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‘Boss’ team went into Chicago’s neighborhoods

The mayor's desk from 'Boss.' | Keith Hale~Sun-Times

The mayor's desk from "Boss." | Keith Hale~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:24AM

When “Boss” creator Farhad Safinia came to Chicago last spring to begin filming, he’d already done his homework. He knew he wanted to bring the city itself into the show in a new way and avoid “postcard shots” that are the usual draw.

“In a way, even though the show is about the mayor, it’s also about his whole domain, his whole kingdom,” Safinia said. “So we went into the neighborhoods that you usually don’t see on film. I feel we got a true mix of the ethnicities, the political power bases, the various factions and how they intermingle to create allegiances with each other or to topple each other.”

The powers that be at Starz, apparently impressed with the eight-episode series, have renewed it for a second season. Filming will resume on 10 new episodes next year in Chicago.

Local set designer Dan Clancy worked closely with Safinia in creating the look of the series. “It’s very rare that you get a really smart script that cares about the city it’s in without using the usual cliches,” Clancy said. “This show really captures the dynamics of Chicago.”

Though producers considered other settings — New York, Los Angeles — star Kelsey Grammer agrees that Chicago was the right home for Mayor Tom Kane. “It’s so uniquely American,” Grammer said. “This shining city rises out of the plains like a fortress empire. You can believe that it’s run by one man. That this is his fiefdom.”

Clancy, who grew up in the Belmont-Austin neighborhood and now lives in Park Ridge, has worked in film for 24 years. For “Boss,” he also assisted in scouting neighborhood locations and feels most filmmakers don’t really understand Chicago, especially when it comes to leaving the obvious locations for other areas of the city.

“Using neighborhood locations gives you a whole different vibe and texture,” Clancy, 49, said. “And for design, you can’t beat that. It allowed us to be creative in a new way.”

Scenes were shot in Englewood, Pullman, Pilsen, West Town, Chinatown, Austin and Lincoln Park. The L, the Loop, Millennium Park, City Hall, Daley Plaza, the Spertus Institute, the Chicago Hilton, Lower Wacker Drive and Shaw’s Crab House make appearances. Scenes were also shot in Douglas, Columbus and Garfield parks.

“I think we added an element of reality that most shows don’t have because they don’t know a city like we do,” Clancy said. “And it really pays off in the final product.”

Re-creating City Hall: The mayor’s desk

The walls in Mayor Tom Kane’s office, built on the “Boss” set at Cinespace Film Studios on the city’s West Side, are filled with Native American artifacts and the usual plaques and awards; a credenza displays a twisted horn from Africa that set designer Dan Clancy says represents “strength and virility.”

But Clancy feels the most symbolic prop is hanging on the wall directly behind the desk: a map of Chicago depicting the city on the day it was ravaged by the Great Fire. It’s not your usual City Hall decoration, says Clancy.

“It’s about how the fire represents extreme power and destruction and ruthless savagery,” Clancy said. “It’s so important to who this man is. He loves the city more than anything and will stop at nothing, and will burn down anyone who gets in the way of his vision.”

The wall of mayors past

Outside the mayor’s office the wall is lined with photos of all previous Chicago mayors (some shown above), except for Richard M. Daley. For plot purposes, he was replaced with Kane’s father-in-law, Mayor Rutledge.

“These actually are in the real City Hall,” Clancy said. “But you can’t get reproductions of them. So it took awhile to find what we needed to make the wall complete.”

A much larger portrait of Kane on an adjacent wall was painted by Ross Martuchi, a Teamster crew member who’s also an artist.

“Ross really nailed it,” Clancy said, laughing. “The eyes actually seem to stare at you and follow you. It’s really kind of creepy.”

The mural from Lane Tech

Lane Tech High School played a role in the set design. Gus Van Sant, a “Boss” executive producer who directed the series’ first episode, was intrigued when he heard Lane Tech houses the largest collection of murals (from 1909 through the Depression) found in any U.S. high school. He and Clancy took a look and found Dorothy Loeb’s 1909 painting “Primitive Forge,” a detail of which now fills a vast wall in the City Hall entrance.

“Gus was very enthusiastic about including some element from the murals,” Clancy said. “The forge obviously represents steel, strength and the building of a great city.”

The Marquette mosaics

The mosaics above the elevators in this fictional version of City Hall? They’re taken directly from the Tiffany mosaics found in the historic Marquette Building that depict events in the life of Jacques Marquette, his exploration of Illinois and the Native Americans he met.

“We got permission to take photos of the mosaics, and graphic designer Bret Tanzer turned them into wallpaper murals,” Clancy said. “It’s another cool piece of history on the set.”

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