The TV Series ‘Outsiders’ Finds a Home in Millvale
Go behind the scenes to meet set and production designers and artisans who work magic, transforming neighborhoods into rural Kentucky.
Photos by Douglas Duerring
Linda Lang didn’t know it, but her Millvale home was ready for its close up.
Location scouts for the WGN America, filmed-in-Pittsburgh series “Outsiders” left a letter in Lang’s door in April 2015. They wanted to consider using the exterior of the white, clapboard house as the home of Ledda Dobbs (played by former Pittsburgher Rebecca Harris), the sister of the show’s sheriff, Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright).
“Don’t even think about it,” said John Kelly, Lang’s partner of 20 years.
Set crews duplicated a stained glass window during filming of WGN America’s “Outsiders.” Inset: Linda Lang and John Kelly of Millvale
“When I read it, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and I started to get excited,” Lang recalls a year and a half later, an “Outsiders” ball cap perched proudly atop her head.
“I just called them to see what it was about before I said no,” Lang says.
The next day, 35 people from the “Outsiders” production were on her doorstep with cameras.
“Do you mind if we look inside?” one of the crew members asked. By the time they left, “Outsiders” location manager John Adkins was sold on casting Lang’s house – exterior and interior – in the show’s first season.
“I said, ‘Why would they pick out my house?’” Lang asks. “And they said because it was homey, and that just melted me.”
Kelly says producers liked the home’s location on a hill with hills in the background, which suits “Outsiders.” The show is set in the fictional eastern Kentucky town of Blackburg.
A Millvale police vehicle parked by the education wing of Holy Spirit Parish, which depicts the Crockett County Sheriff’s Department on “Outsiders.”
Adkins returned to talk to Kelly, who explained his concerns. At the time the scouts arrived, he was in recovery from throat cancer and didn’t want the disruption of a film crew while his prognosis remained uncertain.
“At the same time, Linda was born and raised in Millvale,” Kelly says. “Her family goes back five generations here. This house was built in 1899 by her grandparents, and she was raised in this house. This was like the ‘Hollywood Minute’ for Linda and bragging rights at least until the day she dies and maybe after, so I said to Adkins, let’s go ahead and do this for the hell of it.”
Kelly got a good report from his doctor, and soon the “Outsiders” cameras were rolling inside and outside the Lang house in 12 of the first season’s 13 episodes.
(left) actor David Morse and actor Kyle Gallner
“Outsiders” returns for its second season on WGN America on Jan. 24, and Millvale, playing Blackburg, will be even more heavily featured than in season one, according to series creator and executive producer Peter Mattei.
“We have a lot of big things happening in Millvale, and we’re very grateful to that town and the cops and the citizens because we have big marches, car chases, a big, huge parade scene where we utilize all of the people from Millvale Days who came in and helped us,” Mattei says. “Without Millvale, we would not have a show. That town has been so generous to us.”
(left) actor Thomas M. Wright and (in sheriff’s uniform) and Kerry Patton
In season two, the Farrell clan of Shay Mountain — a location played by the woods on the grounds of the Jewish Community Center of Henry Kaufmann Family Park in Monroeville — come into greater conflict with Blackburg townies and the coal company that wants to evict the Farrells to exploit the mountain’s natural resources. Blackburg’s Sheriff Houghton is stuck in the middle.
Creating eastern Kentucky in suburban Pittsburgh can be tricky in some respects — but in others, it’s easy.
“Basically, we’re the Paris of Appalachia anyway, right?” says Elizabeth Township native Barbie Pastorik, a buyer in the show’s set-decorating department. “When I drive into work, I’m driving past hollers, and it’s basically just the Appalachian chain and we’re just part of it.”
(left) set decorator Diane Yates and set decorator buyer Barbie Pastorik
With three primary locations — Millvale, Monroeville and the stages at 31st Street Studios in the Strip District — production designer Jonathan Carlson says creating the Farrell encampment in Monroeville was the biggest initial challenge because the team had to design and construct multiple shack-like structures from the ground up in the woods.
“When we go to create the whole world of Shay Mountain, that’s the real meat and potatoes of designing the show,” Carlson says. “Nothing fits together, nothing is square, everything is done by eye and no levels were used.”
props master Kelly Snyder and artist Kyle Ethan Fisher
Making over Millvale is easier, with tasks ranging from changing license plates on cars from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to mounting signage, such as “Crockett County Sheriff’s Department” on the education wing of Millvale’s Holy Spirit Parish Roman Catholic Church.
“You’re just pushing and polluting the things that are already there,” Carlson says. “We age everything and make everything look greasier and grungier and dirtier. A lot of times we’re always trying to repaint white buildings or age buildings down that are way too bright. We’re aiming for the monochromatic palettes of browns and muted earth tones. That’s how we get that Kentucky vibe, eliminating all of the irritating color in our master shots.”
