If you wanted to recreate 1950s Chicago, you could either build a retro Hollywood set — or find an area where the architecture hasn’t changed much in 70 years.
HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country chose the latter. Instead of filming the horror drama’s pilot episode on a fabricated lot, the creative team set the scene in Pilsen by hanging vintage signs, striped awnings and neon lights around the corner of 18th and Laflin.
“Chicago actually is a gold mine for trying to do period projects because a lot of it is still intact,” production designer Howard Cummings said.
Reset talked with Cummings and art director Stephanie Gilliam about what was required to take the neighborhood back in time — and what it was like working with the Pilsen community. Here are a few highlights from the conversation.
On finding the perfect location
Howard Cummings: Our director, Yann Demange, he really wanted to use locations. He really wanted to get a true Chicago feel. So he right off the bat … said, ‘We’re not going to build at all. … We’re going to really try to do it.’ So what was difficult about that is that we had to find an intersection for this story where there was an apartment that we could control and redo, as well as a space for the office on the ground floor.
Even in Pilsen, in the neighborhood, we ended up on the corner of 18th and Laflin. … It’s starting to sort of gentrify … somewhat, which was actually a sensitive topic. But even in that building, we ended up having to throw up facades for the lower parts of the building … so the actors could walk by because the facades weren’t all period correct.
On collaborating with local business owners and residents
Cummings: We had a guy named Raul Esparza who dealt with the neighborhood and was fantastic. … He went and talked to each person and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to turn your cake shop into a hat shop.’ And then: how do we do that? … The important thing to remember is that all these people have their businesses and they want to keep going. … You don’t want to tie them up.
That neighborhood, frankly, has been shot so much for some other shows, like let’s say Chicago Fire. And generally they come in and they’ll shoot there for a day or two. We had to be there for weeks trying to work with the people. At first they had a hard time because they didn’t quite understand. But once we got into it … the entire neighborhood came out and they were just a part of it all. That’s the best thing, you know, when you can really get to know the people there.
On getting the details just right
Stephanie Gilliam: We just really had all of these images that kind of gave us this picture of what we were trying to create. … If you look at the show, one of the things that was so wonderful was the way that we could look deep into it through any shot and you see … the neon signs in the background or the striped awnings that make you feel like it was the 1950s.
One of the things I learned was just how much signage was everywhere. Everywhere you look, if you go back and look at the old research, there is literally a billboard on every surface. And I think that one of the things that we were really successful in doing was kind of creating that imagery that would go along with it.
On making the neighborhood come alive
Cummings: One thing that was very important to [showrunner] Misha Green, she really wanted … an island of safety for these people in life, their neighborhood. If you left that neighborhood, you were in jeopardy. … What we kept trying to do was infuse life into the neighborhood as much as possible, where there’s people on balconies, there’s laundry, there’s people cooking things on the street.
Gilliam: The beauty of that block party [scene] and just what it must have been like to be at this place, you know, when the world was really unsafe outside. But like in this neighborhood to be African American, and with your neighbors and your feelings … we were there well into the night and … that energy was there and you felt it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Press the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.