How ‘Tulsa King’ With Sylvester Stallone Captured Oklahoma

Oklahoma is frequently depicted on screen as a peaceful place filled with scenic beauty, waving wheat fields and vast, bucolic plains. But the Paramount+ series “Tulsa King” captures a far grungier side of the Sooner State, and much of the credit for that goes to the show’s production designer, Todd Jeffery.

Created by Taylor Sheridan, “Tulsa King” stars Sylvester Stallone as Dwight Manfredi, a Mafia capo who’s banished to Tulsa, Okla., by his New York underworld family after serving a 25-year prison sentence. A fish out of water, the Brooklyn-born gangster wastes no time in organizing a new criminal empire made up of colorful Oklahomans.

Like Stallone’s character, Jeffery had never been to Oklahoma before working on the series, and the unpredictable climate caught him off guard at first. “The weather changed drastically from day to day, and sometimes you’d wake up and there would be several inches of snow on the ground,” he says. “But when it melted away, it revealed places very similar to what you’d see in old Westerns. The oil industry kind of got its start there, so a lot of images from that time period are still floating around.”

Yet rather than celebrate the boomtown era of Oklahoma’s past, Jeffery’s work on “Tulsa King” captures the contemporary grittiness of the state’s second-largest city. From squalid strip clubs and dingy dive bars to ratty motels and abandoned steel mills, the show’s production design offers a visual tour of some of the seediest locations in Tulsa. Here are a few grungy highlights:

The Higher Plane Dispensary

Brian Douglas

After arriving in Tulsa, Dwight Manfredi’s first stop is The Higher Plane, a weed dispensary located in a depressing commercial area not far from the banks of the Oklahoma River. Because many important scenes take place in and around the dispensary, Jeffery and his team needed a practical location to work with rather than attempt to cheat it on a studio set.

The solution was an old Texaco station that had not been functioning for many years. It was boarded up when they found it, and several windows were sealed with concrete blocks. The doors couldn’t open because of the junk stored inside, and the entire structure was in serious disarray. “But its bones were spectacular,” Jeffery says. “It had a grandness to it, and you could tell that at one point it probably looked like something you would see on an old postcard.”

After testing the location for toxins, the next step was rehabilitating the structure. Additional windows were added, and new glass bricks with a green automotive finish were incorporated. “We felt it was important that it still looked like it had been a garage at some point, so we replaced all the old wooden rollup doors that had been nailed shut a long time ago,” he says.

Rather than mirror the stylish design of a high-end dispensary, Jeffery gave The Higher Plane a lovable sense of tackiness, derived mainly from the character Bodhi (played by Martin Starr) who owns and operates the business. “Bodhi is a guy with enough sense to recognize that this gas station is a great old building, and he decided to put the dispensary in there because that’s a cool thing to do,” Jeffery says. “The idea was that he took it about as far as he could, and then just started getting product out the door, which allowed us to go with a high-low design.”

The Bred2Buck Saloon

Brian Douglas/Paramount+

Located on Cherokee tribal land, the Bred2Buck Saloon is a reoccurring location in “Tulsa King” and eventually becomes the de facto headquarters for Dwight’s new criminal organization. In keeping with the show’s theme of reinvention, Jeffery’s design concept was to suggest that the saloon had once been a popular watering hole, but had fallen on hard times in recent years.

“The idea was that it had its heyday, and like so many other places in that area of the country, it had seen better days, so we included hints of that throughout the set,” he says. “We wanted it to look past its prime, while also showing that it had the potential to be good again.”

To accomplish that, the saloon needed to have an unusually large footprint that would allow for expansion later on. Increasing the size of the space also added a subtle whiff of loneliness to the set. “When you have a big room that isn’t filled with people and objects, there’s a sense of sadness to that,” Jeffery says. “It feels a little empty when you have chairs stacked in the corner and an old salad bar that’s no longer being used. It lends itself to feeling like at one time there was a line out the door, but it’s not like that anymore.”

The Western Plains Motel

Brian Douglas/Paramount+

Before upgrading to an elegant suite at the historic Mayo Hotel in downtown Tulsa, Dwight spends a few unpleasant nights at the rundown Western Plains Motel, a fleabag establishment that his personal driver Tyson (played by Jay Will) bluntly refers to as “a dump.”

