Southie gets a stand-in

Filmmakers turn to East Boston for hardscrabble look they seek

By Stephanie Ebbert
Boston Globe
November 15, 2008

For the latest mob drama set in South Boston, billed as an “Irish Sopranos,” producers of a SpikeTV pilot program knew exactly the look they wanted. Dark and dingy. Hopeless streets. Think “Mystic River” or “Gone Baby Gone.”

But when the locations manager came scouting, he could not find a consistently “dark and dingy” block in Southie anymore. So the film crews will descend on South Boston for just a few days this month and head to East Boston for the bulk of their work.

“They said Eastie looks like Southie,” said state Representative Brian P. Wallace, a South Boston Democrat. “I cracked up. Eastie’s always been 15 years behind us, so that’s no problem.”

It’s a curious conundrum for a neighborhood, to be no longer gritty enough for the Hollywood klieg lights. While it is old news that South Boston has been transformed over the past decade, it is still surprising to many that Hollywood did not get the memo.

“It’s always exciting when a film crew is in town, but it’s been frustrating,” said Donna Brown, executive director of the South Boston Neighborhood Development Corporation. “People will joke: ‘We actually have all our teeth here.’ ”

Brown is among those who fought the real South Boston war of the past decade, trying to stop families from being priced out by condo conversions. But most of the three-deckers have been swept out of the neighborhood, along with many of the children. Last week, families were shattered to learn of the impending merger of two neighborhood parochial schools; combined enrollment has dropped 34 percent since 2000.

“It was all families and children,” said Joan Coyne, 75, who grew up on F Street and now lives in Dorchester. “Now, it’s all dogs.”

Sixty-one percent of South Boston residents have lived there less than five years, said Wallace, himself a novelist who pitches his work for the big screen. “There’s a drastic change. If they want to get a house that looks like 15 years ago, there’s enough around. But there’s probably not a whole street.”

Still, Southie retains its allure as a cinematic backdrop for desperate poverty, unflinching loyalty, and divided or duplicitous friends or relatives. And how could Hollywood resist? In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category, it’s hard to beat the neighborhood that birthed the Bulger brothers: one, a powerful state Senate president, another, the head of the mob.

Last year, actor-director Brian Goodman made another Southie crime film staring Mark Ruffalo, Donnie Wahlberg, Ethan Hawke, and Amanda Peet. And shooting is expected to begin nearby on another television pilot – this one, set in Charlestown and launched by TNT – starring Wahlberg and Bridget Moynihan.

The SpikeTV pilot, with a working title of “War in ’04,” is based on the power struggle that ensues after a mob boss flees town under federal indictment. The central character, known as Madso, realizes that he is being set up.

“It would be nice to get a new storyline and have someone positively portray the community and the extraordinary people that live there,” said Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty.

But does it matter? Some residents shrugged when asked about the filming. They like the movies, even if they find themselves unrecognizable on film.

“I don’t think anyone here thinks that the movie industry speaks for them,” said Peter Golemme of Thomas Park. “People do get a kick out of seeing spots they’re familiar with on the screen; I do know that. And people welcome the fact that movies are being made here.”

Sure, they complain about losing parking to crews’ trucks, but Patte Papa, event and film director for the city of Boston, pointed to another boon for the locals. “The residents like it because the residents normally get a piece, either getting their houses paid for to be used or they get to be on site,” she said.

For the SpikeTV pilot, the producers did find a Southie location for the fictional mob boss’s home: a three-story, single-family dwelling on dead-ended Athens Street behind Amrhein’s Restaurant. On the left of the house, a parking lot with a chain-link fence is topped with barbed wire. But on the far corner, possibly unseen by the TV cameras, is a five-story condo building with a fancy brass sign. Around the corner is a massive construction project that will put about 130 apartments where Cardinal Cushing High School once stood.

Many other locations will be shot in East Boston, unless a Southie landmark is mentioned in the screenplay, said Derek Cunningham, locations manager for the Tom Lynch Co., which is coproducing the two-hour pilot with Dana White, a onetime Southie resident.

“We’re going to make this our Southie,” said Cunningham, who was born in Ireland and raised in Belmont. “It’s not in any disrespect to anybody. If it’s not there in Hollywood, we make it.”

The aura that drew the cameras is not gone. On a misty Friday, the neighborhood’s bleak cinematic potential – and some potential actors – reemerged. Two men in track suits crossed Broadway, the young one lean and tense, working his tight jaw, the other gray-haired and straining the seams of his track suit. In the parking lot of Liberty Bell roast beef, two men in thick jackets stood with their car door open, examining another car’s gas tank.

Still, Southie looked too tidy for the big screen today and for Cunningham. Too many homeowners made improvements during the real estate boom.

“Southie is a proud community; it’s a clean community,” he said. “This script was just the opposite. We’re looking for a specific look that does not exist.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at

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