Notes in the Valley
Editor’s Note: As Pittsburgh celebrates its big 250, Andrew Halasz and Kristen Lauth Shaeffer have found their own way to commemorate the city – through a series of short films collectively titled Pittsburgh Neighborhood Narratives. To make their project even more interesting, Halasz and Shaeffer invited local filmmakers to submit story treatments highlighting one of the many diverse neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. This article is the seventh in a series profiling each of the filmmakers selected for participation. Be sure to check back in two weeks for the next profile.
Walking down Eighth Avenue in Homestead is like being on the set of a movie. One could almost picture the town as it was in its prime – a bustling shopping district nestled in the steel valley, families weaving in and out of its pretty storefronts …
And while some of those storefronts don’t look as pretty as they once did, having since lost their allure to cracked glass and empty shelves, the Homestead scene has acquired a new and mysterious charm of its own. Heading into the Waterfront from Eighth Avenue is reminiscent of the scene in Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens her door to Technicolor, blinding herself with vibrant shades of ginormous plastic flowers. The contrast between the old Homestead and the new is as blatant as those flowers, with history outlined in every petal.
To Matthew Fridg, 27, and Jenn Golling, 30, Homestead was a movie waiting to be made, which is why they selected the neighborhood for their short film contribution to Pittsburgh Neighborhood Narratives.
“When you drive through Homestead, you only get this little sliver. You don’t really know what’s there,” said Matthew, who also lives in Homestead. “It has a lot of personality, mystery and enchantment, especially the library.”
In fact, their story begins in Homestead’s Carnegie Library where a young female employee finds a mysterious, unopened envelope dating back to the 1940s. After digging through the library’s archives, she is able to track down more information about the addressee – a fascinating woman whose life eerily mirrors her own. The young girl’s findings lead her to a World War II veteran who was a friend of her 1940s counterpart, and through his stories, she is quickly caught up in a search for answers. All the while battling the temptation to open the letter.
“In trying to solve the mystery of the letter, the lead character answers some questions in her own life,” explained Matthew.
The filming took Matthew and Jenn through some of the hidden gems of Homestead and Munhall, such as the library and the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Museum. At least one of the scenes takes place in a mansion formerly owned by Andrew Carnegie. According to Matthew, the current owners of the mansion had reverted the furnishings back to the way they were originally, which was a perfect fit for the film.
There were also some architectural shots of the main strip in Homestead, which served as transitional pieces.
On the first day of filming, the crew was shooting about two blocks away from the Waterfront when a train derailed.
“The helicopters and sirens threatened to shut us down,” recalled Matthew, who directed the film and produced it in conjunction with PMI (Production Masters Inc.). “We couldn’t hear anything. Luckily, we were able to get our footage and get out of there.”
But that wasn’t the only challenge the pair faced. According to Jenn, who co-wrote the script with Matthew, a huge underlying scene was re-written the night before filming.
“You make one change to the script and it ricochets throughout the whole thing,” said Jenn, laughing good naturedly. “I stayed up until three or four in morning making changes, but we ended up really liking the rewrite. The actors had the final script in their hands eight hours before filming. They were champs.”
As someone who wrote many plays in college, several of which won awards, Jenn has a deep appreciation for talented actors.
“I can’t act. I’m one of those people who sounds like they’re reading lines. That’s why I stick to writing,” she explained. “I always tell the actors, ‘Once I hand the script to you, you know the characters better than I do.’”
Jenn works with Matthew’s wife, which is how the two came to collaborate on the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Narratives project. Matthew graduated from IUP with a bachelors of science degree in communications media. He always had a passion for filmmaking and moved to Pittsburgh to work on the Hollywood features that were shot here in the last few years. Currently, he serves as a director for award-winning production company PMI, located in downtown Pittsburgh.
While “Notes in the Valley” is not Matthew’s first short film (his previous short film, “No More Sunday,” has screened at several film festivals around the country), it was Jenn’s first movie script. Both were very happy with the way things turned out.
“It really got my creative juices going again,” confessed Jenn. “I’m excited to do more writing.”