Dinner and a movie, Lawrenceville style
A “gentrification farce,” Progression follows a group of urbanites navigating love and heartbreak on the night of the annual progressive dinner in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Gab Cody wrote and directed this feature-length comedy with her partner, Sam Turich. He also helped her write about making a neighborhood movie with the help of neighbors.
“It has to be the sort of coat that would catch your attention.”
“That’s why the ‘Pittsburgh Girls’ in their 5-inch stilettos talk such smack on her coat as they pass by.”
Rachel Vallozzi, film and video costume designer, and I, emerging filmmaker, sat in the living room of my brick rowhouse in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. We were scheduled to start shooting in two months. The movie was inspired by (and would be set at) the neighborhood’s 27-year-old progressive dinner. The event, held annually, began with twelve friends and now boasted the participation of over 150 denizens of Lawrenceville. We were discussing the lead character’s wardrobe.
We both looked out the colonial-style windows, at my neighbor’s house across the street.
“There used to be a tree there.”
We scanned the sidewalk, where the muddy square that cosseted a slender stump was still surrounded by an artful brick border. My neighbor, whose daughter is two years older than ours, is a gardener. Every year we see her out planting as early as March – the front of her rowhouse is a wild pile of pots, flowers and plants. It makes the unfortunate, ash-gray 70’s stone-façade and the narrow horizontal windows seem almost lovely (almost). I didn’t know it in that moment, but we would wind up featuring that very façade in the film.
Lawrenceville is an old mill neighborhood. Our 100-year-old rowhouse didn’t have an indoor kitchen when it was built – at some point, a half-width, single-story number was added on the back. It’s uninsulated, and in the winter the plates come out of the cupboards ice cold.
If you speak to anyone whose family has lived in Pittsburgh for more than a generation or two you will find that, at some point, someone in his or her family once lived in Lawrenceville. It was a way station for immigrating families looking for work. My partner and co-director, Sam Turich, grew up in the East End, but his great grandfather owned and managed bars in Lawrenceville most of his life. According to his family, he’d been happy (even proud) to leave for the greener pastures of Bloomfield.
Today, many of our neighbors run their businesses out of their houses, or attached workshops. The neighborhood has gained attention as a design hub. Sam and I run our production company out of our place, and it has stood in for command central, actor holding, craft services, hair and makeup, and production office. It even has been a location.
This afternoon, sitting with Rachel, our living room was the wardrobe department.
I continued, “A coat that you or I would think was fantastically retro, but that a group of girls going out to party in their short skirts and high heels regardless of the freezing temperatures (the aforementioned ‘Pittsburgh Girls’) would think looked ridiculous.”
Two months later, actress Hayley Nielsen, 24, wears The Coat – an orange and green plaid knee-length Chesterfield with an ostentatious silver fox collar. She waits patiently on the sidewalk, just a few blocks from our house.
Our tiny crew of three wait for me to explain how we should frame up the houses.
“I want it to be flat.”
Kyle Wentzel, our 2nd-unit Director of Photography, six feet three inches of slouchy all-business, asks, “Do you want the whole house?”
“I think so.”
“We can’t get the whole house. We’d have to be farther away.”
“I want it to be flat.”
“Ok. How about this?” Kyle lines up the shot and we all gather around the monitor.
An old maroon colored sedan pulls up to the four-way stop adjacent to the proceedings. A young-ish guy in a Steelers’ cap rolls down his windows (his shoulder bobbing up and down as he turns the crank).
“Yinz making a movie?!”
“Yes. We’re making a movie,” Nicole Antonuccio our plucky associate producer, smiles.
“What’s it a-baht?”
“It’s about the neighborhood.”
“Yinz need any extra actors?”
“We might. We’re filming next week at the community center.”
“How’s it a-baht the neighborhood?” He eyes Hayley’s outlandish coat.
“It’s about the Progressive Dinner.” This from Jonathan Joseph, our sardonic producer.
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that.”
“It’s been happening for 27 years, in the neighborhood.”
I chime in, “But it’s a narrative fiction.” I’m always worried someone will think we’re making a documentary. The guy in the car keeps his eyes on Nicole.
“Uh-huh. Where yinz showin’ it?”
“Um . . . ”
“Is it gonna be on WQED?”
An SUV pulls up behind the maroon sedan.
“Good luck!” He pulls away.
This is the third movie we’ve shot and filmed in Lawrenceville, but the first that has gotten so much attention and support.
Mombies, a short black & white comedy-horror homage to Pittsburgh’s own George A. Romero, won the contest to represent Lawrenceville in Andrew Halasz and Kristen Shaeffer’s feature film Greetings from Pittsburgh: Neighborhood Narratives. Mombies was then a selection of the New York City Horror Film Festival, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, the Cleveland international Film Festival and the 11/22 Comedy Short Film Festival in Vienna, Austria.
