by Lucy Leitner
All was revealed yesterday at Carnegie Mellon University’s Rauh Theater. The Steeltown Film Factory’s third annual screenwriting contest that commenced at the beginning of 2012 (yet both the sponsors’ and entrants’ work started long before that) has finally reached fruition. The names on the program are plentiful, illustrating the enormous scope of notable Pittsburgh and Hollywood involvement in the project, with over a hundred people credited as judges, speakers, and advisors. The 180 submissions were whittled down to twelve quarter finalists, to six semi-finalists, to three finalists, and, finally to one winner of the inaugural Ellen Weiss Kander award on Saturday afternoon. And, after months of the scripts being merely words on paper, they came to life this week in table readings by students of the prestigious Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.
This month we were introduced to an entirely new panel of judges who were every bit as entertaining as the quotable panelists from the Producer’s Pitch. Stage and screen actor David Conrad introduced himself with an analogy about Falling Water to emphasize the need for a proper foundation to support creativity. “I’m not comparing you to Frank Lloyd Wright,” he added to Carl Kurlander, Steeltown co-founder/executive producer/apparent roastee. Producer Tom Pellegrini, whose acclaimed documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently in theaters, was the Steeltown Entertainment Project’s first intern. His big break came when, in Los Angeles, Carl’s friend comedian Louie Anderson asked the young intern to fetch him a grilled cheese sandwich, fries, and a “vat of ketchup.” Apparently Anderson was impressed and, “laying on his couch, very Brando-esque,” gave Tom an impromptu interview that led to a job as the comedian’s assistant and a successful career as the producer of Hesher and Rock of Ages.
Steve Cuden currently teaches screenwriting at Point Park after writing nearly 90 teleplays for animated TV shows and co-creating Jekyll & Hyde, The Musical. Though his credentials are impressive and many, Steve said that he spent about twelve years after graduating from college pulling in roughly $5,000 a year before he “made it.” Bob Kusbit began his career as a TV news producer in Pittsburgh, but soon moved into an entertainment role at NBC and later MTV. He credits persistence and a “blind stupidity” that prevented him from seeing closed doors. The “right hand of Oscar the Grouch,” Jim Martin, grew up in Mt. Oliver where he put on shows in his highly supportive parents’ backyard and took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. He says that he just fell into puppeteering by exploring many avenues, and says he “[shakes his] head at young people who are so focused on getting somewhere that they don’t understand that life is about the journey.”
Tony Poremski and Scott Peters do not have that type of tunnel vision. Their script Escape from St. Quentin’s evolved out of an idea for a TV series that they tailored for the opportunity of submitting it to the Film Factory. K-8, a series about the lifelong friends’ misadventures in Catholic school, became a twelve-page short script about one boy’s elaborate escape from church. The reading table on the stage was full, with some students even voicing multiple parts to cover the rather large cast of the ambitious, highly visual comedy. Even though much of the humor of the script is physical, narrated directions about “a kneeler tsunami” drew laughs from the crowd, along with lines of dialogue, including, “This place has security that rivals school cafeterias” and “bullet-proof glass doors that safeguard the parishioners from crying infants.” However, as Steve pointed out after the reading, Tony and Scott did not take advantage of all of the many obstacles they presented.
CMU senior Yulin Kuang’s Perils of Growing Up Flat Chested featured a much smaller cast that portrayed the 32AA teenager Katia, her best friend, her crush/lab partner, and her Polish accented mother. Also a comedy, the script is exactly what it sounds like—a funny snippet in the life of a flat chested teenager and her quest to overcome self-consciousness and snag her “nerdy cool” lab partner with whom she is engaged in a project entitled “The Pierogi Experiment.” Though Tom praised Yulin’s relatable voice, he though that some of the jokes fell flat, and David suggested raising the stakes and “tweaking the comedy.”
The judges were more vocal when responding to Chris Preksta’s ambitious Echo Torch that, because of its ghostly subject matter and complete lack of dialogue, necessitated narration to accompany a mimed performance in total darkness, “a form which it was never intended to be seen and will never be seen again.” One student mimed the actions of protagonist Harrison while another narrated and another portrayed all the spirits of the script from the threatening to the beautiful. David objected to some of the evil spirits being evil with no motivation other than being plot devices while Jim was disappointed that he didn’t get to see the relationships that Chris crafted with such success in his Syfy web series Mercury Men and YouTube sensation Pittsburgh Dad.
After a 20-minute deliberation, the panel returned and Maxine Lapiduss was introduced to present the award named in honor of her best friend of about forty years, Ellen Weiss Kander. Maxine—a comedienne, producer, Pittsburgh native, and Steeltown co-founder—gave an alternately funny and emotional presentation that offered another perspective on the founding of the Entertainment Project. Of its 2003 inception, she said, “We needed someone to run this, someone with class, and beauty, and style. But I lived in Los Angeles. And all we had here was Carl.” She explained her decades-spanning friendship with Ellen and choked up when discussing the award’s namesake’s current cancer battle while sure to add jokes about many subjects, including her current work for TV Land and, of course, Carl.
The $30,000 Ellen Weiss Kander Award wound up split between the three finalists, with Escape from St. Quentin’s winning $5,000 for third place, Echo Torch $10,000 for second, while Perils of Growing up Flat Chested claimed the remaining $15,000 and the title of champion.
There were several things we learned today; that careers can be launched by a grilled cheese sandwich, that Carl cannot remember the difference between a Bar and Bat Mitzvah, that even educated and cultured Pittsburghers will burst into massive applause when a CMU drama student announces that he hails from The ‘Burgh (or even Erie). But, we still have work to do.
“We need to work really hard to stop putting ourselves and Pittsburgh down,” Martin said. Pittsburgh is no longer the place of ridiculous accents and french fries in inappropriate places. The Steel City was the main star of yesterday’s event, with the judges’ and guests’ push to continue to develop the city as Hollywood East. From the repetition of Ellen Weiss Kander’s poignant 2003 observation that “entertainment is the new steel” to the fact that attendees were content to remain on their feet to watch the new generation of local talent compete in the packed house, the continuation of the city’s transformation into an entertainment capital was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The prize money could almost be seen as a bribe to the three winners to entice them to keep their talents in Pittsburgh. That is the true mission of Steeltown that Carl reiterated yesterday, encouraging the winners to give back by helping other locals cultivate their skills, to pass onto the next generation a city that has opportunities for creative people to actually make a living, so people like Carl’s daughter—whether she was Bar or Bat Mitzvahed—will not have to flee to California.