Making History: Gangsters

blog post photo

by Denis Minihan
Set Designer

It’s hard to think of a time when criminals didn’t operate in gangs, but prohibition in America was the catalyst that ushered in a new era of organised crime in the modern age. The term gangster conjures up the iconic image of a shadowy figure in a sharp suit, Trilby hat and carrying a Tommy gun—and the name we think of is old Scarface himself, Al Capone.

We wanted to examine how Capone took full advantage of the ban on alcohol in the States, how he built his empire and how his need for fame ultimately led to his downfall. But there were so many other characters from this period like Babyface Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde and so on. Our aim was to show how their characters defined the outlaw stereotype that has always been part of America—since those who rode through the Wild West living by their own rules. But at the same time we wanted to make sure not to glamourise this lifestyle which in most cases was simply motivated by a hunger for money and lead to violence and murder.

The graphics team was particularly thrilled at the prospect of tackling this project—they were attempting to recreate the assassination attempt on Capone, the final shoot outs of Bonnie and Clyde and Babyface, and the smuggling of booze on boats. They were chomping at the bit to get it to work. In the meetings before the shoot, the team’s ideas and enthusiasm were limitless and the entire crew arrived each day ready to work together to help create something new and exciting.

You can take it from someone who was there and who’s seen the finished product, they’ve done it!

Video Preview: “Speakeasy Battle Scene” — A dramatic coastal prohibition shootout is being recreated on film—with the catch that they have to shoot it on dry land!

Entry 1
Filming is under way on the high seas. Well not quite, but we are on a boat, it just happens to be in a car park. A crew member nearly lost his hand last night with a troublesome hatch but thankfully he has arrived this morning without a pirate hook. We’re filming booze smuggling scenes today and we’ve got some huge replica guns on set. I’ve spotted most of the crew (mainly the guys) playing with them at some stage.

Entry 2

The inevitable time on the shoot in which everybody on set has to get into costume has arrived. Every guy is in a suit and hat, dressed as a gangster and the atmosphere is getting heavy. I have my own problems as constant snacking on set has led to my trousers becoming a little ‘cosy’ around the waist. The actor playing Al Capone is a real doppelganger and the make up lady is giving him two nasty scars on his face, that’s with her make up kit I should emphasise. We have to get through plenty of shots today so there’s going to have to be a lot of quick scene changes so it’s all hands on deck. I say a quick prayer that my breeches make it through the day.

Entry 3
We’ve just completed the overhaul of an old living room, transforming it into Bonnie and Clyde’s 1930s apartment. We’ve got hold of some amazing props including a big old gramophone, which works, creating a real authentic 1930’s atmosphere on set. We lifted up some old lino earlier in the room and found some authentic creatures from that era also!

Entry 4
Time’s running out for Babyface Nelson. The bandit and his accomplice John Chase are in the middle of a shootout with the cops and it’s getting quite hectic out there. The boys have come up with an ingenious method of recreating the flashing of the Tommy gun fire which is to have someone (namely me) flash a light bulb in time with the trigger being pulled. I think Mickey, who’s playing Chase, may have a dislocated shoulder by the end of the day as he has to continually jolt the gun against himself to simulate live rounds being fired, I’ve spotted him wincing a few times.

Entry 5
Colin has got two guns and his angry face on. I’m watching him stumble across a field and get riddled with bullets (not really of course) in Babyface’s final moments. The lad’s a pretty good actor and I feel like taking cover when I see him running towards me with guns blazing. He has to run through quite a few deposits left by friendly sheep and I decide to travel back to HQ in a different car from him.

Entry 6
We’re ready to make our way back home after a week of filming interviews in the States. I think it’s been my favourite so far particularly because of the scrapes we’ve been getting into; filming beside a snake infested swamp in Dallas and being politely asked to leave two places in Texas, once by a local sheriff.  But people have been fantastic in the main, always ready to go out of their way to accommodate us. I’ve got to run now, many planes to catch.

Video Preview: “Babyface Shootout” — Graphic designers put their ingenuity to work as they recreate the shootout between Babyface and the coppers.

Travel back to prohibition in Making History “Gangsters” premiering October 26th at 9P et/pt.


  1. Ben Seclawney
    November 8, 2010, 10:48 pm

    One of my favorite eras in Americas history.