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‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’: How They Recreated an Analog Pre-Amazon Literary World for Melissa McCarthy’s Forger

Production designer Stephen Carter brought to life the quaint bookstore culture of New York inhabited by McCarthy's notorious Lee Israel in 1991.

Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" and Richard E. Grant as "Jack Hock" in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Photo by Mary Cybulski


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Two analog New Yorks collide in Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” the true-life story of biographer-turned forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy): the gritty, AIDS-inflicted urban life of the early ’90s, and the alluring, untouched literary culture of a bygone era inhabited by quaint bookstores, dive bars, and studio apartments.

For production designer Stephen Carter (“Birdman”), there was plenty of detective work and devoted recreation, spanning the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village, as well as Manhattan’s Westside, where Israel resided.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

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Read More:‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’: How Melissa McCarthy Replacing Julianne Moore Turned a Troubled Production into a Triumph

“We wanted it to all have the feel of a nostalgia piece,” Carter said. “But, for Lee, there’s contemporary 1991, and there’s the world she wishes she had been born into, which would’ve been probably somewhere between ’25 and ’65, when many of her icons [Dorothy Parker, Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead] were still around. But this sense of mid-century classicism that we wanted to allude to was in the way she chooses to live her fantasy life with [loyal friend] Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant] when she gets her money.”

In canvasing New York for classical bookstores, Carter found half a dozen still in existence willing to work with the production, such as the prestigious Argosy. “It’s a gem of a store on E. 59th street with a main floor that has a fantastic decor, well predating our period,” said Carter.

Dolly Wells as "Anna" and Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Photo by Mary Cybulski

Carter and his art department had a kit of available book titles and hardcovers from ’91 to fill any shot they needed in Argosy and the other stores. “But the upper floors had different looks, and we ended up shooting two or three sets there,” he added. “They even let us shoot on the floor where they keep an amazing collection of signed photos, letters, documents, etc. from all manner of social notables. They actually had some dealings with Lee, and were a bit on the fence about whether they wanted to be seen in the movie, so I was really pleased when they agreed. It gave an important nuance in the range of our bookstores.”

Other bookstores of note included the seedy East Village Books, half below street level, with low ceilings and cramped proportions, and Housing Works (on Crosby), which was redressed as the fictitious Crosby Street Book Sellers, inspired by the defunct Pageant Book and Print Shop (from “Hannah and Her Sisters”).

Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" and Richard E. Grant as "Jack Hock" in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Photo by Mary Cybulski

They also shot at Logos on York Ave., for the shop owned by Anna (Dolly Wells). “It had a great coziness about it, and once cleared out a bit, had really nice camera angles for the many times Lee visits,” Carter said.

The production took full advantage of the legendary gay hangout and one of the oldest Manhattan bars, Julius’, where Israel held court. “It’s a long narrow space on the corner of 10th and Waverly that has an enormous amount of history for the meager square footage,” said Carter. “It’s dark, but with big window’s that let you watch the foot traffic on 10th street, assuming you’re alone. Vintage photos and posters throughout. It has an easygoing attitude that’s both accepting and promises you’ll have a grand night no matter who walks in the door.”

Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Photo by Mary Cybulski

For Israel’s studio apartment, Carter found an old place on Broadway in mid-town that was like a time capsule. “It was much bigger than Lee’s apartment needed to be, but that was perfect because we could put up some flats and lock off other rooms for sound and for a crew service base,” he said. “And then we ended up building the kitchen into what was formerly a dining room, and changing the geography but selecting the best parts of it to narrow down.”

The apartment was also fully dressed with a great assembly of crusty old furniture and bookcases filled with classics. Best of all, though, Carter worked in the color scheme of faded book covers to evoke a precious period when books mattered before the rise of Amazon.

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