Bob Shaw has been working on film, television, and in theater for nearly 30 years as an art director and production designer. He is the winner of two Emmys in the former capacity for his work on Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. Previously, he scored three Emmy nominations for art direction for The Sopranos. Shaw’s relationship with Martin Scorsese began with Boardwalk Empire and continued with The Wolf of Wall Street, Vinyl, and now The Irishman.
In our discussion, Bob and I talk about what it was like to take on such a huge project like The Irishman, what it’s like to work with Martin Scorsese, as well as his chances to be nominated by the Academy for his work on the film.
Awards Daily: How did you come to The Irishman?
Bob Shaw: It’s my fourth project, I’m fortunate to say, with Scorsese. I started working with him on Boardwalk Empire for HBO, which was written by Terence Winter and who I worked with on The Sopranos. He introduced me to to Marty and I’ve been fortunate to do a few projects with him since.
AD: I just have to ask, what’s it like working with Martin Scorsese?
Bob: It’s great. I think we have a similar love of arcane facts (Laughs). Marty is the most intellectually curious person I’ve ever met. Certain projects will start with a lot of film references and a pile of films he wants you to watch. Less so with The Irishman – I think it was because it was so based on real events. We watched more news footage than we did films. You mention any film around him and he practically tells you who did craft service on it. He knows all the shots. He’ll tell you, “There’s a great shot in that film,” even if it’s not a great movie. If there’s one great shot in it he remembers that.
AD: He often works with the same people over and over again. I assume that’s not only because he’s a great filmmaker, but also because of the vibe he creates on set.
Bob: When you when you finish a project with him, you are usually pretty anxious to do another one. I do some of them and others I don’t. I’m just lucky to have gotten my foot in the door. (Laughs). If anyone would have told me years ago that I’d get the chance to do four projects with him I would never have believed them.
AD: While I think calling The Irishman a gangster film is reductive, did working on Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos help inform your work on The Irishman?
Bob: Not really. Another interviewer asked me what it was like being sort of a specialist in mob projects and I kind of said. “I am?” (Laughs). I don’t think of it that way. There’s certainly that element to The Sopranos but also the juxtaposition of suburban life in New Jersey. That was was always sort of the point of it. It was not the Godfather romantic view of the of the mob. It was a contemporary suburban view of the mob.
Boardwalk Empire drifted more that way the longer the series went on, but initially I was more interested in the boardwalk aspect of it. It didn’t seem like another mob project to me. On The Irishman there were a lot of familiar things on the on the set list. I felt like I knew the area more from my family originally being from Philadelphia and having relatives and in Wilkes-Barre. Pennsylvania where one of the scenes was written. I didn’t think of it as another mob movie.
One of the compelling things in it is the Jimmy Hoffa story, and I thought in a way it was sort of similar theme to to Vinyl – in that a person stepped out with all good intentions. In Vinyl he was just desperate to be part of the music business even though he wasn’t a musician and then he is at a point where he has made so many deals with so many devils that sold his soul in order to get where he wanted to get. In Hoffa’s case he started out as somebody who was very much on the side of the worker and trying to improve conditions, and then eventually became such a symbol of corruption that anti-union sentiment to this day can be traced back to him. These are people who know made too many compromises to to get what they wanted. That’s what the story is about to me.
AD: I think seeing DeNiro and Pesci together might make people think of Goodfellas and Casino, but the film is more of a historical epic with mob connections.
Bob: I think people played different kinds of parts. Obviously, Al Pacino’s part was more flamboyant, but everyone is used to Joe Pesci playing the crazy guy and he played a very restrained and carefully measured person. it’s not what he played in any of the other Scorsese films he’d been in.
AD: Much has been made of the film’s three and a half hour length. There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s where longer films were more typical at the cinema, but not as much anymore. I imagine one of the benefits of having Netflix release this film is that they would simply let you do it.
Bob: And they really did. Normally on any job you spend half of your time arguing for why you need to do your job, or why you need certain resources – financial or otherwise – to do the job. That was never in question here. Once they committed to it we really were able to do it.
AD: Between prep and production, how much time did you spend on The Irishman?
Bob: I was on it for about your 13 or 14 months.
AD: Was that the longest stretch of time you’d spent on a film?
Bob: Just by a little bit.
AD: With a film this long and a production that covers multiple decades, what part of this job was most challenging? Was it merely the volume of sets?
Bob: The volume was more of a challenge than anything else because there weren’t that many things that were elaborate. Even the sets that were more elaborate like Villa di Roma or Copacabana weren’t so immensely complicated that they were a huge thing to figure out. The project I’m working on now the sets themselves are much more complicated and in certain cases just harder to figure out.
AD: Is that The Gilded Age for HBO?
