How ‘The Americans’ Turns Brooklyn Into an ’80s World of D.C. Espionage, All on a Basic-Cable Budget

The show has a gritty, visually aggressive look for a period show on a budget. Here's how they do it.
THE AMERICANS -- Pictured: Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings. CR: Matthias Clamer/FX
Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings in "The Americans"
Matthias Clamer/FX

The Americans” uses Brooklyn to serve as ’80s-era Washington, DC, home to Russian double agents at the end of the Cold War. The show doesn’t nod to a period look; the show’s cinematic energy is grounded in gritty realism and unsettling noir visual language.

That’s all well and good, but it’s also achieved on a basic-cable budget and a brisk eight-day shooting schedule that relies heavily on real locations rather than soundstage efficiency. Meeting that challenge demands real ingenuity, and IndieWire recently caught up with key members of the show’s production team to learn their secrets.

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The Gowanus

Nuzzled between the multimillion-dollar brownstones of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens is the Gowanus Canal — a neon-green polluted waterway that was once a hub of industrial activity and is now a massive environmental hazard that will soon undergo a $500 million cleanup. Among the canal’s abandoned warehouses and empty dead-end streets is Eastern Effects, a small production facility that serves as the show’s production offices, writers’ room, and soundstage.

Hazardous waste aside, executive producing director Chris Long says he can’t imagine a more perfect production hub for the show.

"The Americans" Location Phone - Gowanus
1st AD Michelle Regina Jacobelli poses, holding up a “spy phone,” for a location photo along the Gowanus CanalMichael Fucci

“‘The Americans’ doesn’t scream iconic D.C.,” he said. “It’s about secret meetings, a sense of hiding, but also hiding in plain sight — dark corners, alleyways, little bits of river, an old refuge station and cement works — we’ve used the neighborhood outside our stages like none I’ve ever seen.”

Cinematographer Dan Stoloff – who joined the show to shoot seven episodes of season five, which concludes Tuesday night (May 30th) – lives in the neighborhood. And as a fan of the show, he was always impressed by how they turned the streets around his home into a satisfying cinematic world.

“I honestly don’t know if they could have done it if the show had been housed in one of those big sanitized sound stages, where so many shows now shoot,” said Stoloff. “Baked into the show is Gowanus and all the neighborhoods immediately around it.”

Locations as Sets

Michael Fucci, who has been the location manager on every episode of “The Americans” except the pilot, says he’s been blessed with a home base that supplies so many different looks. The Gowanus area is empty at night, turning into a noir playground. And within a half mile of their Eastern Effects home there’s the extremely unique look of Red Hook on the Brooklyn coastline, the old-school Italian neighborhood of Cobble Hill, the vast and varied outdoor world of Prospect Park, and architecture that predates the ’80s. However, Fucci said it’s meaningless if it can’t be controlled.

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“For an exterior urban setting to be used as a period piece, the key is the ability to control the environment,” said Fucci. “When you shoot a walk-and-talk scene on a modern show, you don’t need to hold traffic. But on ‘The Americans,’ new cars are our nightmare. I now only look for one-way streets and there also needs to be some measure of control over light for Dan and Chris to create the look of the show.”

THE AMERICANS -- "Dinner for Seven" Episode 411
“The Americans,” Episode 411CR: Patrick Harbron/FX

Long and Stoloff both call Fucci the show’s secret weapon, not only for his ability to find the right location, but also his ability to think like a producer and a filmmaker. Although the show relies heavily on its Gowanus home base, they travel quite a bit – including to White Plains, Long Island, Staten Island, and Queens. They can’t afford to waste time on multiple locations. According to Long, Fucci’s ability to find areas that can serve multiple purposes is the key to “The Americans” being visually adventurous while staying on schedule.

“Mike’s great because he approaches the scripts like a storyteller first,” said Long. “It’s knowing how you can turn the camera to get two to three different looks out of a location without moving the company.”

Long’s favorite example of this is the sanitation plant that served as a Russian prison interrogation setting, but Fucci and Long figured out that with some minor visual effects and a 50-foot move, the location could double as JFK airport backdrop for a scene where Philip (Matthew Rhys) makes a quick drop-off at the airport.

“How we build our shooting days determines where we put our money and time,” said Long. “On a scrappy cable show, we need to identify the visual juice in this episode and make sure that’s where we put our resources. That’s only possible if Mike can creatively find viable alternatives for smaller moments like a quick airport.”

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This type of approach also gives “The Americans” the time to travel to place like Silver Lake Park in Staten Island to film a brief, but extremely important moment on an expansive bridge (standing in for a Yugoslav border crossing), which gave the visual sense of being a moment of no return.

THE AMERICANS -- Pictured: Costa Ronin as Oleg Buro
“The Americans”Matthias Clamer/FX

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