Six Degrees of Pittsburgh
On Oscar Sunday Feb. 24th at noon, Steeltown and the Heinz History Center will be hosting a Pittsburgh Teen Oscar party at the Heinz History Center, celebrating the Pittsburgh/Hollywood connection with a Pittsburgh/Hollywood trivia game and special filmmaking workshop, giving young people tips on how they can make their own movies and make their dreams come true in the film business. But judging from the three years Steeltown has done their “Take A Shot At Changing The World” contest giving out over $10,000 in cash to students and their schools, it could be the students giving us tips. For they have come of age in a digital world, and we have been humbled by their talent.
Growing up here, I had little sense of the film business. I didn’t really even know that people made movies. I guess that is until my own mother, who had worked as an actress at the White Barn Theater was cast in a George Romero movie, and I was sitting watching dailies—takes of the film-- when she told me to go buy her a pack of cigarretes—because apparently there was something inappropriate in it. (The movie was called “Hungry Wives” and I have yet to see it for fear of…. Well, you get the idea.)
But other than that freak encounter, I really had zero idea of how movies were made, that being in the film business was something you could aspire to -- until I accidentally ended up going out to Hollywood because of a freak scholarship I had won by writing a short story called “St. Elmo’s Fire” about a girl from Pittsburgh who was a waitress at the St. Elmo Hotel where I was a bellhop while being pre-med at Duke University. Had I not seridipitously won the short-lived scholarshlp MCA-Universal Scholar Award, I would probably have become a gastroenterologist like my father and step-father. (My first joke was my mother never got divorced -- she just got referred to another husband. Ba dump bump.)
This year, while the many films which have shot in Pittsburgh have escaped nominations, it is still an exciting time to celebrate Pittsburgh and the movies with the South Side’s own Steve Chbosky just winning best “First Feature” at the Spirit Awards for “Perks of Being A Wall Flower” (pictured above) and “Blood Brothers” made by two Pittsburgh former Art Institute students about their friend Rocky Braat who went to help AIDS orphans in India, which won Sundance, just won “Best Documentary” at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. These days, it seems simply that Pittsburgh talent knows no bounds.
But the big goal of Steeltown is that talent does not have to leave Pittsburgh to have their dreams come true. And in some ways, that dream seems closer than ever. For just look at Steve Chbosky who wrote the novel “Perks of a Wallflower” inspired by his own adolescence growing up in Pittsburgh’s South Side, and waited 13 years to make the movie just the way that he wanted—writing and directing the movie for which he just won the Spirit Award for First Feature. And cannot imagine a more inspiration tale than that of the two former Pittsburgh art Institute Students, Steve Hoover and Danny Yourd, who followed their friend Rocky Braat to India where he was working with AIDS orphans which resulted in the film “Blood Brother” which they made downtown at media firm called ANIMAL which just one the Best Documentary from Big Sky having previously won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards from Sundance.
I cannot wait to see what Pittsburgh talent does next … And if you want to see what the next generation is up to, please join us at noon at the Heinz History Center for the Teen Oscar Party. There will be free pizza and prizes and a showing of Pittsburgh: Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret featuring folks like Academy Award winners like Shirley Jones and Rob Marshall, and even some special clips from Matt Damon and friends who were here last year inspiring a new generation to make movies and make a difference. See www.takeshotcontest.org for complete details.
(Top image: Steve Chbosky. Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
I wrote the "Saved By the Bell" episode in which Jim Harbaugh appears as Screech's cousin.
We all have things in our past that my come back to haunt us. And I had not thought about this for a long time. But a few days ago, I received a call from a journalist from the Wall Street Journal asking me for a comment about an episode of "Saved by the Bell: The New Class" which featured a guy named Jim Harbaugh. I had all but forgotten about this, but suddenly it all came rushing back-- the 1990s, when the writing staff was informed by executive producer Peter Engel that we were going to have a very special guest on the show-- a quarterback from the Indianapolis Colts named Jim Harbaugh. Television is generally written collectively and so there is plenty of blame to go around, but this was an episode called “Little Hero” in which I was the one who received writing credit.
Click here to see the clip:
In the episode, which apparently has now gone viral, a young Jim Harbaugh, fresh from leading the Indianapolis Colts to the AFC championship, makes a surprise appearance as Screech's cousin. I had long forgotten the moral of the story (this was when “Saved By the Bell” in the 90s was considered educational programming so all the stories had an overt moral message.) But I did vaguely remember that Jim had some speech he delivered in the classroom that was about the importance of not letting fame go to his head and how what matters is not what you do on the field, but who you are as a person. I leave it to students of Jim’s coaching style to determine if there were early shades of an inspiration coach in that monologue.