A year after we made Mombies, a couple of community activists approached me about “doing some video” for their accordion orchestra event; a project devised to re-imagine the decommissioned space at the Leslie Park Pool. The result was a short no-budget documentary, Accordion Pool Party.
Our first feature film, Progression, has truly been crowd-funded. We were lucky enough to receive two large grants from the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation. We also had successful Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns.
But the event that energized us the most was the progressive dinner fundraiser we organized two months before we began shooting. It was based on the Lawrenceville Progressive Dinner, a magical event in which Lawrencevillians participate every fall. Diners are encouraged to host a soup, a salad or an entrée for eight or ten folks at their homes, or to bring a dessert or appetizer to the large group events that begin and end the evening. Sam and I first hosted a salad just six weeks after landing in Lawrenceville, having just moved from New York with a newborn and no friends around. One couple we met that night have become some of our closest friends in town.
Since the movie is set at the dinner, we wanted to give potential funders a taste of the event. Friends and businesses all over the neighborhood hosted 80 people (most not from the neighborhood) who enjoyed a taste of Progression. Twenty of our neighbors volunteered to host meals in their homes. Local painter Ron Donoughe provided his rustic working studio space for appetizers.
Ken Rom, a local artisan who runs a carpentry shop and owns a square block of real estate next to the river and the railroad tracks, offered up his beautifully landscaped urban atrium. We used paper bag luminaria to lead people past abandoned industrial decay into the artfully lit courtyard.
Through organizing the event we met not one but two “mayors of Lawrenceville.” Neither referred to himself as such, but they were described to us this way by other locals.
Meeting the emeritus mayor, Jim Nied, was just the stroke of luck that we needed to pull off the event. Hunting for beer donations, Nicole and I were pounding the pavement, stopping in various watering holes. “Go to Nied’s,” we heard more than once.
A dark (even at noon) tavern, Nied’s Hotel is classic Lawrenceville. Jim Nied hosts local bands, and opens up the gravel courtyard and redwood stage next door for summer concerts. Jim’s house group, The Nied’s Hotel Band, boasts members of the band Wild Cherry, famous for the 70’s hit “Play That Funky Music.”
A man in or around his fifties, Nied enthusiastically takes Nicole and me under his wing. “I’ll just call up the president of Iron City. He’ll hook you girls up.”
Nied leaves a message for the president as we sit across from him at a bar table. “Me and these girls are making a movie.” I recognize the bartender. A sharp-eyed, handsome woman of about 50, Cathy is also the crossing guard three blocks from our place.
After the phone call Jim Nied gets his own van and hauls his outdoor furniture to our space, lends us coolers, takes us shopping at the restaurant depot and, finally, delivers the cases of free beer when they arrive.
This sort of community support is what made it possible for us to make a feature film on a shoestring budget.
Keith Cochran, architect and accordion player, is the modern-day mayor of Lawrenceville. Keith is another reason the fundraiser and the film were successful. Keith, also in or around his 50s, was one of the original twelve progressive diners. Twenty-seven years ago he and some other design-minded friends moved to Lawrenceville and began rehabilitating houses. Properties were cheap –Lawrenceville had been hard hit by death of the steel industry. Keith and his friends, and his future wife, started the casual yearly progressive dinner. Back then, they would invite folks from other neighborhoods – they were trying to bring in more people to buy the historic buildings that were falling into disrepair. Eventually, the dinner and the neighborhood became so popular that the organizers had to limit attendance to Lawrencevillians only.
I met Keith when I interviewed him for the Accordion Pool Party documentary. When we began the process of organizing the fundraiser for Progression Keith tirelessly found us spaces; he found us dinner hosts; he found us guests; and he introduced us to a ton of people living in the neighborhood.
The money we raised at the event, and the support we got from our neighbors, meant we had the green light to start production.
The actual filming of Progression passed by in a blur. We shot the entire month of August 2012 with over 42 actors and musicians in over fifteen different locations.
Post-production began this past October.
A few weeks ago, we realized we needed an insert for the film, a close-up shot of Hayley’s hand holding an invitation to the progressive dinner.
I called Rachel. “Could you drop off The Coat at our place?”
She rushed to our place after a twelve-hour day on a commercial set, “Here you go!”
Hayley was unavailable, so Nicole stood in for her. I had to stay at home with our daughter, so Sam and Jonathan and Nicole headed out on foot for the Teamster’s Temple parking lot where the original scene was shot. Nicole was wearing the green and orange plaid jacket with the silver fox fur collar.
When they returned they told me that as they were filming a young guy in a Steelers’ cap driving a maroon car stopped to watch the proceedings:
“Yinz still filmin’ that same movie?”
“Yes. We’re almost done.”
“Takes a long time.”
“Ok. Yinz let me know if you need any help.”