Bob: Yes. The sets are so big and there’s so much ornament and fancy stuff that we just don’t deal with everyday, and that I don’t usually do rooms with 30 foot ceilings and that sort of thing. In The Irishman, it was really just the volume of it.
Although it’s funny, when we ended up building the the barber shop that’s in the very beginning of the movie, we did some scouting, and it became clear after not too long that we really wouldn’t be able to find anything that would work. We’d have to find a barber shop and then take. everything out of it. There’s no point in doing that, it’s just a room. As we were doing it, I said I’ve certainly worked on rooms where this would be the big set. (Laughs).
Instead, it was just one of many sets. So, now we’re going to spend all this time and they’re going be in here for half a day, and in the end there was only one shot. (Laughs). It’s unusual to build a fully detailed barber shop like that for one camera move. That was definitely a scene Marty wanted to get in the film. it wasn’t in the script when we first started and again they (Netflix) just said okay you can build it. It’s the kind of film where hopefully you’re not too aware – like any film – of what’s a set and what’s not.
AD: While there are some bigger set pieces like the Teamster’s rally in the film and Villa di Roma like you described, much of The Irishman takes place in people’s homes and in hotel rooms. What did you do to try to evoke time and place in those more intimate settings?
Bob: There’s little things I look for in the script that maybe other people wouldn’t. There were five different period gas stations, and you can’t go to a gas station to film a gas station. So we have to find buildings that look like they could be a gas station. At a very basic level the job is to answer the question, “Where are we?”
You have a lot of different offices, a lot of different gas stations, and things like that. You just try to keep them distinct from each other. We had a lot of hotel rooms. It was like okay, this one is kind of 60s looking. This one looks like it got one foot in the 40s. Then when we were in Washington. It’s like it’s Washington, we’ll do a colonial! (Laughs).
AD: Scorsese is known for his attention to detail. Does he give a lot of specific direction when it comes to design, or more broader outlines?
Bob: Not as much (specifics) on this one. There was a lot of recreation. My favorite sets I would say we’re probably Villa di Roma and the Latin casino. Those were the ones where we varied quite a bit off the historical model. The real Villa di Roma is just kind of a box. Red brick – probably not even real brick but veneer brick. It’s very bare bones. The kind of place where the menu is on one of those black felt boards on the wall and the specials are in white plastic letters. It didn’t even really give you a sense of the period because it was just so generic. So, we made that up.
We took a lot of inspiration from other restaurants. There used to be a restaurant called Monte’s and it had murals on the wall. Although those weren’t framed. The framed murals were sort of stolen from the Green Mill, the Chicago restaurant that was Al Capone’s hangout. There used to be a restaurant on 2nd Avenue called Lanza’s that had this elaborate textile floor that was all cracked and broken because it was a restaurant from the teens. There’s another restaurant that has these one foot square tongue and groove acoustical ceiling tiles that you just glue to the ceiling. That’s a collage of a bunch of Italian restaurants that I just sort of remembered.
That was the one that Marty initially doubted that we could that we could do a set that would be successful. He said he wanted to be able to smell the gravy in the floorboards. (Laughs). He said the actors need to feel like they’ve been coming here for decades. We had so much shooting in there that it just wasn’t feasible to take a restaurant and push it back into the 1950s for several weeks and then put it back. It was meant to be a stage set. It was a bit of a challenge to give it as many comfortable touches and make it feel real. Down to the point where you’re scouting and we found a restaurant that was quite old and all the vents were just covered in dust grease. It was pretty disgusting, and it’s not the kind of thing that would show up on film necessarily but we recreated that for Marty. (Laughs). It was all part of giving it the right feel. It’s just interesting that it’s my favorite but it wasn’t based on the historical model. Sometimes you have to do that.
We did the same thing on Boardwalk Empire. The Ritz, which is the hotel that Nucky, Steve Buscemi’s character, lived in. In reality, it was the most boring of all the hotels on the boardwalk. There were so many hotels that were full of sculpture, and fantasy, and carved mermaids set and all sorts of fabulous things, and the Ritz was just sort of a brick box in a neo-colonial style. It just was not evocative or cinematic enough. We felt we had to cheat there.
It was a similar thing with the Latin casino, which was in a very low flat suburban building. When we were looking for an exterior, I thought we should probably look for vacant supermarkets. That’s what we ended up doing. We turned the front of a closed Pathmark into the Latin casino because it was the right kind of architecture. But then inside, using one of those low, flat, almost banquet hall type spaces, it’s just not cinematic. It’s not interesting. There’s not enough air around everything. We found this place that was a banquet hall in Harlem, and we put that huge stage in there, and painted the place, and did that the giant curved curtain, which was similar to what was in the Latin casino, but it was definitely more elaborate.
