Departed, The: Symbols and Signs in Scorsese’s Oscar Winner

“The Departed,” the gritty crime drama from the brilliant director Martin Scorsese, is set in South Boston, where the Massachusetts State police Department is waging an all-out war to take down the city’s cop organized crime ring. The key is to end the reign of powerful mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) from the inside. The story centers on the complicated, complex, and morally ambiguous lives of two copes: Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio).

While “The Departed” is set entirely in Boston, principal photography on the film was accomplished in and around the cities of Boston and New York.

GoodFellas Vs. The Departed

Production designer Kristi Zea (who had previously collaborated with Scorsese on “GoodFellas”) observes: “‘The Departed’ does have some of the same elements as ‘GoodFellas,’ but, of course, this film takes place in Boston.

Because we had worked together before, Marty could refer to things we had done back then and say, ‘Remember that thing we did on ‘GoodFellas’ I want something like thatonly, what’s the Boston’s version I’d scratch my head and say, ‘Well, I’m not sure, Marty, but we’ll find out.’ It was great to do another film with Marty.

Exteriors in Boston

Almost all of the film’s exterior scenes were shot in Boston at such sites as Boston Common, Boston Harbor, Chinatown, and, of course, South Boston, known to the locals as “Southie.” Traveling outside of the city, the company also shot in the neighboring towns of Braintree, Quincy, and Mark Wahlberg’s hometown, Dorchester.

It’s very difficult to do much in New York that looks like Boston from an exterior point of view, which is why we stayed mainly in Brooklyn. In Boston, there is also a specific style of New England architecture that doesn’t exist in New York, like the three-story wooden houses with front or back porches on each floor. That is something of a signature Boston look that we made sure to have in our film. Another element that was fascinating to me is the ‘brutalist’ mode of architecture, including City Hall and the Hurley Building.

Juxtaposed with the city’s historical landmarks, the imposing, cement-gray Hurley Building, in the heart of Boston’s Government Square, was selected to serve as the exterior for the utilitarian headquarters of the Massachusetts State Police.

Shooting in New York

In New York, the company stayed primarily outside of Manhattan proper, instead having areas of Brooklyn double as Boston, mostly for interior scenes.

Relates Zea: “The fact that we shot this movie in two different cities in not unusual, but in this case, the differences between New York and Boston are pretty evident as you drive around. Outside of downtown Boston, most of the structures are quite low and there is lots of sky, whereas most of the New York sky, whereas most of the New York sky is filled with high-rises.

Zea and her team then created the interiors of the headquarters on a cavernous soundstage in the Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. She says: “We decided to carry over the gray and brown palette of the existing structure, which really worked well for those sets.

Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus

Director of photography Ballhaus took a similar approach to lighting the police headquarters. He offers: “Police stations are normally lit with fluorescents, but I didn’t want to do that because fluorescents create a wash of light, which has no tension. I decided to use direct light and shadows to add variety and texture to the atmosphere.”

Almost B/W Lighting

Though Ballhaus had previously teamed with Scorsese on six films, he says: “I don’t think Marty and I have ever talked so much about lighting. The whole movie was somewhat influenced by film noir. We lit it almost like a black-and-white film, especially in the police station, which didn’t have much color. But even if you don’t have a lot of color, color is still something you can use in a dramatic way.”

Costume Design

Costume designer Sandy Powell utilized color to set Jack Nicholson’s character apart from the rest, as she explains: “Basically everybody else is in ordinary street clothes in neutral tones of black, brown, gray, and beige. Originally, we were just going to make Nicholson’s Frank Costello blend in, but after meeting Jack, it was obvious he wanted to take the look a little more to the extreme in terms of color and design. Costello is a guy who has so much power, he can wear whatever he wants and no one would dare question it. So we definitely had more leeway with his character’s wardrobe.”

The Color Red

Within the almost colorless settings, the occasional injection of the color red was both dramatic and deliberate. Confirms Zea: “We intentionally made the costumes and the sets fairly monochromatic, but Marty Scorsese, Michael Ballhaus, and I collectively made the decision that whenever we used red, there was a reason for using red. It’s intended as a subliminal message that something of a dangerous nature is about to happen, with blood being the obvious correlation.

The Letter X

The letter X was also used symbolically throughout the movie, at the behest of Scorsese, who meant it as a tribute to the 1932 movie “Scarface,” directed by Howard Hawks and produced by Howard Hughes (and the subject of Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Aviator”), in which the X has a special significance.

Scorsese asked us to utilize the letter X wherever we could,” Zea reveals, “so you can see X’s on windows, on walls, on floors.”

Adds Ballhaus: “The X is a sign of death, so Scorsese wanted us to include it, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly, as when I use lighting to project X’s into certain scenes.

Death and the Film’s Title

The concept of death harkens back to the film’s title, as Monahan explains: “In the Catholic Church, we would refer to the dead as ‘the faithful departed.’ I started playing around with that idea and the fact that, ironically, this movie is about faithfulnessto others, of course, but most fatally to the characters’ best interests, so I thought the title really fit.