F/X (1986)

This mid-80’s action film is about a special effects man named Rollie, who is hired by the Department of Justice to fake the murder of a mobster. But after he’s double-crossed by the people who hired him, Rollie fears he may have actually killed the mobster, and soon finds himself pursued by both crooked government agents and the New York Police Department. His only hope is to use his skills as a movie special effects man to gain the upper hand against his unrelenting enemies. This is one of two of my favorite 1980’s action films that take place in New York City — the other bring 1985’s “Remo Williams.” But unlike “Remo,” “F/X” is actually a fairly solid film, with an ingenious premise and very few plot holes. It also benefits from a well-rounded cast, including Australian actor Bryan BrownJerry Orbach, Brian Dennehy, Roscoe Orman (best known for playing Gordon on “Sesame Street”), Diane Venora, Tom Noonan, Cliff De Young, and Mason Adams (who I recognized mostly as the ubiquitous voice-over artist for countless TV commercials).   

(It might be noted that I previously posted an article about this film back in 2018, but it was a bit incomplete at the time. But now, I am fairly confident most of the prominent filming locations have been accurately identified and each one has been given a thorough description. In fact, the article got so massive that I had to break it down into two parts. Make sure to click the link below to read the second half.)

 

The Movie Within a Movie

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The movie opens with a shot of the Citigroup Center, located at 601 Lexington Avenue

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The camera pans down to reveal a mystery man getting out of a cab near 330 E 52nd Street. This opening sequence turns out to be just a low-budget movie being made.

 


Finding this filming location was a rather easy task since the very unique-looking Citigroup Center was featured prominently in the scene (although admittedly, not knowing the exact address or official name of the building, I originally had to search online for “the Manhattan skyscraper with slanted top”). fx-movie-citi 

When it was built in 1977, the 59-story Citigroup Center (originally named Citicorp Center) was the seventh-tallest building in the world. Even though the 45-degree angled top makes this skyscraper stand out in the NYC skyline, the nine-story stilts at the base is what makes it particularly unique — especially since the stilts aren’t located at the corners but in the middle. fx-movie-53rd_St_Lex_Av_td_07_-_Citigroup_Center

The reason there are stilts is because when the Citicorp Center was being designed, structural engineer, William LeMessurier, was required to accommodate St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which occupied one corner of the construction site on Lexington Avenue. Basically, they had to build their skyscraper around the church, requiring them to put the stilts at the midpoint of each side, opposed to the corners. fx-movie-sketch-image011

This unusual base naturally made the building less stable, so LeMessurier designed a specific bracing framework for its skeleton and installed a “tuned mass damper” to prevent structural failure. At the time, it was considered an ingenious application of engineering, but in 1978 it was discovered that the building was vulnerable to quartering winds (winds that strike the building at its corners), and LeMessurier determined that a strong-enough storm could topple Citicorp Center.

To fix this potentially-catastrophic flaw in the building’s design, LeMessurier and his team worked with Citicorp to coordinate emergency repairs, which consisted of secretly welding in reinforcement plates under the cover of night. To add to the drama, this was shortly before Hurricane Ella began its approach to the northeast.

Fortunately, the repairs were completed before any brutal windstorms hit the city, so the public —as well as Citicorp Center’s occupants— never realized how close they came to a major disaster.  

 

Movie Studio

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After a long night shoot, Rollie, his assistant Andy, and his girlfriend Ellen exit the movie studio at 453 W 53rd Street.

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Posing as a movie producer, Agent Lipton uses the (probably fake) phone booth in front of the movie studio, which is across the street from the P.S. 111 Playground.

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Ellen grabs a cab and heads east on W 53rd Street (going against traffic).

 


The first step in figuring out this scene’s location was to try and guess what general neighborhood it was filmed in. By the looks of the tall corporate buildings in the background of the last shot, I figured they were probably somewhere in midtown Manhattan (despite the fact that the dialogue in this scene implied that they were way downtown.) Since there were small apartment buildings near the “movie studio,” I figured they weren’t in the center of the island, but rather in a residential neighborhood on the westside. (I eliminated the eastside as a possibility because the residential buildings in that area tend to be large, doorman high-rises.)

From left to right, Diane Venora, Bryan Brown and Martha Gehman pose in front of 453 W 53rd Street.

The other big clue I had to go on was a playground and building across the street that looked like it was a public school. So, my first plan of action was to go to Google Maps and search for any school in the 40s or 50s to see if they matched the one in the film.

Surprisingly, it didn’t take long before I stumbled upon P.S. 111, whose building looked very similar to the one that appears in the scene. A little more investigating and I was certain I found the right place.

