Born and raised in the city, 36-year-old filmmaker and “Pittsburgh Dad” creator Chris Preksta definitely considers himself a Pittsburgher but maybe not a full on yinzer — though he’s happy to hang out with them.
“I’d rather spend my days around yinzers than those Hollywood-types uppity people,” Preksta said. “I’ll take a yinzer over a Hollywood type any day.”
Preksta is most commonly known for his online YouTube series “Pittsburgh Dad,” which has amassed over 35 million views and over 100,000 subscribers. Aside from his work on the shorts, which satirize old-Pittsburgh fathers through topics about the Steelers, Kennywood and home improvement, he is also known for his 2011 sci-fi series “The Mercury Men” and his 2016 sci-fi film “Echo Torch,” which he wrote and directed. Three Rivers Film Festival featured “Echo Torch” in Oakland’s Melwood Screening Room on Nov. 19.
Preksta, who studied film production as an undergraduate, enrolling in joint program between Point Park University and Pittsburgh Filmmakers for two years, has made a living since leaving the classroom — even without backing from big-budget film studios. “Pittsburgh Dad” requires a nominal budget because it is filmed on an iPhone. However, “The Mercury Men,” which aired on the Syfy network, had a $7,000 budget while “Echo Torch” had a budget in the $20,000 to $25,000 range.
Even though some filmmakers are sometimes tempted to leave their hometowns for Hollywood, Preksta said he’ll continue to work in Pittsburgh’s budding film industry for as long as he can.
“I love, love, love Pittsburgh,” the local indie filmmaker said, “and I will certainly stay here and make stuff as long as possible.”
TPN: What is it like being an independent filmmaker?
CP: Well, there’s upsides and downsides. You’re not serving some corporation, so you get to choose what you want to do, but then you have large budget restrictions. It means that you have to be much more selective with the type of stories you’re coming up with and the projects you’re taking on because they have to be things that are possible for you to pull off. You’re constantly trying to find a balance between letting your imagination run free and balancing that with what you think you’ll financially be able to pull off.
TPN: Can you tell us about your best experience in the filmmaking business?
CP: Well, there’s been different best versions of experiences. For instance, on my new film “Echo Torch,” that’s one of my best experiences because it was a chance to make the type of movies that I fell in love with: those early Spielberg movies like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Echo Torch” was in a similar vein — it was to try my hand at a film like those. Likewise, we shot a short film version of “Pittsburgh Dad” this past summer that isn’t out yet, but that in itself was a wonderful filmmaking experience because we’re taking this little web show and got to choose the entire cast and recreate this summer evening in 1987. That was the culmination of watching something that day-to-day is fairly small: It’s just me, Curt [Wootton] and an iPhone — and then to turn it into something more cinematic was certainly a wonderful experience.
TPN: What about your biggest challenge?
CP: Oh, money. Filmmaking is a unique artform. If you’re a writer, you write. You don’t need anything other than a pencil and paper or a computer to write. A writer can do their craft anywhere in the world for zero dollars. Whereas for filmmaking, you can’t necessarily just by yourself make it happen because it’s such a collaborative thing. If you look at “Pittsburgh Dad,” that’s something that’s shot with zero budget since we film on an iPhone. Certainly the greatest challenge is to try out the type of films that I grew up on that I’ve always wanted to make because unfortunately, movies like that you can’t just shoot with an iPhone and a couple friends. Those are projects that require a bit more resources, so the challenge is always where are those resources going to come from.
TPN: Your online sitcom “Pittsburgh Dad” has generated a lot of success over the years. When and how did this whole project start?
CP: We had shot a web series back in 2008 called “The Mercury Men” that premiered in 2011 on the Syfy Channel. Shortly after that series came out, Curt and I were just hanging out and goofing off one afternoon. Curt would always do this impression of his father, so I pulled out my iPhone and filmed him doing his impression. We put it up on YouTube, and it just took off. There was never any intention to make a show, but a show was born out of that afternoon five years ago this past October, and it has been going strong ever since.
TPN: Do you have any advice for college students aspiring to be filmmakers?
CP: Oh, certainly. Make lots of stuff. Always be creating stuff. No matter what your resources are, even if all you have is an iPhone and a laptop, make it work. Make stuff with people you like, because that’s the time more than any when you have the time to be able to just experiment and keep trying things, especially since you’re still learning. You only learn through the process of starting something, finishing something and releasing something. Repeating that process over and over again is the only way that you can continue to grow as a filmmaker.
One of the common mistakes I see with young filmmakers is they’re always trying to network up. They’re always trying to meet or find someone above them to help them get to that next step. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I think they have to focus a little bit more time on networking and working with their peers. Eventually, if you form a tight group of filmmaking friends in different fields — a screenwriter, a producer, an editor — what likely happens is someone from that group ends up making some sort of advancement. They might be an assistant on something, but then one day, they may be a producer. They may be an assistant at an agency, but one day, they might become an agent themselves. They’re then going to remember that talented person that they made so many films with and worked with years ago that they can now say, ‘Hey would you come be a part of this?’ That path happens more frequently than some higher-up discovering you and snatching you out of school to bring you on a project. So my advice would be to network with your peers, and always, always, always make as much stuff as you can, because that’s how you’re going to learn.