Filming of 'One for the Money' brings out onlookers, happily displaced homeowners


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Debbie Reynolds, her trademark blond hair tucked under a gray wig and a long maroon scarf looped around her neck, waved at the folks on South Pacific Avenue watching Janet Evanovich's book "One for the Money" come to life.

Stray onlookers also saw both Katherine Heigl and her stand-in -- in matching short-sleeve T-shirts, jeans, sneakers and dark ponytails -- enter or exit a house in Friendship.

The former "Grey's Anatomy" star portrays Stephanie Plum, a lingerie buyer who loses her job and improbably finds herself working for her sleazy cousin's bail bonding company.

She's half-Italian and half-Hungarian and hails from Trenton, N.J., being played by such locations as Friendship-Bloomfield, the North Side, Braddock, Wilkinsburg, Shadyside, McKees Rocks, Ambridge in Beaver County and Kittanning, Armstrong County.

A stretch of South Pacific near Coral Street had been turned into a makeshift back lot on what was day 29 of a 41-day shoot expected to end Labor Day weekend. Big Blue, the ancient powder-blue Buick described in the novels as resembling a beluga whale, was parked against a temporary green screen.

"They shooting some scenes right now? Is that why everyone's standing around looking excited?" a dog-walker asked strangers across the street from the brown brick house serving as the residence of Plum's parents and irrepressible Grandma Mazur.

"Is that house empty?" the woman continued. Not at all, homeowners Tony and Carol Pizzuto piped up.

The 2 1/2-story home with a handy front porch has been in Tony's family since 1938, and the couple swapped it for a hotel room earlier this month so the production could use it as a key location.

"One for the Money" was shooting on the first floor and taking advantage of the front foyer, living room, dining room and kitchen. Some days the home was swaddled in black, to turn day into night, and this afternoon it occasionally was hidden from view by enormous white and black screens.

"The living room and dining room open onto each other. It's probably a 35-foot span," Mr. Pizzuto said, and that's a rare luxury for bulky lighting and camera equipment, not to mention actors and crew.

"That's why they liked it. Plus, we have I guess you'd call it 'antique' dining room furniture," his wife added of the 1937 set the elder Pizzutos brought when they moved in. "It's not real modern inside," which was part of its charm.

The production pumped in chilled air and temporarily changed the wallpaper, added some sconces to the dining room, traded the table for a smaller one and hung old-time pictures and religious decorations.

"We happen to be Catholic and we had a picture of the Last Supper, which they're using," Mrs. Pizzuto said. "I thought that would be the first thing to go."

A photo of the couple's 30-year-old daughter in her First Communion dress was copied and altered to make it appear to be a young Stephanie Plum.

It turns out everyone knows the Jersey girl, from "The View" co-host Sherri Shepherd to a Pizzuto relative who doesn't exactly fit the chick-lit demographic.

"I have an 87-year-old uncle who was a bomber pilot in World War II and I'm telling him about this movie being filmed in our house and he said, 'I read that book,' " Mr. Pizzuto said with a laugh.

So have millions of others. If all goes as planned, the movie being directed by Julie Anne Robinson ("The Last Song," some "Grey's Anatomy" episodes) will arrive in theaters in July with a PG-13 rating.

In addition to Ms. Heigl, it stars Jason O'Mara as irresistible vice cop Joe Morelli; Daniel Sunjata as Ranger, sexy bounty hunter extraordinaire; John Leguizamo as a boxing manager; Debra Monk and Louis Mustillo as Stephanie's blue-collar parents; and Ms. Reynolds as spry, eccentric Grandma Mazur.

Casting questions

Producer Wendy Finerman read "One for the Money" in galley form and optioned the novel before it was published in 1994. She was sold on Stephanie as an "everygirl, a hometown girl."

The project went through various incarnations and rumored actresses before going into production with Ms. Heigl and an adapted screenplay by "Nurse Jackie" executive producer-writer Liz Brixius. Why so long?

" 'Forrest Gump' took 10, 11 years," said Ms. Finerman, who shared the Oscar for best picture for the Tom Hanks movie. "Some of them take many years, some of them don't. ...

