Busiest film agenda shapes up for Pittsburgh

If everything and everyone, including superstars Will Smith and Vin Diesel, come and go as planned, the city will enjoy the busiest year of production in the 24-year history of the Pittsburgh Film Office. 

Mr. Smith is expected to star in a Sony drama about the timely topic of NFL concussions based on the October 2009 GQ story “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, a resident of Scenery Hill, Washington County.

The Oscar nominee will play Dr. Bennet Omalu, the first pathologist in the world to detect chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a Ridley Scott production being directed and written by Peter Landesman (“Parkland”). 

That news was first reported by Variety and then online by the Post-Gazette in early June but the latest twist is the movie will be shot here.

“They should be setting up their production offices in the next couple of weeks and begin filming in early fall,” Dawn Keezer, director of the film office, said Tuesday.

“Game Brain,” which could change its title by release, will be here through the end of the year while “The Last Witch Hunter” has opened offices, is hiring crew, will start building sets soon and should start shooting by late August and be in town through mid- to late December. 

“Last Witch Hunter” stars Diesel as an immortal witch hunter who partners with his natural enemy — a female witch —  to stop the covens of New York City from unleashing a plague on humanity. Squirrel Hill native Bernie Goldmann is among the producers of the movie being directed by Breck Eisner. 

Filming now are “Southpaw,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent, and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,”  which has been in such locations as Point Breeze and Schenley High School with actors Thomas Mann, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke and Jon Bernthal. Both started after the completion of “Fathers & Daughters” with Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger and Jane Fonda.

“I think the film tax credit is the single best reason you’‍re seeing the amount of work that we’re seeing in the region. Our talented crew, our amazing locations, all those other things play into it, but of course it always helps when Pittsburgh is mentioned by name in an actual script. It gives us an immediate chance to land that project, but without the other key components — the tax credit, the crew and the rest of it — they’‍re not coming.”

The city’‍‍s crew base, in talent and number, is robust enough to support four projects, Ms. Keezer said. 

The standstill over the commonwealth’s budget, including the film tax credit, will have no effect on these projects. When 60 percent of a company's production expenses are incurred in Pennsylvania, it gets a 25 percent tax credit on qualified costs, and such films as “Foxcatcher,” “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” took advantage of the program.

“It looks like we’‍re going to be stuck at $60 million for the fifth year in a row, which is unfortunate because all they’‍re doing is limiting the amount of jobs and the growth that we could see in this industry at a time when the commonwealth is in desperate need of new revenue. It’‍s crazy to me that they would limit the program the way they have, given the successful track record,” Ms. Keezer said.

“All of our [major] applications have been processed and approved at this moment in time,” she said, but the lack of a budget will affect future applications from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.  

The Smith drama could not be timelier or strike closer to home for Pittsburghers, Steelers fans and parents who worry their children who play football, hockey, soccer or other potentially bruising sports will leave the playing field with concussions. In late May, President Barack Obama announced $86 million in projects to improve detection of concussions in children and research their effects.

As recounted in the 2013 Post-Gazette series Mysteries of the Mind, in 2002 former Steelers center Mike Webster died of a heart attack at age 50 and Dr. Omalu was a young pathologist working for former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril H. Wecht. As a Nigerian native, he knew very little about American football, except that it was a brutal head-banging sport.

Bennet Omalu, shown with a preserved brain at North Shore University HealthSystem's hospital in Evanston, Ill., was the first pathologist to detect CTE in a former pro football player, Steelers great Mike Webster.(Julia Rendleman/Post-Gazette)

Given the reports Dr. Omalu had heard about Webster’s erratic behavior before his death, he figured the autopsy might show visible evidence of brain damage. 

“When I opened up his skull on autopsy, I expected his brain to be all shriveled and small, but Lord God almighty, his brain looked normal,” he recalled in a 2013 interview with the PG’‍s Mark Roth. “It actually confused me more. I thought that means I‘‍m wrong.”

With the Webster family’‍s permission, he had a lab prepare the brain for microscopic examination, and weeks later, he finally looked at the slides in his Pittsburgh apartment. He saw smudges and tangles of tau deposits in the brain, similar to those that would be seen in Alzheimer’s disease, but without the accompanying plaques of beta amyloid protein also seen in Alzheimer’‍s.

He later named the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, meaning a long-developing brain injury.

Ms. Laskas‘‍ GQ story notes that Dr. Omalu “had always fancied himself an advocate for the dead. That’s how he viewed his job: a calling. A forensic pathologist was charged with defending and speaking for the departed — a translator for those still here. A corpse held a story, told in tissue, patterns of trauma, and secrets in cells.” 

READ more about Dr. Omalu’‍s 2002 discovery

Mr. Smith had been expected in Pittsburgh for “Brilliance,” a Legendary Pictures adaptation of the Marcus Sakey novel but word came in late May that he pulled out of that project. Jared Leto was floated in online media reports as a replacement but did not sign on. It has been been postponed until 2015, possibly spring and the prospect of a stretch of good weather. 

Coming in March 2015 is “American Pastoral,” starring Ewan McGregor and based on Philip Roth’s prize-winning novel. That will mark Lakeshore Entertainment’‍s third time here, after “The Mothman Prophecies” and “One for the Money.” 

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.ccom or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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