AD: The film has been widely praised for the direction and acting, but it’s also gotten a lot of notice for the authentic feel of the tech credits. It comes up in almost every review, which is a little unusual. I imagine you feel pretty proud of the response the film has gotten for its craft.
Bob: It’s been very gratifying. When you start a film, you can think that it’s good script, you can think that it’s going to turn out well, that it’s going to be well received you, but you never know. Particularly with something of this length, you don’t know whether people are going to be along for the ride or not. The curious thing here is the difference between people who see it in the theater versus people who see it their home and pause and eat dinner, or pause and go to sleep and watch the rest of it the next day. I don’t really know if that’s a radically different experience. I know a few people who made a real point to see it in the theater so they would be strapped in for the whole experience. I guess that that’s still a question, whether people are experiencing it differently if they see it all in one piece.
AD: Was it clear to you the film was going to be that long when you received the script?
Bob: It seemed clear that is was going to be over three hours if they didn’t cut down the script, and you know, it actually expanded a bit after we got started. I don’t think Scorsese’s done any short films in a while. The last film that wasn’t over three hours was probably Hugo. Wolf was long, Silence was long, and this is long. Even for a pilot – I think the pilot of Vinyl was an hour and a half, not (the customary) hour.
AD: Did it feel daunting at all looking at the script and the number of locations?
Bob: There were 295 sets and locations and we built 28 sets. The location manager and I started scouting probably three months months before anyone else came on. The part that’s challenging is there are so many short scenes, there are very few locations that are stand alone. If we were shooting at a gas station, often that wouldn’t be enough page count for that to be the whole day. We were trying to anticipate how the assistant directors would put the schedule together but you never know. Then you think you have to schedule set and then good news, we are able get so and so (actor) and they’re available for two days in October. (Laughs).
So, we needed more options to allow maneuverability when they were putting the schedule together. We had to scout for more than what we needed on the page.
AD: I imagine this had to feel like a once in a lifetime project.
Bob: I actually felt it when we were finishing. I was saying to everybody on my team, including the art director, Laura Ballinger – I don’t think I could have done the project without someone of her caliber, and Regina Graves, the set decorator – I said, enjoy this because I don’t think we’ll ever get to do something like this again. Just that we were allowed to do it. I don’t know if Netflix would do it again. (Laughs). I think they knew partially what they were in for, but as it emerged, I think it was more than anyone could have known. I was very aware this was a rarefied thing.
AD: I think what sets this film from Scorsese’s other so-called “mob” movies is the elegiac tone of the piece.
Bob: That’s funny, that’s the term I keep using.
AD: It’s really an end of an era for people like this. The world moved on from their type of life.
Bob: It’s kind of interesting because my my niece is in college taking women’s studies and she made a point of saying there weren’t many parts for women in the movie and the film was very male-oriented. My brother pointed out that there weren’t many women in the mob, and I said in a funny way it kind of feels like the death knell for these guys. Like in the scene where they are in the exercise yard in the snow in their wheel chairs in prison. It strikes me when Joe Pesci says, “I’ll talk to you later, I’m going to church” and Frank says, “Church?” And he says, “You’ll see.” (Laughs). It’s like the old soldiers quote, they just fade away. That’s why the titles and who was killed and when is a repeating theme. It’s the end of it.
It’ sort of a twilight of the gods thing. I never thought about it that way until I was justifying it to my niece. (Laughs). I kind of take exception when you watch period films and they pander to contemporary sensibilities and invent characters that wouldn’t have existed. They have the character of Gudrun in the middle ages who had the heart of a warrior and could fight with any man. I mean, Gudrun would have been burned at the stake. (Laughs). It’s a tough thing right now with film and people feeling that they need to address certain things in terms of diversity and equality and write it for our current sensibilities. It’s untrue. If there’s anything to be learned from doing period films it’s that you have to say no, this is the way it was. That person was not allowed to speak, or this person was not allowed to have a better job than that.
AD: You’ve won a couple of Emmys and been nominated a few other times. You haven’t yet been nominated for an Oscar. With The Irishman likely to pick up a number of nods across the board, are you excited about the possibility?
Bob: I’m trying not to think about it. (Laughs). I’ve been there before. I did theater for twelve years before I did film and television. When I did The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I was told many times, you’re going to get a Tony nomination. It went so far that I was contacted by the Tony people to take pictures because they were trying to assemble the pictures they would need for the program as early as possible, and they did that, and then I wasn’t nominated. (Laughs). To have the experience of posing for your photo for the Tony program and then not getting nominated, it definitely puts you in the position of a “not counting your chickens” frame of mind.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.