NEWARK, NJ - The plethora of pork pie hats and classic black-and-white cop cars, captured by camera crews, not only told onlookers that the scene had changed on Branford Place in downtown Newark.

It also showed them that time was reversed to the city's turbulent 1960s, as Hollywood magic made a cinematic fever dream real. 

Several blocks are serving this week as the set for the upcoming film "The Many Saints of Newark," a prequel to the acclaimed HBO television series "The Sopranos."

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Among the stars of the movie is Michael Gandolfini, playing a younger version of the iconic Tony Soprano character that his father, the late James Gandolfini, made famous. 

It could be argued that on Tuesday afternoon, the real star of the film was the movie's art department, which transformed a two-block stretch of Branford Place centered on the corner of Halsey Street into the heart of the 1967 Newark riot, the time when "The Many Saints of Newark" is set.

For five days in July 1967, Newark was far from an angelic place as the city, riven by socioeconomic strife and political friction, tore itself apart as the riot left 26 dead and millions of dollars in property damage. 

To replicate the riot, the film's production designers created an urban Hieronymus Bosch-like vision of Hell. Extras in period costume were wild-eyed as they looted lamps, televisions, and toasters, ducking into doorways to escape stone-faced policemen, their shotguns cocked.

Fake shattered glass was strewn in the street, glittering around overturned baby carriages, discarded refrigerators, headless mannequins and a liquor store picked clean. The long-shuttered Adams movie theatre was back in business, showing the 1967 classic "The Dirty Dozen," a movie that showcased another kind of war. 

Alan Taylor, the director of "The Many Saints of Newark," knows that getting the streetscape details right is part of great storytelling. 

"It was very important to me to get this as accurate as possible, because it was such a loaded, charged event in our history," said Taylor, who is working with a script written by David Chase - The Sopranos's creator, showrunner, head writer and producer - and Lawrence Konner, a Sopranos staff writer.

"We were trying to find a place that matched the streets that we'd seen in the riot imagery," Taylor said. "The layout and scale here really works for us, and we found a friendly enough neighborhood where we could come in and control it temporarily so that we could change everything to fit the period. The whole situation matched the quality that we were looking for."

A run-in Taylor had with a former Newark resident who was on the set indicated that maybe his crew had almost done their job too well.

"This woman who was a kid in Newark during the riot came up to me after she looked around and started crying," Taylor said. "I said, 'So did we get it right?' She wiped her eyes and said 'Yeah, you sure did.'"

Pasquale Lombardi, a Newark native, owned property in the city during the riot and returned after the bullets stopped flying to examine the damage. Looking around the movie set, it was deja vu all over again. 

"I saw the same thing that you're seeing right now. It's amazing," Lombardi said, shaking his head. "I wonder how people are going to react when they see a piece of history." 

Lombardi is making sure that a key 1967 black-and-white riot image will burn in full color in moviegoers' heads. A collector of historic military vehicles, he is loaning his Vietnam-era armored personnel carrier for use in the film.

"I only have the tank, not the guns," Lombardi said. 

Kenneth Gifford, the director of the Newark Office of Film and Television, noted that while the part of the movie being shot in downtown Newark evokes the city's darkest days, it also puts a spotlight on how film production helps fuel the city's revitalization and resurrection. 

"They're filming the riot, but they're not filming the riot to say look at the horrible thing that happened. It's actually a way to say this is what happened, but now look at where Newark is," Gifford said, ducking into Hobby's Delicatessen to grab a turkey sandwich and an oatmeal cookie next to an extra with a looted blender under his arm. "These hundreds of extras and crew members help boost hundreds of jobs. To see the way the city is coming back is amazing."

Marc and Michael Brummer, the dynamic deli duo who run Hobby's, remembered how their father, Samuel, who took over the restaurant in 1962, told the National Guardsmen patrolling Newark during the riot to step aside so he could keep his business alive.

The deli includes a classic neon sign out front, an authentic time-worn totem that helped lure the moviemakers in their midst to their corner of Branford Place and Halsey Street. The sign has been half-lit for years, with only the reddish Delicatessen lit up, not the aquamarine blue Hobby's. Now, thanks to the film production crew, the sign is back in full force. And after Hollywood leaves at the end of the week, Newark might permanently get something back after decades of darkness. 

"The bottom line is Newark is a city on the rise. We're getting far more orders for corned beef and pastrami sandwiches than we ever did, not less," said Marc, watching his regular customers and first-timers stream in while he took another catering call. 

"Kids from school around here can watch these film guys work and say 'I can do that'," said Michael. "It just might be time to light the sign up again all the time."

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