I was rather pleased I was able to nail this location in a relatively short amount of time. All it took was some educated guesswork and a little bit of good luck.  

 

Rollie’s Apartment

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The next morning, Ellen exits Rollie’s apartment at 6 Varick Street.

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She walks south on Varick Street.

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After Ellen gets in a cab, Agent Lipton comes from around the corner on Franklin Street.

Rollie opens his window and tosses a set of keys down to the agent.

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Lipton uses the keys to enter the building.

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He walks up the stairs to Rollie’s apartment/studio on the second floor, where he asks him to help fake the murder of mob informant, Nicholas DeFranco.

 


There aren’t a whole lot of F/X‘s filming locations documented on the web, but Rollie’s apartment happens to be one of them, probably because it’s situated right next to one of New York’s most famous movie sites — the firehouse from Ghostbusters. So, needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to figure out this location. I just went to IMDB and found the address right away.

When I went down to Tribeca one morning to take pictures of the building, I happened upon a man standing on the steps in front of the entrance, staring at his watch. Whenever I take pictures of movie locations, I do my best to avoid having any people prominently in the frame, so I waited around, hoping that the man would eventually leave. But after a few minutes, I could see he wasn’t going anywhere. So, I did what New Yorkers are not known for doing — I politely asked him if he could step aside so I could take a picture of the building. He looked up from his watch and nodded, then stepped down onto the sidewalk, somewhat baffled why he was obliging me.

As I took my pictures, a girl of around 10 or 11 came running by, and the man with the watch looked up and shouted, “three more!” I quickly surmised that he lived in the building and was timing his daughter who was running laps around the block. Once I was finished taking my pictures, I started talking to the man who did indeed live in the building. I told him about how F/X was shot there and showed him some stills from the movie on my iPhone. Even though the apartment doors no longer looked like what they did in the film, the man informed me that the stairwell was more or less unchanged, except that it was now closed off with a locked door.

At this point, his daughter was done running laps and they were about to go back inside. That’s when I boldly (but politely) asked if I could step in with them and take a quick peek at the stairwell. Surprisingly, he agreed, and let me in the building where I was able to snap a couple pics of the lobby and the stairwell through the door window.

It pays to be polite.  

 

Andy’s Apartment

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Rollie arrives at his assistant Andy’s apartment building at 14 Horatio Street to pick up a case.

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The doorman watches as Rollie ties Andy’s legs together as a practical joke.

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He exits the building, getting into a cab parked on the corner of Horatio and 8th Avenue.

 


When I saw this scene, I didn’t think it’d be possible to figure out the location since all you really see is one corner of a generic-looking lobby of an apartment building. The camera does look out the front door and onto the street, but it’s dark and rainy, so it was hard to make out any significant details. But then I noticed a little bit of writing on the window next to the door, and hoping it was an address, I took a frame from the film, reversed it, and zoomed in on the lettering. It wasn’t a street address per se, but I could make out one word that said “Van” and another word that ended with a “gh,” and thought it could be the name of the building.

The first phrase that came to mind was, “Van Gough,” and I immediately checked to see if there were any apartment buildings in New York City with that name. And sure enough, I found a listing for “The Van Gough Apartments,” located at 14 Horatio Street. Even before checking out the location in Google Street View, I had a good feeling I got the right place because it was only a couple blocks away from several other F/X filming locations.

I couldn’t find any pictures of the building’s lobby online, but the street view offered a bunch of clues that helped confirm this location. The 45 degree cross-street with an open lot on the opposite side seemed to line up perfectly with what is seen out the front door in the film. Plus, the brickwork on the building exterior matched what appeared through the window in the film.

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A still from the film, along with an inset of a 2018 photo of the building exterior.

When I went to the building to try and get a photo of the lobby, I was a little apprehensive, since doormen and security guards often don’t allow any picture-taking on their property. In this instance, the doorman actually stopped me before I could even get in the building, telling me that it was against policy to let a non-resident in the lobby, while also obstinately denying that the lobby was even used in the film. But after doing a little pleading, I was allowed to take a peak inside, but with him standing over my shoulder, I couldn’t take any photos.

Despite the doorman’s strong conviction, I was pretty certain I found the correct location. So I returned to the building about a month later when a different doorman was on duty, hoping I could somehow sneak a photo or two. Luckily, someone was delivering a package when I entered the lobby, so while the doorman was busy dealing with the delivery, I was able to take several photographs unnoticed.

