“The Deuce” walks the deteriorated, trash-scattered Coney Island boardwalk of the ’70s in the second season episode, “There’s An Art to This,” and HBO literally scrubbed dirt on the ground to get us there.
“It don’t look like much now, but you should have seen it when I was a kid,” James Franco’s bar-owner character Vincent accurately tells his partner Abby (Margarita Levieva) as his leather boots kick the crumbled up garbage beneath them.
By the time Abby and Vincent cruise (ever-so stylishly) down to the beach in the winter of 1978, the once-thriving amusement park/boardwalk is in a state of decline, more than a decade removed from the closure of the pioneering Steeplechase Park.
“The big thing for us was that Coney Island was much dirtier back in 1978,” says production designer Scott Dougan. “It’s winter; it’s deserted, plus the aging. We have two weapons at our arsenal: trash and post-production design.”
For half a day last winter, HBO’s set crew disguised 2018’s post-superstorm Sandy restoration boardwalk by coming in with buckets of what the crew describes as “period-appropriate” garbage. That mostly translates to old newspaper clippings collected from the decade, since swapping in a splintered boardwalk with splitting beams and exposed nail heads was out of the question.
“We took all of the aged stuff and put it in the corners and crevices and took water and sand and put it on the spots you’ll see,” he explains. “With something like Coney Island, it’s really important when you get close that the ground they’re walking on feels correct. You go in and make sure all the cigarette butts and paper wrappers are all there. It takes time.”
The crew flipped through countless photographs and sketched up a mock design for weeks before arriving onset at 4 a.m. with bins of garbage, detachable graffiti covers and hand-painted vintage signage to tack onto newer storefronts.
Vince and Abby park alongside the Wonder Wheel where store gates have been tagged with old promotional material advertising “the original wheel of wonder”; they walk past shuttered businesses with cardboard boxes stacked in front.
“That was all specifically drawn out to show the idea that Coney Island is at that point a place that’s been left to the Netherlands and hasn’t been revitalized yet as it is today,” Dougan says.
The crew closed down the boardwalk between the Thunderbolt and Cyclone, letting Vince and Abby stroll past signs for Astroland Park (which closed in 2008), Gregory & Paul’s (now Paul’s Daughter) and Nathan’s Famous (circa 1916) during their nostalgia-packed day trip.
“(What made it easier) was that there are some places that are still there. Like the Thunderbolt is at the same spot, but it’s much different looking. The Cyclone is still the same, but it had different signage,” Dougan says. “Things like that, the bigger items, we went into in post and handed that over to visual effects.”
The classic amusement park signage (including that of Luna Park) was drawn out by the art department and later imposed within the shoot behind Vince and Abby to create the complete throwback visual that made it into the episode.
“There’s a real collaboration between myself and the people doing visual effects,” he adds. “We try to make sure the facade’s behind the actors and the ground is as period-appropriate and stressed as possible. That was a big thing for us.”
Heading inside for a little Skee-Ball, Dougan admits the arcade had to be completely reconstructed on a soundstage to make way for 25-cent classic amusement machines to fill up the background and show another side of the neglected park.
“At the same time, Coney Island is still magical. It’s the beach in New York. We wanted to capture that,” he says.
The production crew follows a similar process when recreating its central 42nd Street locale, something Dougan says takes even longer than the Coney Island transformation.
“A lot of the stuff on ‘The Deuce’ breaks down to figuring out what the signage needs to look like, drawing it up, building the sets, then having a tight amount of time to dress it up and age it in post-production,” he says.
For its gentrifying Deuce, HBO films up in Washington Heights, between 163rd and 165th streets along Amsterdam Avenue.
New episodes of “The Deuce” air on HBO every Sunday at 9 p.m. In its second season, the series jumps about five years ahead to the late ’70s, where Vince, Lori (Emily Meade), Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and others, are navigating the start of the porn industry in New York City.