How ‘The Irishman’ Production Designer Bob Shaw’s Personal History In South Philadelphia Influenced His Approach To Gangster Epic

'The Irishman' production designer Bob Shaw
Dave Allocca/Starpix/Shutterstock

“It’s funny, it never occurred to me that I sort of was a gangster movie specialist,” two-time Emmy winner Bob Shaw says. That being said, the production designer certainly has the credentials. Known for his work on Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and such critically acclaimed series as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Shaw brought all his knowledge of the criminal element to bear on Scorsese’s The Irishman, a sprawling gangster epic filmed over the course of 106 days, at over 150 locations.

Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, The Irishman centers on Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an aging hit man looking back on his life of crime, his connections to the Bufalino crime family, and his alleged killing of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). While the drama is primarily decades—the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s—Steven Zailian’s script travels back and forth in time, continuously, its full span being from 1949 through the year 2000.

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in 'The Irishman'

Naturally, covering over 50 years of American history—on the stage and on location—was a huge challenge for Shaw. Relying on his shorthand with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to craft distinctive looks for each location and each era, the production designer also found that his personal connection to the material at hand proved key in pulling off the job.

Currently working on Julian Fellowes’ HBO drama The Gilded Age, a portrait of 19th century New York millionaires, Shaw isn’t done with gangsters just yet. He also recently designed The Many Saints of Newark, Alan Taylor’s prequel to The Sopranos. For Shaw, the joy of going back into the world of The Sopranos was “getting to revisit the scene with 10 years more experience,” he says, while reteaming with Taylor and David Chase.

DEADLINE: When did you come on board The Irishman? What made this film an exciting one to design?

BOB SHAW: It didn’t have as long a gestation for me as it did for Marty, but I think I had my first meeting about the show about two and a half years before we finally got it up on its feet. So, it became a little bit of a Holy Grail of wanting to get there, and the script hit a lot of familiar territory for me. My family’s from South Philadelphia; I was born in South Philadelphia. I had relatives who lived where Frank lived. My aunt lived down Route 70 from the Latin Casino.

Originally, Russell Bufalino’s curtain and drapery shop was written as Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania—and on my father’s side, my grandmother’s brothers mysteriously had a lingerie shop that really didn’t sell much lingerie. [laughs] Apparently, she worked there at one point, and was always trying to give them ideas of how they could sell more lingerie, [but] it was really a bookie operation. I don’t think it was anything as advanced as Russell Bufalino, but there were a lot of things in the script that hit home.

Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino in ‘The Irishman’

So, even starting to talk about it, [I was] just looking for little touchstones. The first rest stop where [Frank] meets Russell, I said, “Oh, it’s like a Stuckey’s,” and Marty was like, “That’s right, like a Stuckey’s!” It wasn’t originally written as Stuckey’s, and I was really shocked that Marty even know what Stuckey’s was. Because he’s always funny about saying he’s a city person; when he’s near grass, he’s like, “What is this stuff? What’s it for?” But apparently, they did occasionally go on road trips when he was a kid.

So then, I just started saying, “Oh, well [the film] has to have this, and this, and this.” A lot of stuff you say in prep gets you moving and doesn’t necessarily find its way into the finished product, but I just started reeling off products that were known in that area. If you grew up near Philadelphia, you didn’t have Drake’s Cakes, you had Tastykakes, and everybody who was cool had Charles Chips delivered to their house every week or two. I knew the names of the milk delivery companies and all that sort of stuff, and Marty always relishes the details.

DEADLINE: What was prep on this pic like? To my knowledge, early on, Scorsese likes to consult with researcher and archivist Marianne Bower.

SHAW: When you read the script, the first thing that strikes you, of course, is that there’s just so many locations, and so many sets—a lot of things that we aren’t in for very long, yet nothing that can be cut out.

I’d worked with Marianne before. I adore Marianne, and you have this sort of meeting of the trivia minds, and we were very happy to say that once we got going in our art department, our researcher, Nara [DeMuro], found some copies of an old Teamster magazine that Marianne hadn’t even found. It was like this rejoicing to have found something that Marianne didn’t find, because her research skills are really formidable.

Fortunately, the producer, Richard Baratta—having been a location manager—knew that we were going to need a lot of time scouting. We were scouting for months before anybody else came on, and we just sort of made a hit list of [locations we wanted]. It’s hard with a show like that because there are a lot of locations that are fairly brief, and when you’re so far out, you know that the gas station is not going to be its own whole shooting day, but you have no idea what it’s going to pair with. We had to have multiple options for everything, so that when the AD sat down to make a schedule, they had ways of putting it together.

Al Pacino in 'The Irishman'

But from the beginning, it was quite clear that there was virtually nothing we could shoot as is. The gas stations wouldn’t be gas stations, because it’s easier to find a building and put gas pumps in front of it than it is to remove gas pumps, or cover them. There were five period gas stations that they stopped at, and one was some kind of repair garage. One was a bagel shop that had gone out of business; the other was this restaurant that had closed on the Taconic Parkway, and that’s the one we made into the Stuckey’s. There was another stone building there and someone looked something up and said, “Well, it was a gas station in the ’40s.” So, we had to sort of revive it. But very few things could play as they were, and everything needed some kind of work done to it.

DEADLINE: Could you discuss your designs for the Villa di Roma Restaurant? Apparently, it took a while to convince Scorsese that this key location could be brought to life on a stage—and I certainly imagine that here, the little details were key in selling the auteur.

