There are many instances where Pittsburgh has been transformed into a different world for the sake of cinema. The city has worn the masks of New York, Detroit, and even the fictional Gotham in the case of The Dark Knight Rises.
As Pittsburghers watching those films, we get a particular jolt when we recognize a bridge we regularly cross or a street corner we often walk past. But there is something so special when a film shot in Pittsburgh truly represents the city.
Stephen Chbosky, a writer, director, and Pittsburgh native best known for his book The Perks of Being a Wallflower and subsequent film adaptation, can fully attest to that. Chbosky has said in interviews that it was essential to set his coming-of-age story in Pittsburgh to highlight some of his favorite spots. This includes an iconic scene of the main character Charlie and his friends driving through the unmistakable Fort Pitt Tunnel as it exits onto a lit-up Downtown Pittsburgh.
Chbosky saw something in an indie film written and directed by another Pittsburgh native, Brian Silverman, so he signed on as executive producer for Two Lives in Pittsburgh.
Two Lives in Pittsburgh follows Bernie Evers, a traditional blue-collar guy who learns that his child, Maddie (Emma Basques), is exploring their gender identity. In the film, Bernie gets a few things wrong along the way, but above all else, his chosen path is love, and he works extra hard to be the parent Maddie needs him to be. A statement about the film describes it as a “catalyst for thoughtful, compassionate, and unifying dialogue” as it focuses on “imperfect people in an imperfect world.”
Chbosky — who recently wrapped production on the Vince Vaughn comedy Nonnas — calls Two Lives in Pittsburgh “a piece of good for the world right now.”
The film has screened at various festivals this year, winning awards at the OUTSOUTH Queer Film Festival in North Carolina and the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival in New York, among others.
Silverman, who is also a teacher, says the story came to him as he witnessed many of his students explore their gender identity, particularly in the last decade. It became apparent that this would be new territory for parents who also need to understand what that journey means.
"Each case is different, each family is different, and some are very willing to explore, some are more resistant," Silverman, a Mt. Lebanon native, tells Pittsburgh City Paper.
As Bernie struggles to understand how his son, Matty, is now his daughter, Maddie, he confuses being transgender with being gay. Even with his misconceptions, he enforces a safe space for Maddie.
“When we confront something in ourselves that is a little bit closed, but starting to open, I think there's that mix of pain and love,” Silverman says.
The filmmakers made it a priority to put money back into Pittsburgh's film industry. Every frame was shot during a 20-day shoot in and around Pittsburgh. A large portion of the budget was used to secure local crew members and locations, as well as hire local suppliers, caterers, and other small-business vendors. The soundtrack features Pittsburgh musicians such as Evan Mulgrave, Shamar, and Bjordan.
The result could be described as the most Pittsburgh film ever. Black and gold are prominently displayed in every character's home, with a special highlight on a "Terrible Tank." Created by Silverman, the "Terrible Tank" is what you would imagine a Terrible Towel would look like as an oxygen tank, which is toted around by Bernie's ill mom, Carla (Annie O'Donnell). Sarris candy bars were even awarded to cast members who broke out the best Pittsburgh accents (many of the actors were local, so they didn’t have to dig too deep to achieve such a feat.)
This film’s theme hit close to home with some of the cast and crew. Make-up artist Krista Montgomery hit it off immediately with Emma Basques, the teen actor cast to plays Maddie Evers. As a nonbinary person, Montgomery felt a kinship with Basques, who is transgendered and advocates for LBGTQ rights. Montgomery was moved by the way Basques carried herself with such confidence at just 13 years old.
"I found myself feeling not only proud but protective of her; she reminded me of a younger me in many ways," Montgomery tells City Paper.
Silverman hopes that people will “see themselves maybe a little bit more clearly the way that I hopefully see myself a little bit more clearly after writing this.”
“I think there's something important about being a little bit uncomfortable so that we can grow,” says Silverman.
Two Lives in Pittsburgh. twolivesinpittsburgh.com