Two young directors film two versions of one script in Pittsburgh
March 18, 2014 11:53 PM
Director Shane Dawson.
Bob Donaldson / Post-Gazette
Director Anna Martemucci coaches actors Tobin Mitnick and Rachel Keller before an exterior scene.
By Maria Sciullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As a YouTube media sensation, Shane Dawson learned always to be ready for his close-up.
One perk of the director's feature film shoot in Pittsburgh was having a documentary film crew on hand from "The Chair," which chronicled four months in the lives of two young directors making movies that began with the same script.
"I film my whole life anyway," he said, laughing. "So for me, it was just convenient. 'I don't have to hold the camera?' Great! There's a professional documentary crew holding the camera."
One script was rewritten two ways shaped by the sensibilities of the directors -- Mr. Dawson and Anna Martemucci. Each was given roughly $800,000 and 20 days to shoot. A documentary crew was on hand to create a television show following the process, including casting calls, location scouting and, presumably, delivery of the finished films this fall.
"The Chair" is executive-produced by Before the Door Pictures' Zachary Quinto, Corey Moosa, Neal Dodson and Sean Akers, with Chris Moore serving as executive producer for both films.
Steeltown Entertainment and Point Park University also are involved in the project. It was up to each director to hire the actors and crew, arrange the locations and keep the production under budget.
When the show will air and where -- likely a cable network -- still has to be determined, said Josh Shader, who is producing both films. The movies must be finished with post-production by summer's end.
In a frozen corner of suburbia was Ms. Martemucci, whose crew took over the Upper St. Clair home of Suzanne and Donald Porter on a cold March 5 morning. That evening, in a Garfield art gallery made over as an '80s-era indie record shop, Mr. Dawson directed a raunchy scene featuring dialogue straight out of the "American Pie" series.
That's probably no coincidence: Mr. Shader was involved in the "American Pie" franchise. Dan Schoffer wrote the original script, "How Soon Is Now," that was chosen from among 130 submissions for "The Chair."
"Five years later, we're getting it made, twice," joked the author.
It's the story of what happens to college freshmen when they return to the nest for the first time after their first taste of independence. Both films center on homecomings at Thanksgiving: Ms. Martemucci's is "Hollidaysburg," and Mr. Dawson's is yet unnamed.
"The first time people come home, it's kind of the borderline between being a child and an adult," Mr. Schoffer said. "Everyone feels [grown-up] and yet, they've only been gone two months."
Ms. Martemucci, who grew up in State College and is a New York University graduate, worked with husband Victor Quinaz and his brother, Phil, to thoroughly rewrite the script.
"We took a lot of things that we liked from the original script and re-imagined them through the lens of what we know to be true from our views of being a teenager and the experiences that we had."
She said her film is going for a John Hughes vibe: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"/"16 Candles," circa the 1980s.
"There is definitely a sweetness and drama to it, in addition to the humor. We always really cared if the characters were going to get together in those movies, and I loved that."
Ms. Martemucci has a prior working relationship with Before the Door through the feature film "Breakup at a Wedding," which was filmed on the cheap in less than two weeks using friends and family as cast. For the wedding banquet scene, crew members dressed up and ate the buffet dinner.
She also helped found Periods. Films with her husband, who attended CMU with Mr. Quinto. These short online projects feature funny contemporary adaptations of classic period drama (at www.periodsfilms.com; check out "Ethan Frome").
It was about 12 degrees on day five of the shoot. Cars were stopped 200 yards short of the Porter home to allow rehearsal and the filming of an outdoor scene between stars Tobin Mitnick and Rachel Keller.
There was a garage-sale ambiance, truckloads of equipment, chairs and people scattered across the driveway. The homeowners chose to stick around, welcoming crew members as they trooped in through the family room to warm up or check their smartphones.
Bouncing from chair to couch was the family pet, a miniature pinscher, Beamer.
"I'm retired and [Mrs. Porter is] working from home with her own business: medical billing," Mr. Porter said. "They offered us a hotel but since this is her office ...."
The residence was one of several under consideration when "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" was shot in the South Hills. That's how the Porters got on the radar. Several months ago, Ms. Martemucci, some of her crew and the documentary folks stopped by for a look.
"I'm with my ponytail and ready to go work out, no makeup, and in comes the director followed by the camera for the reality show," Mrs. Porter said. "I was just dumbfounded."
