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New York stands in for Detroit in 'The Irishman,' Martin Scorsese's Jimmy Hoffa epic

Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press

Detroit pops up in several scenes in "The Irishman," the epic drama from director Martin Scorsese that focuses on mobsters and famous Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa.

But the real Motor City isn't actually part of the stellar cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin.

Instead, the place where Hoffa lived from an early age, rose to power as a labor leader and mysteriously vanished in 1975, is played by New York, the state where much of the filming took place.

Shooting for the movie also occurred in New Jersey, and a few scenes were done in Miami.

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A passion project for Scorsese conceived more than a decade ago, "The Irishman" opens Friday  for a limited theatrical release before arriving Nov. 27 on Netflix.

The three-hour-plus saga, based on real-life characters, traces the story of Philadelphia mobster Frank Sheeran. He was Hoffa's longtime friend and — spoiler alert — the hit man who allegedly killed him, at least according to the book that inspired the film, 2004's "I Heard You Paint House."

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Most of the screenplay's action is set outside Detroit, the city where Hoffa's family relocated from Indiana when he was a boy. The bulk of the story unfolds in New York, Philadelphia and Miami.

In real life, Hoffa first rose to power at Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit and had a home in the city and a cottage in Lake Orion. In 1975, he went missing from metro Detroit in what has become one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.

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Hoffa was last seen alive outside the now-defunct Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan as he waited for a meeting that never happened.

Having one city or town double as another is commonplace for movies. The decision is dictated sometimes by budget concerns and whether a locale offers film incentives. (Michigan currently provides none.) Other times, the choice is driven by the preferences of the filmmakers, the schedules of actors, or any other of a myriad of reasons.

According to "Irishman" production designer Bob Shaw, the variety of suitable locales available in New York City, Long Island and the Hudson Valley region (along with New Jersey) allowed the cast and crew to stay within a comparatively close area while shooting more than 300 scenes in 108 days at 295 locations (a number that he says includes interiors constructed to resemble period settings).

"The only thing we thought we couldn't fake was Florida. The rest, we felt pretty comfortable being able to simulate in other locations," says Shaw, who worked previously with Scorsese on "The Wolf of Wall Street" and HBO's "Vinyl."

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According to Shaw and location manager Kyp Myers, "The Irishman" team worked carefully to get as close a match as possible for the scenes set in Hoffa's Detroit haunts. 

In one scene, Hoffa's successor as Teamsters president, Frank Fitzsimmons, walks out  of a bar identified at Nemo's just before his son's vehicle is car-bombed on the street.

The real explosion happened in 1975 on Michigan Avenue, not far from Tiger Stadium, at the parking lot of the historic Nemo's sport bar. The movie's version was shot at a Staten Island tavern.

In another sequence, Hoffa's loyal wife, Josephine, is shown at the Michigan Teamsters Local 299 building. While the real brick building is on Trumbull Street in Detroit, the movie's version is a structure on Long Island that's part of a row of semi-industrial buildings "trapped in time," according to Shaw.

The production designer originally found it while scouting with Myers for "Vinyl," the HBO series that Scorsese co-created.

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Near the end of the film, Hoffa (superbly played by Pacino) is shown talking on the phone from his Lake Orion home. The scene was filmed in Putnam County in the lower Hudson Valley, about 90 minutes from New York City. Shaw had used a spot near the site previously for HBO's "Sopranos."

The movie's key Detroit scene involves the last place Hoffa was seen by witnesses: the lot outside the old Machus Red Fox restaurant on Telegraph Road.

The cinematic Machus Red Fox gets the name of the eatery and the signage right. But the restaurant is depicted as being in a rustic area off a two-lane highway — a far cry from the real-life site next to a major, multi-lane artery that is now home to an Andiamo restaurant.

The Red Fox scenes were filmed near the village of Suffern, New York, about an hour's drive from New York City.

Shaw says it would have been extremely difficult to use a spot as crowded with strip malls and businesses as the real-life Telegraph Road site, which is close to the Maple Road intersection.

"In terms of a commercial area, it gets into a whole other complicated issue because ... we would have to change every business (around it) into the same (1975) time period, which is quite a chore," says Shaw.

The scene where Hoffa is killed inside a modest Detroit house, the film's alleged version, was shot in White Plains, New York.

Scorsese was interested in each of the movie's locations and their appropriateness to history, says Myers. "When there's a scene that goes on and on for many pages, it's just as important as the (brief) scene at a phone booth for him." 

The multitude of period settings, ranging mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s, were one of the biggest challenges of making "The Irishman."

"Because of the period nature, there literally were no locations where we just showed up and filmed. Something had to be done at virtually every place we went," says Shaw.

He says it's becoming increasingly difficult to find good locations for historical dramas like "The Irishman."

"I keep saying that the net tightens every year," says Shaw. "You can find individual buildings, but it's very hard to find an environment that is complete for period. And no one wants to point the camera at a building with someone standing in front of it."

'The Irishman'

Opens Friday at the Birmingham 8 and Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak; arrives Nov. 27 on Netflix

Rated R; language, violence

3 hours, 29 minutes

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 'The Irishman': Detroit played by New York locations in Scorsese film