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March 8, 2001

Lights-camera-action: “Mothman” invades Pitt campus

A tall, handsome man in a long, black coat sits alone on a cold, stone bench.

He appears to be lost in thought until something — a sudden chill? a paranormal presence? — startles him. He turns his head but finds he is quite alone.

Alone, that is, except for a few figures he can see in the distance: a strolling couple, a guy playing catch with a dog….

And then there are the 80-plus coffee-swilling, parka-clad, cell phone-fixated people working behind the man, out of range of the crane-mounted movie camera swooping around him. They have assembled on the Cathedral of Learning's south lawn to film the man in the black coat, actor Richard Gere, in a scene for "The Mothman Prophecies." The movie, based on the book by John A. Keel, has been filming in southwestern Pennsylvania since late January.

Gere plays a Washington Post reporter investigating eerie doings in Point Pleasant, W. Va. Although it is set in the present, the movie was inspired by a series of real-life events during the mid-1960s, when Point Pleasant was said to be haunted by a man-like creature, dubbed the Mothman, with wings and burning red eyes. Gere has been quoted as calling the film "a metaphysical thriller."

For the scene filmed Feb. 23 on the lawn between the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel, the camera represents the elusive Mothman's point of view. "It starts as a wide shot with the camera high above Richard Gere's head," explained the film's location manager, Brett Botula. "Then the camera comes all the way down to a close-up. Just as it creeps up over Richard's shoulder, he turns suddenly, as if he has the sensation he's being watched. Then the scene cuts to a wide shot, again from above, and we see that he's sitting there all alone."

Actually, Gere isn't the only actor in the scene. The strolling couple, the ball-tossing guy and his dog — they're extras. Even the Cathedral lawn is pretending to be something else: It's standing in for Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Park. As for the snow on the lawn, most of it is real but the rest is foam sprayed on the ground between takes, partly to cover up crew members' footprints.

Before deciding to film "Mothman" here, the film's production team scouted various U.S. and Canadian locations. According to director Mark Pellington (who has friends in Pittsburgh and who shot a series of Iron City Beer commercials here in 1992), southwestern Pennsylvania wasn't the cheapest place to film but it offered a wide range of locations suggestive of all of the movie's ostensible settings: Washington, D.C., Chicago and small-town West Virginia.

Oakland, with stately buildings such as Mellon Institute and the Masonic Temple, was a plausible stand-in for Washington, D.C., said Botula, a New York City resident who grew up in Mt. Lebanon and is staying with his parents there during the "Mothman" shooting.

Change a few street signs, choose the right camera angles, add computer effects during post-production, and Oakland's Fifth Avenue is transformed into D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue.

"One of the advantages of the Cathedral of Learning site was that, as you look across the lawn towards Forbes Avenue, it's a clean horizon line," Botula noted. "Through computer-generated effects, you could insert a Washington, D.C., background."

In the finished movie, a D.C. landmark such as the Washington Monument may be looming beyond the Cathedral lawn, he said.

Following the Cathedral filming, the "Mothman" crew trooped across Bellefield Avenue (lined bumper-to-bumper with equipment trailers, food trucks and other "Mothman"-related vehicles) to Mellon Institute. For movie purposes, the institute's library served as a library in Chicago.

Other "Mothman" scenes are being filmed Downtown, in Sewickley, Penn Hills and Kittanning. Pellington shot footage of Kittanning Bridge for a climactic scene based on the actual (some locals say, mysterious) collapse in 1967 of the Silver Bridge linking Point Pleasant and Kanauga, Ohio. In the movie, when the bridge falls the car driven by Gere's character plunges into the river.

To simulate the bridge collapse, filmmakers will use computer effects as well as model cars and bridge parts. They also plan to shoot an underwater sequence involving a full-sized car. Until this week, the "Mothman" crew had been considering returning to Pitt in mid-April to shoot this sequence in the smaller of the two swimming pools at Trees Hall.

But filmmakers now are "99 percent sure" they've secured a deeper, outdoor, public pool for the shoot, according to production supervisor Anja Stadelmann. Until it's a done deal, filmmakers aren't identifying this pool.

