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'The Chair' documents the making of comedy films around Pittsburgh

| Thursday, April 3, 2014, 6:40 p.m.
Martha Rial
Executive producer Chris Moore (left) speaks with Nelson Chipman, chair of Cinema and Digital Arts at Point Park University, on the Upper St. Clair set of 'The Chair.'
Sarah Cunningham | Point Park University
Zachary Quinto and Neal Dodson, executive producers of “The Chair,” at Point Park University to discuss “The Creative Side of Filmmaking: Building a Lasting Career” earlier this year.
Sarah Cunningham | Point Park University
Shane Dawson (center) on the set of the “Untitled Shane Dawson Comedy,' one of two films that will be featured in the behind the scenes documentary, 'The Chair.'
Sarah Cunningham | Point Park University
Anna Martemucci (far right) with cast and crew on the set of “Hollidaysburg,” one of two films that will be featured in the documentary 'The Chair.'

There have been a lot of movies shot in Pittsburgh, and a few TV shows. “The Chair” is unusual in that it's both.

It's a TV show and a movie — actually, two movies. It's a documentary-style reality-TV show about the making of two separate films, with different crews, working from the same script, with the same budget ($800,000), the same time frame (20 days) and same resources.

“We live in a culture that's very interested in what goes on behind the scenes,” says Zachary Quinto, the “Star Trek” star and Green Tree native whose company, Before the Door Productions, is producing “The Chair.” “There's a lot of drama that goes into filmmaking — a lot of fires that need to be put out, the psychodynamics of the creative process.”

The script has been taken in totally different directions by two young, talented filmmakers, Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci. “The Chair” finished shooting in Pittsburgh last month, and post-production will be finished this summer. A distribution partner and cable channel haven't been announced yet, but at the moment, it's expected to air in the fall.

“The Chair” was produced by Quinto and partners Neil Dodson and Corey Moosa (“All Is Lost”), Chris Moore (“Good Will Hunting,” “Project Greenlight”) and the Steeltown Entertainment Project. For about a decade, Steeltown has been investing in building up Pittsburgh's film and TV infrastructure and leveraging the Pittsburgh-to-Hollywood talent pipeline to bring productions to Pittsburgh.

“Shane (Dawson) shot a love scene at Heinz Field,” says Steeltown co-founder Carl Kurlander. “Where else in the country can you shoot stuff like that, for these sort of low-budget films?

“We know it's created at least 125 jobs,” Kurlander says. “(We want to) bridge the gap between academic institutions and the industry. Our goal is to have Pittsburgh be the best place for filmmakers in the country, beyond Hollywood. Regional productions centers — Chris (Moore) thinks that's the future of the film industry.”

Students from Point Park University — including 40 student interns and 40 alumni — worked on the film in almost every capacity. Moore, Moosa and Quinto were on the school's Downtown campus often, giving several lectures about the nuts-and-bolts of film production to students.

“The Chair” expands upon Moore's “Project Greenlight,” a documentary series (co-produced with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) about the behind-the-scenes struggles of first-time filmmakers. “The Chair” explores how the different visions of two filmmakers can create two totally different films with the same script, budget and support.

“The original source material is a coming-of-age comedy,” Quinto says. “It's set in that time right after high school, going home from college for Thanksgiving, when your paradigms get tested.”

The plan, he says, is to get both filmmakers' movies into the theaters while the behind-the-scenes show is airing on television.

“ ‘The Chair' will provide a unique look at the way movies are constructed, from the ground up,” Quinto says. “What will the movies look like visually? What is the casting process like? What are the shoot days like?”

Heidi Schlegel, a Point Park graduate who studied cinema and digital arts, worked on “The Chair” as unit production manager for Dawson's film. Moore, now producing “The Chair,” first came to Pittsburgh as a judge for the Steeltown Film Factory, a short-film contest sponsored by the Steeltown Entertainment Project.

“I was responsible for hiring our crew members, coordinating with vendors, helping to maintain the budget and overseeing all sorts of paperwork,” says Schlegel, 23, of Denver, Lancaster County. “I was responsible for just Shane Dawson's film. The documentary really tried to keep us as two separate entities, to showcase each film as if it were on its own. Both films were also in production around the same time, so two film crews had to be created.”

Dawson is already a fairly well-known Internet personality for his humorous YouTube videos, in which he dramatically sings celebrity tweets like they're emotional ballads.

“He has more energy and passion than I've ever seen and would come to work each day with a smile on his face,” Schlegel says. “He was an extremely optimistic person, who could make anybody laugh at the drop of a dime. He approached his film with lots of humor — but at the core, made sure a clear theme was noticed. He never forgot to add in heartfelt and serious moments to balance out the overall mood of the film.”

The crew for the movie — still known as “Untitled Shane Dawson Comedy” to distinguish it from the other parts of “The Chair” — criss-crossed the city to get the shots they needed. Locations included the Duquesne Incline and LeMont on Mt. Washington, the 31st Street Studios in the Strip, Most Wanted Fine Arts in Garfield, Allegheny Airport, Heinz Field (“which was an amazing and surreal experience,” Schlegel says), and the Shur-Save grocery store in Bloomfield.

“All locations were helpful, friendly and loved that more films were being introduced to the city,” Schlegel says. “Pittsburgh offers a little bit of everything, which is why the city is ideal for filming.”

Kurlander sees Schlegel's experience as part of his plan for expanding filmmaking opportunities in Pittsburgh.

“Many people like Heidi were able to use the skills they learned on the Film Factory films and advance in positions professionally,” Kurlander says. “We are retooling the Film Factory this year to focus on it more overtly as a training program, as we believe the next George Romero and Fred Rogers are here and just need more opportunities to develop their work.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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