it’s still light outside, there’s lots of fun little bars and restaurants to go have a snack in or have a drink in afterwards. It’s nice to be very close to home. Six minutes on the L train and I’m back in Manhattan.

JY: We need to wrap up for time, unfortunately, but I wanted to thank you for five seasons so far of really great television.

KO: And it’s just amazing, like I said, when I served as film commissioner, we pointed to Sex and the City and what that did for businesses, Cosmopolitans, Jimmy Choos, and the businesses of New York City, but Girls has really helped put Brooklyn on the map. And it’s incredible.
JK: That’s good to hear because I always feel like we’re undoing what Sex and the City did.

KO: Absolutely not. Girls around the world, and boys, want to visit Brooklyn and experience Brooklyn.

JY: I live in Williamsburg, so I’m a little mad at you.
JK: Yes, I know. Every time I meet someone from Greenpoint, I’m like, “I’m so sorry.” And I lived in Williamsburg for three years while we were shooting.

KO: Well, thank you for listening to this episode of The City of Scenes. Next time we’ll be talking to Melissa Rosenberg, the executive producer and creator of Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Be sure to catch the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival running from April 13 to April 24.

Girls Producers Tell Stories of Shooting in NYC