Made in Brooklyn: A Slideshow of Films about Brooklyn

Made in Brooklyn | Pariah

In the movies, Manhattan is always the New York borough that gets targeted by invading aliens, while Brooklyn quietly escapes obliteration. Brooklyn is where the smaller, more intimate and, some might say, more “real” stories take place, and has for a while been a hub of independent film. Dee Rees' lesbian coming-of-age drama PARIAH was shot in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene, which is not only where the movie's producer, Nekisa Cooper, lives but also where its executive producer, Spike Lee – the godfather of black independent film – grew up and now has his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule. “It’s a neighborhood that we’re familiar with,” says Cooper. “We’d lived there for seven years, so we accessed our community connections. We were able to centralize and take advantage of being in Fort Greene. We worked with a local real estate agent, and she found us an amazing brownstone location where we filmed all of the homes’ interiors for PARIAH.” In celebration of this great Brooklyn movie, the following slideshow looks back over the borough's long historical ties to the film industry and charts some of the most memorable Brooklyn stories that have been committed to celluloid.

Fatty at Coney Island (1917) | Coney Island

Between 1895 and 1905, over 50 films were shot at Coney Island. As narrative in early cinema became more sophisticated, the resort’s exotic mix of fun and leisure became an obvious––and from a producer’s point of view, cheap––location for characters to fall in love and/or get into trouble. Such were the simple tales told in films like Mack Sennett’s comedy At Coney Island (1912), Dell Henderson’s melodrama A Coney Island Princess (1916), and Fatty Arbuckle’s Fatty at Coney Island (1917). In the last one, the big man of slapstick comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, attempts to dump his wife in order to take on the beachside resort as a single man. At one point, a then-unknown Buster Keaton appears, dressing up like a girl to be Fatty’s date.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) | Williamsburg

Much of the success of Betty Smith’s 1943 autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn rests with the compelling authenticity the writer brings to describing life in a Williamsburg tenement during the first part of the 20th century. A few critics were then disappointed when 20th Century Fox chose to shoot the film adaptation (interiors and exteriors alike) on a Hollywood soundstage. As such Elia Kazan’s dramatic 1945 adaptation scored high points for its dramatic intensity, but much lower scores for its production values. James Agee wrote in The Nation “the best you can do in that way is as dead as an inch-by-inch description of a perfectly naturalistic painting compared with accepting instead the still scarcely imaged difficulties and the enormous advantages of submerging your actors in the real thing.”

It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) | Bensonhurst

It Happened in Brooklyn may be the title (and subject) of this 1947 Frank Sinatra musical, but the film was actually never shot there. In the story, Frank, returning from the war, bunks up with his old pal Jimmy Durante, who now works as a janitor at New Utrecht High (an actual school in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn). Except for a few quick takes of the Brooklyn Bridge, this frolic was actually shot entirely on soundstages. Although that isn’t exactly what Newsweek was getting at when they wrote the film “couldn’t happen any place except Hollywood.” Their point was that “Sinatra becomes a smoother performance every time out.”  And besides, everyone knows Sinatra’s from New Jersey.

On the Town (1949) | Brooklyn Navy Yards

While the “town” in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1949 MGM musical is really Manhattan, the film begins and ends in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Navy Yards. The musical about three sailors given a one-day pass on the isle of Manhattan began in 1944 as a Broadway show, with much of music by Leonard Bernstein originally having been used in Jerome Robbins’ ballet Fancy Free. When MGM adapted the show, they replaced all but three songs, the most obvious being the opening tune “New York, New York.” But the Brooklyn Navy Yard remained in all versions. Purchased in 1801 by the US government, the Brooklyn Navy Yard became a central hub for the United States Navy, especially during World War II. In 1966, the navy sold the area back to the city of New York, which has been slowly transforming it into, among other things, a movie studio.

Little Fugitive (1953) | Coney Island

In 1953, the Brooklyn-raised photographer Morris Engel, his girlfriend Ruth Orkin and friend Raymond Abrashkin decided to make a feature film in their own back yard. With a rough-hewn story about a lost little boy, a few friends and actors, and $30,000, the group shot Little Fugitive on location in Coney Island. Using hand-held 35mm cameras with little or no crew, the filmmakers captured the burlesque reality of Brooklyn. The film went on to win the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is referenced in François Truffaut’s masterpiece The 400 Blows. Indeed, Truffaut later commented, “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn't been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with his fine movie, Little Fugitive.”