Jeffery collaborated with illustrator Will Groebe to create the purposefully ugly artwork decorating the walls of Dwight’s drab motel room, including the buffalo painting he pauses briefly to stare at. “We specifically made the buffalo to be about the same size as Sly, because the scene is done as a reverse shot, where Dwight looks at the buffalo and the buffalo looks back at him,” Jeffery explains. “It’s a ‘what have we got ourselves into?’ moment for Dwight, who’s still trying to figure Tulsa out at that point.”

Adding to the motel’s tragic ambiance is the filled-in swimming pool located in the middle of the empty parking lot. When Jeffery first arrived at the real-life motel, he noticed the subtle outline of the long-gone pool hidden beneath a layer of snow on the ground. “I started to see the edges of the pool, and then I found two little metal rails where the diving board used to go, and that’s when I thought, we should put an old diving board here that Dwight can sit on!” he says with a laugh. “It’s kind of a ludicrous visual.”

The Black MacAdam Motorcycle Club

Brian Douglas/Paramount+

While Dwight uses the comfortably shabby Bred2Buck saloon as his base of operations, the vicious Black MacAdam motorcycle gang uses an even grubbier bar as their hideout. Unlike the spacious Bred2Buck, the motorcycle bar is cramped and claustrophobic, precisely the place you’d expect to find a group of murderous outlaws.

In reality, the Black MacAdam’s bar is an actual hole-in-the-wall bar that Jeffery and his design team redecorated and repurposed for the show. “It’s a small, family-owned bar that’s almost used as a social club,” Jeffery says. “We moved some stuff around and covered up a few things to make the place a little bit more shootable.”

The design concept for the motorcycle bar was that it used to be open to the public, but when the Black MacAdams took it over it became their private clubhouse. To hint at that backstory, Jeffery added residential seating, several couches that the bikers could flop around on and a number of odd decorative details, like a framed photo of Richard Nixon on the wall. In the fenced-in backyard, he scattered a few old motorcycles to help bring it to life.

To create the gang’s intimidating biker logo — a large skull with a cobra in its mouth — Jeffery researched authentic biker club logos. “Motorcycle logos are hard to do, because you can overdesign them very quickly,” he says. “They start to look too polished and refined, so we were constantly pulling ours back. It’s almost like the difference between a tattoo you get in prison versus one you pay big money for.”

The Strip Club

In the first episode, Dwight takes ATF agent Stacy Beale (played by Andrea Savage) and her fellow bachelorettes to a trashy strip club that’s roughly half the size of his room at the Mayo Hotel. The scene was shot inside a real strip club, located just south of downtown. Jeffery acknowledges that there were plenty of bigger options available nearby, but this tiny strip joint fit the tone of the show better than the more elaborate ones did.

“They have strip clubs in Tulsa that could easily pass as Scores in New York, with bigger rooms and higher ceilings, but that’s not where we wanted Dwight to end up,” he says. “We chose this one because it’s supposed to be a little off.”

The club’s minuscule size presented its own set of challenges. Although it appears extremely modest on screen, Jeffery actually added mirrors throughout the club to create the illusion of more space. “It was so small, we had to try to cheat it, just to give it a little bit more room,” he says. “So I put angled mirrors along the back wall that reflected left and right, to help open it up a bit. But even doing that, it still feels small, and the ceiling is incredibly low.”

The Drug House

The third episode of “Tulsa King” opens with a literal bang as a strung-out member of the Black MacAdam motorcycle gang blows up his dilapidated house while he’s still inside. Location manager Patrick Mignano was tasked with finding a suitably ramshackle home in Oklahoma whose owner would allow the production to destroy it. “Patrick had his work cut out for him because we needed to blow it up,” Jeffery says. “The logistical problem was that once the house is rigged to explode, you can’t film the interiors there, so we basically had to duplicate the interior of that house on a stage.”

All of the interior shots of the barricaded biker in a tense standoff with ATF agents surrounding his property were filmed on a dressed stage that replicated the layout of the real house, with a few minor details changed to make it more conducive to shooting. “We built a freestanding facade of the window and door, and placed it in front of the set so the camera could shoot over the actor’s shoulder as he looked outside,” Jeffery says. “That was a lot of fun, and we did some really interesting stuff with the construction team and the effects crew to make it happen.”

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