Detroit: On Location
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the location used for Damon and Maya’s house throughout the series.
Sometimes the only way to find something unexpected is to just keep driving. When we first started scouting, I was new to Detroit and didn’t know the neighborhoods — and I didn’t have a specific idea of what we wanted for Damon and Maya’s house. I spent a few days driving around with Steve Schlick, the assistant location manager on the Pilot. A few miles outside downtown Detroit, Steve started looping around an old Ford plant that closed down in the ’50s. To my surprise and amazement, he then turned a corner and brought us to a small, isolated ’60s suburban subdivision.
Unlike many of the other neighborhoods we shot, there were no abandoned or burnt-out homes here. Yards were maintained and neighbors knew each other. There were cars in every driveway. It was a little pocket of well-being. The neighborhood was designed as a series of oval-shaped cul-de-sacs with optimistic ’60s names like John Glenn Place and John F. Kennedy Place. Like the Tudor trap house in the Morningside neighborhood, these ranch-style homes were meant to be a step up towards a promising future. The interiors were vintage ’60s and had great open floor plans.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the Cass Corridor, the neighborhood used for the street scenes with Frank’s ex-partner (and Maya’s ex-husband) Sean Foster.
We were drawn to the Cass Corridor even before we had scripts. Just west of Woodward Avenue, Cass used to be a back route out of downtown Detroit. It has the ultimate Low Winter Sun “toothy” cityscape, with two Italian Renaissance-style buildings towering alone in empty lots and streets. Once nice apartment buildings, they are now scrapped shells.
The blighted landscape is filled with vacant lots and boarded-up commercial and residential buildings, which were Victorian, Neo-Gothic, Romanesque and Art Deco in style. There’s clearly a history to this neighborhood, but it’s now kind of a ghost town. We actually came up with one of our visual themes — of always having a singular background figure slowly walking through the frame — while exploring this area.
Like with the location for The International, our shooting schedule in the Cass Corridor revolved around local sporting events because the streets would be lined with cars and busy with commuter traffic on event days. The vacant lots became parking lots and tailgating parties. There were mostly friendly locals passing through, but at the Temple Hotel, an infamous flophouse that recently sold for millions, there was a bit of shouting and brick-tossing while we were working next door. One time, a Temple Hotel tenant cursed me out as a “F—ing creativity whore!” which I rather liked.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the location used for the courthouse seen in Episode 8, “Revelations,” a location which was also used for the Detroit Police Department rooftop and entrance.
Our offices for the Pilot were situated on the fourth floor of the Antheneum office suites, and my office window had an arresting view of the Old Wayne County Courthouse with the Renaissance Center looming behind it. We initially scouted the building for a rooftop location of the Detroit Police Department, but we knew we would love to return for other scenes and locations. It had the large windows we wanted for the Low Winter Sun visual theme, with plenty of backlighting and silhouette. It was also the kind of building filmmakers love, not only because it had cinematic architecture but because we were able to shoot different locations in one building, saving time and money.
The building was constructed between 1897 and 1902 and was designed by Detroit architect John Scott. The exterior is a stately Beaux-Arts structure built of sandstone and pink granite. A rooftop tower boasts a large copper dome, and at the base of the tower are two fantastic bronze sculptures, each with four charging horses pulling a Roman chariot and figures representing Victory and Progress. They’re galloping towards Campus Martius Park, the heart of the city — which I like to think of as a symbol of hope for Detroit.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the location used for Joe Geddes’ house seen in Episode 7, “There Was a Girl.”
Scouting is truly one of the joys of being on location in Detroit. Even on our rare down days, we were out searching, hoping to discover new shooting locations. During one of our early days off, I went on a research expedition with the show’s lead painter, Casey Stoll. We started downtown and worked our way up Jefferson Avenue, ducking into random roads that we hoped would lead us to the Lake St. Clair and Detroit River riverfront. At the very top of the Jefferson-Chalmers district, on the border of Grosse Pointe, we discovered a unique neighborhood of canals and small bridges. Everyone had access to the waterway from their backyards. There were motorboats, kayaks and barbecue grills at every house. It was the old Key West of Detroit! Later that week, our producer Charles Carroll found the same area on his own. We all agreed that we would scout for Joe’s house in that neighborhood.
