Pittsburgh suburbs double for Ohio in new alien adventure 'I Am Number Four'

This is why movies cost so much money ... and are so magical.

In June, motorists who followed the mysterious yellow "Lorien" directional signs and ventured deep into Deer Lakes Park near Tarentum in the foggy blackness would have discovered a secret carnival.

High on a grassy, muddy hill were rides, including a Ferris wheel, a Tilt-a-Whirl and a Zipper with blinking arrow lights, plus stands advertising french fries, pink and blue cotton candy, funnel cakes and corn dogs. Stuffed animals dangled from game booths, and movie extras strolled back and forth as a stray white balloon bobbed toward the inky sky.

Director D.J. Caruso, however, was focused on actors Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron, two of the stars of "I Am Number Four," a sci-fi thriller then filming in Pittsburgh and targeted for a February release. (It arrives, on time, in theaters Friday.)

Mr. Pettyfer, his blond hair streaked and slightly mussed, was clad in a gray hoodie and jeans while a camera-toting Ms. Agron was wearing a beret, her blond hair in a single braid swept to the side and a bag slung across her dark jacket.

Months later, the scene would be reduced to seconds on screen, but this night, it was all consuming for Mr. Caruso, who was just starting his third week of a shoot that would stretch into mid-August. He was battling volatile weather -- the night before had brought a tornado warning and lightning that shut down the outdoor set.

He described the early weather pattern as "Sunny, thunderstorms. Sunny, thunderstorms. Rain, lightning." But he was learning patience and to adapt, which meant to always toss rain gear, sturdy footwear, shorts and at least two T-shirts into the car at all times.

"Seriously, bring some rain gear," he told a half-dozen reporters at a Downtown hotel who were heading to the set that night.

The filmmaker had considered shooting in Michigan or the Carolinas but decided Western Pennsylvania had the production base and could cheat for make-believe Paradise, Ohio.

He estimated that 98 percent of the movie would be filmed in the Pittsburgh area, with Franklin Regional High School playing a key role, with a couple of days in Florida and some panoramic plates or backdrops being shot in Hawaii.

"I Am Number Four" is based on a novel written by James Frey and Jobie Hughes under the pen name of Pittacus Lore. It's the first of a planned series about nine gifted aliens on the run from enemy Mogadorians, who are killing them in numerical order on Earth.

As Number Four, Mr. Pettyfer plays a "disenfranchised teenager who keeps moving around from place to place, not really putting down roots and trying to figure out who he is, and at the same time, he's got this sort of hidden destiny that's unknown to him, that he's going to basically save the world," Mr. Caruso said.

The Pettyfer character, who adopts the name John Smith, is a stand-in for high schoolers everywhere. He's an outsider who finally finds a place he wants to call home and a girl he loves, but his destiny yanks him away.

"I thought it was a really cool story from that aspect," said Mr. Caruso. "It sort of reminded me of 'Rebel Without a Cause' crossed with 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.' A sci-fi version of 'Rebel Without a Cause.' "

DreamWorks Pictures optioned the book for Michael Bay, but he was tangled in "Transformers" and decided he would produce rather than direct it. When the project was offered to Mr. Caruso, he read the book and was sold.

Mr. Caruso, who helped to make Shia LaBeouf a star with his movies "Disturbia" and "Eagle Eye," auditioned more than 145 actors before narrowing the field to four and, eventually, one in British actor Pettyfer.

"He's incredibly dynamic and there's a macho sort of element to him, but what I really liked was his vulnerability."

Each of the nine aliens develop legacies or powers around age 17, and John unexpectedly gains telekinesis along with the power of lumen, which causes light and energy to beam out of his hands in a nifty effect.

Aussie actress Teresa Palmer, who turns up as Number Six, can make herself invisible, which allows her to disappear and then reappear while fiercely fighting.

Another Australian, 15-year-old Callan McAuliffe, is Sam, an Ohio teen who is regularly bullied but finds a friend and ally in John while Ms. Agron's character Sarah is a beauty and one-time popular girl who quit dating a football player and became an outsider.

The cast also features Timothy Olyphant as John's guardian, a former resident of the planet Lorien who ultimately teaches his young charge about the nature of sacrifice.

Mr. Caruso builds what he calls a character bible for each actor and spent two weeks rehearsing, first in Los Angeles and then in Pittsburgh.

"Most of the time rehearsing is building a foundation through the character, it's not so much about saying your lines ... I like to always know I'm on the same page as the actor and we know what we want from each scene."

As previous movies demonstrated, he has a winning way with youthful actors and says the key is simplicity because performers of any age can overthink a moment.

"Keep it really simple. It's really easy for them to grab onto what they want to do and what they want to accomplish. It's just kind of keeping them focused, and being the parent of a 15-year-old and being the parent of a 2-year-old, I've had this full spectrum of dealing with all of that."

When you're leading a crew of hundreds, you're pretty much a father figure anyway.

"I've always had this David Lean fantasy -- David Lean always had people over for dinner -- so any kind of weekend, I always have a cast dinner and we have a barbecue down at my place this weekend. I try to keep everyone together in a real family sort of way, because there's that unwritten thing that you always have each other's back."

Given the awful and long hours on a movie set, that's doubly important.

Once admittedly "a little bit afraid of science fiction" because he was so grounded in reality, the director said the challenge on this film was "balancing the character elements and the struggle of identity and making sure the spectacle of the action and some of the other things don't overtake the character elements.

"Because I think without caring about the characters, you can have the best action in the world, but it doesn't really mean anything."

As for a possible franchise ("I Am Number Four" could be the first of six books), he says, "I think that's probably everyone's plan -- knock wood -- you just feel like I try to make one great movie and whatever happens from there happens."

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies. First Published February 17, 2011 5:00 AM


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