The French Connection (1971) | New Utrecht Avenue & others

In adapting Robin Moore’s 1969 novel The French Connection, about a real-life heroin ring operating in New York City, director William Friedkin wanted to stress the “real-life” aspect of the story. And that meant getting the locations of the film just right. In fact, as many critics point out, Friedkin’s movie is as much a grime-smudged love poem to the NYC as it is a crime thriller. In the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris wrote he’d never seen “a movie as capable of making me fall in love again with every last shred of rubbish and garbage that constitutes the New York experience.” Friedkin used 86 different New York locations, with many of them in Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant, Coney Island, Brooklyn Heights, and Bensonhurst). But perhaps the most famous is the subway/car chase that runs along the New Utrecht Avenue line in Bensonhurst. So famous is the scene that it was adapted and placed in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) | Gravesend

On 22 August 1972, John Wojtowicz (assisted by Salvatore Naturile) entered the Chase Manhattan Bank in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn with the intention of robbing it and getting enough money for his lover, Ernest Aron, to get a sex-change operation. The actual bank is now a medical imaging center. While Sidney Lumet didn’t use the actual bank for his 1975 drama Dog Day Afternoon, he kept the film in Brooklyn, using a converted garage in Flatbush to double for the bank’s exteriors. The sense of place has been an essential element Lumet (especially in capturing the “real” New York in films like The Pawn Broker, Serpico and Prince of the City). Indeed that ineffable Brooklyn feel that Lumet captures was recognized by Vincent Canby in his New York Times review when he wrote, “it's beautifully acted by performers who appear to have grown up on the city's sidewalks in the heat and hopelessness of an endless midsummer.”

Saturday Night Fever (1977) | Bay Ridge

In many ways, the dance-inferno Saturday Night Fever is as much about the different class identities attached to Brooklyn and Manhattan as it is about white leisure suits and disco beats. Tony Manero (John Travolta), the film’s 19-year-old hero, may work as a grunt at a Bay Ridge hardware store, but he rules the dance floor at the local 2001 Odyssey. It is through his disco experience that he meets Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney), a more sophisticated woman who takes the lead in showing Tony a world beyond Bay Ridge. Director John Badham shot extensively throughout Brooklyn, including his use of the actual 2001 Odyssey disco (for which they built, and then donated to the club, the famous checkerboard color-lit floor). In a kind of reverse cultural history (that being that disco migrated from black and gay clubs out into the general population), 2001 Odyssey – which launched America’s disco fascination – was later renamed Spectrum in 1987 and became a gay club, before being demolished in 2005.

The Warriors (1979) | Coney Island & others

While Walter Hill’s nightmarish epic of gang warfare in New York was all shot on original locations, it feels like a New York no one knows. David Pirie in the Time Out Film Guide writes that Hill “transformed the city into a phantasmagoric labyrinth of weird tribes in fantastic dress and make-up who move over (and under) the streets as untouched as troglodytes by the civilization sleeping around them.” But Hill’s comic book take is, in many ways, keeping with the film’s source material, Sol Yurick 1965 novel of the same name. His book, like the film, is based loosely on Xenophon's Anabasis, an ancient history about a cadre of Greek soldiers stranded in Persia. Substitute the Bronx for Persia and Brooklyn’s Coney Island for Greece, and you get a sense of the film’s imaginative geography.

Sophie's Choice (1982) | Flatbush

Alan J. Pakula’s romance about the lives of three strangers colliding in Brooklyn in 1947 is, in many ways, a story of geography. Sophie (played in a Oscar-winning performance by Meryl Streep) comes from a Polish concentration camp; the aspiring writer Stingo (Peter MacNichol)––based on the novel’s author William Styron––is from the American South; and Nathan (Kevin Kline) emerges from a mysterious past. But Brooklyn is where they all find each other. The house that centers the film’s action actually exists in Flatbush, but was painted pink to match its title in the novel, the “Pink Palace.”  Once finished, the house was repainted grey.

Moonstruck (1987) | Carroll Gardens & Park Slope

Norman Jewison’s romantic comedy of a thirtysomething widow Loretta Castorini (Cher) who finds love again with a one-handed baker Ronny Cammareri (Nicolas Cage) exists, according to Roger Ebert, “in a Brooklyn that has never existed, a Brooklyn where the full moon makes the night like day and drives people crazy with amore, when the moon-a hits their eyes like a big-a pizza pie.”  But the film also takes place in a real Brooklyn, mostly around Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens. In fact, as Odelia Bitton reported in the Brooklyn Eagle, the film’s characters were renamed to fit the locations: “While the original movie script contained another name for the characters played by Nicholas Cage and his on-screen brother, Johnny, played by Danny Aiello, it was soon replaced by Cammareri. Indeed, it was already plastered on the bakery’s trucks and store sign. Also available were two real-life bakers at Cammareri Brothers who got to play those roles alongside Cage.”