In thinking back on that episode, I must confess of not knowing much about Jim Harbaugh before he showed up at the table read. And that, having been more a Screech type growing up in my old high school, I had pre-conceptions about what an All-American type quarterback would be like on the set. From what I remember, Jim had a good sense of humor about the whole thing—including some “jokes” about how Screech was the more popular of the two in school because Jim was always practicing and how Screech was a buffer than him in the muscle-department. And it may be my imagination, but it does look like Jim was enjoying himself giving Screech a firm pat on the back at the end of the episode than sent Screech to the floor. All in all, from what I can remember, Jim seemed like a pretty good guy who was humble and decent enough that he seemed to be the true All-American guy who he played on the show. What I definitely recall, and what is apparent in the clips on you tube, was that Jim had that great 1990s hair.
I have read a piece in which Jim still seems to have a fond attitude towards his acting cameo. And I wish him great success in the game today. But if things do look grim at half time, he may want to pop an old VHS tape in the VCR and play back his SBTB clip for inspiration… Either that, or call in Mr. Belding.
Fred Rogers, once said that our greatest challenge was to "try and make good attractive." He would be truly proud today of some young men from his hometown as headlines across the world read Blood Brother wins Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance. The film is a Rocky underdog story, but one with a spiritual twist whose entire aim from the beginning was to amplify good in the world, as the film follows Rocky Braat, a young man from Pittsburgh who took a different path, heading to India where his journey and those of a group of young children with HIV, became entwined, and in so doing, thanks to the masterful work of some fellow Pittsburghers who documented his experience, will hopefully now inspire millions. And for those of us in Pittsburgh, the story is even more remarkable.
I first became aware of the film that would become Blood Brother a couple of years ago when visiting the downtown offices of Michael Killen, another Pittsburgher who had come back here after a career in L.A. to open up ANIMAL, an extraordinarily creative media firm which has done award winning national work which got early attention for making the Taco Bell Chihuaua talk. (see http://animalvfx.com) Michael is a big believer in Pittsburgh talent and on my visit, he introduced me to a couple of recent graduates from the Art Institute, Steve Hoover and Danny Yourd. They were packing a bag with film equipment as they mentioned off-handedly, that Steve was on his way to India to visit their fellow Art Institute grad, Rocky Braat, who had left Pittsburgh to go work at an orphanage where all the children were HIV positive. It was one of those sentences that seemed larger than one could absorb, and, though one could sense their passion, they said it with this casualness, as if they were going to an away Steelers game, that seemed to belie the intensity of this endeavor.
Cut to a year later, when I was visiting Michael and his colleague Kathy Dziubekas as Steve was editing the footage they had gathered. You could tell with each frame how this was something special. The story of Blood Brother is a story of selflessness, of friendship, of how caring can be infectious. We all know that there are sad stories that happen every day on the planet, and can feel so helpless, but here Rocky was caring about these kids who had become his family. I don’t want to say too much as it seems inevitable that soon this story which inspired the audience at Sundance will be inspiring many, many others. (You can see the trailer at www.bloodbrotherfilm.com)
But as Steve struggled to pull the many hours of footage together into a compelling two hour movie, Michael, who serves as executive producer of film, urged him to put his own personal point of view into the film. Steve, who was never in this for his own fame, but to tell this important story from the heart, eventually lent his narration to the movie and the story of his own friendship with Rocky, which is one of the things that gives the movie its power and intimacy. All movies are challenging, but it is even more so with independent documentaries which don't have the huge budgets of Hollywood productions. But with Steve, who serves as director of the film, focused on the editing and Danny as the unrelentingly determined producer, the film began to take shape. Last Spring, we had the privilege of showing an early trailer of Blood Brother at one of our Steeltown Film Factory events and people could tell then that something special was going on. Steve and Danny, who have remained humble throughout, were amazed themselves to discover the film was accepted to Sundance. They even used a kickstarter campaign to get the funds to get themselves and Rocky to Sundance-- which was somehow fitting in that it allowed others to be part of this journey. And then, a few days ago, I saw a facebook post from Danny about how this story, made in Pittsburgh and India, had received a standing ovation at its premiere at Sundance. It is amazing how far one's heart and dreams can take you.
