Six Degrees of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh and Sundance Part I

Saturday, 18 January 2014 12:14 PM Written by

Pittsburgh and Sundance: Pt. 1

The Immaculate Reception, the Dock Ellis “No No Dockumentary” and

why you must watch last year’s Sundance winner “Blood Brother”which  

premieres on Independent Lens Jan. 20th

I am heading to Sundance where Pittsburgh is represented in several different ways this year:    The short film “The Immaculate Reception” about young love and a play which changed Pittsburgh’s destiny, made by the very talented Pittsburgh native Charlotte Glynn, with a great Pittsburgh cast and crew.   The “No No Dockumentary” about Dock Ellis made by a team in Austin about the legend of Dock pitching a no-hitter on LSD, but dealing with deeper themes of addiction and recovery and issues beyond baseball focusing on the man.    And on a personal note, a former Pitt student of mine, John Paul Horstmann edited the film “Cold In July” starring Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and Sam Shepard, which like “No, no….”    Both "Cold in July" and "No No" are listed on the Hollywood Reporter's Sundance Hot List.  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sundance-hot-list-15-coveted-670770?mobile_redirect=false

I will be writing about all these films in the days to come, as well as attending a party through by CMU and its Masters of Entertainment Industry Management Entertainment Program which has a growing reputation in the film industry and an ummatchable track record of placing students with top studios and production companies.   

As Pittsburgh’s buzz continues and we witness our growing film community just from our Steeltown Film Factory which continues to discover the burgeoning and original creative voices in this city, one cannot help but wonder if at some point, Pittsburgh could have its own Sundance or Southwest scene.   But also, personally, I have to think back on the events of the last year, and one of the most remarkable and still in my mind underreported stories I have ever come across.    In short, it is the story of two friends from Pittsburgh who went to the Art Institute, and how the decided to document their friend who worked in an AIDS orphanage in India.    That film, “Blood Brother” won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and you can see it yourself at on Monday Jan. 20th on Independent Lens which for those in Pittsburgh is on at 10 pm.. on WQED. 

http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blood-brother/

But the way I first encountered this epic story was far less dramatic.   Three years or so ago, I was visiting Michael Killen, who like myself, had spent some time in LA before moving back to Pittsburgh where he co-founded a media company Animal which made its name giving voice to animals in commercials like the talking Taco Bell Chiauhua and the smiling California Cows.   Michael and his partner Kathy Dzuibek introduced me to Steve Hoover and Danny Yourd men who worked for him on commercials and videos (such as Owl City’s Firefly video) who were packing their bags for India.  Michael and Kathy explained that they were going to India as their friend Rocky had gone their to help these kids who had HIV and were living in an orphanage.   Animal was supporting them following their passion and they were very humble where all this might lead.

Cut to a year or so later when I was visiting Animal again in the new downtown office space and stopped by the office where Steve was cutting some footage together.  I was struck by how compelling and the beautiful the short snippets I saw were.  A little while later, a trailer emerged and my Steeltown colleague Lisa Smith Reed insisted that we show the trailer at one of our Steeltown Film Factory events.   The reaction there again signaled there was something special.  Steeltown along with many others joined the Kickstarter crowdsourcing support for the film as the momentum grew. 

But then there was a private screening and I let my students at Pitt where I was teaching a documentary class go as a learning experience.   In the class, I showed them another film “Born Into Brothels” which also took place in India about a woman who teaches the children of prostitutes photography.  I should have known something was up when my students kept insisting they preferred “Blood Brother” which at this point had evolved into a story of Rocky finding his calling with the young people in India and his friendship with Steve, the director.   It was the kind of inspiring story which those who grew up with the film Rocky could get behind—except this was real—with life or death consequences for these kids.  You’d have to watch it to  get the sense of the film as it is a highly personal story for everuone involved where Rocky’s devotion to these kids becomes a life and death battle and it gets one to think about what each of our purposes here on the planet, and what are we all doing with our lives.  Ultimately, it is a story of self-doubt and finding oneself and love and friendship   

After that screening, I asked Danny and Steve what they were planning on doing with the film.   They modestly said they would apply to Sundance, but they knew what a long shot it was.  Whatever happened, one thing was certain.  They planned to donate all the money from the film to helping Rocky’s kids and the mission.

