It’s raining outside the red brick warehouse. More precisely, it’s raining on one specific 1980s Cadillac parked outside, a massive crane sprinkling gallons of water onto the vintage automobile while a director and camera crew stand just out of the splash zone. “Action,” yells the director in a heavy British accent, as two young actors in ’80s garb enter the frame.
The set could be on any street in film industry hubs such as New York and Los Angeles. But if you peer behind the crew, Cleveland’s skyline shines in the distance — ready for its next leading role in a major motion picture.
Helmed by director Yann Demange and starring Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Jason Leigh, White Boy Rick tells the true story of Richard Wershe Jr. (played by newcomer Richie Merritt), who at age 14 became the youngest FBI informant ever during the drug wars that engulfed 1980s Detroit.
Wershe was later convicted of selling crack and heroin, and in a controversial decision, received a life sentence in 1987 at age 17. He received parole in July 2017. While the story is sensational, Demange originally wasn’t drawn to the film, which opens Sept. 14. He signed on after learning more about Wershe’s relationship with his father, played on screen by McConaughey.
“What drew me to it was the relationship between father and son,” Demange says. “And these two families trying to survive poverty in the landscape that used to be the embodiment of the American Dream.”
Cleveland came into the picture after Demange made a site visit to Wershe’s hometown. “East Side Detroit no longer looks like East Side Detroit,” he says. “The foliage is overgrown, the pavement is cracked, there are buildings and houses missing — what I would have needed to recreate is almost apocalyptic now.”
Knowing he needed a stand-in that resembled the Motor City in look and location, he scouted four hours southeast in Cleveland. When he saw East Side neighborhoods such as Glenville, he knew he could transform it into a dead ringer for 1980s Detroit.
The time traveling began when the three-month production started filming in March 2017. The intersection of Beachwood Avenue and East 128th Street was thrown back to the Ronald Reagan era — satellite dishes were removed from homes, window frames were replaced with period-correct versions, and vintage Lincoln Continentals and boxy Chevrolets were pulled onto the street.
In a hospital scene shot in an abandoned wing of the Cleveland Clinic’s Lakewood Medical Building, ’80s-era heart monitors, IV machines, surgical headgear and X-rays were secured.
“When you’re re-creating somewhere, it’s the craft of getting the details right,” Demange says. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into making a street period correct.”
The difficulty of keeping modern-day cars, equipment and clothing out of frame was a little easier in Cleveland. When a road needed to be closed or a house being filmed wasn’t working, Cleveland’s smaller film market worked to the crew’s advantage.
“The city and the local police and everybody was behind us and would turn it around for us quickly,” Demange says. “I’ve never experienced that before.”
Although Cleveland is meant to look like Detroit, Demange thinks residents will see their city shine through in filming locations such as Tower City, the Cleveland Municipal Court, Euclid’s Pla-Mor Roller Rink and more.
“I loved filming in Cleveland. Everyone was so nice. I was quite taken aback by it,” Demange says. “It has a place in my heart and I really look forward to coming back and showing the film.”