We wanted an environment that showed another side of Joe’s character. Like many of Detroit’s finest, Joe needed a place to relax and get away from the intensity of the job. Klenk Street feels like an off-the-grid weekend spot, a perfect escape for Joe. We looked at several houses around the canals and settled on a two-story colonial cottage with a screened-in porch, offering an unobstructed view of the Detroit River. We figured the porch would be Joe’s room to kick back, listen to music, sip a beer, look out at the water. More importantly, we discovered that by positioning the camera across the canal, we were able to get a lovely wide shot of the more interesting back of the house — with the water and Joe’s boat in the foreground.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the location used for Reverend Lowdown’s house seen in Episode 6, “The Way Things Are.”
Reverend Lowdown’s house was one of the most difficult locations to find and secure. We started our search in the affluent Indian Village neighborhood on the west side, but the houses were too big and far from the road — not to mention a drug lord would not be welcome in that neighborhood. We then moved on to West Village, where we secured a perfect Greek Revival house. Unfortunately, the owner rescinded days later. After that, we drove up and down the streets of Rosedale and Boston-Edison, where we finally found our home. It was an older, formerly affluent neighborhood that fell into neglect and abandonment years ago, which worked well for us.
Reverend Lowdown is a successful drug lord. Like the padrino in The Godfather, he looks after a large extended family, so the house needed to be the most impressive in the neighborhood. Built in 1904, the Tudor-style home sat on a larger lot than others on the street, and the dark brick façade made it stately and imposing, like a fortress. We loved the wrought-iron details of the fencing and the elaborate cast-iron door and carport that must have been a later addition. We certainly didn’t want a garish exterior or anything that might draw too much attention to a drug lord.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the ballroom used for the boxing match in Episode 5, “Cake on the Way.”
While driving through the Cass Corridor district during the scouting phase of the Pilot, we would often see a massive block of a building silhouetted in the background of the otherwise empty and derelict neighborhood. From the front, the building looked like a colossal Gothic school. From the back, it presented a huge, flat blank wall with a few windows. It was the Detroit Masonic Temple, and we were desperate to get inside for a look.
Later on, our series location manager, Tom Moisides, suggested a preliminary scout of the various neighborhoods and buildings he knew and loved in Detroit. This initial process helps us build a visual language for our team and creates a location library for the series. It’s also great fun to explore possibilities for upcoming scripts and meet the people of Detroit. It was during this scout that we conducted our first preliminary tour of the Masonic Temple. It was three hours long, and there was still so much more to see — there are over a thousand rooms. Inside we saw beautiful limestone walls, marble floors, figures and plaster details sculpted by Italian craftsmen, wood-paneled rooms, theaters, and a swimming pool. There were many possibilities for settings on the show.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the locations used for Damon’s blind pig in Episode 4, “Catacombs.”
“Blind pig” is a familiar term to the people of Detroit — it’s slang for an illegal after-hours nightclub and brothel. Assembled fast and cheap, these places sell booze, drugs, and sex with a low overhead and big profit. [Executive Producer] Chris Mundy pictured the blind pig with Brush Park in mind. I first remember coming across Brush Park while looking through a photography book by Camilo Jose Vergara, American Ruins. I was taken by these once-thriving neighborhoods that had been abandoned and neglected. There are not many homes left in this area, so the skyline really adheres to that “toothless” principal I mentioned previously. There are more empty lots than there are homes, and it’s close to downtown Detroit, so Comerica Park and Ford Field can be seen clearly through the landscape. The homes that are left are mansions that were originally designed and crafted for the upper class of Detroit’s Gilded Age. A few have been carefully restored, but there are still huge gaps of empty lots.
We loved the complex detail of the Ransom Gillis House, a Venetian Gothic mansion on Alfred Street. Much of the interior had been scrapped and gutted, though in an effort to preserve and perhaps sell the historic house, the city had invested in some repair work. There were new access stairs, and new brick was patched in among the original brick on the exterior and interior walls. A steel pipe props up the turret on the outside. The only original details remaining inside were some Victorian window casings with peeling paint, a broken lathe, and plaster walls in the parlor. We incorporated this texture into our design. There were new open stud walls as if someone had started a renovation, so we used those studs to staple on some flashy, sexy fabric.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the location used for Damon and Maya’s bar, The International, seen in Episode 3, “No Rounds.”
