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Tower Heist, starring Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Tea Leoni, lifts the curtain on the inner workings of a luxury high-rise and what it takes to keep hundreds of New York City’s wealthiest denizens satisfied. The residence managers for several high-profile hotels provided the filmmakers and the writers with insider tips about their experiences in overseeing top-drawer residences.
Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson recalls: “It was informative, to say the least, to speak with the people who work in these buildings. I interviewed everyone from doormen to housekeepers to building managers. There’s a whole underworld to the New York building scene that exists in the basements that most people are unaware of. They make it all possible, and you just never see it. It’s fascinating.”
Almost every aspect of establishing Manhattan as the backdrop for Tower Heist’s action hinged on the filmmakers’ ability to execute some of the bigger set pieces conceived in the script. From the über-exclusive wealthy enclaves of Park Avenue to the working class neighborhoods in Queens, the crew needed to evoke the distinctive personalities of the city in a creative way.
Production designer Kristi Zea, who previously collaborated with the movie’s director Brett Ratner on The Family Man and Red Dragon — and most recently designed the luxuriously singular look for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — was the hands-on choice to visualize the diverse and complex production design.
Her extensive experience, particularly when it came to creating something as opulent as the character of Shaw’s penthouse apartment, was helpful in satisfying a multitude of requirements of Mark Russell’s visual effects department and Steve Kirshoff’s special effects team.
A tour of some of Manhattan’s most upscale hotels and high-rise residences helped to determine the scope of the fictitious building where the majority of the film was set. For the grand interior set of The Tower lobby, Zea ended up using an amalgam of what she observed on the tour, elevating the look and scale to create a sumptuously sophisticated design.
Ultimately, a sprawling top-floor apartment in the Trump International Hotel & Tower — located at Central Park West in bustling Columbus Circle — served as the model for the set of Shaw’s opulent penthouse. Zea recalls: “The inspiration was an empty apartment that was half a floor and had a staggering 180-degree view of Manhattan.
We were able to match up the walls of the building, but then what we did on the inside was all up to us. We had a blast with it.” With the cooperation of Donald Trump, who allowed the production access to several of his high-end properties, the filmmakers were able to incorporate true luxury locales in the film.
The Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York City was used to film exteriors, including portions of the re-creation of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and a sprawling foot and car chase sequence that had the main- and second-unit teams winding along Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.
Ratner explains about lensing here: “That’s what’s so great about shooting in New York City. Every direction you put the camera, you have something special, whether it is an interesting face or a building or a landscape. When you point the camera in any direction, you have amazing visuals.”
Tea Leoni sums the cast’s thoughts on the scale of the production: “I can’t believe the city of New York gave us Columbus Circle for this scene. We had cars speeding and crashing through the streets. It’s a crazy scene with so much going on.”
Trump even offered up the rare opportunity to lens in the spacious underground parking garage and service center of the lavish Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. The real-estate mogul made a point of visiting the set during a break from taping his television series, The Celebrity Apprentice, several floors up to see how Ratner and the cast were faring.
A key element to envisioning the sophisticated penthouse apartment was assembling a status-affirming art collection. Ratner, himself an avowed art lover, had specific artists and pieces in mind for the film. Zea knew of Ratner’s dabbling in this world, so she elevated the design aesthetic to reflect his passion for it.
Occasionally, Ratner would place a call or send an e-mail to cut through mountains of red tape required to include reproductions of pedigreed world-class artwork. To evoke the tastes of a savvy art collector, Zea went with a modern-classic design approach, punctuated with important multimedia art.
She explains: “These days, it seems wealthy people want to have wall power. They want to have art on their walls that means something and shows people, just like a car, that ‘I’m rich, I’m smart and I know what I’m doing.’” Reproduction works from masters, including Pablo Picasso, Francesco Clemente, Richard Prince, Francis Bacon, Ed Ruscha, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, Alberto Giacometti and Andy Warhol, fill Shaw’s penthouse set.
Says Grazer of the final art choices they amassed for filming: “It’s a shame that someone as dishonorable as Arthur Shaw is allowed to be surrounded by this much beauty.”
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