After filming for three seasons in Dublin, Ireland (which doubled for Victorian-era foggy London), the creators of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful horror drama series, headed west to sunny L.A. with the spinoff Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.
Per Showtime’s description of the new series, “1938 Los Angeles is a time and place deeply infused with social and political tension. When a grisly murder shocks the city, Detective Tiago Vega and his partner Lewis Michener become embroiled in an epic story that reflects the rich history of Los Angeles: from the building of the city’s first freeways and its deep traditions of Mexican-American folklore, to the dangerous espionage actions of the Third Reich and the rise of radio evangelism.”
On the last day of filming for the season, FilmLA staff paid a visit to the Penny Dreadful set and spoke with Unit Production Manager, Don Bensko, Location Manager, Mike Haro, and Construction Coordinator, Jeff Shewbert, for a fascinating behind the scenes look at how a period show is put together.
So what happens when you set out to recreate 1938 Los Angeles in 2020? As it turns out, nothing short of a “build it from the ground up” type of production.
As a relocating show, Penny Dreadful qualified for tax incentives through the California Film & Television Tax Credit Program. Fully 25 percent of the production’s below-the-line spending qualified for tax credits, pulling visual effects (VFX) work into state and pushing production out past the Thirty Mile Zone, to Santa Barbara. Bringing the project to California allowed each department working on the show to take things to another level.
From historical research, prep, set construction, and filming, the production devoted nearly a year to film 10 episodes, with an estimated budget of $98 million dollars. Or, as some crew members joked with FilmLA, “We filmed a feature film that is ten hours long.”
Besides creator John Logan, the Executive Producers, Director of Photography John Conroy, and actor Rory Kinnear, the crew of more than 150 professionals working on Penny Dreadful are all Los Angeles based. At times, the show’s crew would expand to as many as 300 members, while employing 400 background performers and dozens of local vendors. Everything you see on the screen, from the period clothes, cars, props and sets was either created specifically for the show or rented from a local prop house. And as luck would have it, the production had to compete for resources with two other periods shows also filming in LA at the same time.
But with so many iconic locations available in Los Angeles, it was easy for locations team to find the right look, correct?
“It wasn’t as easy as you’d think,” confided Location Manager Mike Haro. Filming in Dublin offered some advantages, Haro explained, because that city retains more of its history. “By contrast,” observed Haro, “Los Angeles is a more forward-looking city, always reinventing itself. Promising locations from six years ago might have a different look today.”
Not that the production didn’t find some gems. City Hall and the LA Times Buildings still look as they did decades ago, and the historic 4th Street Bridge still evokes a bygone era. A mansion in Santa Barbara and The Godfather house were also used for Penny Dreadful, adding to the rich look of the production.
Meanwhile, recreating the immigrant barrios of Boyle Heights and classic look of Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles required use of specialized sets.
With so much filming taking place in Los Angeles, studio space is at a premium. According to UPM Don Bensko, timing was everything for Penny Dreadful. The show’s Executive Producer Mark Tobey had just finished working on Deadwood: The Movie which had wrapped filming at Melody Ranch. Melody had both the space and availability to build the sets “Penny Dreadful” required. And oh, are they impressive; from a recreation of a Downtown street to a Mexican-American immigrant neighborhood, with truly impressive attention to detail.
The sets came to life under the leadership of Construction Coordinator Jeff Shewbert, a 23-year veteran of the business. At the height of construction, which took 26 weeks to complete, Shewbert worked with a crew of 220 encompassing workers from IATSE Local 44, Local 724, Local 729 and Local 755, among others. Even after the main construction was over, Shewbert continued to maintain and supervise a crew of 60 workers.
Shewbert reflected with FilmLA about what he calls “the dark days of runaway production,” recalling times he had to accept work that kept him away from home for months. He witnessed the toll this took on local families as L.A. based crew members reluctantly accepted work where they could find it. Shewbert knows he is not the first to observe that other states may offer larger tax credits, but insists, “local infrastructure and the experience and depth LA crews bring can make a huge difference to the bottom line of a production.”
FilmLA is happy to report that with the success of the state tax credit program and the growing demand for content, more crew members have the luxury of working in Los Angeles. It’s no small thing for crew members to come home at the end of the day, see their families and pets, spend money in their local neighborhoods and pay taxes in CA.
In fact, there is enough filming happening locally, that some of the production departments on Penny Dreadful found it a challenge to hire seasoned crew members. It’s a quality problem, producers admit, that until recently just didn’t seem possible.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels premieres Sunday, April 26th at 10 PM on Showtime.
Story written by Corina Sandru.
Promotional photograph: Showtime©
Set photographs: Shane Hirschman