This Rooney spends time on a different carpet
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Bumping into a Rooney at a film festival probably should never be considered surprising, and now that Hollywood producer Thomas Tull owns a chunk of the Steelers, the incidence of Rooney sightings among the popcorn and Sno-Caps set and/or the red carpet glitterati should only increase.
For the record, Michael Rooney already has chatted with Tull about the business of DVD distribution, but Michael has been a film producer in the making from just about the moment he became an ex-Steelers ball boy a quarter-century ago.
"I figured if I was going to prolong my career with the team, I was going to have to get into something a little more technical," Rooney joked the other night at the Regent Square Theatre, where the Pittsburgh Film Festival continues through Saturday. "That's when I started working with Bob McCartney."
McCartney then and now runs the video department, but Michael, son of Art Rooney Jr. and grandson of the Steelers founder, has loved cameras for just about the entirety of his memory. He eventually took a master's degree in interactive telecommunications from NYU, worked on special film projects for the football club, and is today the director of broadcasting at Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway.
His new documentary, "Carpet Racers, A Crash Course," had its world premiere at the Queens Film Festival and has been accepted at festivals from California to South Africa. Among the higher purposes of film festivals the world over is, of course, the raising of questions previously not pondered, and it turns out the Pittsburgh Film Festival would meet that standard were it showing nothing but "Carpet Racers."
Some of those questions might be:
Who is the Michael Jordan of carpet racing?
What is carpet racing?
Why aren't there free hot dogs, pizza and beer at every movie theatre every night?
If the Michael Jordan of carpet racing is, as the film implies, one Paul Lemieux, shouldn't he simply be called the Lemieux of carpet racing, in deference to Mario?
Wasn't Michael Jordan actually the Mario Lemieux of basketball anyway?
In any event, Rooney and director Jay Thames, with this project, have done exactly what feature editors have been coaxing journalists to do for decades. I believe the exact instruction was: Invade alien subcultures.
It was Rooney's idea. He once owned Steel City Hobbies in Bridgeville, where he sold radio controlled cars that some customers raced competitively.
"I went with this one guy down to Orlando to something called the Snowbird Nationals," Rooney said. "It was just so fascinating. There were something like 700 entrants, people from all over the world. I just thought, 'Who are these people?' "
Who would spend most of their waking hours prepping a car the size of shoebox to go up to 60 mph on a carpeted track about the size of a tennis court for cash and prizes, love and glory, except for those last two?
The film portrays them lovingly, but in their full quirkiness, an odd mix of defiance and self-doubt. They are technically not aliens, it would appear, but at one point one of the racers looks straight into Rooney's camera and says, "What better way to spend a Sunday?"
Another says he's aware that a member of his family feels sorry for him because he's a grown man playing with toys. But some make a living at it, working the circuit -- Orlando, Las Vegas, Cleveland, and at local tracks in Texas, Connecticut, California, New York and Latrobe.
Rooney's film is likely the sport's first great legitimacy transfusion, and make no mistake, the competitors bring enough passion and skill to meet any of sport's varied definitions. More pointedly, if this is a subculture, it's keenly aware that it's not walking that road alone.
"I watched the spelling bee on television the other day," says one of the racers in the film. "Another time, I spent an hour watching the rock-paper-scissors championships. Now come on! What's going to happen in that 'sport?' "
Rooney can see "Carpet Racers" as the basis for a feature film.
"I'm thinking Will Farrell and Ben Stiller would be perfect for something like this."
That's right, get Tull on the phone.
Rooney and Thames are already investors in a Christopher Walken film, "The Power of Few," scheduled for a 2011 release.
"My dad told me to stay out of that business," Michael laughed. "He said he invested in some films in the '70s. Hoped to just get his money back. He always tells me that me and my friend Mark, when we got out of college, should have driven across the country making a film. He says now he'd have invested $50,000 in it, but at the time I think it was $500. The longer ago it gets, the more he says he was in for."
First Published November 19, 2009 12:00 am