Do the Right Thing (1989) | Bedford-Stuyvesant

For years, films shot in Brooklyn highlighted that borough’s ethnic diversity, a mosaic however that rarely included the African-American experience. Spike Lee’s aptly named Do The Right Thing sought to remedy that mistake by setting––and shooting––its story within a two-block area in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Indeed one of the production’s major hurdles was using that small area of Stuyvesant Avenue between Quincy and Lexington Ave as the film’s primary location. For Lee, shooting the film in this area of Brooklyn was so important that it was a stipulation in his contract. In “The Cinema of Spike Lee: Images of a Mosaic City,” Catherine Pouzoulet explains, “Lee’s use of Brooklyn is not accidental. The most densely populated of New York City’s five boroughs. Brooklyn is the home of more than half of New York City’s African-American population.”

Little Odessa (1994) | Brighton Beach

Previous films have often portrayed the Jewish neighborhoods of Brighton Beach in the soft nostalgia light of comedy––think Gene Saks’ adaptation of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoir. But James Grey’s 1994 debut, Little Odessa, unveiled the hard reality of this neighborhood that has become a haven for the Russian mob. In the film, Joshua Shapiro (Tim Roth) is forced to return home to Brighton Beach to commit an assassination. But his conflict doesn’t come from his criminal identity, but having to deal with his family, a traditional Jewish family who’s not thrilled with his gangster way of life. James Gray, who was only 24 when he made the film, brought to a light a part of Brooklyn few had seen before.

Smoke / Blue in the Face (1995) | Park Slope

Brooklyn writer Paul Auster based his script for Smoke on a short story he’d written for The New Yorker in 1990. The Brooklyn Cigar Company, which becomes the center of the film, is the point from which the script’s different stories emerge or arrive. When director Wayne Wang and Auster finished their film, they decided to immediately shoot another, looser one with the same cast and crew, which became Smoke’s companion piece, Blue in the Face. While the stories ramble entertainingly in every which direction, Brooklyn according to critic James Berardinelli is “the glue that holds everything together…During the course of the film, we're exposed to the Brooklyn of the past, the Brooklyn of today, and an idealized Brooklyn that exists only in memories tinged by fondness and nostalgia.”

The Squid and the Whale (2005) | Park Slope

In Greenberg, writer-director Noah Baumbach captured with loving detail the complexity of Los Angles, which had recently become the his new home. Five years earlier, Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale immersed itself into the geography and culture of his childhood home, Brooklyn. The tale of two brothers (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) dealing with the divorce of their parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) is both a universal tale and an almost anthropological look at a very specific Brooklyn species––urban intellectuals. It is no small wonder that the film’s central metaphor and title come from the Museum of Natural History. And although that diorama is in a Manhattan museum, most of the action takes place in Park Slope. Says Baumbach, “I love Brooklyn. I have so many memories; I had to shoot there. It’s like using my dad’s clothes…being on the streets where I spent years of my childhood definitely stirred up stuff. I loved growing up there and some of my closest friends are people that grew up across the street or around the block. But then there was always the side that if you could live in Manhattan you would live in Manhattan. Nobody would ever really choose to live in Brooklyn…it’s always the second choice….”

Half Nelson (2006) | Red Hook

Six years before they made the Focus Features film It’s Kind of a Funny Story, writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s film Gowanus, Brooklyn won the Short Filmmaking Award at the Sundance Film Festival. While they changed the title to Half Nelson when they adapted that short to a feature film three years later, the story never lost its Brooklyn roots. The tale about the relationship between a drug-addicted teacher (Ryan Gosling) and his student (Shareeka Epps) was poignant and very real. Shot in such Brooklyn neighborhoods as Red Hook, East New York and Fort Greene, the film also cast many locals in bit parts. In praising the film, critic Emanuel Levy notes how Fleck, in paying careful attention to landscape and livelihood, “sidesteps the tendency to portray ghetto life with flashy, movie-inspired techniques. Instead, he has boldly made a more realistic film that captures in detail black working-class existence in a rundown Brooklyn neighborhood,” as well as working with cinematographer Andrij Parekh to find a “probing yet intimate style, showing the unique Brooklyn landscape with its low buildings and open spaces.”


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