The only awkward part was, after the delivery guy left, I had to pretend I was there for a legitimate reason. So I asked the doorman if there was a “Tom” in 14E (a name and apartment I completely picked out of thin air), which prompted him to give me a puzzled look. After glancing at the computer screen behind the desk, he told me that a “Susan” lived in that apartment.

Continuing with my charade, I acted frustrated and confused. “Really? Tom doesn’t live there?”

My insistence inspired the doorman to check the computer one last time, and then he said with a surprise, “Oh! Yes, Thomas lives in 14E, too.” I was equally surprised, but staying in character, I acted vindicated. Meanwhile, as he called up to the apartment, I prayed that no one would answer.

Someone did answer. It was Susan, and she flatly told the doorman that Thomas was not in.

Relieved that I was finally free to leave, I thanked the doorman and headed out. As I left the lobby, my Oscar-worthy performance culminated with an exaggerated sigh and a head-shake, as if saying to myself, “Where is that guy?”

In retrospect, I suppose I could’ve just initially told the doorman, “Oops, wrong building” and simply walked out. But playacting is much more stupid.  

 

Driving the F/X Truck

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The next morning, Rollie and Andy drive the F/X truck up from W 14th Street, passing a bank at 80 Eighth Avenue.

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They continue north on Eighth Avenue. 

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The truck then passes through the intersection at West 15th Street.

 


There wasn’t any research involved with finding this location. I already knew it implicitly. Having lived in the West Village for ten years, I had been to this intersection thousands of times, and was a regular customer at that HSBC building that appears at the top of the scene.

In fact, the one time I had to have some papers notarized, I did it at that bank. (As a sidenote, I’ve always wondered what inspired someone to become a notary public. Basically, as far as I can tell, their job is to just say, “Yeah I saw that paperwork.”)  

 

Meeting on the Overpass

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Rollie and Col. Mason from the Justice Department walk on the pedestrian overpass along Tudor City Place, which runs above 42nd Street 

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Mason tells Rollie he’s the only one who can execute the fake assassination.

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Rollie reluctantly agrees to do the job while standing in front of 25 Tudor City Place.

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Mason thanks him and hands him an manila envelope containing $30,000 in cash.

 


It didn’t take long to figure out where this scene was shot. There are only a handful of two-way streets in Manhattan and the only overpass I knew that ran over one was at Tudor City near the U.N. Building. A quick check in Google Street View confirmed my guesswork.

Taking the “after pictures” at this location proved to be little tricky, only because it happens to be a popular spot for tourists to come and take pictures down 42nd Street and of the Chrysler Building. In fact, I had to come to the location twice in order to get all the pictures I wanted and not have throngs of foreigners posing along the railing.  

 

Minetta Street

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Agent Lipton takes Nicholas DeFranco to the F/X truck, which is roughly parked in front of 9 Minetta Street.

 


Whenever I see a picturesque street with a crook in it, I figure it’s either a movie studio backlot, or Minetta Street, and since, as far as I could tell, all New York exteriors were shot on location, I guessed this scene took place on Minetta. Granted, there are a few other streets in Manhattan with the same kind of bend in them, but Minetta is definitely the one used most often in films.

Since the scene took place at night in the rain, it was a little difficult to figure out exactly where the car and F/X truck were parked, but eventually I identified a driveway/alleyway next to 9 Minetta Street that appeared behind Lipton’s car, and from that, got a good idea where the action took place.  

 

Assassination at a Restaurant

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Rollie approaches La Gente Restaurant at 1422 Third Avenue.

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He stands outside the door, building up his courage to go in.

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After “assassinating” DeFranco, Rollie jumps in a car parked out front.

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They speed north on Third Avenue. 

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Meanwhile, an ambulance arrives on the scene, coming from East 80th Street.

 


This is a location I had trouble finding for a while, and I ended up revisiting it several times before figuring it out — although technically, my research partner, Jeff Blakeslee, found it first.

Like the scene on Minetta Street, this scene took place at night and in the rain, which made it more difficult to make out any details. But by bumping up the brightness/contrast, I was able to spot the number 1422 next to the restaurant’s entrance. Even though the restaurant itself looked kind of fake, I hoped that maybe the address number was real.

By the looks of the neighborhood, I guessed that the restaurant was located somewhere on the Upper East Side, so I checked all the 1422’s on every eastside avenue to see if I could find a match. But after checking out each one, none of the buildings with a 1422 address had a stone facade which looked like the restaurant in the film.

I next tried to use the stores that appeared across the street as a way to figure out the location. It was difficult to see many details, but one of the stores looked like a Chinese restaurant with a sign that said “—Joy” and another store had a sign that said “Churchill Fu——.” After going to the library to look up “Churchill F—” in a 1986 phonebook, I found a listing for “Churchill Furniture,” but none of its locations seemed to make sense.

