Before Kevin Thompson got to work on the production design of The King of Staten Island, a semi-autobiographical comedy influenced by the life of Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, he headed straight to the source. Thompson, along with director Judd Apatow and producer Barry Mendel, joined Davidson in his hometown of Staten Island—New York City’s smallest borough by population—to get a personal tour of the comedian’s roots.
The group saw all of Davidson’s haunts—from Denino’s Restaurant, an old-school pizzeria, to the modest homes where he grew up. They instantaneously decided to film almost entirely on location. “We were like, ‘Why don’t we just do the real thing?’” Thompson says. “That way, Pete could smell the authenticity and be familiar and comfortable.”
After all, the film, streaming on demand beginning June 12, is a personal one, telling a fictionalized account of Davidson’s real life growing up with his mother and sister, after the death of his firefighter dad. Just like his film counterpart, Davidson still lives at home with his mom in Staten Island (see: all of those quarantine SNL sketches).
“Staten Island is such a throwback, salt-of-the-earth place,” Mendel says. “You could try to compare it to certain places in Long Island or New Jersey, or the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens, but it just isn’t like them. It’s its own thing and we wanted to try to bottle that.” The film features real locales that populated Davidson’s life, including Ralph’s Italian Ices and a quiet stretch of Robinson Beach where he and his friends used to spend time. “That beach just seemed so sad and strange and funny,” Mendel says, noting that they found hypodermic needles and “other unmentionables” in the sand.
There were also the locations they stumbled on, like a basketball court next to an abandoned orphanage, where the characters shoot hoops. “You can’t make that stuff up,” Mendel says. “The ratty couch. These guys are going nowhere and they weirdly aren’t that stressed about it.” Thompson toured roughly 40 Staten Island houses to create an authentic design for Davidson’s fictional home. He took note of the old kitchen cabinets, eclectic oversize pieces crammed into small spaces, wall hangings containing words like ‘faith’ or ‘beauty,’ and old inherited furniture mixed with plastic. “It’s a collage of randomness,” he says.
Thompson shopped for set dressings at the same places locals browsed: Costco, Target, and the Everything Goes thrift shop, a “gold mine” for used furniture. “[The house] is naturalistic, lower-middle-class; we wanted to show that it was somewhat neglected because the father wasn’t around anymore and the mother was overwhelmed,” Thompson says.
Equally important was the film’s firehouse, which becomes a second home to Davidson’s character in the film. During preproduction, Thompson, Davidson, Apatow, and Mendel visited Ladder Company 118 in Brooklyn Heights, where Davidson’s dad worked. They spoke to his former firefighter buddies and took in the setting, with its decorated lockers, softball tournament plaques, and the occasional crude drawing. Details were everything for Thompson. “The sleeping quarters, the artwork on the wall, the memorials,” he says. “The ad hoc quality of the old classic firehouse with new layers of the guys and how they would personalize things.” Mendel adds, “We employed as much as we could to help make our firehouse feel lived-in like that.”
Thompson also toured 15 firehouses around Staten Island, collecting visual references as he went. They shot on location at Engine 163/Ladder 83, a red brick firehouse on Jewett Avenue, near Davidson’s fictional home on Lake Avenue. The bathrooms, lockers, and bunking area were built on a soundstage, and a duplicate of a kitchen wall in Davidson’s father’s station was created for the set, with its helmets, badges, and portraits. “[The firehouse] we found had this glorious fish tank and a table with all sorts of remembrances written into it,” Mendel says. “It had the feeling of a place that you hang out during your downtime and where people can really bond.”
In the end, the goal wasn’t to re-create Davidson’s exact childhood home or his dad’s firehouse but rather to capture the feeling of it. When the comedian walked onto the set of his character’s home for the first time, Thompson knew he had succeeded. “Pete’s a man of few words, but you can see it in his face. He’s like, ‘This is exactly right.’”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest