Big House Beautiful
Unlocking the secrets inside the walls of HBO's breakout hit 'Oz'
”And this is the closet where Cyril O’Reily was raped by the Nazis … ”
Repeat after me: There’s no place like home…There’s no place like home … Oz creator Tom Fontana is giving a tour of the maximum-security Oswald State Correctional Facility — actually, a gigantic soundstage built inside of an old Nabisco cookie factory in Manhattan’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood. After only a few hours in this convincingly claustrophobic environment, you start feeling as trapped as an Oreo’s creamy filling.
”People say, ‘It’s amazing how you guys capture the tedium of prison life,’ and I’m like, ‘We’re not acting,”’ says Dean Winters, who plays devious inmate Ryan O’Reily on the drama, which began its fifth season
Jan. 7. ”You’re in a 50,000-square-foot space with no windows, no air, and no girls — it doesn’t take a genius to get into character.”
The prisoners will soon undergo a massive transfer as they relocate to a former Navy supply terminal in unfashionable Bayonne, N.J. (Oz‘s Manhattan landlord rented out the space to a local cable-news network.) ”It sucks — I bought a place 14 blocks away, and then they f—ing move it,” grouses Lee Tergesen (con Tobias Beecher). ”But I hear Bayonne is beautiful in the spring.”
How will the prison’s new look be explained when the series returns with its Jersey-shot episodes next season? Fontana hints, ”Let’s just say it’s an explosive season finale.” Hmmm. In the meantime, here’s a last look at the original land of Oz.
EMERALD CITY Based on real penitentiaries in New Jersey and Colorado, Oz‘s newer, experimental section features Plexiglas cells (”It’s harder to break than plate glass,” explains production designer Gary Weist) instead of bars, and a crescent-shaped layout that theoretically allows guards to see into every bunk. ”The idea is you strip people of their privacy in an attempt to make them part of a community,” says Fontana. ”In my case, I didn’t want it to work, because I would have no stories.” The spartan orderliness (no wall decorations allowed) also reflects reality. ”The prison I went to in New Jersey was cleaner than my apartment,” cracks the creator. ”My cleaning lady will read that and go, ‘What are you talking about, Mr. Tom?!”’
SCREEN SAVERS The prison guards’ high-tech command center contains a Star Trekesque array of fake control panels, flashing buttons, and video monitors, with fuzzy still photos of empty rooms pasted on the screens. ”Whenever I’m shooting, I always go, ‘What happened to all the people?”’ jokes Fontana. ”You would think they’d put a picture of a guy at the sink — or he could be on the toilet, just sitting there. Man, that guy needs some bran in his diet!”
HOOP, THERE IT IS! Between takes, the actors play pickup games on the adjacent court (inset), yet even when they’re just having fun, damage is often done. A ball crashed through a Sheetrock wall, and once real-life L.A. Laker Rick Fox (a.k.a. incarcerated basketballer Jackson Vahue) went up for a dunk and tore the backboard down. ”Now it’s super-reinforced,” says Fontana, pointing to a metal pole bolted into the wall. ”It’s f—ing never coming out.”