Law Abiding Citizen: A Look at Neo-Noir Philadelphia

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“Law Abiding Citizen,” directed by F. Gary Gray, is a new thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler. The film is being released by Overture Films on October 16, 2009.

A quintessentially urban story, Law Abiding Citizen needed the backdrop of a great American city for its intricately woven tale. Originally set in Los Angeles, the events of the story took on special significance when the setting was changed to Philadelphia. “It was a very specific choice on our part,” says producer Lucas Foster. “It’s the seat of English common law in America. The Founding Fathers spent a lot of time there. This movie is all about justice, so it made a lot of sense for us to come to the place where a lot of these issues were first considered.”

The city offered the filmmakers several unique attributes, says Foster. “It has amazing architecture. It feels big, but not impersonal. It feels like a place where you know you can get a little bit lost.

“It was also important to us to have a place that was graphically stark and unusual,” he adds. “We’re calling the look of this movie ‘neo-noir.’ I don’t think Philadelphia has ever been photographed the way we’re photographing it.”
Philadelphia’s iconic City Hall, whose singular silhouette has been one of the defining images of the Philadelphia skyline for more than a century, figures prominently in the action. “Philadelphia City Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen in America,” says Butler. “It has so many great views and angles that no matter where you are it looks amazing. We lit up the whole street leading down to City Hall one night and it took my breath away.

“When you come to such a big city, you can feel that you’re just going to be a drop in the ocean, but you’re not in Philadelphia,” the actor says. “The city was really excited to have us here, and I was charmed by Philadelphia. I would make another movie here in a heartbeat.”

For critical scenes that take place behind prison walls, the filmmakers secured a notorious location. Holmesburg Prison was closed in 1995 after riots killed two wardens, but it may be better known as the site where infamous medical experiments were performed on prisoners. Built in 1896, and recently partially reopened to house overflow from other prisons, Holmesburg is the antithesis of a modern prison with its crumbling brick walls, archaic structures and rusting cells.

“Holmesburg is almost medieval,” says Foster. “You’re transported to another era. This movie could take place almost at any time if you didn’t see modern vehicles in it. It could be a ’40s movie, this could be The Big Sleep, and Holmesburg really lent itself to that timeless feeling.”

Shooting in Holmesburg proved to be a powerful experience for Butler. “We were in a functioning prison,” says the actor. “I’m not somebody who’s used to jails, just as Clyde Shelton isn’t. While we were filming, we’d have to stop so inmates in shackles could be led through by guards, and then we would start filming again. It was a fascinating experience, right down to the smell and the cold. The place tells a whole story unto itself.”

F. Gary Gray worked closely with the film’s production designer, Alex Hajdu, to develop a signature visual style for Law Abiding Citizen that takes its inspiration from the city and reflects some of the story’s complexity. “The premise of the movie dictated a unique style,” says the director. “We took some of the classic elements of film noir and introduced them into a very modern movie. We were not afraid to grab the long shadows or use high contrast. I thought that was perfect given the subject matter.”

Philadelphia itself helped define movie’s look, according to Hajdu. “I drew a sense of color and mood from the city. The architecture and scope of the buildings translated into a visual style for me. Philadelphia is fantastic in that respect. It has a lot of history and a lot of texture. Because it’s an older city, it has an almost European color palette. There are a lot of brick and earth tones, which worked well for the muted palette of film noir.”

Seeing his vision so painstakingly realized was gratifying for Gray. “It’s one thing to dream up this world,” he says. “It’s another to have a creative partner who has the ability to fulfill the dream with his own great ideas incorporated. Alex was a soldier. He’s a storyteller who understands how to visually deliver a world.”

Gray credits two more key members of the production team with helping create the atmosphere he envisioned for the film. “Our director of photography, Jonathan Sela, is a rock star. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s deadly. I don’t think I could have delivered this style of movie without his understanding. I told him I wanted a throwback to the classic noir pictures and he got it right away. He had great ideas for creating that concept.”

Wardrobe also had to fit Gray’s rigorous criteria. “Jeffrey Kurland, our costume designer, took the concept of neo-noir and ran with it,” says the director. “He is a true artist. I’ve never worked with a costume designer who nailed a specific concept like this. He also makes the actors feel good, which makes my job easier because when they’re confident, they can deliver their best performances.”

Gray’s innate understanding of the importance of visuals made the production designer’s job challenging and rewarding. “Working with Gary was a remarkable experience,” says Hajdu. “It’s easy to discuss concepts with him. He took nothing at face value. He pushed to find aspects of this film that didn’t appear on the page and uncovered all the hidden gems that he could. We spent hours with the cinematographer, laying out this movie in great detail, so we knew where we were all going together.”

Every film has unique challenges, says Gray. “But I really enjoyed making this movie and I think a lot of that has to do with the concept. This is the most fun I’ve had on a movie and it has helped me grow as a filmmaker. I’ve delivered very entertaining movies in the past, but I think this is a kind of next chapter. When audiences watch Law Abiding Citizen, I don’t think they’re going to be prepared for the movie they’re going to see. It’s going to continuously surprise them.”