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Films with local ties tell classic indie tales

| Friday, Nov. 4, 2005

It begins with a filmmaking impulse -- something that propels the screenwriter to write and the director to think in terms of angles and compositions and readings and pacing that might amplify each scene.

It's about raising the money, shaping a cast and crew, gathering for the first day's shooting, getting the final shot, editing the scraps of film or video into a cohesive whole and finally -- finally -- finding places to show it.

And maybe even bargain with a distributor.

One small, sometimes significant part of that process is getting a screening or two in Pittsburgh's annual Three Rivers Film Festival, like the one being held at district venues tonight through Nov. 17.

Although the festival is international in nature, it invariably features a few works by local filmmakers or people with Pittsburgh backgrounds or district-related subjects.

That's the link among Kevin Kerwin ("Filmic Achievement"), Joe Varhola ("Dogplayers"), Peggy Sutton ("Squonkumentary"), Jim Ray Daniels and John Rice ("Dumpster"), and Kruti Majmudar ("The Memsahib").

Kerwin is a 1988 graduate of Seton-LaSalle High School, where he played on the state championship basketball team. He was awarded a basketball scholarship to Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass., from which he graduated in 1992.

The Mt. Lebanon native moved after college to New York City, where he attended Columbia University film school and lived for eight years. He wrote and directed "Filmic Achievement" there, not in imitation of, but clearly with enthusiasm for, "Waiting for Guffman" and "This Is Spinal Tap." His wife, Kate, a fellow Holy Cross alum, produced it.

"Filmic Achievement" was inspired by his experiences as a film school student.

"I started to write a script," Kerwin says, "but instead I did a story and detailed character descriptions. I gave them to actors, and we'd go in and add to it. We shot it all on digital and ended up with about 55 hours of footage." The film runs about 80 minutes.

"Pittsburgh will be our ninth film festival, and we have four more lined up after that."

The Kerwins live in Kate's hometown of Cleveland.

"It's a lot like Pittsburgh," he says of his home. "We stopped here for a breather on the way from New York to L.A. and made the decision to stay. There would be definite advantages to being in L.A., but I have agents there. I can write where I am.

"People out there get out of touch because they're so ensconced in the machinations of the film industry. Out there, they refer to us as being in the flyover states."

Homestead-born Munhall resident Joe Varhola began directing his screenplay "Dogplayers" in the summer of 2002 and finished the following summer, exemplifying the time challenges of local filmmakers who hold down one or two jobs while cramming film production into late nights and weekends.

"I had two jobs seven days a week to save pocket money to do this," he says. "I still work full time for an air maintenance company, cleaning duct work.

"We didn't have a lot of people or equipment. It was very guerrilla filmmaking, shooting overnight with (ambient) lights. Most of the exteriors were done on the South Side."

The central character runs numbers for the owner of a strip club.

"More than anything, it's first and foremost a character story. Each person he meets brushes off on him and points him in a different direction. The theme is someone who's trying to find his particular road to travel on. It's modern noir with existential characters."

"Squonkumentary" director Peggy Sutton is not a Pittsburgher, but the Squonk Opera company has members here and has performed engagements at City Theatre and the Byham Theater.

Sutton filmed two performances one day during Squonk Opera's seven-week engagement on Broadway in 2000 so the company would have clips available for use with TV reviews and for distribution to European impresarios.

"I was struck by them as people and as artists. Theirs is not a conventional show. There's no narrative. It doesn't have a book or an overarching story. They think of themselves as a band first, with six members. There are visual elements and audience participation in their shows."

Sutton's performance footage became the core of her documentary film.

"I started editing in January 2005, which shows you how long the evolution was. I've been told the average time for a documentary is five years. You're condensing lives into a three-act struggle."

"Dumpster" was shot entirely here in five days, mostly on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

Screenwriter Jim Ray Daniels is a poet and professor of English at CMU who had written one previously produced script, "No Pets," which was directed by Tony Buba.

"I think the first time you try anything, you're not sure what you're doing. I hope from 'No Pets' I learned about writing for film in terms of overall approach. With that, I was starting with a short story I'd written; I didn't know how to revise it in this medium. With 'Dumpster,' I was thinking about dialogue all the way."

"Dumpster" concerns a relationship that builds between a university janitor and a wealthy frat boy when the former finds the latter hiding in a campus Dumpster.

"My brother-in-law is a gardener at CMU," Daniels says. "The initial spark came from that. I also drew from coming from a family of autoworkers in Detroit."

Much of the picture was shot behind Baker Hall on campus, but scenes were filmed in Buba's former Braddock residence and in a Lawrenceville bar.

Frat-house scenes were shot at the Intercultural House in Oakland, which houses students from all over the world.

"I'd approached real frat houses," Daniels says, "but there was some suspicion about having us in there. The place we did use was so neat and orderly we had to trash it up a little."

Ironically, the Dumpster, which you'd assume was part of the landscape already, was brought onto the campus specially so it was "one that didn't stink."

CMU funded the film through a $10,000 faculty development grant. Director John Rice had to find creative ways to do things.

Rice is a native of Clarion, Clarion County, who lives in Mt. Lebanon. A graduate of Baldwin High School and Penn State University, he has worked on Pittsburgh-made films such as George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" and Harish Saluja's "The Journey."

"'Dawn' was my first job out of college. I was hired as a production assistant and later worked on continuity. For 'The Journey,' I was director of photography and camera operator. I met Jim and Harish when I was director of photography on 'No Pets.' Tony Buba was going to direct 'Dumpster,' but when he had to back out, I got that."

All of "The Mensahib" was shot in India by Kruti Majmudar, who was born in India, moved to the States when she was about 2 years old and whose family had settled in the Pittsburgh area by the early 1980s.

She's a graduate of North Allegheny High School and Syracuse University who majored in architecture, which she found useful as a filmmaker in set and production design.

Majmudar took classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers then raised the money from family and friends "who believed in my vision and my ability" to produce and direct the screenplay she had written. She shot it in 35 mm on location.

"It's very location-specific. I needed to film it there. There's a huge infrastructure of a film industry there."

Majmudar just finished and screened the film in India within the past week before bringing it home a couple of days ago on a three-plane, 26-hour trip. She's just starting the process of applying to show the film in festivals throughout the world. Meanwhile, she's exhaling at her family's Fox Chapel home and pondering other scripts she has in development.

The circumstances of each "local" picture's production differs, but collectively they're classic independent filmmaking tales.

One job builds toward another. And months or years later, filmmakers finally see their work unspool before audiences. That is, as Jack Lemmon often said, "magic time."

Additional Information:

Local interest

Screening times for Three Rivers Film Festival movies with regional connections. All will be shown at the Melwood Screening Room, North Oakland, unless otherwise noted.

'Squonkumentary': 8:30 p.m. today and 2:30 p.m. Saturday 'Dumpster': 6:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday 'Filmic Achievement': 9 p.m. Thursday and 7 p.m. Nov. 12 'Dogplayers': 9 p.m. Nov. 11 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 'The Memsahib': 8:30 p.m. Nov. 12 and 8 p.m. Nov. 14 at Regent Square Theater, Edgewood

Admission: $7, or $35 for a six-pack of admissions

Details: 412-681-5449 or

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