No mystery: Writer-director knew he was the one to bring Chabon novel to the screen

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Bruce Birmelin, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh"
Rawson Marshall Thurber directs Sienna Miller in a scene from "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh."
By Barbara Vancheri
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn't fake it. He's either in love with the idea of a movie or he isn't.

   
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Listen In:

Hear excerpts from Rawson Marshall Thurber's conversation with the PG's Barbara Vancheri:

On the possibility of shooting "Mysteries" elsewhere.

On the aftermath of an early scouting trip.

On the difficulty of adapting the novel.

On picking his projects.

   

"It's too hard to pretend to be in love for that long. It's too hard, it really is, the actual act of writing and directing something, unless you are 1,000 percent desperately, dopey-eyed in love with it."

That way you can deal with working till 5 a.m., with shooting a swimming pool scene in frosty October, with gladly rearranging a schedule to accommodate the birth of an actor's baby, with reshoots caused by X-ray damage to film, with a brouhaha that blows up around one of your stars and with other developments.

Thurber was smitten with Michael Chabon's novel "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" when he read it in the summer of 1995.

"I kind of knew I wanted to make the movie of the book pretty much before I knew I wanted to make movies," writer-director Thurber said one recent afternoon at the Omni William Penn before heading to the "Mysteries" set.

The grand hotel doubled as movie location and home for the 31-year-old, who stayed there long enough that a waitress recognized him, came over to say hello and offered to brew fresh coffee. Thurber may be making a $10 million movie, but he is anonymous to everyone else this day, just another patron in jeans and a neat olive shirt needing lots of caffeine refills.

He lived at the Omni for a month before renting a house in Shadyside. His girlfriend, a screenwriter, is visiting with her dogs, and Thurber says, "I get to walk around the neighborhood a lot. It's just beautiful; I can't get over it."

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Rawson Marshall Thurber, outside the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, his home away from home for a month before renting a house.
Click photo for larger image.

The California native, who bought a home in the Hollywood Hills in December, was taken by the city the first time he visited, long before the project found a home at Groundswell Productions. He stayed at the Hilton, Downtown, and took the bus -- surely the anti-Hollywood means of conveyance -- around town.

Thurber had told Chabon he was coming here to do research, and the Pulitzer Prize winner e-mailed him a must-visit list that included the Original Hot Dog shop and Jay's Book Stall. Friends who went to Carnegie Mellon University suggested "pancakes at Pamela's," and he also rode the "funicular," as Chabon always calls the incline, to Mount Washington and did other touristy stuff.

"I was blown away by how beautiful it is. I didn't realize it's as hilly as it is, as green as it is, and in the film, I've been hoping or trying to go for this Edward Hopper vibe, both from a compositional standpoint and a color palette standpoint, and Pittsburgh just lends itself to that," with its brick buildings and many bridges.

Hopper was famous for his poetic portraits, as with his lonely all-night diner in "Nighthawks," and Thurber spent one evening and early morning last week in the rain, wind and chill at a Tarentum diner where a scene between stars Jon Foster and Sienna Miller takes place.

"Mysteries" stars Foster as Art Bechstein, spending the summer in suspension between college graduation and real life and caught in a romantic triangle with Peter Sarsgaard as a hoodlum named Cleveland and Miller as Jane, his debutante girlfriend.

The cast also includes Mena Suvari as Phlox, Art's sometime girlfriend, and Nick Nolte as his gangster father. Three father-son dinners form the spine of the screenplay, set in the early 1980s.

Noticeably absent is a key character from the book named Arthur Lecomte. "It always seemed to me a more efficient cinematic engine to employ a love triangle versus what exists in the book, which is a four-pointed rhombus, for lack of a better term," Thurber explains.

While Thurber has made other changes -- he's shooting the famous "Cloud Factory" in Rankin and eliminated the Hillman Library location -- he says the movie captures the novel's heart and spirit.

"There's a sense of beauty to the novel, a sense of fun, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia at play, of memory, and it's a great summertime novel in the same way that 'The Great Gatsby' was a great summertime novel. So I think it's a classic American story, it's a coming-of-age story, it's the story about that last true summer of your life."

