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CMU campus abuzz as 'Wonder Boys' starts filming

Thursday, February 04, 1999

By Ron Weiskind and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

After playing "the prince of darkness" in his last couple of movies, including "A Perfect Murder," actor Michael Douglas is perfectly content to be starring as a college professor and beleaguered author in "Wonder Boys."

  Veteran actor Michael Douglas on the set of "Wonder Boys" at Carnegie Mellon University. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Douglas, looking suitably professorial in graying hair, horn-rimmed glasses, green jacket, black turtleneck, brown trousers and a bit of stubble on his face, is in Pittsburgh shooting an adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel. This is the actor's first visit to the city, and, he says, "It's been a pleasant surprise."

An admitted sports fiend, he already has caught a couple of Penguins games and has hopes of checking out the museums here, too. His schedule - 14-hour days, six days a week - doesn't allow a lot of free time, but he hopes to make the most of his extended stay. Like most novice visitors, he has been struck by the beauty of the three rivers, not to mention the clean air and inherent friendliness.

His character, Grady Tripp, has a line that seconds that emotion: "Don't knock Pittsburgh. It's one of the best cities in the world."

The movie is based on Chabon's novel, also called "Wonder Boys" and set in Pittsburgh. The cast is a blend of veteran actors - several Academy Award or Emmy winners or nominees - and hot young performers whose names will be familiar to the teens and twentysomethings driving today's box-office grosses.

In addition to Douglas, the cast features Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDormand, Richard Thomas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, Rip Torn and Philip Bosco. Holmes, best known to TV viewers as tomboy Joey Potter on "Dawson's Creek," will be commuting between Pittsburgh and Wilmington, N.C., where the show is shot, through mid-March.

Directing is Curtis Hanson, who won a screenwriting Oscar for "L.A. Confidential" and was nominated for best director. Hanson, whose other recent films include "The River Wild," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and "Bad Influence," has said he was drawn to "Wonder Boys" because of the characters and the opportunity to do a "serious comedy," like those Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges once made.

Shooting started Tuesday and is expected to last nine weeks in such familiar locations as Oakland, Downtown, Shadyside, Sewickley and Beaver. In an earlier interview, Hanson said the film would take advantage of Pittsburgh's "wealth of really photogenic neighborhoods, houses and buildings."

  CMU students, in second floor of Margaret Morrison Hall, watch Michael Douglas meet the press. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

He set up shop yesterday at Carnegie Mellon University, where Douglas was photographed in a Baker Hall classroom and then filmed driving away from campus in a maroon, slightly dirty 1966 Ford Galaxie convertible that looks like it's been around quite a few blocks.

The movie centers on a novelist and college professor named Grady Tripp (Douglas) and his editor, Terry Crabtree (Downey). They are the wonder boys of the title, living on their past achievements. Tripp can't finish his ever-growing novel, 2,611 pages and counting, and Crabtree is about to lose his job. The story is set during a spring-break weekend at a writing conference at Tripp's college, which seems to be modeled after Chabon's alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.

Tripp is in big trouble: His third wife has left him, his mistress - the college's chancellor - is pregnant, and his novel, called "Wonder Boys," is long overdue. Over a weekend, Tripp and Crabtree try to relive the adventure of their youth, and are joined by a student, James Leer, played by Maguire.

McDormand, who lived in Monessen as a teen-ager, is the chancellor, and Thomas, the former star of "The Waltons," plays her husband.

Douglas was intrigued by the character of Tripp and attracted by the behind-the-scenes crew of Hanson, producer Scott Rudin ("probably the best in the business," Douglas says) and screenwriter Steve Kloves ("The Fabulous Baker Boys.").

"To me, it was just the best script I'd read in a while," Douglas said, adding that it had a "kind of tragic-comedy feel" like his movie "The War of the Roses," co-starring Kathleen Turner.

CMU, which boasts a long list of graduates now working on stage, in TV and in film, became an open classroom as crowds gathered to watch street sweepers wet down the concrete, a standard prelude to shooting cars in motion. Meters on Tech Street were blocked off and prop signs welcoming visitors to a writers' fest were on display.

"Wonder Boys" is something of a rarity in the history of Pittsburgh filmmaking. It is shooting Pittsburgh as Pittsburgh, instead of trying to cheat for Detroit or New York City or Washington, D.C. It also solidifies the comeback of the Pittsburgh Film Office, which ushered crews from Kevin Smith's "Dogma," the live-action version of "Inspector Gadget" and the NBC miniseries "The Temptations" here last year.

Executive producer Ned Dowd, who came to Pittsburgh for the shooting of "Hoffa," said it was a pleasure to be back in town. However, he wasn't entirely happy with the prognostications of Punxsutawney Phil this week.

"We need some cold weather. Pray for winter to come back," he said, since the picture needs a bit of snow and a consistent winter look. If Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, the production will import an English company that specializes in the fake film stuff.

Snow or not, however, Dowd said, "This picture will be a postcard for Pittsburgh." He said CMU had been most cooperative, as has Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. He also applauded the city's capable film crews.

He was no stranger to Western Pennsylvania even before "Hoffa," having played hockey for the Johnstown Jets. "As a result, we made 'Slap Shot,' " the celebrated hockey film starring Paul Newman.

The book is rife with local references, but it's too early to know how many will make the transition to screen.

Tripp, for instance, lives on Denniston Avenue in Squirrel Hill. He frequents an R&B joint in the Hill District that's "stranded in a forlorn block of Centre Avenue." He drives a fly-green (not maroon) '66 Galaxie ragtop, accepted as "repayment of a sizable loan I'd been fool enough to make Happy Blackmore, an old drinking buddy who wrote sports for the Post-Gazette." A young student pals around with a girl by seeing movies at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Playhouse (that was back when the Playhouse still had a film-repertory series).

Hanson said once he scouted Pittsburgh as a possible location, he knew the movie had to be shot here. "The city is so unique geographically. It has so much of the color of the neighborhoods that evokes the past of the city. That gives the city a wonderful personality. The city has managed to escape the blight of that horrible urban renewal that devastated and homogenized so many other cities."

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