Amazing Grace | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Amazing Grace

CMU Grads Create a Half-Student, Half-Indie Film



If you had seen the shoot at Gooski's, in Polish Hill, on a cold, windswept March night, you might have wondered what the hell was going on: A crew of 30 or so, bundled against the sub-freezing temperatures, groping cameras, light clips and sound booms, calling "action" to a handful of actors shivering on the sidewalk.



As a basically professional team, the crew had all the equipment they needed, including a fancy Hollywood cut-board for identifying each shot. This also being a student production, each take was interrupted by the actors laughing or forgetting their lines; unused extras going inside Gooski's to grab beers; or passing cars cruising up the hill, ruining their sound continuity.


Depending on whom you talk to, the filming of Grace was either a "really great experience" or a "total cluster-fuck," but for the most part, it's been both. What began as a modest idea has blown up into a full-length feature film, with an all-star local cast and a world premiere on May 12.

"I have no life," said co-producer Lee Hollin, the night of the Gooski's shoot. "This has become my life." Hollin, a 26-year-old Carnegie Mellon graduate student, was among the film's earliest engineers ... and is a major reason for its accidental success. Grace began as an assignment for a grad-level production class (cutely titled "So You Want to Make a Movie?"), as part of an arts-management major. Hollin, along with fellow students Ben Elliot, Bob Moczdlowsky and videographer Thomas Oliver, were asked to create a story, draw up a budget, cast actors and complete a short film. As their excitement grew, so did their idea: They asked three MFA students, majoring in dramatic writing, to draft a screenplay. Once Allison Kolb, Matthew Kopel and Ben Pelham were finished with the story, the four producers decided to pursue financing, and  ... why not? ... form a legally recognized production company, called H.O.M.E., an acronym for their last names.


"It just sort of exploded," explains Hollin. "It got real big, real fast." Big enough to obtain grants from various CMU department heads, including university President Jared Cohon, burgeoning their total budget to just under $20,000. It was also big enough to warrant the attention of Andrew S. Paul, artistic director and co-founder of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, who agreed to direct the then-untitled film.


Grace, as the film came to be known, depicts the titular young newspaper reporter who gets stuck covering the police blotter, but longs for her big break. When given the chance to write about a reformed criminal, Grace stumbles into a murder mystery, and the film becomes a tense dramatic thriller, until its violent finale and bittersweet ending.


What's unique about Grace isn't the plot, or the themes, or really anything to do with the movie: Rather, it's the production value, a perfect median between first attempt and first hit. "All-star cast" doesn't mean Charlize Theron, but it does include favorite local stage actors like Karen Baum (Unseam'd Shakespeare) as Grace, Martin Giles (PICT and City Theatre), Patrick Jordan (barebones productions) and E. Bruce Hill (Pitt Rep, PICT). And Andrew S. Paul's name recognition has given Grace a certain credibility ... even if Paul admits that he's never directed even a short movie.


While other student films can be talky, sparsely cast and confined to interiors, Grace involves dozens of locations and approximately 60 actors, all of whom had to sign professional contracts and were, to a certain degree, insured on-set. Yet, unlike a professional indie movie, virtually everyone involved is under the age of 30, and almost all of the production staff and crew have been juggling shooting and editing with their end-of-semester quizzes and finals; for many of them, the film's first public screening falls just before graduation.


After two months of shooting and re-shooting and a month-and-a-half of post-production, the cast and crew remain modest about the film's prospects, admitting that it might be hard to market. "I don't know where it's gonna go," says Thomas Oliver, Grace's director of photography and the "O" in H.O.M.E Productions. "Maybe it'll get to film festivals. I don't know. I'm just happy to be a part of it."


The production even has a marketable good-guy cause: Proceedings from the first screening will benefit the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, and thanks to the VITAC captioning company, the DVD will be open-captioned for hearing-impaired viewers.


Most of the students will separate within the year. Oliver is aiming for Seattle, Hollin for New York and then Los Angeles, but for now they seem satisfied with the unexpectedly grand collaboration.


"It's been the most difficult thing I've done this year, and the most rewarding," Hollin notes, adding that his 3.91 QPA probably took a hit this semester. As for producing another film, Hollin has the ambiguous reserve of a veteran: "When the right project comes around."

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