Meet five local film professionals who keep “Hollywood on the Mon” rolling.
Photography by Renee Rosensteel
The continued boom in locally developed film projects means more to our region than spotting celebrities in Market Square—it means that a talented, hardworking group of people will have decent jobs. The region has long been a breeding ground for world-class behind-the-camera talent; as the tax incentive repeatedly draws Hollywood crews to the area, that talent can now make their living close to home. Pittsburgh Magazine went to the experts at the Pittsburgh Film Office and put together a crew of locals to shine a spotlight on the wide-ranging impact of the city’s silver-screen takeover.
James Mahathey is perched atop a tiny, slanted roof above the Smithfield Street Garage downtown, rapidly snapping pictures. He’s scampered up here to figure out how Batman might look from this angle. This is after he already led Christopher Nolan and his crew to the tiny, New York-esque alleys of Exchange Way and Strawberry Way, as well as a deserted section of Pittsburgh’s subway tunnels. But there are always new angles to discover.
As location manager—a job he held during the filming of The Dark Knight Rises and many other locally made flicks—Mahathey has a multilayered role. He starts working before a movie crew even agrees to film in Pittsburgh, scouring the region for spots that the director might need. If the crew opts to visit, Mahathey will be there to show them the best looks western Pennsylvania has to offer.
And if the production is a go, he handles every aspect of the location—from obtaining filming permits to convincing neighbors to keep their yappy dogs inside during certain shots.
There’s a lot to think about. But Mahathey wouldn’t have it any other way.
“That’s one of the nice things about the job,” he says. “Every day is a little different. It’s challenging on so many levels.”
Mahathey, a Penn Hills native who currently resides in the North Hills, spent a lot of time at Pittsburgh Filmmakers while he majored in film studies at Point Park University. Eventually, he developed a reputation as a go-to guy for snapping pictures of potential shooting locations—and secured his first major gig two weeks after graduation, working on the Michael Keaton action flick Desperate Measures.
“My mom was really worried that I would never get a job,” he laughs.
Fifteen years later, Mahathey has spent so much time scoping out the scenery that he has a nearly photographic memory of the entire region. While scouting for The Mothman Prophecies, director Mark Pellington described the way he imagined his perfect setting would look; Mahathey instantly took him to a matching spot … in the middle of nowhere.
“I’ve traveled these roads so much that it’s just kind of ingrained in my head now,” he says.
Believe it or not, though, there are still places that Mahathey has never set foot—like that parking garage roof on Smithfield Street. And as he clicked his shutter, he felt himself starting to fall. Now, we all know that Batman is tasked with protecting the citizens of Gotham City. But a location manager tumbling off of a roof is unfortunately outside of the Caped Crusader’s realm; thus, Mahathey crashed down to the concrete below, tore up his knee and moved on.
“I continued to work the rest of that day,” he says, “and the next before I decided I finally needed to see a doctor about it.”
Resume: The Dark Knight Rises, Abduction, Super 8, Unstoppable, She’s Out of My League, The Mothman Prophecies, Wonder Boys, Inspector Gadget
Most Enjoyable ‘Burgh Project: The Mothman Prophecies
Favorite Movies: Psycho, E.T.
Favorite Hollywood Type to Work With: Robert Downey, Jr. “Just a great guy.”
Hottest Filming Location Around: North Side. “All the perfect elements there.”
Future of Film in Pittsburgh: “As long as the [tax] incentive stays, I think it will continue to grow. And that benefits so many people.”
Buster Pile’s introduction to the movie business is a perfect right place, right time story. After high school, he worked in the Jerome, Pa., coal mines up until the day they closed. Weeks later, his sister asked him for a ride to New Orleans. Her husband was there working on a movie, and Pile ended up hanging around the set for a few days. As it happened, Pile was nearby when a slacking worker was fired.
“The foreman was yelling at this guy, ‘I can get anybody to do your job!’ And he turned and pointed at me: ‘Do you want his job?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’”
Nearly 25 years have passed since that production—the Mickey Rourke/Robert De Niro thriller Angel Heart—and Pile is more than passionate about the career that he found.
“[Outside of the film industry], construction is the same old thing every day—you build houses,” says Pile, who lives in Friedens, Pa., with his family. “We build everything: rocks, gravestones, planes, trains. Everything that you could imagine, we build.”
As construction coordinator, he oversees all the building aspects of a film—from hiring the crew to delivering (and repairing) the finished product. His team builds things in a way that meets all the requirements of filming, holds up under pressure and looks convincing to the camera.
In all those respects, they succeed. For example, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the beginning of I Am Number Four was shot on-location in the tropics. The film opens with a character being chased out of a bamboo hut, tearing through the jungle and ascending a giant tree. The crew must’ve flown to Indonesia for that, right?
“That was all built in Pittsburgh,” Pile says. “We even built that tree. The woods he was running through, I think they were in North Park. Pittsburgh’s a good clone for anything.”