The makers of "Mothman" originally wanted to shoot the sequence in Trees Hall's larger, 16-foot-deep pool. "But with all of the swimming and diving events scheduled there, we couldn't make it available to them," said Phil Hieber, senior area coordinator for Pitt's Facilities Management office.

"Mothman" technicians doubted whether they could fit their engineless stunt car, underwater camera and film crew members in the smaller Trees Hall pool. But they were willing to try, to avoid the expense and hassles of moving the production to Los Angeles to shoot the underwater scene there.

Shooting inside Trees Hall would have required five days of removing windows, immersing the car, rehearsing, filming and cleaning up, Hieber said. "For an outdoor scene like the one on the Cathedral lawn, it isn't nearly as complicated."

Even so, the lawn scene — which will occupy one minute or less of screen time — required a full day of setting up, several hours of rehearsing and filming, and weeks of preparatory phone conversations and meetings. Coordinating the pre-filming activity was Patricia Lomando White, a senior communications representative in Pitt's News and Information office.

"Do me a favor," pleaded location manager Botula. "When you write your article, make Trish White look good because she put a hell of a lot of effort into bringing this off."

White is Pitt's point person for on-campus filming. Pittsburgh-based location scouts, Pittsburgh Film Office staff and University telephone operators all have learned to refer filmmakers to her.

During the early 1990s, scenes for the feature films "Roommates" (featuring Peter Falk and Danny DeVito) and "Lorenzo's Oil" (with Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte) were shot in 324 Cathedral and in Heinz Chapel, respectively. Before cameras rolled, White put the filmmakers in touch with Pitt attorneys, risk managers and Facilities Management staff to work out logistics and insure the University against financial loss and property damage.

"Often, location scouts have heard by word of mouth about a room or building we have at Pitt," said White. "I'll do the phone calling and arrange for them to come to campus, to take photos to show their creative people, and then get permission to shoot here."

Some filming needs are easy to meet. Recently, producers of TV's "The West Wing" requested a Pitt coffee mug. "Apparently, they try to get mugs from different colleges and universities for use as props," White said. News and Information sent a couple of mugs along with the University's blessing to feature them on screen. "We sent them a Pitt sweatshirt, too, on the off-chance Martin Sheen would wear it" in a future episode, said White.

When "Wonder Boys," starring Michael Douglas, was being shot at Carnegie Mellon University, Pitt granted filmmakers' request to install additional lights outside the Cathedral of Learning so the building would glow more brightly in the background during a night scene. White said Pitt required the filmmakers to pay for installing and removing the lights, and to certify they were insured for possible damage to University property.

Pitt buildings also appeared in the background during some street scenes featuring Douglas. These were filmed late at night. "The filmmakers asked us to turn on as many lights as possible in our buildings," White remembered. "Unfortunately, the request came during our spring break. It's not like we have a master switch for the University, and hardly anyone was on campus that week. We did what we could."

Pitt attorneys have developed a standard contract, called a location agreement, that producers of movies, videos and commercials must sign prior to shooting on campus. "It's a fairly straightforward document," said Pitt Associate General Counsel Paul A. Supowitz. "It's only five pages long." ("Double-spaced," he added, with a laugh.) "Basically, we require filmmakers to be insured, to indemnify us and compensate us for any damage to University facilities," Supowitz said. "The contract stipulates exactly what they're going to do when they come on campus and where they're going to shoot. If they need to do anything differently, they have to get our permission first."

Hieber of Facilities Management (who estimates he spent the equivalent of one working day on logistics for the "Mothman" shooting) said: "For the most part, these [movie] people are very professional. You just have to give them the ground rules upfront.

"If they need electricians or other technical people from the University, Trish White will generate a work request and we'll bill the filmmakers later. They're very good about paying their bills. Money never seems to be an object. If any damage is done to University property, we compile a list of damages and send it to their accounting people."

For example, when the makers of "Lorenzo's Oil" filmed a funeral scene in Heinz Chapel, they accidently scratched some marble and dripped wax on pews. "It was no big deal," Hieber recalled, "and they compensated us promptly."

