The Sonoma Valley Film Festival in April will have a Pittsburgh flavor when it honors Michael Keaton and premieres Carl Kurlander's "My Tale of Two Cities" about his return to his hometown of Pittsburgh.
Keaton will introduce his directorial debut, "The Merry Gentleman," at the April 9-13 event in the heart of wine country. Kurlander's movie, among 65-plus new independent films, will play April 11 and 12.
The Pittsburgh native also is hoping to screen "My Tale of Two Cities," chockablock with recognizable places and faces such as Franco Harris, Joanne Rogers, Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Thomas Starzl and the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, at the Byham Theater here on Nov. 28.
The Pittsburgh premiere would be part of the city's 250th anniversary and a welcome-home weekend (that's the day after Thanksgiving, after all) for expatriates.
In the meantime, Kurlander will embark on the festival circuit with "My Tale of Two Cities," which tells twin stories. One is about the screenwriter-TV producer who moves his wife and their young daughter to Pittsburgh, while the other is about the once-great city that cured polio and made steel trying to reinvent itself.
Although the movie will resonate with Pittsburghers, who will recognize the Strip District and Ritter's Diner, Kurlander says it has touched a chord with others. They see it as the classic underdog story, with a nod to the tug of hometowns everywhere.
"I was in L.A., and we had a screening at William Morris [Agency] a couple of months ago, and it was very interesting because it was mostly people not from Pittsburgh and a lot of people who didn't know me. ... So our first audience was about 25 people, big shots in the industry, and I was surprised how everybody loved it."
After all, Kurlander said, "Everybody comes from a hometown and the theme of 'Can you go home again?' seems to be the universal thing. Most people feel whatever neighborhood they came from is 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.' "
The popular factory visits on the "Neighborhood," which showed viewers how goods such as crayons and backpacks were made, inspired some questions to David Newell, better known as Mr. McFeely on the show, about "what we make in this country."
Standing in front of the castle set, they discussed "what will we make now?" The steel industry isn't coming back, so what has and will replace it?
Kurlander's friend, comedian Louie Anderson, pokes fun at him about the subject matter in the movie. "It's not a 'Roger & Me' but a 'Mister Rogers & Me.' It's about what's going to do it are your neighbors.
"Suddenly, people are saying to me, this is so timely, with the spirit of the country now being about how we all need to come together to fix our problems ... clearly this was all your big plan," Kurlander says with a laugh.
The movie documents the city's comeback during O'Connor's time in the mayor's office, including the 2006 Super Bowl win by the Steelers and a group sing-along in Point State Park to "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"
Kurlander hopes the Sonoma screening will be the beginning of an effort to get Pittsburghers to come home for Thanksgiving and reconnect with their hometown.
A local screening would be in the spirit of the 2003 Steeltown Entertainment Summit that brought Western Pennsylvania natives working in Hollywood and New York back to brainstorm ways to boost the work here.
Kurlander envisions casting a wide net, inviting everyone from David McCullough to Charles Grodin to Bridget Kelly (one of Gene's children) and Peter Salk, a physician, researcher and executive director of the Jonas Salk Foundation.
"I'd love to say to everybody, come to Pittsburgh! I couldn't plan that we were going to get into a festival and then they'd decide to make the tribute speaker Michael Keaton and last year they had Robin Williams." So anything is possible.
See sonomafilmfest.org for more information on the festival. Go to www. mytaleoftwocities.com for information on the movie, including a casual party in Sonoma on April 11 for Pittsburghers and former Pittsburghers in the area.
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. First Published February 29, 2008 5:00 AM