My third tactic was to see if I could find a building in Google Street View that matched the big white residential building that appeared in the background. I just virtually cruised up and down each avenue on the eastside from 34th Street to 100th Street to see if I could spot it. I was specifically looking for a large light-colored building that had a notch on the corner, with narrow windows along that corner notch and wider windows along the main sides.

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As Bryan Brown gets in the car, you can see a large, light-colored residential building down the avenue.

As I was doing this time-consuming virtual tour of the Upper East Side, I passed along all the clues associated with this scene to Blakelsee to see if he could help. After he had no luck figuring out the identity of any of those stores across the street, he decided to look at every 1422 building on the eastside as well. And before I could tell him it was a waste of time because I already did that, he found the restaurant’s location on Third Avenue.

I figured the reason I missed it on my first go-around was because the building’s street-level appearance today looks nothing like it did in the 1980s. All the stonework got removed and replaced with glass, which is something I didn’t even consider a possibility. I just assumed from an engineering standpoint, removing large stones from the foundation of a building wouldn’t be feasible.

A tax photo of 1422 Third Avenue from the 1980s, with a matching facade from the film, albeit a different color.

Another problem was, when I originally checked all the 1422s, I wasn’t using that big white residential building down the avenue as a way to conform the location, but when Blakeslee checked the 1422s, he did. It was a little frustrating that I missed it the first time around, but I was happy Blakeslee and I got this mystery location solved.  

 

Car Crash

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Lipton pulls a gun on Rollie as they drive past the former Disc-O-Mat at 716 Lexington Avenue.

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After the driver gets hit with a stray bullet, the car goes out of control.

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The car goes careening into a construction board outside the lot at 135 E 57th Street. 

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An angry bum yells at the occupants of the car for violating “the parking rules.”

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Rollie runs away, heading northeast towards 711 Lexington Avenue.

 


This is another location I found with the help of Blakeslee.

The one big clue was the clearly visible Disc-O-Mat store at the top of the scene. I was able to find a few scant references to the local record store chain, but nothing on their specific locations. I knew there were a few different outlets in NYC, but I was looking for one that was on the Upper East Side. (Since this scene is a continuation of the restaurant scene, I figured they were in the same general region.) Eventually, I found a reference to a Disc-O-Mat location on Lexington and 58th Street, but it didn’t include an exact address.

Meanwhile, Blakeslee was focusing on a Hotel Dover that appeared in the background of one shot. After a little digging around, he discovered that the Dover was located at 687 Lexington Avenue (which still has a hotel in there today). From that, he was able to determine that the construction area which the car crashed into was the future site of the 32-story office building at 135 East 57th Street, which was completed in 1987.

A circa 1986 tax photo of 135 E 57th Street during its construction (left), compared to the completed skyscraper, as it appears today. The car would’ve crashed somewhere along the right side of the building.

Once I had a grasp of the geography of the scene, I determined that the address of the Disc-O-Mat record store would be 714-716 Lexington Avenue. And a year or two after I confirmed this location, I found a few more references to the NYC record store, including a nostalgic blog post, a few print ads and a television commercial. Even though it had a name that sounded more like a combination nightclub/laundry, Disc-O-Mat had a strong foothold in the NYC area. It was one of several discount retail record chains that seemed to come and go in Manhattan during the 1970s and 80s. Some of the other competitors during this time were Crazy Eddie’s, Sam Goodies, J&R Music World, and King Karol.

According to a 1977 Billboard Magazine article, Disc-O-Mat started rising around the same time that Jimmy’s Music World, another “lowballing” record store, was fading. Despite a setback when one of their two stores set fire in mid-January 1977, the burgeoning record chain was quickly seeing a growth in sales as customers flocked to their outlets for cheap cassettes and LPs. Part of the appeal of Disc-O-Mat was its seemingly endless supply of musical selections, ranging from pop standards to more underground fare like Adam Ant, Kraftwerk or the Sex Pistols.

A municipal tax photo of 714 Lexington Ave, showing what Disc-O-Mat looked like in the mid-80s, around the same time F/X was being filmed.

Back in days before you could download a song to your computer or smartphone in a matter of seconds, the only way to discover new music was to go digging through bins and shelves of 12-inch records, hoping to find a hidden gem. And the two things that Disc-O-Mat had going for it were their lower-than-usual prices and their sheer volume of selections. However, it appears the management of the record chain was occasionally a bit unorthodox. According to another Billboard article in 1980, in order to fend off internal theft, the owners actually administered random polygraph tests to their employees, trying to weed out the the ones with larceny in their hearts.

