Two teens stand in a dark lair, ostensibly hidden inside a storm drain. They hear a sound and turn toward it, their eyes widening in fear as they find themselves face-to-face with a two-headed monster. They gulp, twist their faces in disgust and scream. Director Alex Zamm couldn't be happier.Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Actors Emily Osment and Cody Linley take a break during the shooting of an "R.L. Stine Presents" DVD movie in Collier.
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"Good first take," he said, as young actors Emily Osment and Cody Linley prepared to film the scene again. "I want juicy fear."
Creating fear but sparing young viewers from gore is the master plan for "R.L. Stine Presents: The Haunting Hours -- Don't Think About It," a direct-to-DVD movie due in stores next fall that will also get a TV airing in October 2007 (several networks are interested in the project). "Don't Think About It" filmed in Pittsburgh for the past month, wrapping production on Sunday.
Last Thursday on the movie's lair set, built inside the old Acosta building on Noblestown Road in Collier, cast and crew were headed into the final stretch of a production that's filmed all over the region, including scenes shot near Cranberry, along the main drag of Carnegie, at Settler's Cabin Park and the closed Knoxville Middle School.
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Osment, 14, is the film's star. Once known as the little sister of Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense"), she's gained her own following of young fans for playing Gerti Giggles in the "Spy Kids" films and as Lilly Truscott, the best friend of the title character in "Hannah Montana," a Disney Channel TV series.
Brittany Elizabeth Curran, who plays a manipulative rival to Osment's character, said she, Osment and Linley (who has a recurring role as Jake on "Hannah Montana") have spent a lot of time off-set together, shopping at the Mall at Robinson and huddling together while screaming their way through a local haunted house.
Besides playing the antagonist, Curran, 16, also has had to do her share of cuddling up to live cockroaches. For a scene at a dance, her character hits a pinata and the creepy crawlies pour out on top of her.
"They were kind of smelly," Curran said, explaining that one of the cockroaches ended up wriggling around under her shirt. "It was really gross."
Curran, who has a recurring role on Nickelodeon's "Drake & Josh" as Drake's girlfriend, also did a face plant into a cake for "Don't Think About It."
"I blew my nose two days later and there was still orange frosting coming out," she said, laughing at what she has to do for her craft.
Osment's young fans may not recognize her at first in "Don't Think About It." Her normally blond hair is covered with a black wig (with a blue stripe on one side and a pink stripe on the other). She plays a goth girl trying to make friends in a new neighborhood.
"I like the wig. It's different and fun to work with," Osment said while walking from the set back to the makeshift classroom where she's in school much of the day. Playing goth "gives me a good chance to be a character I'm not used to."
Osment's Cassie is a fan of horror movies, and she loves to scare people.
"She finds there is a supernatural force out there that wants to teach her that scaring people might not always be a great thing to do," explained Billy Brown, who wrote the "Don't Think About It" script with Dan Angel.
Actor Tobin Bell, the lead bad guy in the "Saw" films, plays "the emissary from this supernatural world who brings her a very weird Halloween gift that ends up unleashing the monster," Brown said. But the monster comes alive only when one of the teens thinks about it, hence the title: "Don't Think About It."
Angel and Brown have written scary stuff for TV for years, both for adults ("Night Visions" on Fox) and children ("Goosebumps"). It's their children's background they bring to this latest project, envisioned as a series of films, some based on short stories from Stine's "The Haunting Hour." ("Don't Think About It" is an original Angel and Brown script that could yet be adapted as a book.)
"The key is to do no gore, no violence, no [bad] language, no sex, no one dies, but you can take the audience to a scary place and bring them back," Angel said. "Parents love it because it's a safe place for kids to be afraid."
While older siblings may flock to theaters to see "Saw III" or "Hostel," Angel said "Don't Think About It" offers scares more appropriate to children ages 8 to 13. "It's a very underserved market," he said.
"Don't Think About It" is a co-production of Universal Studios Home Entertainment, which will distribute the DVD, and The Hatchery, an independent family entertainment production company headed by Bruce Stein and Margaret Loesch, a TV titan who once ran Fox Family Channel and Hallmark Channel. Loesch said the idea to film in Pittsburgh was first suggested by Carl Kurlander, one of the founders of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, an organization created to encourage more local film production.
Loesch said she was in Los Angeles inspecting the monster created for "Don't Think About It" at KNB FX, the special effects company of Pittsburgh native Greg Nicotero. (He and his team created the animatronic monster used in filming "Don't Think About It.") Loesch met with Kurlander while there, and he started talking up Pittsburgh. Eventually Steeltown became an investor in "Don't Think About It," raising $875,000 so far, according to Steeltown executive director Ellen Weiss Kander. The film is budgeted at $3 million and will likely come in it at about $3.2 million.
"The whole reason we are in Pittsburgh at all is because of Steeltown," Loesch said.
Although Pittsburgh is not the setting ("It's R.L. Stine country," Brown explained, "which is Any Suburban Town, USA"), the film will have a Pittsburgh vibe. As part of a product placement deal, the Eat'n Park Smiley cookie even gets sniffed by The Evil Thing, the movie's two-headed monster.
It's been a positive experience, Loesch said, with the Pittsburgh Film Office aiding in securing location and filming permits. Future Hatchery productions may return to town.
But it's also been a difficult production due to the limited hours children can work by law and by what Loesch sees as a limited cast and crew base in Pittsburgh, made even more so by two other movies ("Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Smart People") filming at the same time.
"We had no difficulty casting the adults, but we had a tremendous challenge with the youngest," Loesch said. "There's just not the breadth of experienced talent, but the more pictures you attract to Pittsburgh, the more talent you will be training to support it."
Among the more than 100 locals hired for the production, Lauren Izatt of Brookline and Chris Sidon of Murrysville worked as stand-ins for Osment and Linley last week. As they stood in position for the camera, Nicotero oversaw work with The Evil Thing, while his parents, Dr. Jim and Connie Nicotero, watched him work.
Crew members, dressed in T-shirts from past Pittsburgh productions ("Out of the Black" and "10th & Wolf"), scurried about the lair set, made of carved, black-painted polystyrene foam insulation. Slime was applied to the two heads of The Evil Thing as a camera poked between the two puppeteers operating its heads.
"That's nasty," co-star Linley said as he watched the monster get uglified for its close-up.
"That's lunch," director Zamm joked, gesturing at the slime-covered creature as Linley wrinkled his nose.
A little scary, a little funny -- those may be the right ingredients to keep "Don't Think About It's" target audience entertained.