Sure enough, a few months later, Steve and Danny and the team at Animal discovered their film had been accepted into Sundance.  But getting their was a problem, and Steeltown was happy to join the crowdfunding that got them to the Festival.   There was buzz about many movies before the festival, but I guess we new something was up when on Danny’s facebook post, it said something about a standing ovation after the first screening.   I asked friends who had had films there if that was common, and they said it was not unheard of.   But no one expected what happened next.   When they announced the Grand Jury prize for best documentary, it  was “Blood Brother.”  And the again when they announced the audience award.  Rocky, Danny,and Steve accepted in the same t-shirts it seemed that they were wearing when I first met them.

Now winning Sundance is often the beginning and not the end of the journey.  And the film got big Hollywood representation.   There were discussions with various notable distributors, but Danny and Steve decided to go with PBS feeling that would benefit the film and the kids the most.   Theatrically, they also blazed a new trail, using a new company called “Tugg” where if a certain number of folks request screenings, theaters agree to book the film.   “Blood Brother” managed to play over 50 cities, with rave reviews coming from the New York and LA Times.

I don’t mean to  make this seem like there has not been bumps along the way. Rumors and piece on the internet began to appear that there may be another agenda to “Blood Brother.”  That Rocky may have been trying to convert these kids to Christianity.   Apparently, this had something to do with the church Steve went to, and perhaps it is best to let Steve’s open letter dispel what to me, are unfounded and cynical accusations.  http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com/blog-post/open-letter-from-blood-brother-director-steve-hoover/

All I can tell you, is that each step along the way, I have found Steve and Danny, who I have gotten to know, and their backers at Animal, Michael and Kathy, who have shelled out over $130,000 to get this film made to be exactly what you hoped they would be.  Doing things for the right reasons—to express themselves and make a difference.  

We ourselves just did a documentary on Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh developing the first polio vaccine, and many today would probably be skeptical of Dr. Salk who did not patent his “vaccine” because he said “it belonged to the people.”    Yes, one could argue it was that because it was publically funded by the “March of Dimes” or because of some people’s POV of his research or that this pre-dated University’s patenting things, but the fact is Jonas Salk did not get rich off of his vaccine and I can tell you that Steve, Danny, and Rocky from all appearances did this film for exactly the reasons one would hope—and in the end, are humbled by its success.   Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Pittsburgh is also the town that a minister named Fred Rogers used television to talk about what it meant to “love”—all the while never overtly preaching any doctrine.

Yes, it would have been nice if it got an Oscar nomination last week, but Steve and Danny have come upon a new story—which is also compelling—an ex-Soviet firefighter who conducts raids for lost kids in “the ruins of an empire.”  You can watch the trailer here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dannyyourd/gennadiy-our-new-documentary which again is being funded by both Animal and crowd-sourcing.   The good news is that despite that being another international story, and all their big-time success, Steve and Danny seemed determined to stay in Pittsburgh as their home base.

For what “Blood Brother” is in addition to being just a remarkable film you should watch, is that wonderful, beautifully made films can come from places outside of just New York and L.A.  And while it is tremendously exciting that the producers of the new Russell Crowe movie are looking to have that movie join the parade of great Hollywood films which are coming here, we should also pay attention an celebrate the great original voices which continue to come out of Pittsburgh.   For the town where both George Romero and Fred Rogers did their work is producing a new generation of talent that could just be a big part of this city’s future.  

And now, I have to go off and watch a few other “Pittsburgh-related films” which have made their way to Park City.   Who knows what will happen this year.. stay tuned.   

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The news that “The Fault In Our Stars”, a book based on an author named John Green, is filming in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, means different things to different people.   But if you happen to be the father of a 14 year old daughter, for whom "Fault" is her favorite all time book, this is a sacred time.   And if you have read the book, you will understand why this is a novel that speaks to a generation in the same way “Catcher In the Rye” spoke to mine growing up.   But what is interesting, and which has obsessed me of late, is the oddness that this movie is filming here at the same time the documentary on J.D. Salinger is coming out—a film I, like many Salinger fans, has deep ambivalence about.  For Salinger of all people, seemed to guard the space between the reader and the writer as something holy—and that should exist apart from media and critics and external trappings.  