One of Pile’s biggest challenges came at the request of the famously imaginative M. Night Shyamalan. When planning his mysterious suspense yarn The Village, the director wanted a wholly original setting. So, he picked a patch of land in rural Pennsylvania and called on Pile and company to do the impossible.
“We had about eight or nine weeks to build a whole village, full interiors and exteriors of all those buildings,” Pile says. “And we had to put a road in to get where we were—it was not easily accessed.”
He admits that the request gave him a moment of pause. Just one.
“To my knowledge, we haven’t been out-challenged yet.”
Given the recent boom in local projects, Pile is busier than ever. And making movies is becoming the family business: Two of Pile’s three children are young film professionals themselves.
Not bad for a guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Resume: One Shot, Super 8, Love and Other Drugs, Righteous Kill, Unbreakable, Dogma, Wonder Boys, Philadelphia
Most Enjoyable ’Burgh Project: August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
Favorite Genre: Old-school Westerns
Favorite Hollywood Type to Work With: Writer/director John Sayles. “The nicest director I’ve ever met—and the nicest person.”
Pittsburgh’s Big Advantage: “I’ve traveled all over the country in this industry, and Pittsburgh is certainly one of the most picturesque cities.”
The old joke is that at a certain point in a film’s credits, the normal viewer no longer has any idea what the job titles mean. Best boy? Key grip? To the average guy with a bucket of popcorn, it might as well be Greek.
So Bart Flaherty, who has held both of those titles, spends a lot of time clarifying his role.
“You just explain to people what you really do,” he says. “It’s all new to them. They can’t believe the amount of equipment used on a big feature.”
When you walk past a film set downtown and pass a seemingly endless parade of trucks and equipment, Flaherty is probably in there somewhere, gearing up for the next challenge. His crew is responsible for mounting all the lighting for a film, as well as the camera whenever it’s doing anything unusual.
“We’ve put cameras in so many different places,” he says. “We put ‘em on trains, on cars. Overhead cranes at steel mills. Rides at Kennywood. It’s one of the better parts of being a grip.”
And as much as the cameras travel, they’re nothing compared to the lights. A director can need just about anything lit a certain way—from a face to a bridge.
As a matter of fact, it’s a bridge that recently took Flaherty to new heights. This past October and November, you might’ve noticed that the 10th Street Bridge was a lot brighter than usual. The crew from Tom Cruise’s forthcoming One Shot filmed an action sequence there—and that meant a lot of light was required.
“We lit from McArdle Roadway all the way over the 10th Street Bridge and into the Armstrong Tunnel,” Flaherty says. “There was a lot of planning involved.”
You’d want to have everything carefully mapped out if you had to do his job; a number of lights were actually mounted on the top of the bridge. Flaherty estimates the workers were 105 feet above the bridge surface, which is another 50 feet above the water below. To put it mildly, there’s no room for error.
Flaherty, a North Side native who now lives in Baldwin, received a communications management degree from Robert Morris University. It was a one-off film production course that sparked his interest in film; just months after graduating, a friend told him that a movie crew needed some extra hands. This being Pittsburgh, it was, of course, a zombie movie (Flesh Eater). Flaherty signed on immediately.
“For the smaller projects, there are some very experienced people working on those jobs,” he says. “It’s a good way to learn—you’re not going to just do grip; you’re going to help.”
And to young film pros, Flaherty emphasizes that you don’t need to wait for a One Shot to come along.
“Just get your foot in the door wherever you can. Once you do, your attitude and hustle will keep you going in this business.”
Resume: One Shot, Super 8, Love and Other Drugs, She’s Out of My League, Wonder Boys, Dogma, Kingpin, Sudden Death
Favorite Movie: The Godfather
Best On-Set Environment: Kingpin. “You’re laughing all day long.”
Favorite Hollywood Type to Work With: Bill Murray. “We used to play basketball with him. Woody Harrelson would arrange the games.”
Best Part of Working in the ’Burgh: “The people. Most people who work on film are cool people, and you get really close to them.”
One might believe that the role of the costume department is remote—away from the action of the set. There’s an image of a cluttered-but-quiet costume studio, sewing machines running, distant from wherever the zombies are marching or the inmates are brawling.
Of course—like most conceptions of the movie business—this vision is way off.
When the criminals from Arkham Asylum broke out to tangle with Gotham’s finest during the filming of The Dark Knight Rises, Diane Collins was also in Oakland, standing nearby on a very long work day.
“You have to be on the set, standing and waiting for them to do the scene—and as soon as they’re done, you have to restore the costumes to the way they were at the beginning,” she explains. “You have to be in pretty good shape, and you have to be able to run around the set. You have to be good at being aware and noticing differences.”
The costume department can shrink and expand dramatically based on the size of the production. So, while a large crew on films like The Dark Knight Rises allows individuals to focus on specific tasks, a smaller-scale production means someone like Collins needs to have a broad view. And, of course, she’ll need to plan ahead.
