On the rooftop of the InterContinental Barclay hotel in Manhattan last summer, a small group of people gazed in awe at an unremarkable morning sky, hemmed in by the skyscrapers of Midtown. “Oh my God, look,” one said. “All my life I’ve never seen anything like it,” said another.
For the young actors present to help recreate the night of August 14, 2003, what they “saw” required a leap of imagination. But thanks to the magic of post-production, viewers of new series “City on Fire,” which debuts May 12 on Apple TV+, will see what New Yorkers will experience during the regional blackout tonight. was so extraordinary: a night sky dotted with stars.
The 2003 blackout had a distinctly communal energy compared to the 1977 blackout, which features prominently in Garth Risk Hallberg’s novel “City on Fire,” on which the Apple series is based. But for series creators Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz, the 2003 blackout was one of many historical parallels that made them believe they could transpose Hallberg’s 900-page mystery into punk, l youth love and anarchy from one period of intense change to another: the post-9/11 era. As in the late 70s, New York’s future seemed uncertain then and its underground rock scene was vital.
It was the days of the Strokes and Friendster. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the start of Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial rezoning efforts. It was also… 20 years ago now, which made her ripe for the nostalgia cycle.
“I totally romance the early 2000s,” said Chase Sui Wonders, 26, who plays young femme fatale Samantha, an NYU freshman who takes analog photos, publishes a fanzine, and is obsessed with a band fictional city center called Ex Post Facto. “It was so fun to play the tech-free aspect of this period where you just call someone on their home phone, like, ‘Meet me at Tompkins Square Park at noon, and if you’re there, great. Otherwise , I’ll find someone else around to hang out with.
This period too, crucially, has been mostly unexplored by modern scripted series. The challenge Savage and Schwartz faced then was twofold: could they do justice to the novel’s chaotic ’70s spirit while shifting the timeline by a quarter of a century? And could they, in turn, do justice to the spirit of 2003 in a way that resonates today?
Wyatt Oleff, who plays the young male lead, Charlie, seemed to think so. A naive child from Long Island whose father died on 9/11, Charlie is barely discovering the city, following his crush, Samantha, from one record store and concert hall to the next – and eventually in the underworld. Like Charlie, Oleff is a newcomer to New York. He was born in 2003.
“That feeling of transitioning from one era to another, I think, is so fascinating to me, because I feel like I’m in a very transitional time in my life,” he said. . “And I feel like the show encapsulates that feeling of growing and changing.”
The year 2003 is a North Star for Savage and Schwartz, but not because they spent it bouncing between Brooklyn loft parties. It was the year Schwartz’s hit Fox drama “The OC” debuted. (Savage served as an executive producer and writer, and the two later created “Gossip Girl” together.)
Although “The OC” was set in Southern California, its buzzing soundtrack helped bring mainstream indie music to the era – including New York bands like the Walkmen, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem – to a general public.
As they began brainstorming series ideas with Apple, “City on Fire” was on a long list of “dream projects,” Savage said. The book had attracted huge buzz before its release in 2015, and it was cast by Scott Rudin for a movie before he even got a publishing deal. Savage and Schwartz were surprised to learn that screen rights were available again.
Still, they weren’t sure the world needed another show in ’70s New York, Schwartz said, “and also in the ’70s now, for an audience – that was 50 So it starts to get a bit abstract.
The year 2003 was less abstract. But it carried other risks.
“We were nervous talking to Garth,” Savage said, aware that the change “was pretty substantial.” Hallberg liked the idea. According to Savage, he “spoke a lot about using the 70s to write about the contemporary period he was living and writing in”.
She and Schwartz hope their show could similarly relate to the present day.
“That period of the ’70s was a time when people wondered if New York was going to survive as a city,” Schwartz said, adding that in the years after 9/11, when Hallberg started writing the novel, “the same questions were asked. In another grim echo, much of Manhattan was shut down due to Covid when production on the show began. It also raised “a lot of fears about the survival of New York,” he said.
“The OC” had taught Savage and Schwartz the importance of having the right music — but if anything, it was even more crucial with “City on Fire.” The scenes take place in grimy clubs where Karen O (spliced using archival footage) screams on stage. One of the main characters, William, played by Nico Tortorella, is the former singer of Ex Post Facto, who is embroiled in a shooting that may involve his estranged Upper East Side family. (His sister, Regan, is played by Jemima Kirke.) Fittingly, the soundtrack is killer. Music is everywhere.
“Post-9/11 music in general, I think, we’re kind of going through something similar to that right now, just post-pandemic music,” Tortorella, 34, said. “There’s just this kind of fight for life that exists in sound, this freedom.”
Bringing Ex Post Facto – and its later version, Ex Nihilo – to life was his own side musical project. For this, music supervisor Jonathan Leahy assembled a small group of songwriters to write and demo original songs, which music producers Abe Seiferth and Jason Hill turned into fully fleshed-out recordings and live performances. in the show. (Hill also composed the score.) Tortorella and Max Milner, who plays William’s replacement in the band, sang. Apple plans to release the songs online and on limited-edition vinyl.
“It’s an impossible task to make the music sound like this very specific time and place, but also: don’t make it sound like you’re ripping someone off at all,” Leahy said. “So we tried to thread this needle.”
For anyone who was in New York in 2003, memories got a little dusty. (For the record: it was the summer I moved here, at age 24.) But some moments remain crisp – sealed, perhaps, by the tensions of the moment. When the lights went out, there was no widespread looting or arson like in 1977. But as Hallberg reminded me over the phone, there was “a high-pitched, high-pitched panic” , where everyone thought, “Oh my God, is this happening again? Is this a terrorist attack?
What followed, as he put it, was a “long tail of that sweet relief.” Much of the city turned into a sort of street carnival, as bodegas and supermarkets jostled to empty their hot beers and meat coolers.
Some things haven’t changed much since 2003, which the series suggests in its attention to issues like class, race, and gentrification. “These are themes that, honestly, will probably continue throughout human history,” said Xavier Clyde, 29, who plays William’s boyfriend Mercer, a young black man mistakenly suspected of having a shooting. “No matter what period these things are presented to us, they are always going to resonate.”
But if the view across “City on Fire” is a little rosy otherwise, that’s a New York tradition. In 2003, the cool kids complained about the derivative nature of new music — Have you ever heard of the Stooges?! — and how tame Manhattan already seemed compared to the heyday of CBGBs and frequent muggings.
Today does not seem to be an exception.
“If we can all agree on one thing, it’s that technology is bad most of the time,” Sui Wonders said, laughing as she reflected on her time from 2003. One of the parties most inspiring of the show for her was the way she asked, as she said, “How did people connect before the digital age?”
“Anyway, chaos or connection,” she continued, “at least people are connecting.”
So maybe the kids are fine. At the very least, Oleff — at 19, the youngest member of the main cast — seemed too wise to get into the kind of trouble his character does.
“There’s always a cycle,” he said of his newly adopted city. “People will come and change it. And that’s also kind of what I’m learning about the beauty of New York: there’s a tradition here, but there’s also so much room for experimentation that it becomes an entirely different city every few years. .
“And that, to me, sounds like New York.”