MIAMI -- Miami Beach's resort hotels showed guests a tropical paradise when they were built in the 1950s, but just beyond the sunny facade was a shady, more dangerous world. Funded by the mob and crooked union bosses, the resorts attracted the rich, the famous and the powerful just as South Florida was undergoing rapid political and social change.
The upcoming sophomore season of the Starz network's period drama "Magic City" will again follow the denizens of one such resort, the fictional Miramar Playa Hotel.
Resort owner Ike Evans, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, had a seemingly perfect life that verged on collapse at the end of the first season, thanks to an ambitious state attorney, a sadistic mob boss and the fallout from the Cuban Revolution nearby. Now the show's writer and creator, Mitch Glazer, promises the new eight-episode season, which starts Friday, will pick up in early 1959 right where the first season left off.
"Part of the first season was to introduce people to this world and these characters, and with the second season, I have the opportunity to unleash them," Glazer said.
Morgan said the new season will be even more harrowing than the first for his character, who was arrested for murder at the end of last season.
"He starts off in jail this year, and that may be the easiest time he's had," Morgan said. "It only gets worse for him in season two."
To protect his family and employees, Ike realizes he has to get out from under the mob, which helped finance his hotel, and hatches a plan involving Fidel Castro's fledgling regime and Cuban casinos to pay off his criminal backers for good.
"That line that Ike walked last year, of meddling around in that gray area, I think this year he goes even a little bit darker," Morgan said. "Ike made a deal with the devil when he built the hotel, and we started seeing the pressure of that hit him last year. And this year, we see him go all in."
"Magic City" is also getting a boost to its cast with James Caan, a veteran of gangster films such as "The Godfather." In "Magic City," Caan plays a Chicago mob boss who has to sort out problems created in the first season by a South Florida mobster played by Danny Huston. Others returning include Olga Kurylenko as Ike's wife, and Steven Strait and Christian Cooke as Ike's sons.
Morgan said working with Caan was amazing.
"He's a coiled spring. He's a ball of energy, so what he brings to a set is a sense of unpredictability," Morgan said. "As an actor, you know what the scene is. You can see the scene on paper. But what he brings to stuff, it ratchets it up to a whole new level."
Glazer said he was extremely pleased how the first season was received, especially by South Florida natives.
As someone who grew up in Miami Beach, Glazer said capturing the right feel for "Magic City" meant bringing the production to South Florida. There had been discussions about filming mainly in California or somewhere else and then coming to Miami Beach for a few weeks to do exterior shots. But Glazer said he couldn't imagine not filming in Miami.
"It's the largest practical, mid-century movie set on Earth," said Glazier, noting the city has blocks and blocks of "untouched buildings" from the era.
"Even for the cast to be able to drive down Collins Avenue or go to Key Biscayne or go to the various areas that I write about in the show and see that they still exist. There's a feel to it that I think permeates everything we do."
The show films many of its scenes outdoors, often amid South Florida's famous Art Deco architecture. But to bring the Miramar Playa to life, crews built massive sets inside a former yacht factory, including a vast hotel lobby, lavish guest rooms and a private lounge. Most of the designs emulate the work of Morris Lapidus, a Miami Modernist architect whose most famous work, the Fontainebleau Hotel, opened in 1954.
Local historian Seth Bramson said he's impressed by how South Florida of the late 1950s has been resurrected.
"They have taken a look back that is nothing short of outstanding," said Bramson, who has written more than 20 books on South Florida and has one of the world's largest private collections of Miami memorabilia.
"I look at this show, and I can't believe it. It's like it was," Bramson said.
While modern audiences might be enchanted with the South Florida of the 1980s portrayed in a show like "Miami Vice," Bramson was quick to point out that the show's setting was contemporary with the time it was made. The producers didn't have to go back and create a bygone era from scratch.
Morgan said sets, locations, props and wardrobe all help him slip into character. "As soon as I put on my tie and my tie clip, I can be Ike Evans," he added.
Costume designer Carol Ramsey said she isn't just assembling a general wardrobe from the 50s but actually helping to design the characters.
"This is very glam," Ramsey said. "A lot of this is very high-style, which is another reason I was very interested in designing the show."
Some of the clothes used in the show are vintage pieces, pulled from Los Angeles warehouses, but Ramsey said she has had to design many historically accurate outfits herself. Her department fits about 600 extras every nine days – the average time it takes to shoot each episode. That's in addition to 30 or so principals every episode.
"Head to toe," Ramsey said. "Purses, gloves, period-correct lingerie, hats, shoes, jewelry, suits, ties, everything. And they have hair and makeup."
Besides capturing the look and feel of the era, Bramson agrees that the show does well with the actual history of how the hotels were built and run, mob connections included.
Legal and illegal gambling was a big part of the first season. Bramson said Miami Beach was poised to be the Las Vegas of the South, but opposition fearing the negative elements gambling would attract ultimately won out. Despite not having casino-style gambling, Miami Beach still became one of the most popular year-round tourist destinations in the United States.
"It was glamorous. It was glorious," Bramson said. "You had the greatest entertainment in the world. You had the classiest women in the world. You had everything that was great happening here."