NEWARK, NJ - Soldiers, state troopers, and police officers charged through the streets of downtown Newark late Thursday night into reenacted combat, on to a fiery film set that sought to recreate the dramatic events of the 1967 riot.
Actors crouched behind crashed, burning cop cars while they shot wildly into buildings.
The death rattle of rifle fire echoed off the hosed-down pavement. The glow from the conflagration and fire engine lights lit up faces that had the same mix of fear and hate seen on 1967 Newark's streets.
It was bedlam. It was Hollywood in Brick City.
The corner of Branford Place and Halsey Street was ground zero of the several-block set for the upcoming film "The Many Saints of Newark," a prequel to the acclaimed HBO television series "The Sopranos."
The film, which takes place at the time of the event that scarred the city's collective consciousness, evokes Newark's worst historical nightmare, unleashing the ghosts of riot past.
"You can tell that some of the scenes are going to be brutal. One guy was running down the block, and an actual cop told him to hit him as hard as he can to make it look real," said T.J. McCarthy, 25, of Harrison, as he kept overnight watch at Hobby's Delicatessen, where his mother has worked for the past two decades.
"To watch them put all these pieces together is amazing," McCarthy said. "I can't wait for it come out."
The cinematic production spread out like a neighborhood block party in Hollywood hyperdrive.
A yet-to-be completed apartment complex at the corner of Halsey Street and William Street was converted into a giant catering hall. More than 300 crew members, actors, and extras were served a buffet-style midnight feast that included pulled pork, salmon, okra, corn on the cob and fresh mozzarella, sitting at long tables that stretched across a bare concrete floor.
Once fueled by food and coffee, actors and extras lined up on Halsey in front of the Memories of Soul record store.
During the day, the store blasts 1960s and 1970s soul classics out into the streets. But on this dark filming night, the memories dispensed were more malevolent as the store turned into a makeshift armory.
Men dressed up in period costume as members of the National Guard, New Jersey state troopers and Newark police officers emerged into the streets strapped with fake shotguns and rifles with fixed bayonets, ready to go. Just around the corner, acrid smoke from burning cars silhouetted scenes of mayhem, laced with menace.
Maurizio Vivona, a Sicilian immigrant living in Brooklyn, played a Newark cop. Sweating slightly after charging down the street, he was transfixed by the fire.
"This looks like a war zone," Vivona said. "We shouldn't be breathing this smoke in, but screw it. I can't stop looking."
Brian Laube, a Newark firefighter, also stared at the flames, then shook his head.
"This is a hard enough job without worrying about getting shot. I can't imagine what was in their heads in '67," said Laube, flanked by Paterson firefighters Frank Petrelli, Robert Sabia, and Denis Darzanoff, who also acted in the scene. "No sleeping on this job, especially then. They were heroes."
For some, it was a struggle to stay awake as the shoot stretched toward dawn. Inside Hobby's, actors were sacked out, their heavy heads lying on tables normally laden with corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.
But something about a movie set, especially this one, wards off sleep and awakens the soul.
"The Many Saints of Newark" springs from a script co-written by David Chase - The Sopranos's creator, showrunner, head writer and producer. Chase has demonstrated a benevolent obsession with Newark, including the scalding summer of 1967, in his work.
That sense of creative fixation was palpable in the exacting detail of the production, still humming along despite the time, and on the face of McCarthy. Looking out on to Branford Place from a place he's been coming to since childhood, his eyes, like a camera lens, opened wide.
"Soon, I'm going to point to the screen and say 'I was there for that,'" McCarthy said, smiling. "That's going to be my most exciting moment."