Thurber then ticks off more themes: love, friendship, memory, adventure. "And the novel's really funny. I think a lot of people forget it, because it's so beautifully written," thanks to Chabon's enviable descriptive powers -- "he's a superhero."

"I think if fans of the novel go to see the film expecting to see a direct kind of translation or transcription of the novel, they'll either be surprised or disappointed or both, but if they go to see the movie that feels like the novel they love, I think they'll be deeply pleased."

It was Thurber's success writing and directing "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" that paved the way for "Mysteries." His agent advised him to "capture the essence of the moment," which meant pitching another project along the same lines, a romantic comedy about darts or curling or competitive eating. All good advice, if your goal is to make money, he says.

Thurber, who holds a bachelor's in English and Theater Arts from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and an MFA in producing from the University of Southern California, instead decided to test the "Mysteries" water. He wrote Chabon a fan letter.

"I love your novels. I love your writing. I love 'Mysteries of Pittsburgh.' I'd love to buy you breakfast and talk about it."

Chabon agreed, and they met over coffee and eggs at a local haunt near Chabon's home in Berkeley, Calif., and Thurber offered to write a six-page treatment with his "pretty radical take." He later sent the outline and, much to his shock, Chabon said yes.

The novelist also read Thurber's first draft of the script, made suggestions and then gave his blessing to a revised draft. If that weren't proof enough of his endorsement, Chabon recently shot a cameo at The Book Barn, the store where Art and Phlox work.

The Book Barn, a Richland Mall set so convincing that the crew had to shoo away potential customers, is a store where books come to die and where the calendars are 6 months old. "It's a pretty grim affair, frankly, but it looks fantastic."

Chabon approaches a store employee and says, "Excuse me, do you know where I could find the new Clive Cussler?" And the clerk replies, "Pal, do I look like I [expletive] read?"

The mall location is just one of many Thurber has used, along with Downtown, the South Side, Fox Chapel, Edgeworth, Mount Washington and Rankin. The movie wraps on Friday, and Thurber, who will be editing it in his Los Angeles guest house, hopes to have it completed by late March or April.

If all goes well, he wants to submit "Mysteries" for the Cannes Film Festival and aim for a commercial release in fall 2007. That's also when he may be shooting a big-screen "Magnum, P.I" movie in Hawaii, with a star to be named later and a mantra of "No short shorts, no mustaches, no cameos."

By that point, the Miller controversy about her unkind remark in Rolling Stone and attempt to patronize a South Side bar without proof of ID (the details of which have turned into a he said-she said kerfuffle) should be long over.

"I know Sienna feels awful about it, she's embarrassed about it, from what she's told me." She had been logging 16-hour days in the first two weeks of the shoot, sleeping during the day and working most of the night, Thurber says.

"She's sweet and beautiful and incredibly talented but has a funny sense of humor, a goofy sense of humor, and sometimes those jokes don't play when they're typed up," without the tone, delivery and context vital to comedy.

Producer Michael London calls the movie a "love poem to Pittsburgh" and says the publicity surrounding Miller has been unfortunate since, "We've had a wonderful experience shooting in Pittsburgh, so much so that we decided to shoot a second film here."

Dennis Quaid and Rachel Weisz will star in "Smart People," scheduled to start filming next month.

As for Miller attempting to pursue the cherished Pittsburgh tradition of grabbing a drink on the South Side and the media storm that followed, London says he believes her account that "she left quietly with her parents and friends and went elsewhere. Sienna is actually one of the most down-to-earth actresses I've ever worked with. So what's happening right now is especially painful for her."

All of this will blow over, he says, but it could make other productions, especially those with prominent stars, hesitant to shoot here. "That's a shame for those movies and a shame for Pittsburgh."

Thurber, meanwhile, can appreciate the crush of a shooting schedule. When he's not directing or sleeping, he's watching dailies, working in the editing room or rewriting.

Before the movie wraps on Friday, he wants to tour three places: Fallingwater, The Andy Warhol Museum and the Mattress Factory. He made it as far as the Warhol lobby, to drop off his mother when she was visiting, but no farther.

Bruce Birmelin, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh"
Michael Chabon, left, and director Rawson Marshall Thurber discuss filming at the fake book store in Richland Mall.
Click photo for larger image.

John Hayes contributed to this report. Movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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