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North Side filmmaker returns to alma mater OLSH a success

| Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, 9:19 p.m.

Joe Serkoch earned mostly C grades at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Moon before graduating in 1997. But he made films with the high school's video group, so teacher Jack Mihaloew recommended him for a summer video program with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

“After that, I told Mr. M. I thought I wanted to go to college for film,” Serkoch recalled. Mihaloew wrote another letter, this time to Point Park University endorsing Serkoch for the film program.

Today, Serkoch, 35, runs a video company, Orionvega on the North Side, where he lives. A film that he produced to be shown in high school literature classes, “The Cask of Amontillado,” based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story, has won regional Emmy and Telly awards.

Serkoch will return to his alma mater on Friday to screen the film and answer questions from students. The assembly isn't open to the public.

“Regardless of grades, you see something and feel something about a student, if a student … has a creative streak,” said Mihaloew, 81, of Economy, who is in his 32nd and last year of teaching at OLSH.

Serkoch said the idea for the award-winning film came from a friend, Thad Ciechanowksi of DijitMedia LLC, who had “always wanted to make this story into a film.”

The project was difficult to finance by himself, but Ciechanowski found that publishers look for films to complement textbooks. A film distributor said such a film would be marketable, so Ciechanowski, who declined to disclose costs, risked his money. The two filmmakers began collaborating on a version of the 19th-century tale about murderous revenge.

As producer, Serkoch scouted and negotiated the use of shooting sites, hired film crews and a composer, oversaw the music score and budget and hired talent agencies to cast local actors. One actor, Frank Tirio, helped Ciechanowski come up with the creative concept and played the nobleman Fortunato.

Serkoch and Ciechanowski “called in a couple of favors,” so some people who worked on the film, such as director of photography Jeff Garton, were paid less than usual scale.

“This wouldn't have happened without Joe,” Ciechanowski, 38, of Crafton, said. “I know how to produce, but his specialty is producing, keeping things on task.”

Filming began in October 2010 at the Tour-Ed Mine in Tarentum, where the fateful wine cellar scenes were filmed, and the Allegheny County Courthouse courtyard, site of the party scene.

Serkoch gave high points to Ciechanowski for wanting to maintain a high-quality film. “He said, ‘It has to be as dramatic and look as close to a Hollywood film as possible,' ” Serkoch said.

Ciechanowski was adamant that the film follow the short story closely. The dialogue is identical, but the director and producer added a short prologue and epilogue.

“Cask” first screened in March 2011 and later picked up by a distributor. WQED-TV later aired the 23-minute film, which qualified it for the Telly and Emmy awards.

The film earned a Telly last year and an Emmy this year from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Mid-Atlantic Chapter, in the category of educational program or special. Ciechanowski said he has just about broken even, financially.

Serkoch said he is happy to return to the high school where he started his career.

“They care about the individual kids,” Serkoch said of OLSH.

“I'm elated,” Mihaloew said of the success of his student. “The whole idea of education is to have the kids outreach the teacher.”

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer.

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