This year, as the Sundance Film Festival celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, founder Robert Redford reflected on its role in creating original voices outside of tradition Hollywood.  These original voices are coming more and more from Pittsburgh, as evidence by last year’s Grand Jury and Audience Award-winning Blood Brother, made by Pittsburghers Steve Hoover and Danny Yourd about their friend Rocky Braat who moved to India to help orphans with HIV.  This year, Pittsburgh again had a strong showing with the Steeltown-supported No No: A Dockumentary about Pirates Pitcher Dock Ellis; The Immaculate Reception a short about young love and the famous Franco Harris catch; and. In more supporting roles, a film Cold In July edited by Pitt grad John Paul Horstmann, and a party hosted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Masters of Entertainment Industry Management program each attracted stellar crowds. Here are some of the highlights of the Pittsburgh presence at this year’s festival:

Friday Jan  17 Immaculate Reception World Premiere.

An international crowd gathered to watch a sold out screening of seven shorts culled from thousands of submissions.   At the Q&A after the screenings, a Sundance attendee with a French accent poses a question to Charlotte Glynn, writer/director of “The Immaculate Reception”:

“What is the significance of this play that is in your movie?”  

Glynn explained that prior to this game, the Pittsburgh Steelers had been a losing team for 40 years, and she was interested in capturing that cross-section of when the steel industry jobs were ending and when the Steelers began winning.   Her film also powerfully succeeds in capturing a timeless story of young love, set in the 1970s. Of course, fact checkers will point out that this game was not actually televised on Pittsburgh television, but nonetheless, of all the movies which have shot in Pittsburgh in the past few years, few have been more emotionally and visually truthful to this era as Glynn’s film.  

Another questioner asks about the set design, and how Glynn managed to accurately create an era that existed before her lifetime.  She explains that the “set” is the house of the father of co-producer and Point Park graduate Bailey Donovan.  The team diligently found some era-appropriate appliances, re-did the wallpaper, and added a few hoagies, and 1970s Pittsburgh was recreated.

The climax of the short mirrors the iconic play—a younger brother steps out from his big brother’s shadow and hooks up with the girl of his dreams while Myron Cope simultaneously narrates Franco Harris’s miraculous reception of Terry Bradshaw’s deflected desperation pass. The film exhibits a strong directorial confidence in getting just right the details which anyone will identify with who has tried to “connect” at a family gathering, and it was particularly a pleasure to see Pittsburgh’s own Adrienne Wehr and newcomer Jess Paul impress international audiences with their performances.  Sundance has a great track record with providing a showcase for emerging talent, and it is sure that Pittsburgh’s Adrienne Wehr and Jess Paul impressed an international audiences with their performances, and Charlotte Glynn established herself as is a filmmaker to watch and bet on as her career goes forward.

Jan. 20, 2014, No No: A Dockumentary

Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitcher Dock Ellis might have gained notoriety for pitching a No Hitter on LSD, but a sold-out Sundance crowd (which included Ethan Hawke and Richard Linkletter) learned far more about Dock in No No: A Dockumentary, which explores issues of social change, addiction, and redemption. No No, directed by Jeffrey Raddice and produced by Milke Blizzard, highlights more than just a great era of baseball in Pittsburgh—it reflects on a critical moment in the history of social change.  On September 1, 1971, the Pirates starting lineup, including Ellis and future Hall-of-Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, was the first starting lineup not to include at least one white player in the history of Major League Baseball. 

“No No” transcends the standard baseball documentary through artful storytelling that uses great archival footage and a cool soundtrack to take viewers back to the 60s and 70s.   The film interviews many of Dock’s teammates who recall what it was like to have a pitcher who wore curlers in his hair and who was unafraid to dress and act like himself at a time when there were still many unspoken prejudices. He was equally outspoken about his use of drugs in baseball, and the film delves into the last part of his life was spent counseling others and making a difference in the lives of others.

At Steeltown’s inception, director Rob Marshall said there were “7000 stories to tell about Pittsburgh.”   It was apparent from the great response to both Immaculate Reception and No No: A Dockumentary as well as last year to Blood Brother that these stories don’t just play to local audiences.  It will be exciting to see how Pittsburghers respond when these film play here. If you missed Blood Brother on Independent Lens, you can pre-order it on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Blood-Brother-Rocky-Braat/dp/B00GOT15N2

Pittsburgh-nurtured talent shines with Cold In July

Pittsburgh’s presence was felt on the production side of a major Sundance film as well, with the contribution of University of Pittsburgh alumnus and co-founder of the university’s UPTV John Paul Horstmann. Cold In July, written by Jim Mickle and starring Michael C. Hall of Dexter, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson, was edited by Horstmann. Cold In July adds artistry to what could have just been a pulp fiction pot boiler, and it riveted its sold-out audience.

On a recent visit back to Pitt to speak to students, John Paul said that if he does his job right as an editor, his work is really invisible as people are immersed in the film.  The filmmaker and stars of the film reached out to John Paul on the red carpet and at the after party, sharing how much they appreciated his work.   The film was also appreciated by buyers, becoming one of a handful of films that sold during the Film Festival, getting picked up by IFC Films.

Lessons from Sundance for Pittsburgh

We congratulate Sundance on 30 years of putting a spotlight on original filmmakers.   The economics of independent film has changed between the first big Sundance sale of Sex, Lies, and Videotape for $1 million in 1989 and since Little Miss Sunshine sold at Sundance in 2006.   With the surge of the streaming movie industry, DVD sales, which were a source of up to 40 percent of the revenue for these type of films have all but collapsed.  It was interesting to hear even Robert Redford give pause to what Sundance has become compared to its original intention. Still, hunger for good storytelling is as great as ever, and Sundance has proved that great storytelling can come from places outside of mainstream Hollywood studios.

Sundance has proven that not all new voices come out of New York and L.A. Our hope is that Pittsburgh’s presence at Sundance these past couple of years is not a coincidence.   And as we embark on the fifth year of the Steeltown Film Factory, a program devised to nurture new voices here, we know that Pittsburgh has talent, and that this is a place where filmmaking can be a part of a growing creative economy that will fuel post-industrial Pittsburgh. 

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