Facilities Management's priority during the "Mothman" shooting was protecting the Cathedral lawn, its sprinkler system and stone walkways. The film crew wanted to bring four-wheel-drive vehicles and a 35,000-lb. camera crane onto the lawn. "Before the shooting, we used a worst-case scenario," said Hieber. "What if it's 60 degrees outside, it's raining and the ground is muddy?" At Facilities Management's insistence, filmmakers prepared to lay plywood wherever the crane and 4 X 4's were scheduled to go.

"For us, that meant a lot of manpower and expense," said location manager Botula. "I kept saying to Phil [Hieber], 'Hey, I see your guys driving down those stone sidewalks. Why can't we? Do you expect us to lay plywood over all of Oakland?' But we ended up saying, 'OK, fine, we'll buy plywood.' "Then, on the morning of the shooting, it was freezing cold and the ground was rock-solid, so Phil allowed us to move our equipment around without laying down plywood."

Prior to the filming, "Mothman" technicians sent Hieber a document certifying that the type of imitation-snow foam they wanted to spray on the Cathedral lawn was environmentally harmless.

"Everything worked out fine," Hieber said, "and they didn't do any damage to our lawn."

For the filmmakers, too, the shoot was virtually headache-free. Crew members politely herded about two dozen rubber-neckers out of camera range. A few girls screamed "Richard! Richard!" from a Cathedral window but didn't seem to bother Gere or anyone else on the set.

The scene, which has no dialogue, was shot without sound. Outdoor noises, music and sound effects can be added during post-production.

"Bystanders are rarely a problem," Botula said. "For me, it's part of the deal. If you're making a movie and people can't stop and watch for a few minutes on their way to work, what are we doing? As long as they don't take flash photos or yell at the wrong time, who cares?"

There was a murmur of admiration, but no photos or yelling, from female onlookers as the 51-year-old Gere emerged from a production tent (equipped with video monitors and a space heater) at around 8 a.m. on the day of filming.

Half an hour later, one shivering Pitt staff member told her friend: "I'm just waiting for one more look at him, to get me through the day."

Hollywood glamour tended to be dispelled, however, as off-camera personnel posed and prodded Gere, daubed makeup on his face, and told him where to sit and when to turn his head.

"His hair looks wet," complained director Pellington, watching Gere's image on a monitor.

That's because he has gel in his hair, Gere's stylist said.

"Go mess it up," Pellington ordered, and the hair stylist tousled the actor's hair.

Botula observed: "People watch too much 'Entertainment Tonight.' They don't understand that a film location is really just a kind of construction site where everyone has a job to do."

Yet, Gere was clearly the star of this construction site. No one approached the actor unbeckoned. Reporters and others were kept at a distance during breaks in shooting.

Not that Gere himself seemed snooty. "He was very cordial," said Hieber, one of the few Pitt staffers who met the actor. "I introduced myself and he said, 'Pleased to meet you.' That was about the extent of our conversation."

An obvious question: Aside from occasional encounters with movie stars and a mention at the end of the credits, what's in it for Pitt when films are made here?

Not much unless the University figures prominently, and positively, in the movie, said White. While Pitt insists that filmmakers pay for University services and compensate for damages, Pitt doesn't profit financially.

"There's just a general feeling that it contributes to the local economy" when movies are shot here, she said. "Pitt's role as a good neighbor is to help to facilitate that, as long as we don't inconvenience our students, faculty and staff."

Botula seemed to be prepared for another obvious question: Didn't you guys spend an awful lot of time, work and money on a scene that will last a minute or less on screen?

"People always say, 'Oh, wow, it takes you so long to shoot so little,'" Botula replied. "But to me, it's like saying to a poet: 'Geez, you spent a lot of time writing that poem.' "One word in a poem, chosen correctly, can carry as much power as five pages of prose. Film, likewise, is a highly condensed way of communicating. Images speak louder than words, and a brief scene like the one on the Cathedral lawn can say a lot."

Unless, of course, it ends up on the cutting room floor. But Botula predicts that the Pitt scene will survive the editor's knife. "If I were a betting man, I'd say it will be in the film."

Botula said director Mark Pellington doesn't tell stories through talky exposition, preferring visual images that create a mood — in "Mothman's" case, a sense of isolation coupled with paranoia that evil forces are hovering unseen around us.

Without words, the Cathedral lawn scene will underscore that mood, Botula said.

— Bruce Steele

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