It has been a truly impressive past year in film for Pittsburgh with big headlines about Dark Knight, Jack Reacher, and Promised Land shooting here. But this small film, made lovingly by talented people in Pittsburgh, should remind us all what is possible. And if all this is not enough, Steve and Danny have been using all the attention they have been getting for this film to help Rocky's mission.
See the Blood Brother trailer here:
Read the rave Variety review here:
About the Sundance win here:
For more on the film, see the PG's Barb Vacheri's preview of it last September:
And learn how to help Rocky's mission, go to:
December 23rd marks the 40th Anniversary of the Immaculate Reception—a moment which Steeler Nation will surely celebrate next Sunday. It is the play which NFL Films has called “the greatest play of all time and which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has called “the play that changed a city”, and on Sunday, many Pittsburgh expats who wave their Terrible Towels as they congregate as part of the Steeler Nation, will agree. But I must confess here that I did not fully appreciate the whole significance of that football catch of Franco Harris—that apparently came off off of Jack Tatum’s or Frenchie Fuqua’s football helmet depending on who you believe-- which led to a victory against the Oakland Raiders in 1972, until I met Franco himself while making “My Tale of Two Cities” in 2005. For the film, we asked iconic Pittsburgh neighbors from Teresa Heinz Kerry to Fred Rogers’s wife Joanne to be interviewed in places which meant something to them. Teresa chose the Strip, Joanne the studio where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”, and Franco chose the Mexican War streets on Pittsburgh’s North Side where he still has the house he owned as a Steeler and where he would walk to games with Steeler owner, the Chief, Art Rooney.
Truth be told, growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970’s, I was a Minesotta Vikings fan—mainly because as a somewhat scrawny kid—I could identify with their quarterback Scramblng Fran Tarkenton who seemed to have the ability to escape the big guys who were running after him (unlike myself who ended up getting a few wedgies growing up here.) As Franco kindly pointed out, that was not the greatest choice in the 70s when the Vikings were known for not being able to win a Super Bowl, but had I known the man who Franco was, I would have had quite a different team I was rooting for.
The filming was cathartic and revelation to me on several fronts –
1) though he is in some ways a living symbol of Pittsburgh’s obsession with sports, in talking about how Pittsburgh could reinvent itself as a city, he spoke of how important was for a city to have all the elements—sports, business, the arts—work together in order for that city to compete.
2) though Franco is known as an athlete, he tells a wonderful story about his son, Dok, and realizing early on that Dok whose real name is Franco Dokmanivich Harris, would not be a professional football player, and Franco takes tremendous pride in his son who chose a different path— who came back to Pittsburgh after Princeton and working in D.C. to go to business school and law school at the same time, and then run for Mayor. To watch Franco and Dok, who share many passions together
3) before we did the official filming, two young African America boys both yelled out—“Franco” and he stopped to talk with them. I was amazed that they even knew who Franco was. The first asked if Franco was still famous. What’s famous?, Franco asked. The other asked if Franco was rich. Franco asked what “rich” was. When they pointed to a fancy car and asked if it was Franco, Franco showed them the old Jeep he still drives. And he pointed out that the key in life was to be happy with what you make. He then asked both boys what they wanted to be in life. “Football player.” “Football player!” they both shot back. Franco shook his head and laughed, then asked what they really wanted to be. “A fireman.” “A lawyer.” Franco then shook their hands, and said he looked forward to shaking their hands again—when they were a fireman and a lawyer.
(Watch part of this at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUSt4uWyJm4 )
Over the years when we showed “My Tale of Two Cities” on Capitol Hill in D.C., in New York at the Tribecas Cinemas, and to a sold out crowd of 1300 here in Pittsburgh at The Byham Theater, I have gotten to know Franco a bit. And have been humbled by the person I have gotten to know. The man I have come to know is quiet, gentle, articulate, and thoughtful. He is the kind of person who offered to give me a ride home from the airport after we came back on a trip—even though my place was the other end of town—and then playfully got on me, when I tried to give him directions to my house, telling him how to get to the East End after the Fort Pitt tunnel. “You don’t think I know where Oakland is?” He is the person who I have watched quietly support the underdog, give of his time, himself and his resources. And he has done all this selflessly. I realize some have questioned him when he took a stand on behalf of his old coach Joe Paterno. He could have easily kept quiet, and his life would have been oh, so easier. But that is not who Franco is. And believe me, he is one who cares about the underdog and the lives of kids over football. But for Franco it seems to be all about character. He is a man who does what is right for its own sake.
