The Sad, Uncomfortable Decision Many New York City Movies Have To Make

When shooting a film based in New York City before 2001 there’s one major decision that movies have to make. Almost always, if a film is set in the Big Apple, there is going to be a shot of the skyline, and as we so painfully recall, that skyline had a major change occur on September 11, 2001. J.C. Chandor’s recently released film, A Most Violent Year starring Oscar Isaac is set in 1981 NYC, so when one scene called for the iconic Twin Towers, visual effects producer, Mark Russell had to make a seemingly sad and uncomfortable decision.

In a recent interview with Yahoo! Mark Russell discussed his passion for storytelling, and how it relates to visual effects. He shapes backgrounds in a natural way — story over spectacle. For instance in A Most Violent Year he discussed it was all about dirtying up the city, adding gritty texture and graffiti. And when it came to showing the Manhattan skyline from Queens, it had to be edited to fit. Russell describes the process:

"The scene where [Abel, Oscar Isaac’s character] meets the cops, that was actually shot right near Hunter’s Point in Long Island City. In the background behind him, when we photographed it, you could see the Freedom Tower, which clearly would have been a big no-no. Actually, they cheated the car, turned it in another direction just to get the right light, so what was actually in the window was the Empire State Building, which should not have been there for that direction. So we got rid of the Empire State Building and replaced it with the Twin Towers."

Staying true to the setting in a time period piece is extremely important. And while Russell pays attention to even more minute details, such as gritty graffiti, playing homage to an important historical building can not be missed. But, it is a difficult decision to address, just for the sadness and discomfort it causes bringing up the September 11th attacks, and remembering the destruction of that essential piece of the skyline. But, Russell was not incredibly concerned with this decision. He thought it was natural, stating:

"But I think for this one, we never really wanted to call out the fact that the Twin Towers were there, but they’re such an iconic thing, knowing that wherever you were in the city prior to 2001, you would see these things. You’d walk off the subway and say ‘Okay, which direction is south? Oh, there’s the Twin Towers.’ So we liked that idea and wanted to bring that back, in particular the shot at the beginning where they’re re-fueling the trucks in the harbor — a character is on top of the truck and in the distance is Manhattan and the Twin Towers. It’s just a subtle, ‘Hey, there it is.’"

It’s a decision that many films have had to make since 2001 when deciding the time of the piece. Because, as Russell decides, it just naturally needs to be placed there if the story takes place before 2001. It is something that was very notable. It doesn’t necessarily have to be called out, or made a big deal of. But it does need to be there. As a New Yorker myself, I can understand Russell’s mindset. If ever in Manhattan, you look up and see the Empire State Building while you walk, and know you are going North. It is a directional landmark even more so than its historical status. There are many difficult decisions movies have to make, and while this one can bring up some upsetting, uncomfortable feelings, it is not something that should be neglected. Including New York, as it was in its respective time, is an important process of a film's authenticity.