Location: The Baltimore Bar on Randolph Street, downtown Detroit
Finding the location for The International was far more challenging than any of us expected. In the script it’s described as: “A good dive bar. Oak bar. Pool table.” We wanted a local neighborhood bar with history, authenticity and no pretense. Windows were important not only for the natural back light, but also because they would allow us to see Greektown in the background — since Skelos collects from all the Greektown shop-owners, we wanted that visual tie-in to be strong.
It was literally at the eleventh hour that we found the Baltimore Bar. It was early autumn, and the Tigers were on a winning streak and heading for the playoffs. Every bar was loud and packed with #24 Cabrera jerseys. Producer Charles Carroll and I were visiting one last location in downtown Detroit. So much was right with the bar, but the windows didn’t work. Charles left — in defeat, I thought, but minutes later he texted me to walk next door. I entered a dimly lit bar with a large front window: He had found our International Bar. We’d driven past that place so many times without even seeing it.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the location and neighborhood used for the trap house in Episode 2, “The Goat Rodeo.”
The Trap House
Location: Beaconsfield Street in MorningSide
This is one of my favorite finds. It’s up the east side, in the neighborhood of MorningSide. I came across the neighborhood during scouting for the first episode, while looking for a location for Frank’s house. I would drive all night and drive all day. I just drove everywhere. I had no idea where I was going, and I found this neighborhood with these houses — I call them little Tudor follies. It goes back to that kind of aspirational American dream of the early ’30s. You can see it in the architecture: solid brick foundations, multiple high-reaching gables, lawns, backyards, organized neighborhoods. Perhaps these were the homes of middle management for the massive car industry. It was a weary neighborhood with street names like Buckingham, Chatsworth, Devonshire and Yorkshire.
A trap house is a place where dealers store and sell the drugs, and showrunner Chris Mundy had written the trap house scene for an east side house. When it came time to shoot the episode, location manager Tom Moisides helped me find the neighborhood again. Experiencing that drive along Southhampton Street, then turning onto Beaconsfield was haunting. It was so desolate and brown. There were are all these lovely homes abandoned. It’s heartbreaking. We had to be somewhat careful because of the wild dogs. I never felt like I was in danger, I just felt like I had to be aware.
Low Winter Sun Production Designer Ruth Ammon is responsible for scouting the city of Detroit for the series. This week, she discusses the overall look of the show and the locations used for the exterior and interior of Detroit Police Headquarters seen in Episode 1, “Pilot.”
The Look of Low Winter Sun
We started shooting the pilot in late July of 2012, though at first it seemed wrong to be shooting in late summer because of the show’s title. After arriving in Detroit , I realized why [Executive Producer] Chris Mundy picked Detroit as the perfect landscape to achieve the look of the series. A winter sun is a sun that sits low on the horizon — it creates a feeling of quiet, haunting loneliness. As we drove around Detroit, we saw these landscapes of abandoned and fire-raised buildings and wide vacant lots that created strong, graphic cinematic frames. We looked for shots with “toothlessness,” like a mouth with many missing teeth. With the sun as our backlight, this became our look.
Detroit’s history is amazing. Most of America can’t fathom the degree of art and architecture that’s there. There are ghostly reminders of European craftsmanship and American manufacturing, and we enlisted local location managers to help us find and create our vision. Tom Moisides, the location manager for the series, has a background in urban planning, but more importantly, has a huge heart and commitment to Detroit. It was always exciting to scout for each episode with Tom and [Producer] Charles Carroll. We drove night and day looking for usual suspects as well as rogue finds.
Detroit Police Department – Exterior
Location: 1300 Beaubien St.
The original Detroit P.D. headquarters was located at 1300 Beaubien, but we actually chose the building for other reasons. The building was designed by architect Albert Kahn in 1923 and captures the historic grandeur of Detroit. It’s located near Greektown, which is part of the soul of our story, and it embodies the Low Winter Sun aesthetic: It has a beautiful, but blackened, limestone exterior. There are large radius windows that have been rusted and cracked by weather and neglect, and grass grows through large cracks in the granite steps of the elegant front entrance. Another consideration was the position of the building: It was located in a wide-open space amid parking lots for municipal workers and sports fans. Backed by the downtown architecture, it made for a very cinematic moment in the Pilot when Joe Geddes takes a smoke break outside the station. Director Ernest Dickerson and Patrick Murguia, our director of photography, panned 180 degrees from the lit-up city background to the shadow of the Detroit P.D. The people-mover timed perfectly when it happened to enter the shot. It was the last scene shot on the Pilot, and we were ecstatic.