A mural of Blackburg, Ky., changes the appearance of a Millvale building
Set decorator Diane Yates, who is Los Angeles-based when not on location for productions such as “Outsiders,” says Pittsburgh can be a challenging place to shoot for a set decorator because of the dearth of prop houses.
“Everything we get we have to procure through Craigslist or local vendors or online,” she says. “But I have two secrets up my sleeve — one is Barbie Pastorik and the other is [set decoration ‘leadman’] Justin Pelissero. They know everybody in town on a first-name basis so they know where to get everything. We try as much as possible to keep the money within the city.”
Yates said “Outsiders” routinely rents medical equipment from Global Links and buys office furniture from University of Pittsburgh Surplus Property and fixtures from Construction Junction.
“We just recently bought a bunch of stuff for a morgue scene from Pitt Surplus and also for a forensics lab, a lot of beakers and some microscopes,” says Pelissero, a Mount Washington native who began his career as a theater stagehand.
Behind-the-scenes on set in Millvale, the crew stays busy preparing to film the next “Outsiders” scene
Artwork seen in the background of TV shows and movies has to be legally cleared, meaning the production has to obtain the right to use each work. Some of the artwork used on “Outsiders” comes from companies in Los Angeles that specialize in cleared artwork, but Yates and Pastorik say they also try to use paintings and photographs by local artists — including some of the scenic artists who work on “Outsiders.”
Pastorik and Pelissero are just two of the 189 people from western Pennsylvania who are among the show’s 251-member, full-time crew. Visual artist Kyle Ethan Fischer moved to Pittsburgh in 2004 for the low cost of living, exhibiting his work at BoxHeart Gallery in Bloomfield where gallery co-founder Joshua Hogan encouraged him to try working in TV/film production. Fischer worked as a set fabricator on the film “The Last Witch Hunter,” and he’s worked on both seasons of “Outsiders,” creating giant sculptures of a wolf and a stag in season one and a 12-foot-tall coal miner made from paper mache for a parade scene in season two.
“I’m given these challenges, and then I’m filtering it through my lens and I’m garnering my own whole new set of skills and expressions,” Fischer says.
Exterior sets for the Farrell clan of Shay Mountain were constructed in the woods at the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh’s Henry Kaufmann Family Park in Monroeville
Working in film and TV in Pittsburgh helps to feed his inspiration for the art he creates in his off hours and to support that work financially, he says.
“This is an avenue you can actually make a living at and give yourself expression,” he says. “When I was doing these projects, even though they might be [guided] by the [show’s] designer, you still know it’s my work.”
Scripted cable dramas typically have a budget of about $2.5 million to $5 million per episode; with a 13-episode season, “Outsiders” cost about $60 million its first season. Much of that budget is spent locally for the series to qualify for the Pennsylvania Film Tax Credit.
“Outsiders” property master Kelley Snyder, who grew up in Baldwin Township, worked in Los Angeles before moving back home about 10 years ago. She’s charged with heading up the team responsible for acquiring or building props used by the show’s actors. Toward the end of season two, she and her team were working on designs for a bat at the request of actor Ryan Hurst, who plays Li’l Foster on the series. Snyder often calls on local artisans to contribute to building the props, including metal fabricator Vaughan Washburn of Hip Iron in The Strip and leather seamstress Zoe Collins of Threadneedle Street in Sharpsburg.
“Zoe has made so many holsters for us and gun scabbards under a lot of pressure,” Snyder says. “I think we’ve had her up 48 hours straight almost.”
For season two, the “Outsiders” set builders were tasked with creating a new set on the 31st Street Studio stages: the interior of the Lang house.
“We realized in season one her house was very narrow and problematic to film in, so we recreated it on stage but made it 3 feet wider and 4 feet longer so it would allow for some elbow room,” says Carlson, the production designer. “We remodeled their house to our liking, and the audience is never going to know it’s a different house.”
Lang was tickled to see her home recreated on stage when she was invited to visit the set last spring.
“Outsiders” crew members in Millvale prepare to film a scene of the Farrells invading Blackburg on ATVs to steal bottled water
“We couldn’t believe it,” says Lang, who occasionally works as an extra on “Outsiders.” “They added a bathroom we don’t have on the first floor and I said, ‘Will you do that at our house?’”
Kelly, who runs Millvale’s Kelly Art Glass Co., was especially impressed by the duplication of a stained-glass window. Kelly says “the perfect phony” printed on plastic looks real with built-up ink replicating the lead of the original. In addition, the production team took photos of the area surrounding the real Lang home to create backdrops on stage that mirror the actual location where exterior scenes are still filmed.
“They told me it cost $20,000 to reproduce photographs of the house across the street on these 20-foot-high drop cloths,” Kelly says of the backdrops, called Duratrans.
Lang relishes the fame her house has earned through “Outsiders” and the new people she’s met through the production’s presence on her block.
“They’re all so nice,” she says. “I’ve really had a bunch of fun with them.”
Freelance contributor Rob Owen is the TV writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Reach him at RobOwenTV@gmail.com or on Facebook and Twitter as RobOwenTV.