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Tuned In: Donora's cicadas play guest stars in 'The Guardian'

Thursday, August 21, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

DONORA -- When a movie or TV show goes on location, the unexpected is expected. For "The Guardian" cast and crew filming in this Monongahela River town yesterday, they discovered a contribution from an unlikely source: cicadas.

Gina Torres waits on the set for her scene in "The Guardian." (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Their buzzing and chirping may add realistic background noise, but with multiple takes from assorted camera angles, the cicada chorus would lack continuity after the various shots are edited together. So the crew turned the boom mikes over to the cicadas for 10 seconds to record a consistent sound to insert under scenes.

Cicada problem solved, filming continued on a scene for the second episode of "The Guardian's" third season, which premieres Sept. 23 on CBS.

In this episode, most of which was already filmed on the show's sound stages in Culver City, Calif., Nick Fallin (Simon Baker) and new Fallin & Fallin criminal defense lawyer Sadie Harper (Gina Torres, "Firefly," "Angel") try to get the 23 people who live in the fictional Vernon -- not to be confused with the real Belle Vernon -- to accept a check and sign waivers related to a coal mine fire that may be burning beneath the town.

The crew filmed a scene early in the day of Baker on 10th Street with a bridge over the Monongahela River in the background.

"We wanted something where Nick Fallin was more out of his element," said co-executive producer Vahan Moosekian. "We specifically looked for a more rural area that made economic sense, not just a house in the country. You see that bridge and it's clearly Pennsylvania. The worst thing you can hear is, 'You could have shot that in L.A.' That's where the studio wants to beat us up. This is a depressed area that fits the story, had a great view and it's all very picturesque."

At the top of 10th Street, the crew set up in front of a house with cream-colored siding. For the episode it will be the home of Ezra Pence (guest star M. Emmet Walsh), a racist man who wants more out of Fallin than the $30,000 offered.

Pence rails against Sadie Harper, who is black, even using the N-word. Will CBS's standards and practices department allow that on the air? Series creator and Pittsburgh native David Hollander, who's directing the scene, says, "We'll see."

For Torres, who joins the show for at least three episodes this fall, the word makes sense in the context of the scene.

"As long as it is authentic, and in this case it absolutely is, it's absolutely a word that could come out of that man's mouth," Torres said. "It's not overused. It doesn't show up 75 times in 60 minutes. I believe given his state of mind, if he didn't use it, it would be a lie."

Hollander said the addition of the Harper character is an effort to see if any "new, interesting relationships take root with Simon's character. We'll see if it's worth doing that or not."

The story of Burton Fallin (Dabney Coleman) and Shannon Gressler -- granddaughter of Burton's deceased love interest -- continues, with Julie Hagerty ("Airplane!") appearing as Shannon's nanny.

Hollander said the Nick-Lulu relationship will return to the front burner in episodes six and seven, and there will be "some pretty startling revelations about people" in episode five. After that, a "very risky plot" concerning snake-like lawyer Jake Straka (Raphael Sbarge) will kick off.

Those revelations will have to wait until October for TV viewers, but close to two dozen people gathered in what shade they could find yesterday to watch the filming, giving them an advance glimpse of the new season.

The crowd included four of the self-proclaimed "Guardian" Angels, fans who traveled to Pittsburgh from as far away as Dallas. They even brought binoculars to get a better look at the action.

Donora resident Ramona Presa said she opened her front door this morning to see more cars than usual parked along the street.

When she found out the commotion was a film crew, she walked to the shooting location. "It's very nice, I like it. There's nothing in Donora anyway."

Jason Menendez was born and raised in Donora and said he'd never seen a film crew in town before.

"They're shooting our favorite show in basically our back yard," Menendez said, citing the show's strong writing and stories involving local industries as part of its appeal. He was already taking a vacation day from his job as a color matcher for a nearby thermoplastic company, so he and his wife and their young daughter wandered over to watch the slow grind of a TV production. "It's neat to be able to see Simon up close."

Baker said he never quite gets accustomed to the fan interest.

"I don't thrive on it, but I understand the interest in a film crew shooting in your town," he said. "But the idea of people coming and standing around for me? No, they're coming and standing there for the character I play on a TV show.

"So they're always going to be disappointed, right?" he says, flashing a smile. Onlookers seemed anything but disappointed when, between scenes, Baker wandered over to sign a few autographs.

With two complete seasons under his belt, Baker said the details of the work keep him excited about playing Nick Fallin.

Even to someone who's seen every episode and knows Nick's clipped, understated style, it's surprising to see just how little dialogue his character has when Baker flips through a script: "Yeah," "Right," "You know," "Who makes that?" To play Nick Fallin, a character whose emotions are usually played as subtext in a look or glance, Baker can't rely on dialogue to do the work.

"Everyone else plays the writing," Baker said. "I'm not in control of the situation, but I have a lot of control as to how I want to play 'What.' I get to roam freely within the silences and, thankfully, that keeps me feeling alive as an actor."

Since Tuesday, "The Guardian" cast and crew have been in town filming scenes to insert in the first five episodes of the new season. They'll be shooting in and around Downtown through Saturday.


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

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