It was a simple scene, played out again and again. Mr. Mitnick banged on the window of a van parked at the curb, then Ms. Keller unlocked the door. They explored variations of what happened next, a short scene that involved trading seats in the van.
One time, Ms. Keller did a little pirouette as they crossed paths in front of the vehicle. Another time, per Ms. Martemucci's direction, she just stomped past.
"It's funny, our biggest challenge was [that] I fell in love with these two CMU students, and their schedules have been a little bit of murder on us," she said. "We are just doing somersaults to make the schedule work with the time we have. So every day it's a negotiation. But that's what's kind of cool about filmmaking.
"You have to think on your feet about how to tell this story because at any moment it might snow, and then you have to move a bunch of things for the next day."
One day, she said, they had to move a scene from a shopping mall to a grocery store.
"There've also been these amazing gifts. There's this '80s mansion -- talk about John Hughes -- we're shooting in tomorrow that is just spectacular. Certain locations are just falling into our laps at a very reasonable price.
"There have been a lot of blessings in addition to challenges."
Later that day ...
Working on his film for "The Chair" has been a much different process for Mr. Dawson, 25. He has featured himself in online videos for more than a decade and is a bona fide YouTube star with more than 10 million subscribers to his three channels.
Funny and profane, he makes no apologies for the ramped-up levels of vulgarity his fans expect. He also jumped into this knowing he had to earn respect.
"I just wanted to prove to everybody else that I could do it. That was definitely the goal. I feel like they probably thought I was going to freak out or not finish, but I did, and nobody killed themselves, and I didn't kill anybody, and it was a very successful shoot."
While "Hollidaysburg" was just getting underway, his shoot was in its final days. Adding to the pressure was Mr. Dawson's decision to play a major character instead of making a cameo appearance.
"The more I was in auditions, the more I realized the 'Scott' character was so perfect for me, and I thought, 'You know, I'm going to nail it.' "
"Anna's vision is much more real, grounded in reality," Mr. Shader said. "Shane is kind of poking the audience and going for big laughs. Anna is going for real human emotions, but there are laughs.
"I'm thrilled. I think it's proving the artistic experience of taking the same piece of material and letting two different directors put their own stamp on it. It's kind of, 'What if "Good Will Hunting" had been made by Michael Bay or Mel Gibson?' "
"I had never heard of Shane until I met with Chris Moore, and he promised that Shane wanted to do something real here, and that he wasn't going to do this like all his crazy videos," Mr. Schoffer said.
The message behind both films had particular resonance for Mr. Dawson.
"It's about dealing with your past and not being stuck in it, not obsessing," he said. "Moving on with your life. It's something that I definitely thought of, making this movie.
"I am scared to move on from YouTube, scared to move away from what's easy for me. So it definitely hit home, and I'm excited about that."
The scene he shot that day along Penn Avenue wasn't exactly a Merchant-Ivory-like scenario. Drew Monson, playing a character smitten with Janie, portrayed by Michelle Veintimilla, stood at the record store counter, checking out her profile on a social media site.
Flipping his thumbs across the smartphone screen, Mr. Monson began a one-way conversation with the device talking dirty to the young woman's image until he was interrupted by her father, played by local actor Bill Laing.
Meanwhile, Ms. Veintimilla crouched behind the counter to his left ready to jump up and move into frame. There were times when she -- gloved hands clapped over her mouth to keep from laughing -- broke up listening to Mr. Monson and times when the crew couldn't help themselves, either.
Mr. Dawson's longtime producer, Lauren Schnipper, said they're so used to working on the fly that a 20-day shoot almost felt like overkill.
"[Back in L.A.], we are shooting constantly and the volume of work and the speed in which we have to get it out ... if I have a week's prep, it's a lot."
Helping streamline the shoot was Mr. Dawson's penchant for working out the storyboards in his head, then shooting the scene as he envisioned it: "I know exactly what shots I was going to use and exactly what coverage I needed."
"The Chair" project might be a departure for him, but Mr. Dawson appeared confident in his vision.
"It took people a couple of days to learn to trust me, but after they saw some of the rough cuts they said, 'Ooohhh, you know what you're doing.' "
The directors don't have to deliver rough cuts until later this summer, but Mr. Dawson said he expected to have his edited by next week.
"I am kind of insane and I work pretty fast," he said, adding that he has enjoyed the luxury of working with an experienced editor in a Pittsburgh studio.
"It's been different and really awesome that it's not just me at 3 a.m. in my creepy garage."
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