Note from Devin: Please welcome one of my favorite people, currently going by the name of perculator66, to the CHUD main page. He’s smart as hell and twice as funny, and he happened to find himself on the set of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a film which – as he notes – recently made some gossip headlines. Let’s hope more movies shoot in Pittsburgh so we can get more from perc.
I spent some time recently on a couple of location sets for THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, a modestly-budgeted adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel currently filming in Pittsburgh. For those not familiar with the book, it tells the story of Art Bechstein, who’s recently graduated from college and spends the summer afterward hanging around Pittsburgh and sorting out who he is, in just about every sense of the phrase. Throw in a love trapezoid, a dad in the mob and a cast of characters full of life and quirk, and you’ve got one of the better debut novels in modern American lit.
The book is also about Pittsburgh and its neighborhoods in a meaningful way. It’s more than just a fungible setting and, frankly, there aren’t a long list of literary or cinematic works that draw inspiration from the Steel City. The book manages to find the poetry in the stretch where uptown meets Oakland, near Jay’s Bookstall where Chabon worked as an undergrad, through the Pitt campus and further down Forbes Avenue past the Carnegie Museum and the inexplicable Cloud Factory to where Carnegie-Mellon’s compact campus stands, butting right up against the prosperous and pleasant residential neighborhoods in lower Squirrel Hill.
That’s why there was notable exasperation among the local media and film community when early pre-production buzz was that comparative cost above and below the Great Lakes meant the production was probably headed to Ontario for shooting. The region’s film ego is still nursing a permanent bruise from George Romero– the very face of Pittsburgh cinema– being compelled to shoot LAND OF THE DEAD someplace other than Allegheny County. Plus, given that Curtis Hanson’s WONDER BOYS was the last great film made locally, it would have been a huge missed opportunity for the city to have another of Chabon’s Pittsburgh-set books put on film with somebody else’s backdrops filling the screen. The sigh of relief was palpable.
I only got to see the shooting of a few scenes– an outdoor soccer game, an upscale restaurant scene where Art goes to meet Phlox and a cocktail party Art and Cleveland crash at the Carnegie Museum. That’s admittedly not any kind of a representative sample, but I’m really encouraged by what I did see of the filming and casting. I wasn’t able to catch any episodes of that NBC lottery show he did this summer, but at least appearancewise Jon Foster looks like a really good fit for Art. In the bits of filming I saw he seemed to convey the right blend of youth and ambivalence. Further, based on what I had a chance to see, Sienna Miller will probably make a fine Jane Bellwether. But the casting coup, from my admittedly limited observations, was landing Peter Sarsgaard to play Cleveland. He’s got exactly the kind of presence and irresistible charm that would lead an impressionable guy like Art to follow him around. He might be able to carry the film himself.
The cocktail party scene was a fun shoot. A bunch of well-heeled rich donor types are hanging around in conversational bouquets in a sculpture-filled room of the Carnegie Museum. Jane Bellwether’s part of a string quartet providing background music, and Art and Cleveland storm in dressed in tuxedos and clap loudly and enthusiastically for her, while the patrons who regarded the quartet as little more than live muzak respond with disdain.
At around the 4:30 a.m. mark, one of the extras who was playing a patron had a fainting spell and slumped to the floor. It was unclear to everyone there– the production crew, the lead actors and the extras– whether this was an urgent matter or just a side effect of the unavoidable exhaustion of being awake for twenty hours and on your feet which would not require medical intervention. Every person in the room stood there in that sort ofparalysis that only group dynamics can create, asking himself or herself, "Is this serious? Should we be calling someone? Did I just see someone else move to do something? Is that all that needs to be done?" All at once, Sienna Miller stood up from her canvas chair and awkwardly assumed the role of Protector of Decency and Decorum. "Guys!" she shouted to the extras, "all of you should file out. Give her space." She stood near the door and motioned the background people out. The background people grumbled a little about this because it wasn’t as if they were rubbernecking any more than the dozens of production people standing around and because the prospect of movement of any significant distance at any measurable speed at 4:30 a.m. was an irritation. This led to a round of comments made among the extras along the lines of "Hey, Sienna, you’re not my nanny" et cetera, and out of her hearing.
In the spirit of complete candor, I should mention that while writing this piece it was brought to my attention that today’s edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Ms. Miller made some disparaging remarks regarding Pittsburgh to a Rolling Stone interviewer. See, e.g., http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06279/727843-53.stm . In truth, before reading that article I had all along intended to mention the "Hey, Sienna, you’re not my nanny" incident in this report. However, I wasn’t going to mention that Miller’s violinist stand-in, a young Russian woman named Olga, was significantly hotter than she was, and that her superlative hotness fused with the siren song of her violin inspired more than one of the XY extras to wonder aloud if it wasn’t too late to recast Jane.
As you can see, Shittsburghers, born as they are under punches, are deft counterpunchers. But back to the matter at hand.
The book and the film are set in 1983, so there’s a bit of period piece-ness to the wardrobe and sets, but it’s not Sonny Crockett suits and Madonna lace gloves. Instead, it’s more along the lines of New Wave/New Romantic boho chic mixed with the sort of trend time-lapse delay that you get in the Rust Belt. One part FLASHDANCE, one part THE DEER HUNTER. Imagine a Dale Bozzio look-alike juxtaposed with a guy in a dingy road John Stallworth jersey. I dig it.
Filming wraps up on October 17, 2006. The film won’t hit a screen near you until fall of 2007, but I think there’s good reason to have high hopes for it. The book’s got some great angles on the typical coming-of-age story,and the quality of the cast and attention to location and detail encourages me that the filmmakers are aiming for the same sort of poignancy.