"One of the things with this was just finding the right tone in the script and the right actor to play it and also, at times, different kinds of movies come in and out of fashion," with women-driven pictures a bit more challenging, to say the least.

Some fans of the series have criticized the choice of Ms. Heigl but, with dark curly hair, she looks very unlike TV's Dr. Izzie Stevens or the romantically challenged heroines of "Knocked Up," "27 Dresses" or "The Ugly Truth."

"First of all, she's a really wonderful actress," Ms. Finerman said of the leading lady working across the street from the stoop where she fielded questions.

"Everyone can relate to her, and she has the same kind of psyche that Stephanie Plum does. She's smart, she's playful, she's beautiful but she does it all in a way that's very relatable."

Fellow producer Gary Lucchesi addressed the same casting concerns.

"We've taken this casting really, really seriously," with casting directors who have 100-plus credits working to assemble the puzzle. "We scoured the world for actors we thought were right to play the part and also, quite frankly, were willing to play the part."

Mr. O'Mara, known for his TV turn on "Life on Mars" as a 2008 cop transported back to 1973, is Morelli, a bad kid turned good cop and murder suspect.

"He has great chemistry with Katie [Heigl]. He has the virility of a young Mel Gibson -- Mel Gibson of 'Lethal Weapon,' which is kind of what we were hoping for. He's got a deep baritone voice and he's got dark, curly hair and he's very credible as Joe Morelli," Mr. Lucchesi says.

In fall 2011, Mr. O'Mara will help anchor TV's "Terra Nova," a fantasy-drama about a family that travels from 2149 to pre-historic, dinosaur-filled Earth to find a way to save the human race. Steven Spielberg is executive producing the series.

"With Katie, you need a guy, you need a man because she's a strong character, a strong personality," Mr. Lucchesi continued. "We had that in Gerry Butler for 'Ugly Truth,' and we feel that we really pulled that off with Jason."

Ms. Shepherd, a fan of the Evanovich books, successfully lobbied for the part of Lula. "Sherri Shepherd is absolutely spectacular as Lula and she's wearing different wigs and she's bawdy, hysterically funny. Very opposite, in some ways, from Stephanie but completely endearing."

As for Ms. Reynolds as the wacky widow who fires Stephanie's gun at the dinner table, only to declare, "That shooting gave me an appetite. Somebody pass me the potatoes," she isn't overexposed in movies.

"It certainly helps that she's an icon," Mr. Lucchesi said. "She's done her one-woman show over the years but she hasn't been in very many movies [recently] so we thought that was a very fresh way to go," with Ms. Monk as the actress who could bridge the generations.

The signing of a veteran of Ms. Reynolds' caliber meant the addition of a scene not in the book to capitalize on her appeal and talent.

Comedy collides with reality

Producers describe the tone of the movie as comedic and yet grounded in the real world. "The books are an interesting hybrid of reality," said Mr. Lucchesi, who dipped into the Plum novels after his wife faithfully added a new one each year to their shelves.

"People do get killed, Lula does get beat up, Ranger is dangerous, Joe Morelli really did shoot a guy and killed him. At the same time, you have the really broad humor of Grandma Mazur and Lula and Vinnie Plum," Stephanie's cousin who runs the bail bonding company.

Mr. Lucchesi is one of the reasons Lakeshore Entertainment returned to Western Pennsylvania where it shot "The Mothman Prophecies" with Richard Gere in Pittsburgh, Kittanning and points in between.

"I love Pittsburgh," he said last week, topping off his shorts and striped golf shirt with a Vintage Grand Prix cap (scored legitimately by attending).

"You know, the people are great, the restaurants are terrific. I'm from San Francisco originally but I come from working-class roots and I get Pittsburgh, and I have an affinity for it."

He and others have gone to Pirate games, marveled at the dinosaurs at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and soaked up the sights at Fallingwater by sunset.

As it turns out, Carol and Tony Pizzuto were thrilled by a different attraction. "We did get to meet Debbie Reynolds, she was very gracious," he said.

"You know, that was the highlight of the whole thing. She's really a classy lady. Love her," Mrs. Pizzuto added.

When she told the "Singin' in the Rain" star they were the homeowners, the 78-year-old performer told them they had "a lovely house." And one they can call their own once more.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.


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