SHAW: [In] New York, most of the restaurants [from Sheeran’s time] are now gone, but I had in mind that it could be a conglomeration of different Little Italy restaurants from back in the day, and it was important to make sure that it didn’t look perfect, or that it looked off. Anytime you find a detail that you think, “Well, what is that doing there?” it usually is something that’s right.

I saw one restaurant from location scouting that we couldn’t film in. We needed to shoot in the restaurant for eight or nine days; it just wasn’t practical to go to a real place and shut them down for that long, and make it look like the ’50s and all that. But there was a waste line from the plumbing, running right down the wall of this quasi-formal dining room, and there was a giant hole cut in the back of one of the banquettes. So, it was like, “Okay, well we need that.” [laughs]

Then, we went to scout another restaurant. It had been around for a long time, and it was definitely not going to be receiving a health grade of A. You looked at the air registers, and everything was covered with dust that was trapped in grease, just from years and years of everything flowing through here. And it was like, “Okay, we need to do that.”

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in 'The Irishman'

I knew I wanted to do an acoustical tile ceiling, because I’d seen a few restaurants, one that still exists—I forget whether it’s in Carroll Gardens, or where it is. They’d replace tiles over the years, and they’d had a few plumbing disasters, and it was out of whack and really crooked. It’s always the hard thing to get the crew—the carpenters, especially—to build things crooked, or build things wrong, and it’s very hard to get the right level of crooked. Because you say it should be crooked and it’s like, “Well, I didn’t mean The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” So, you just need lots of reference photos and say, “This is like this,” and “See how there’s different colors of tile?” Then, [for] the tile on the floor, I had a file somewhere on my Dropbox called “Cracked Tile Floors.” [laughs] I just gave them a lot of reference photos for, “This is how it cracked, this is where it cracked.” Because certainly, we needed not to be perfect.

I think the more touches like that, the more things that looked familiar, the more comfortable Marty was. He kept saying, “You can smell the gravy in the floorboards,” and he’s always concerned about the actors. It has to be a space that they feel comfortable in; it has to be a space that they feel is real.

In a very early scene, De Niro asked for a specific kind of glass, because in a real, down-home, mom-and-pop Italian restaurant, they’re not serving you wine in a piece of stemware. There was a specific kind of octagonal-based tumbler that he was looking for. Fortunately, the prop master had one in his kit, and we were able to come up with the right kind of glassware, which made it feel real.

DEADLINE: How did you approach designing the Latin Casino, where the Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night takes place? Here, you took us back in time by transforming a preexisting location—an abandoned Harlem club, called the Alhambra Ballroom. 

SHAW: It’s funny because when they were looking for the exterior for the Latin Casino—because the interior was in the city—I remembered driving by it when I was a kid, and I was like, “Well, it looks like a grocery store.” I mean, the front of it looks like a grocery store, and then inside, you saw a certain raised area, which was where the stage was. It ended up that we found a Pathmark that was closed, and that’s what we turned into the exterior. Sometimes, something just has to trigger an image, and for some reason looking at the pictures, it made me think it was a supermarket—and that’s what it turned out to be.

Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci behind the scenes of 'The Irishman'
Niko Tavernise

The rest of it was really just bits and pieces, because the real Latin Casino was a different kind of space than we used. We had a taller ceiling—a big, round, vaulted ceiling—but it was really the curtains that I remember seeing in all the research photos, and a certain amount of glitter. It was really making the stage, which actually was a fairly big undertaking in the space we were in. Then, it was Rodrigo who wanted to pull it all together using red lampshades, and it turned out to be the perfect thing. It always takes more than one eye to get these things right.

DEADLINE: Which other environments were particularly challenging to deal with?

SHAW: Pulling together Umberto’s Clam House was quite a thing, because there is still an Umberto’s Clam House. It’s not the one that was there at the time of the story, and of course, it was a few blocks from where Marty grew up, so he knew the territory very well. We looked at the area where it had existed, and it was just too gentrified or transformed. So, we ended up going maybe just four to five blocks further south in Manhattan, and fortunately found a corner where they were willing to let us put a false façade on the front of their clothing store.

Again, we tried to put many familiar stores in the area. You don’t necessarily see them all on film, but there was a novelty store that sold imported records of Italian recording stars that weren’t famous here. As soon as I mentioned that, Marty started to reel off a list of names of singers, so we were jotting those down and making sure that we included as many of them as possible. Because sometimes, it’s not just about the actors feeling comfortable in the environment. It’s certainly important for the director to feel comfortable in the environment.

Then, we built the inside on stage, so that was one of the two things that had the biggest coordination between a set and a location, trying to tie them together. Marty had one particular overhead shot in mind for the stage set for Umberto’s, and we actually had to shoot it, and then take the ceiling off on a Sunday morning, so that it was ready to be shot for this particular shot.

Then, the other one was that barbershop. As soon as there was word that they were adding this barbershop scene, all the scouts started coming in with all these files of barbershops and I said, “Let’s just not bother.” It’s just too hard to transform all the chairs and everything. Plus, the historical location happened to have these powder blue barber chairs in it. It came after some looking, and after going to the producers and saying, “I really don’t think we’re going to find something we can work with,” because it also led off into this sort of retail arcade in the hotel. We ended up building the barbershop on stage, and shooting the retail arcade in the lower depths of the Roosevelt Hotel.

It took a lot of coordination with Pablo [Helman, visual effects supervisor] to make sure that we knew exactly where our set stopped, where we went to green, and there were several little previz things done, because knowing exactly where you cut is sort of the trick.

This article was printed from