Film director and crew rekindle Pittsburgh ties on Kennywood set


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Talk about superbad.

Those 1980s fashions have come out of the corners of the closet or been re-created by "Adventureland" extras, down to the stirrup pants or leggings for women, off-the-shoulder tops, big earrings and long hair worn with a fussy bow in the back. The men aren't faring much better, with red bandanas or terry-cloth headbands, track suits or tight shorts, with sweaters tied around the shoulders.

Yes, the clock is being reset to summer 1987 at Kennywood, where some of the trees are eternally green -- silk leaves never turn colors or fall off -- and a new manager's office has sprouted in the park. It was hiding in plain sight during Phantom Fright Nights, just decorated so you wouldn't notice the yellow wooden structure with orange trim.

Late last week, the office was occupied by "Adventureland" actors Ryan Reynolds and Bill Hader, while stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Wiig and Margarita Levieva were elsewhere, and Kristen Stewart wasn't scheduled that day.

The big-screen comedy, about halfway through a brisk 33-day shooting schedule, stars Eisenberg from "The Squid and the Whale" as a recent college graduate who thought he would be vacationing in Europe rather than operating a game called The Derby, with its hokey horse races.

"He's been accepted at Columbia University for grad school and he can't afford it, so he ends up getting a minimum-wage job at a theme park," said the curly-haired Eisenberg. So an intellectual finds himself "at a place where people are throwing up on rides."

The 24-year-old ducked out of a trailer for a quick interview, and when the makeup artist was called to give him the once-over, she said with motherly affection, "I think he looks beautiful," and let him be, with a pat on the cheek.

Talking about his character, Eisenberg said, "He had planned a trip with his friend to go to Europe for the summer. He had these very lofty goals, then he works at the least lofty place."

Two "Saturday Night Live" regulars are running the park: Wiig plays the manager and a mustachioed Hader is her husband, the junior park manager. Reynolds is a maintenance man with a mystique about his earlier days as a musician when he jammed with superstars.

The park is based on Long Island's Adventureland, where director-writer Greg Mottola (now riding the wave of success of "Superbad," which he directed) once worked in the games department. However, the real park has been renovated so extensively that it wasn't even an option for filming.

"They made it a very different place," Mottola, bespectacled and dressed in black, said of the venue where he manned the booth where patrons shot a squirt gun into a clown's mouth. Re-creating the 1980s at an amusement park proved an ambitious notion for a low-budget film.

"My idea was that it was supposed to be a place that had been built in the '50s or '60s and hadn't changed since then. Obviously anything that was overly corporate or chain like wasn't going to work for that. Of the places that could possibly work, Kennywood was probably the best, if we could convince them to let us do it."

The timing and story worked for Kennywood, and Mottola decided to set the movie in Pittsburgh. It's Pittsburgh playing Pittsburgh, not cheating for Long Island, complete with Zambelli International fireworks.

"I just thought, I know the city enough, I really like the city and it's beautiful, and I don't want to not be able to show the hills and the rivers," said Mottola, who studied art at Carnegie Mellon University and took classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

"I think the only unfortunate thing is, this movie will work least for people from Pittsburgh. They'll all go, 'What's Adventureland? That's Kennywood,' but we changed it."

Adventureland, after all, is a smaller, rundown park, although some signature Kennywood rides, games and even whimsical animal trash-can lids from Kiddieland will be visible.

The faux manager's office, decorated convincingly with a desk, time clock, hot plate, stuffed animal prizes, decoupaged clown plaques and "Employees Please Read" notices, looks across to the real Wipeout ride.

Nearby, Levieva (who plays the fetching games worker the men drool over) and another actress danced, sometimes bumping backs as they moved for the camera. They shimmied as much as the Wipeout, which mimics the ocean with its topsy turvy spinning; it's what they call a "spin and barf" ride in the business.

Just as Kennywood learned that a location scout could mean a visit from a party of 30, the production realized that a ride cannot be turned on without being cleared to run -- even if it's just designed to be in the background. "We can't run any of the rides until they're inspected," park spokeswoman Mary Lou Rosemeyer said, and that can mean a couple of hours of walking the tracks for the coasters.

Park employees are operating the rides either on or off camera, with ride supervisor Keith Humbel of Munhall serving as a liaison with the production -- and engaging in some silliness that could land him on the DVD.

On weekends, the park has been doing dynamic double duty, shifting from movie set to home of Phantom Fright Nights. "There's a lot of re-dressing that has to be done every Saturday night after Fright Night is over, for Monday morning for them, and then when they're done, back to Fright Nights for us," Rosemeyer said.

Even if it's not always a "Funtastic time" (as fake park signs and T-shirts proclaim), it's a win-win for both sides.

Producer Ted Hope hadn't been to Pittsburgh for two decades -- "I came here once to have a woman break up with me -- but said it was remarkable how perfect Kennywood was. He and fellow producer Anne Carey also cited the state's new $75 million tax credit program, the homegrown crew base and the city's proximity to New York as luring the movie here.

"We're New York-based, the director is New York-based, a lot of the talent is New York-based," Carey said, which meant the hour-long flight here was a bonus, although Hope chimed in "when they run on time." The idea of going to Texas or New Mexico was less appealing, she said, particularly for people with families.

Line producer Declan Baldwin knew the late summer-early fall schedule would mean some adjustments, no matter how unseasonably warm it was. And, boy, was it.

With a wave of his arm he asked, "Do you notice something right now? Every one of those trees is fake -- one, two, three, four, five, six. ... We had always known that we were going to have a crew of people putting fake leaves on [real] trees, which they've been doing every day."

Baldwin was no stranger to Western Pennsylvania.

"I lived here and worked here for two years, for George A. Romero when I was a youngster. That was in 1990 and 1991." He was line producer on Tom Savini's remake of "Night of the Living Dead" and producer on "The Dark Half."

Baldwin, regrettably he said, hasn't stayed in close touch with Romero but he saw him about a year ago.

"I noticed that he was the featured celebrity at a convention that was, maybe, an hour or so from my home in New York, and I drove there with my two boys -- I had no children when I worked with him -- and I gave him a big, big hug for a long, long time because he was a beautiful man who treated me with so much respect and he taught me so many things."

In fact, "Adventureland" has reunited Baldwin with more than a dozen other former Romero crew members. "The Dark Half," with its 100-day shooting schedule that involved live birds, animatronic birds, motion-controlled cameras and other practical visual effects, was a complicated film, but this one has its challenges, too.

"We did not have enough prep time because we were rushing to capture the season," Baldwin says, but the silk leaves are not going anywhere and a man with a leaf blower is dispensing with the real ones.

Although opening dates are often subject to change, it could be late summer once again when "Adventureland" hits theaters. Producers are looking at the third week in August, which is when "Superbad" opened with $31.2 million, on its way to $121 million and counting.


Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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