Right around the time the car from F/X smashed into the next-door construction site, Disc-O-Mat’s popularity was starting to wane, as the california-based Tower Records was becoming the new king of the hill. I’m not sure when exactly they closed for good, but the last reference I could find to Disc-O-Mat was in the 1992 edition of Birnbaum’s New York guidebook, so I’m guessing it was right around that time.  

 

Phone Booth

After escaping from Lipton, Rollie runs south on Hudson Street between Jane and W 12th Street.

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He runs back to 9 Minetta Street, just in time to see his F/X truck get towed away.

In the reverse angle, the action magically jumps to the intersection of Hudson and W 12th Street. 

After spotting a phone booth on the northeast corner, Rollie runs to it so he can call Colonel Mason at the Department of Justice.

Rollie gives his location to Mason, who then tells him to stay put as he sends a police car to pick him up. A few seconds later, a party-hungry guy taps on the door, indicating he wants to use the phone booth.

Rollie ducks under an awning outside of 299 W 12th Street, where he watches in horror as the phone booth is shot up by a pair of government goons.

The goons realize they shot the wrong guy and hightail it out of there.

 


This location was one of the first ones I was seeking out, but was one of the last ones I figured out. What bugged me was that I previously thought I had the location already nailed down. Even though the Rollie character says he’s on the corner of 51st and 11th, I thought for sure it was really filmed near Christopher Park in the West Village. But once I went to the actual location, I couldn’t match up any of the elements.

There weren’t really any clues or landmarks in the scene other than the basic layout of the streets. I could tell it was on a diagonal street with a small, most-likely triangular, park nearby, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. I was still pretty sure that it took place somewhere in the West Village, partly because the reverse shot of Rollie watching his F/X truck being towed away was shot back on Minetta. I looked through a map of the village, trying to find a park that matched the film, but couldn’t find anything that worked.

At one point, I tried to figure out if there was any information on a neon seahorse in NYC (which appears in the window across from the phone booth), but that was a dead end.

Finally, about a year after I figured out almost all the other locations for this movie, I decided to draw a little map of what I thought the area would look like, including the park and the surrounding streets, along with their traffic directions.
Once I had a visual reference at hand, I looked through a map of the West Village again, hoping I could spot a layout that resembled my drawing. And magically, it worked!

After I finally figured out that this scene took place near Abington Square, I was amazed it didn’t occur to me sooner. Although it’s not adjacent to Minetta Street, it’s in the same general neighborhood and was not too far from a couple other confirmed filming locations. Also, Abington Square is triangular in shape, so I should’ve zeroed in on it even before I decided to draw a little thumbnail map.

But sometimes a prolonged location mystery is more satisfying when it’s finally solved.  

 

Ellen’s Apartment

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Ellen gets out of a taxicab on Prince Street.

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She opens the door to her apartment building at 119 Prince Street, followed by Rollie.

 


By the looks of the neighborhood I figured that this scene took place in Soho, especially after I zoomed in on a large banner in the background that said, “Soho Center.” A few strokes on the keyboard later, I found several hits for a “Soho Center for Visual Arts” at 112-114 Prince Street.

When the Center took over the storefront near the corner of Prince and Greene in 1973, it was one of only three non-commercial, non-profit galleries to open in the city. Founded by Larry Aldrich, a successful fashion designer and art collector, the Soho Center reserved its exhibition space exclusively for emerging artists who never had a solo show or gallery representation. During its nearly 20 year run as a non-profit gallery, the Soho Center showcased close to one hundred unknown artists and helped give them the exposure they needed to boost their careers.

After the Soho Center closed in 1990, an interesting art piece got installed in front of 114 Prince Street when the space was taken over by the Mimi Ferzt Gallery  — a bronze, multi-breasted, multi-buttocked sculpture of an ancient fertility goddess. The two-ton statue, created by Russian artist Mihail Chemiakin, was a popular photo-op for tourists and shoppers until it was removed from the sidewalk in 2006, right as the gallery lost its lease.

The space is currently home to a chic jewelry shop.

While the Soho Center helped me figure out this filming location, I later realized the Ellen character actually gave a correct address in a earlier scene outside the movie studio. When she got into a taxi cab, she told the driver to take her to “Prince Street between Wooster and Greene,” which is exactly where the apartment used for this scene was located.

I’m always delighted when movie dialogue is geographically accurate.  

 

F/X is chock full of so many New York locations that I had to break this post into two sections. Read about the rest of the filming locations on the next page…  

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