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‘Vinyl’: How Scorsese & Team Conjured a ‘Mean Streets’ ’70s Vibe (Emmy Watch)

'Vinyl': How Scorsese & Team Conjured a 'Mean Streets' '70s Vibe (Emmy Watch)

Vinyl” is so Scorsese: American Century Records honcho Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) crashes and burns in the pilot after enduring the excesses of sex, drugs and rock n roll —reclaiming his soul and his spirit for the music. It’s a “Mean Streets” cultural snapshot of the New York rock scene that fittingly takes place in 1973, transitioning from old rules to no rules. And Scorsese (who directed the expensive pilot) mirrored that mindset by suggesting an experimental ethos to his crafts team to go along with an authentic grittiness.

For the distinctive 16mm-like look of the “Vinyl” pilot, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto was inspired by ’70s-era polaroids Scorsese took of friends and the music scene around him, which he showed Prieto during the making of “The Wolf of Wall Street.” “At first, I wanted to shoot 16mm film, but since the rest of the series would be digital, I wanted to stay consistent, but I wanted that look,” recalled Prieto, who subsequently shot the director’s 17th century Japan drama, “The Silence,” in Taiwan, on 35mm film.
So Prieto did comparative tests and designed his own Look Up Table (LUT) with characteristics for color, contrast and saturation, working in collaboration with Deluxe color timer Steve Bodner. “Our starting point was film,” said Prieto. “And then we took it to whatever looked best digitally. Scorsese was particularly impressed with the rich skin tones.”

HBO tipped the cinematographer to LiveGrain, developed by Suny Behar (a director and cinematographer), which organically adds film grain to the digital image in layers. “We actually filmed gray cards at different exposures and different films stocks (35mm and 16mm) to get different textures of grain,” said Prieto. “In a way, we designed our own film with Scorsese choosing two different types of grain: one more extreme with 16mm for concerts, grittier moments and flashbacks, and a pushed 35mm for more domestic scenes. But it was heavier grain in both cases.”

Scorsese and Prieto were also inspired by Julie London in “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956), in which she appears as a figment of Jayne Mansfield’s imagination and is lit with colored theatrical light in regular settings. This became the basis for musical interludes that were more abstract. “These were Scorsese’s idea shot on location,” said Prieto, “memories of music from the New York past.”

The biggest set piece for the pilot was the infamous collapse of the building housing the Mercer Arts Center in Greenwich Village, where the New York Dolls played. It’s the perfect metaphor for Finestra’s total collapse. “We shot it at a place in Brooklyn with effects rigging, throwing dust particles and cereal,” Prieto explained. “We couldn’t set a crane in the location so Scorsese wanted the camera to fly quickly over the crowd to the singers and back again toward Rickie. So we hung the camera on a pulley using a stabilizing device called a movi and it swung like a pendulum and a rope stopped it from getting too close to the singer.”

This laid the groundwork for the look passed over to series DPs Reed Morano (even episodes) and David Franco (odd episodes). “What Rodrigo did in the pilot was great inspiration for me because, from a cinematography perspective, I come from a much less stylized and much more naturalistic approach,” Morano said. “So to have the opportunity to shoot these almost internal musical moments are like the stitches that hold the scenes together. And then also to recreate concerts that happened in the past. It allows you to be so creative and there was nothing that’s off limits. We put it on ourselves to be as true to what it would have been.”

In Morano’s initial episode (“Yesterday Once More”) during a ’60s flashback where Richie falls in love with his wife Devon (Olivia Wilde), she had to recreate Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable show with the Velvet Underground at the Dom, including the multimedia elements. “It was almost like getting into Andy Warhol’s mind. He was using a variety of different colored gobos that were projecting images on top of the band. I had a special glass gobo made which recreated the effect (casting red light with circles). It was a very trippy experience.”

Franco, who used to shoot music videos, enjoyed returning to his roots by channeling the ’70s: “Reed and I could do anything: hand-held and cranes and very proscenium-like.” But for “The King and I,” in which Finestra tries to sign Elvis (impersonator Shawn Klush) in a desperate attempt to jump start his record label and recapture a lost innocence, he utilized less setups for a more fluid style.

“We wanted to give the impression that Richie is always on the move, trying to get somewhere in Vegas,” said Franco. “For the hotel scene with Elvis, we have this image of a horse on a rope and bringing that rope slowly and slowly closer to you, to try and tame him. That’s what Richie is doing in trying to get Elvis to sign for him.”

Likewise, production design and costume design were steeped in style and fashion from the early ’70s, reflecting the influence of the late ’60s and with Finestra becoming more casual and comfortable in his quest to find new talent and headed in a more underground musical direction.

“American Century was on the downward slide already, so I utilized the heavy’60s influence,” said production designer Bob Shaw (who worked on the pilot). “In the color palette, the oranges, the golds and avocado greens were very much present. The first thing I worked on the most was the design of the American Century office, and for me one of the most distinctive elements was the ceiling (which literally crashes down on Finestra). I kept looking for certain cutting edge design and there was Expo ’67 in Montreal. That’s where we got the look for the office lobby. In the ’60s, super graphics, like painting big stripes on the wall, was something I incorporated into the design (including the American Century logo).”

For Bill Groom (the four-time Emmy winner for “Boardwalk Empire”), designing the series was about capturing the violence of the period. “The no rules of the ’70s had a lot in common with the ’20s research we did for ‘Boardwalk,'” he said. “But in many ways it’s harder to find the ’70s in New York than it is for the ’20s. “The Chelsea Hotel was filtered through photos of Andy Warhol and his people and Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. I went by memories and the atmosphere of the period. But talking to people from the period is both a bonus and a curse because very often people remember it from a very subjective point of view.
“I was a bystander during this era of people getting coked out of their minds and crazy from the paranoia. My guess is my view of the ’70s is more accurate than a lot of people’s who were living it.”

For Oscar-winning costume designer Mark Bridges (“The Artist”), the pilot consisted of utilizing British invasion influences and cartoon shapes for a look at things to come in the rest of the decade. “It was surprising how we have co-opted that look now and it has become part of the language. To me, nothing’s as cool as the original stuff. It’s unique and well-made and made to last. I worked with a tailor in Brooklyn whose heyday was the ’70s and knew the cuts.

“I just needed Richie to look strong and successful and sexy, like a leader. My favorite outfit is his first appearance in a white suit. And then his Birthday outfit: lavender blazer with white pants and black shirt. He ends up wearing white pants when someone’s brains get bashed out and you never see it coming.”

Series costume designer John Dunn played off the transitional theme, using hippie and bohemian influences before settling in on something looser for Finestra, he said: “Richie is ready to let go after hitting rock bottom. He’s got a closet full of beautiful suits, but he wants to follow where the music is going. In order to do that, he starts wearing leather jackets and jeans and boots to the office. A tougher, more casual look for going into underground clubs and immersing himself in the new music.”

However, in an ironic twist, Dunn also got to dress up Noah Bean in a cameo as David Bowie during a rehearsal at the end of his glam Ziggy period. “I dressed Bowie as Warhol in ‘Basquiat.’ The reason David Bowie was such an icon was partially because of his physicality.”

Now “Vinyl” heads into its second season further accentuating the clash between art and commercialism (but without showrunner Terence Winter,who exited over creative differences). American Century has morphed into Alibi Records as Finestra chases the next musical rainbow: counter-culture.

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