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Making Movies in the Hinterland: Be Calm, Speak Low

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It's eight o'clock on a Sunday morning and I am on my way to an apartment in Monroeville, Pennsylvania where we are going to shoot a scene for a film as yet to be named. It is not either the film that Russell Crowe is currently filming in the area or the film that stars Jake Gyllenhaal. There won't be crowds of techies and 'gofers.' There won't be any craft services. There won't be a big check and a contract for residuals. What there will be is a director who has put together a couple of bucks from his savings, borrowed some from friends and relatives, and perhaps maxed out on a credit card or two. There will be a friend of his to set up lights and maybe somebody from a local film school to hold the boom. There will be a young actress working in her first movie and there will be me.

I am supposed to be playing a therapist. The director has emailed the script for the scene, and I have gone over the dialogue. I have not seen entire script. I have no idea how the scene fits into the rest of the movie. I'm not even certain what kind of therapist I'm supposed to be. The young actress is the patient. She seems to be hearing voices because of something that happened in her past, but presumably the audience will understand what the problem is, because the scene itself never says.

The director and I have talked over the phone, but I really have no idea of what he is looking for in the character I am going to play. All he has told me is that he wants the character to be very calm and speak low. The dialogue itself seemed somewhat stilted, a bit unnatural. I'm not at all sure I would be able to speak it with any conviction, but when I mentioned my concerns, the director seemed willing to make changes as long as we kept to the sense of the original, remained calm and spoke low. So, I agreed to do the scene. Let's face it, western Pennsylvania, despite the presence of Crowe and Gyllenhaal, isn't exactly awash with opportunities for aged aspiring actors.

Besides, when he told me the reason he had contacted me for the role, I was much too flattered to even think about turning him down. It seems he had seen my work in another film, not a particularly easy thing to do — most of the films I have graced with my presence have surfaced once or twice only to be buried somewhere in the oblivion of the filmmaker's closet. There are even a couple of them that I have never seen. The film he saw was Notes in the Valley, a short film that was made last year as part of a cinematic anthology commemorating the 250th anniversary of the city of Pittsburgh. Each film in the collection was set on a particular Pittsburgh neighborhood, the South Side, Lawrenceville, the Strip District. Notes in the Valley was set in Homestead (best known for the Homestead Steel Strike), much of it filmed at the Carnegie Library.

When a young librarian comes across a mysterious old letter from the 1940s in the library's mail delivery, she becomes obsessed with discovering the story behind it and perhaps getting it delivered properly after all these years. Her search leads her to an old WWII veteran, who might be likely to have information about the writer and the woman to whom the letter is addressed. But when she questions him about them, he seems unwilling to go into it. Gradually, as the romantic story behind the letter becomes more and more clear, it begins to provide a counterpoint to the librarian's own romantic relationship.

The film stars Rachel Shaw as Lily, the librarian. Chad Smith plays her love interest. Winston, the WWII veteran is played by yours truly, and this is the performance that won me my current trip to Monroeville. By the way, the film, directed by Matthew Fridg, is currently available on the Internet at Notes In The Valley from Matthew J. Fridg. It had been shown once locally in Pittsburgh at theatres in each of the neighborhoods, and there was talk of possible film festivals, but that was about the extent of the film's exposure. Until, that it is, Matthew Fridg made it available for download.

Where this director saw the film, I don’t know. But when someone tells you how good he thinks you were, maybe you, dear reader, can tell him to take his movie and … but not yours truly. Ego-greasing flattery will get a director almost anything, and for sure, it will get him me. So as I say, I am on my way to Monroeville, Pennsylvania (perhaps most famous for providing the mall in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead), stilted dialogue be damned. An update on the actual shoot will follow.

Update: I arrived in Monroeville at nine and waited. We started filming the scene, which ran about a page and a half and will surely take up no more than three minutes of screen time, at a quarter to eleven and finished at five thirty. It turns out that in the scene, the therapist is treating the heroine for feelings of guilt over an abortion she had when younger. The dialogue is still stilted and somewhat melodramatic. The director, it turns out, is not quite as open to changes as he seemed over the phone. However, the therapist and I are calm and we speak low.

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About Jack Goodstein