Prison breaks were much simpler in Mrs. Soffel's day.
The warden's wife concealed saws beneath her spacious petticoats to help spring the jailed Biddle brothers in 1902. But in "The Next Three Days," Russell Crowe's character has a much riskier, thornier task at hand and no guarantee of success.
John Brennan, an English teacher and father of a 6-year-old boy, is masterminding a prison break in 2010 Pittsburgh.
"The Next Three Days," directed by Oscar and Emmy winner Paul Haggis and co-starring Elizabeth Banks, is scheduled to wrap up 52 days of filming in Pittsburgh today. The Lionsgate suspense thriller is about a Pittsburgher whose wife has been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The police contend that Lara Brennan argued with her boss, waited for her in a garage and hit her in the head with a fire extinguisher.
John Brennan believes in his wife's innocence, but moviegoers will have to make up their own minds. As the writer, Haggis knows if Lara is innocent or guilty, but he's not spilling that secret.
"We only see what the police are reconstructing, and the evidence is overwhelming that she did it," Haggis said last week from the set doubling as the upstairs of the Brennan house.
"Her fingerprints are on the weapon, she was spotted leaving there. She had a fight with the boss, and there's blood on her coat, the victim's blood, so the evidence is just overwhelming. Circumstantial, as most murders are."
The exterior and ground floor of the Brennan home are in Regent Square, but bedrooms, closets and a bathroom were constructed in Monroeville.
So were a hotel room with adjoining rest room, authentic looking jail interior and storm drain, while a space encircled by a green screen was used for a car spinning out of control. The freeway background would be added later, with digital effects.
The bedroom of 6-year-old Luke Brennan, played by Ty Simpkins, is a cozy retreat with a Pittsburgh Zoo elephants poster on the wall, stars against a blue night sky ceiling and assorted games, dinosaurs and other toys.
An entire wall in John's increasingly spare bedroom is covered with photos, maps, reminders ("Avoid Tunnels? Trap"), and a financial and practical plan for freedom.
He's been selling off his belongings, a card table has replaced a desk, and his finances are writ large with expenses and possible sources of income scribbled on a map. Elsewhere are photos and lists with details about passports and other documents.
Haggis won't say if John succeeds in his prison break but he credits a colleague and her husband with discovering the French film "Pour Elle" that inspired "Next Three Days." It was a small movie, never released in the States, which had the core of something wonderful and a terrific structure, the filmmaker said.
The man who co-wrote "Crash" and adapted "Million Dollar Baby" was intrigued by "the idea of a man who would do absolutely anything to reunite his wife and son and also, it talked about what you have to do to become this kind of person to do that."
John consults with an expert, played by Liam Neeson, who broke out of prison nine times and wrote a book about his exploits.
"I had to ask myself, 'How would I do this?' " Haggis said. "I wouldn't know how to break my wife out of prison, so he starts researching. He's an English teacher, he goes online, he figures out how to break into cars, he figures out how to make keys, figures out all this stuff.
"You know he's never going to be able to pull it off, it's impossible and yet he comes up with a plan." Waving at the wall behind him, Haggis said, "This is part of him trying to construct the plan."
To make his movie as authentic as possible, the writer-director researched attempts to break out of jail in Pittsburgh. "I found articles about how people tried to escape from jail but didn't succeed, but they got close."
Haggis had been to Pittsburgh just once, many years ago, before he came here to study the city that plays itself and doubles for locations inside and outside North America.
"Major [James] Donis at the jail showed me around, and the film office here was terrific. They took me around, showed me the T-trains and all that, and I was able to construct a plot from actually working in the city."
A Canadian by birth who long has lived in California, Haggis was taken by the character of Pittsburgh.
Talking about John Brennan, he said, "His father [played by Brian Dennehy] is a former steelworker who is retired. He comes from a working-class family, and yet he grew up and went to college and became an English teacher. It talks about how Pittsburgh has evolved" and yet clings to its roots and neighborhoods.
"That's what I love about Pittsburgh. It's developed but it's kept its roots, and it hasn't fallen prey to what's happened to many cities, which is just chain stores everywhere and they've lost the character. There are chain stores, but neighborhoods have maintained their integrity."
Haggis' biggest challenge was finding the right actors.
"Russell's one of our finest actors, isn't he? He is a man who can portray an Everyman, who can show you so much without any dialogue. A lot of the script of this film has no dialogue; we've got many, many scenes that are silent, and that all has to play in his face, so I needed an actor who could do that and who you could care for."
The same was true of Banks, who followed "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" in Pittsburgh with turns as Laura Bush in "W." and a suspicious nurse in "The Uninvited."
"I needed someone who was sympathetic but who you could believe could actually kill someone because it was important to me that the audience keeps asking, 'Did she do it or not?' and 'Why does he believe her?' " She brought the right measure of complexity to the role.
Haggis likes to challenge moviegoers and himself with questions, as he did with racial issues in "Crash" and whether Clint Eastwood's character should have honored a request from a onetime boxer in "Million Dollar Baby." And this time?
"One of the major questions I wanted to ask is if you know that by saving the woman you love, you could quite possibly turn into someone she could no longer love, would you do it?"
It haunts even him but as he says, "That's the wonderful thing about making movies. You don't have to make up your mind. It's the question that's important."
Which leads to the natural inquiry, inspired by actor Jake Gyllenhaal's recent appearance on TV: Does Haggis have any Steelers tattoos, real or fake? A betting grid for Thursday's Steelers-Browns game, $5 a block, was posted by the stage door.
No, although he does have some Steelers paraphernalia. "I love baseball. I took my son to a Pirate game. I'm a fan of the Pirates. I don't care if they win or lose."
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632.