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'West Wing' filming in district creates a buzz

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In the back yard of their home along a stretch of Route 208 between Volant and New Wilmington, Lawrence County, Susan Gerle and her 14-year-old son Matthew watch over their fence as Hollywood makes a rare visit.

With an Amish farm between their yard and the closed road where the first day of filming is taking place, the Gerles can see only specks sitting in the bed of a pickup that's pulled by a camera truck. But they know those specks are cast members from NBC's "The West Wing."

A camera hangs over the truck's cab at the end of a metal arm. Gerle pulls out her camera and takes a picture.

"I was in my back yard and saw this strange-looking truck and I thought, surely this can't be it, and it is!" she said. "Things like this don't happen in New Wilmington. This is fantastic!

"I wonder what the Amish think about this. I really do."

Twentysomething sisters Stacey Armagost of Du Bois, Clearfield County, and Crystal Armagost of Pittsburgh set out from Du Bois at 7:30 a.m. yesterday. Standing near a one-room Amish school house at the intersection of state Route 208 and Old Mercer Road where scenes were being shot, they peered into the distance, hoping the actors would be driven past them after filming was done.

"It's like the world's first good political show," Crystal said, "and the actors are so good."

Co-executive producer Christopher Misiano directs this "West Wing" episode.

"We're going to be moving buses and a lot of stuff around," he said two weeks ago as he prepped for the shoot. "It's really ambitious."

In the episode, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) attends a campaign rally on an Indiana soybean farm, with portions of Western Pennsylvania substituting for the Hoosier State. Press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) is on hand for the rally, too.

Communications director Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and his assistant Donna Moss (Janel Moloney) get left behind on the farm and spend much of the episode trying to catch up with the president's motorcade.

"They're out in the field talking some farm business with a local and they just miss it," Misiano hints. "We don't want to tip our hand too much. We go crazy when the NBC promo guys do that: 'Come, see why the butler did it!' "

Suffice it to say, imagine this episode as "The West Wing" version of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."

Later in the day, production moved to an old municipal building that was painted to look like a gas station along a country road.

"Play Hoosier Lottery Here," read one sign on the small building, which promised repairs ("Flats fixed," "Lube," "Tune up") and groceries provided by the proprietor, A. Critlaw.

In addition to the scenes on dusty roads and down at the farm, "West Wing" will also shoot in a motel lobby, at a diner and next Monday, cast and crew will be at the Bridgeville Public Library filming railroad station scenes (the library will be closed that day).

The farm rally, to be shot Friday and Saturday, will employ hundreds of extras. That's complicated enough, but being this far from the show's home base adds additional complexity to the production.

"We're used to it a little bit by virtue of going to Washington, but we have an infrastructure there and you become a little more familiar with it," Misiano said. "[Producer] Neal Ahern set up camp in Pittsburgh and the people he found to work in the production office were astoundingly good. These people were doing things before you thought of them."

Misiano has previously directed episodes of "Law & Order," "ER," "Third Watch," "Now and Again" and "Brooklyn South." He said each series has its particular challenges.

"If you direct 'ER,' there's the prop work, the blood and gore and medicine that's really important to that show. This show is an incredibly verbal show. The words are so important and so great that you don't want to distract from them and at the same time, you want to visually enhance them.

"Sometimes the challenge is to take what seems like a cerebral experience and make it a visual experience and give it some kind of kinetic energy," Misiano said. "As a director, you want to add to the storylines in a somewhat subtle way to enhance what [series creator] Aaron Sorkin has already given you, which is an interesting, beautiful script. Sometimes if the director doesn't bring something else to it visually, it could wither."

With plans to shoot about a third of the two-hour season premiere (airing Sept. 25) in Pennsylvania, Misiano has already directed the remaining scenes on the show's soundstages in Burbank, Calif.

"That's all done. We're already editing that material," Misiano said. "We'll come to Pittsburgh, shoot that material, edit that material and then go back to Washington to shoot a couple scenes a week before the show airs."

At this point in production, episode four is being filmed on the Warner Bros. lot. That requires creative scheduling to accommodate the days cast members will be in the Pittsburgh area filming.

"We've tried to put the trip over a weekend to be able to have some characters here only a day," Misiano said. "Hopefully [when you're watching episode four] you won't really feel like people have departed [to film these scenes in episode one]."

Misiano said Rob Lowe's decision to leave the series later this season had no bearing on his absence from this location shoot.

"Rob is an integral part of this script," he said. "He's actually the main focus back in the White House. The script was written way before any of that happened."

Along Route 208, Sonia Taylor of Hermitage waited to see the actors as they were shuttled away from the location. A native of Newfoundland, Canada, she said watching "The West Wing" has been an education. Her husband grew up in America, and when they see a real White House official on a newscast, he helps explain the person's role.

"He'll say, 'Oh, that's C.J.' or 'That's Sam,' " she said. "It's really helped me to understand American government."

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to http://www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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