At the end of our filming, Franco autographed a football for me, and inscribed on it “believe in Pittsburgh.” At the time, in 2005, no one was thinking Pittburgh would be named “America’s Most Livable City” twice, that the city would come back and be named by Business Insider as one of only 3 major American cities which has fully recovered from the recession. Oh yeah, and no one thought that the Steelers would win 2 more Super Bowls.
But the Immaculate Reception was not just or maybe not even about football. It was always about belief.
Speaking of which, the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception happens to be occurring just two days after December 21st, 2012, which has become notable as a day of significance on the Mayan Calendar. You may have seen the Hollywood tales of what they say is predicted Mayan Apocalypse. But do you know about the Pittsburgh/Mayan connection? After one of the screenings of “My Tale of Two Cities”, I met Vikki Hanchin, a psychotherapist who also happens to believe that Dec. 21st may have a different opportunity for Pittsburgh which she believes could become Peaceburgh as many things converge here. The confluence behind Pittsburgh’s three rivers—and a secret underground forth river—apparently has special significance which could, according to Mayan Elders, allow Pittsburgh to be a special portal for energy which may lead to a new way of thinking in the Universe. It could be a new world of compassion and enlightment—which in my mind, would be keeping with all the many good things which seem to be converging in Pittsburgh these days.
And so, whether you believe in the Steelers, the Mayan Calendar, or just Pittsburgh in general, I think we can all concede that something good is happening here amidst these three rivers.
(For more, please go to www.mytaleoftwocities.com)
You really have to say at this point, that there is something in the water here, or that perhaps the Mayans were right about everything converging in Pittsburgh in 2012. As the 2013 Sundance Film Festival line-up is announced you will find two great Pittsburgh stories at least that I know of, that are represented.
A few years back, I was visiting the offices of the very talented folks at Animal, one of Pittsburgh's finest production houses run by Michael Killen, who himself moved back here from L.A. (Though Animal is known for their amazing work in commercials bringing things like the Taco Bell dog to life, they do so much more.) Anyway, as I was meeting with Michael, he introduced me to a couple of young men, Steve Hoover and Danny Yord, who looked just out of college and who casually told me they were headed to India to make a little documentary abot their friend Rocky. Out came the seeming amazing story of how Rocky had been a student at the Art Institute and now was working in the orphanage in India with children who had AIDS. It is a story that sounded compelling, but as I watched them lug bags and equipment as they headed towards the airport, little could prepare me, for the final film which I saw in rough cut and which was truly moving and surprising and funny and sad, and was just wonderful.
You can get a sense of "Blood Brother" which was just accepted into the 2013 Sudance Film Festival at:
There is of course at least one other Pittsburgh connection to Sundance, and that is "The Lifeguard" starring Kristen Bell, a film set elsewhere, but produced here by Pittsburgh's own Mike Dolan with Liz Garcia directing who sounded like a passionate Pittsburgher by the time she finished shooting here.
And then this week, I have been visited by Steeltown's first intern, Tom Pelligrini, who has gone on to have a couple of movies he produced in Sundance, and who most recently produced the critically acclaimed "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" which was picked up by Magnolia (owned by Pittsburgh's own Mark Cuban), and which has been burning up at Itunes and Netflix these days.
And amidst all this of course is news that Stephen Chbosky, one of the nicest and most talented guys ever to come out of Pittsburgh, who achieved the almost impossible feat of writing an amazing novel, "Perks of a Wallflower", and turning it into an equally amazing film which he wrote and directed and shot right here, which is nominated for a Spirit Award (which we are sure is just the beginning.)
Sure, the talent will be flocking to Salk Lake City for Sundance this January, but at least a few of them will be getting on a plane from Pittsburgh.
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If you are a Pittsburgher who has your own dreams of making a movie, please come to Monday December 3rd to a Free Screenwriting Special Event for the Steeltown Film Factory at the University of Pittsburgh at 6 p.m. in Room 501. You can learn all you need to know to enter the 4th annual Steeltown Film Factory where you could win up to $30,000 and a trip to Hollywood for a 12 page script that just has to be shot in Pittsburgh. (See www.steeltownfilmfactory.org)