There is something meta-textual about the timing of the Salinger documentary “revealing”  private details the author had tried so hard to protect and “Fault In Our Stars” filming here—for in “Fault”, the teenage protagonist, Hazel Grace, a sixteen year old cancer patient and the object of her affection, seventeen year old Augustus Waters, are obsessed with the reclusive author of a book, “The Imperial Affliction”, that speaks so deeply to these young people that, as their sort of “Make A Wish” dream, they travel to Amsterdam to meet the author himself.   Shades of J.D. Salinger naturally appear, and if you happen to be an adult who picks up this novel, as millions have, you will see that this is not just a “young person’s book”, but a book about young people which speaks to all of us who long for meaning in this crazy world.   And then there is the aspect here, of what many of us might have fantasized about, of meeting J.D. Salinger.

But John Green is an author of a different age, one with millions of twitter followers and who also has a quite active vblog (video blog) with his brother Hank which produces an astonishing amount of content and which communicates quite intimately with his readership.    And, one wonders if had Mister Salinger come up in this age, he might have been less reclusive—he was, according to the recent doc—which I have still not yet seen—an aspiring actor, who apparently longed to play “Holden” should he have been able to pull it off.   

Last year, my daughter read “Catcher” as part of her eighth grade English class and I was shocked to hear she was the only one in thr class who connected to the novel—as others found Holden a “whiny, spoiled rich kid.”  I was proud of her for having her own convictions, and didn’t mind if she was a bit alienated from her peers by this, as that of course how Holden would have been.   What has been a bit more confusing as to whether we should try to take her to get a glimpse of the filming of the movie, "Fault", and perhaps catch a glimpse of her Salinger, a somewhat less reclusive John Green.  Though it would be exciting, anyone who has actually spent time on a film set, knows that it is remarkably boring and that that experience—like when Hazel meets the author, Peter Van Houten-- is destined to be a bit of a let down. 

“Fault” is set in Indianapolis Indiana (Green’s hometown), and the fact that it is filming in Pittsburgh at all may be a bit disappointing to those from that region.   But Pittsburgh is the home of Fred Rogers, who in some ways, might be described as an early video blogger, one who used the new technology of his day, to communicate directly with his audience.   Both John Green and Mister Rogers studied to become ministers, and Fred felt that place between the camera and the young people he was talking to was sacred-- something which I believe Mr. Green and Mr. Salinger would agree with.    

To make this all even more metatexual (I like that as a blanket word even if I am not certain I am using this correctly), I invite you to watch one of  John Green’s video blogs, here, to have him explain more about Fred Rogers and some parallels between them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Xck2ByutMg

You can also watch him talk about J.D Salinger here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSR8J6LUaT8

So the bottom line, I have not seen the Salinger doc and I have refrained from taking my daughter to the set of "Fault", but I am teaching  a freshman composition class at the University of Pittsburgh titled “Pittsburgh, Film, and You” and on the first day, when I asked my class if anyone had ever been on a film set, one of the students quietly raised his hand, and said he had just been on the set of “Fault In Our Stars.”   Apparently, he had deduced from various media reports where the film was shooting, and used GPS to find the location.  And while observing the set, he spotted none other than the author himself, John Green.  He had met John once before at a book reading and apparently said something like how great it was to see him, and John replied something kind back.  (Certainly a better experience than Hazel got with Peter Van Houton.)

But how wonderful it is that in this super-tech, media saturated age, that books can still inspire the wonder of a new generation.    Thanks, John Green.   And J.D.   And all who still worship the page and respect young people.  

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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)

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True Confession:

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:

Jim Harbaugh as Screech's Cousin

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.  

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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.  

 

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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:

www.bloodbrotherfilm.com

Read the rave Variety review here:

http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117949076/

About the Sundance win here:

http://www.thewrap.com/movies/-post/sundance-awards-fruitvale-blood-brother-take-top-prizes-74856

For more on the film, see the PG's Barb Vacheri's preview of it last September:

http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/ae/movies/blood-brother-tracks-a-pittsburgher-who-finds-his-calling-in-india-654145/

And learn how to help Rocky's mission, go to:

http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com/how-to-help/

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