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8 Things You Didn't Know About Shooting 'The Americans' in New York City

By Radhika Marya | March 18, 2015 7:40am
 "The Americans," a show that largely takes place in Cold War-era Washington, D.C. and its suburbs, is shot all over New York City.
Behind the Scenes The Americans
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NEW YORK CITY — Where do you go when you’re trying to film a television drama set in the vicinity of 1980s Washington, D.C.?

For the crew behind FX’s Cold War-era drama “The Americans,” the answer is New York City.

The show is among many that are using the city as its set, with studios in Brooklyn and location shoots in surrounding neighborhoods, as well as Upper Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. The crew sometimes films in Nassau and Westchester counties as well.

Currently in its third season, “The Americans” focuses on Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), KGB spies in disguise as a “normal” American couple raising two kids in northern Virginia. 

Michael Fucci, the show’s location manager, and Diane Lederman, the production designer, said New York City's diverse locations and the infrastructure supporting the filming industry are helpful for shooting the series. Period details like 1980s buses or police cars that say “D.C. Metro,” help transform the city into another world.

“A lot of people are really surprised that we are shot in Brooklyn and in New York City,” Fucci said, adding that it makes him and Lederman proud. “When people find out I work on it, they go, ‘Oh wait a minute, I thought that was shot like outside of D.C.’”

Fucci and Lederman told DNAinfo New York a little more about what shooting the series in the city entails:

1. Upper Manhattan often serves as the backdrop for scenes taking place in D.C.

Fucci: “We tend to gravitate uptown in Manhattan around Columbia University where there’s a lot of good architecture. There’s Grant’s Tomb up there… it’s a very very D.C.-looking monument. There’s Union Theological Seminary, St. John the Divine, a lot of learning institutions up there that play as a backdrop. We did a big chase sequence in the end of season one with those surrounding it.”

2. Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens play a large role on the show as well.

Fucci: “Staten Island has an amazingly diverse topography where we’re between beaches and parks. Within 10 minutes of each other, you have an ocean, beach and a boardwalk, and you have a tiny little log cabin in the middle of the woods.

“We shoot a lot in Queens, in Bayside, a ton in Brooklyn… within a mile of our stages, you have the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, you have the Brooklyn Museum, you have the waterfront in Red Hook, you have tons of warehouses that are right next door to us because we’re in an industrial area.”

3. By the end of this season, viewers will see the Jacob Javits Center stand in as an airport, while a section of Queens will serve as West Germany.

Lederman: “We’re going to get lots of European vintage cars… And they have to work. You’d be surprised at how different signage is in Europe from America, so all of the signage on the street has to be covered or in some way changed, altered to be in German. We have to deal with storefronts… in a way that’s not imposing upon the businesses.”

4. Today’s technology creates some challenges while preparing for a shoot.

Lederman: “The way traffic lights are, the way parking meters are — everything’s different now. For interior locations, it’s an even greater challenge. We’re always taking flatscreen TVs down and hiding digital thermostats.”

Fucci: “[We were] pulling refrigerators and getting plumbers in to remove gas stoves. No one had the Vikings or the Sub-Zeros in the early eighties in D.C. Or anywhere for that matter.”

5. While the Internet has made set decorating a lot easier over the years, local vendors also help shape the show’s look.

Lederman: “Atlantic Avenue [in Brooklyn] is one of our favorite places to go. There’s a vendor named Horseman Antiques who has wonderful wonderful vintage goods.

“We get all of our flooring goods from a woman named Eleanor at Carpet Time [in Long Island City]. She services the film industry and she does a great job in sourcing and finding the very, very difficult things that we need in the incredibly short amount of turnaround time that we need to have it in.”

6. Passersby have been thrown off when a space is repurposed for the show.

Lederman: “On our first episode, we had a scene that Keri Russell walks out of a bar, except it wasn’t a bar, it was an empty storefront, and we just dressed the front of it. And all day long, people kept coming up and wanting to know when the new bar was opening.”

7. Even though “The Americans” is fiction, the crew spends a lot of time making the show feel as though it were based in reality.

Lederman: “We try and drop hints wherever possible of when and where we’re supposed to be in time through advertising, through television shows and commercials that are playing on the TV within the scene.

“You don’t always catch it on camera, but you know, a billboard ad or a storefront or some kind of products in kitchens and bathrooms that were around in the period, magazine ads that we put on backs of magazines, we try as much as possible to really create the reality of the show in the time and place it’s supposed to be happening.”

8. “The Americans” is one of a number of shows that utilizes the grittier industrial side of the city in its shoots.

Fucci: “Years ago, used to be SoHo and Tribeca were the real cool neighborhoods to film in. Everybody wanted to film in the cool high-end lofts that Carrie would be hanging out in or the trendy new restaurant. Now everybody wants to be in kind of these industrial underground locations, like between our show and 'Gotham' and 'Person of Interest' and 'The Blacklist' and 'The Following,' the writing has changed a bit, so therefore the location’s changed a bit.”

The third season of “The Americans” is currently airing Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX. The season finale is set to air on April 22.