“Being a great second-guesser and planner are some of the most important traits you need in this business,” she says. Referring to the Kennywood-set flick Adventureland, where filming was spread throughout the park, “Your wardrobe truck is in one area, your extra holding area is in another. Your extras wardrobe area is in another. So if you need to get something back at your truck, and you’re on the other side of the park—the pure amount of space is a challenge.”
And forgetting anything can lead to some unusual situations: While Collins was still a grad student, she was working on the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead.
“My nanny at the time always joked about the day I called and said, ‘I left the recipe for blood at home—could you go in the dining room and look it up? See what the ingredients are?’”
Collins, who grew up in the Steel Valley, designed costumes for dance and theater in Baltimore for 15 years. She eventually returned to town to pursue a master’s in costume design at Carnegie Mellon University; as Pittsburgh-based film projects increased, she discovered that she didn’t need to leave again. Her roles have varied—from designing all of a film’s costumes to performing fittings on hundreds of extras—but it’s that quality that keeps things fresh.
“Maybe that’s the attraction to me,” she says. “Every movie has a different set of circumstances and a different set of challenges, rewards, whatever. I enjoy the idea of trying to assess a new project.”
Resume: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Dark Knight Rises, Warrior, The Mothman Prophecies, Wonder Boys, Dogma, Sudden Death, Bob Roberts
Favorite ’Burgh-Made Flick: Wonder Boys
Favorite Movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Best Hollywood Type to Work With: Laura Linney. “She is just a wonderful person.”
Pittsburgh’s Signature Shot: Tom Hardy running along the PJ McArdle Roadway in Warrior. “It really struck home about where the city has been and that it can move.”
Picture yourself at a trade show. A huge convention center lined with booths. Every 10 feet, a company postures from a flat-screen that’s hanging from a curtain. Pamphlets, buttons, logo pens. The usual. And then, you spy some kind of tunnel. Like Noah’s Ark at Kennywood. You wander in and the video happens around you, from all angles, 360 degrees of sensory engagement.
That’s what separates Pittsburgh’s Production Masters Inc. (PMI) from other studios. The company can do anything, rising to challenges presented to them from Madison Avenue, Sunset Boulevard and everywhere in between. And Evie DeSarno knows that her team can do these things because of the talent here in Pittsburgh.
“I want potential clients to meet our people,” she says. “Once they do, they see the enthusiasm and skill level they have. Once they meet our people, my job becomes really easy.”
The role of a versatile production studio like PMI is a forgotten one when considering the film industry. DeSarno has to be ready for any request on a daily basis, and PMI has to be ready to jump into action on a moment’s notice. They’ll spend a few weeks putting together game-launch demos for Nintendo, then shift gears and create an audiovisual representation of Cirque du Soleil performers … that can interact with the cast live onstage.
Last year, PMI designed a 3-D video for the Pittsburgh Film Office’s “Lights! Glamour! Action!” Oscar party. And part of the locally shot flick Wonder Boys was made in and around PMI’s offices. The company even does pro bono work for March of Dimes, Children’s Hospital and many other organizations.
“We do everything,” says DeSarno, who grew up in Penn Hills. “Anything in the video and interactive world. There’s never a dull moment here.”
Then there’s the audio post-production side of PMI. After crews finish shooting a film, there are times when lines of dialogue need to be re-recorded. That means the actors need to find a studio that can quickly (and expertly) handle that kind of work. Fortunately, PMI steps in, having recorded performances by Laura Linney, Elizabeth Banks, Walter Cronkite, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sharon Stone, Jeff Goldblum, Phil Hartman, Dianna Argon and dozens of others.
DeSarno became a member of the hardworking PMI team after answering a newspaper ad. The Robert Morris University alumna was coming from an education company and thought that landing a job at PMI was a one-in-a-million shot. But, evidently, they liked her. “I remember giggling a lot during my interview,” she laughs. “I don’t know if that was the selling point.”
Fast-forward 18 years, and she’s a shareholder with the company. DeSarno sees firsthand that the future of her industry has a lot of Pittsburgh in it. And she knows why.
“I wish more people in the outside world would meet the Pittsburgh people who work on films and in the related industries,” she says. “And [that will happen as] more and more people talk to those that have been here—they’ll talk to the Christopher Nolans and say, ‘Wow, the community did all this for you?’”
Favorite ’Burgh-Made Flick: Dogma
Favorite Movie: Gone With the Wind
Favorite Hollywood Types to Work With: Tom Hardy, Dianna Argon and Jeff Goldblum
Dream Job: “I’ve made it very clear to the Film Office: If George Clooney even comes near Pittsburgh, I am the tour guide.”
What Pittsburgh Needs to Stay in the Game: Permanent adoption of the tax credit. “We have found a way to generate revenue for our region—how can you stop it?”