The energy in room 244 of the Cathedral was frantic — people rushed about setting up light fixtures and preparing camera angles. The students, acting as their own gaffers and grips, were preparing on short notice for an important interview in a location that they had never shot at before.
The interview was with Gary Streiner, a film producer who got his start working on the 1968 George Romero film “Night of the Living Dead.” Streiner visited the class to talk about his early work with Romero, who was both his collaborator and good friend.
All this is part of the film studies course “Making the Documentary: George Romero and Pittsburgh,” taught by Hollywood screenwriter and Pittsburgh native Carl Kurlander. Kurlander said that, through the class, students are learning about both the filmography of George Romero — considered the father of independent horror films — and his relationship with the City of Pittsburgh.
“People think about zombies [when they think of Romero] – they don’t realize that he was an artist, that he chose to stay in Pittsburgh as opposed to everyone else who left and went to Hollywood,” he says. “Pittsburgh was his muse.”
According to Kurlander, other members of the George A. Romero Foundation proposed the idea of the course to him. When Hillman Library acquired the Romero film archive, a celebratory event at the library led Suzanne Romero, George Romero’s wife, and Adam Lowenstein, a film studies professor at Pitt, to approach Kurlander with the idea for a class. Kurlander said he was hesitant at first because of his fear of horror films, but ultimately agreed upon seeing the artistry involved in Romero’s horror works.
“[I said] ‘Oh no, I don’t even like horror movies,’” Kurlander said, “but I watched all of the horror movies that I was scared by and I actually found them very artistic.”
Kurlander said the 15 students enrolled have undertaken the responsibility of studying Romero’s films shot in Pittsburgh — a total of 14 movies. To succeed in the monumental task, most students have selected a single movie of the filmography to become an expert on, and some have decided to research his history within the City in general.
Kurlander said many people tend to forget about Romero’s place in the pantheon of famous Pittsburghers, and by teaching the course from the angle of his relationship with the City, he has been able to give students an appreciation for his decision to stay local.
Senior and English literature major Molly Goodheart said she is a fanatic of horror films, particularly that of Romero. She said she appreciates travelling around the City and constantly recognizing locations as scenes from Romero’s films.
“He filmed a lot of films here in Pittsburgh,” she said. “It’s so fun to walk around and be like, ‘Oh George was here.’”
The students enrolled in the course come from largely different academic backgrounds. Most of them are not film students, but rather horror fans who were hooked by the idea of a Romero-themed course and some who were unaware of Romero’s impact on the movie industry.
Owen Gambill, an undecided first-year, said he originally did not know of Romero’s legacy in film beyond “Night of the Living Dead.”
“I really had no idea who George Romero was coming into it,” he said, “[but] I was ready to see what happened, and the first day of class I instantly fell in love with it.”
Gambill said the course has been unlike anything he expected and talked about going to another interview earlier in the week at the house of Tony Buba, an acclaimed documentary filmmaker.
“I don’t know what other class you can do that in,” he said.
The students interviewed Romero collaborator and close friend Streiner on Feb. 20 and undertook the responsibility of recording the interview.
According to the students, the vision of Kurlander and the class at large is to compile the interview footage they record and make it into a short documentary on Romero’s life and how he sparked the independent horror film movement by keeping his movies in Pittsburgh. Goodheart said the final for the class will combine their work into a documentary film.
“Since we have all of these interviews, we’re just going to compile them, and we’re going to try to make a little documentary,” she said.
The class has so far interviewed a number of Romero associates including Suzanne Romero, Buba, filmographer Tom Dubensky and Striener, among others. According to Kurlander, the class has also compiled five to six hours of interview footage so far at the halfway point of the semester. He said the class does not have a set schedule of interviews — they will simply continue gathering footage as they come across new interviewees.
This idea for a class centered around documenting a Pittsburgh celebrity is not new — Kurlander says that the 50th anniversary of the invention of the polio vaccine led to a class-made documentary about Jonas Salk in 2005. The documentary eventually aired on the Smithsonian Channel, under the title “A Shot to Save the World.” After the success of that course, Kurlander said he knew he would design the Romero class similarly to the Salk course. Lowenstein suggested using the same format when he and Suzanne Romero pitched Kurlander the idea.
“[Lowenstein] said, ‘you know, we have this [archive of footage] here, you should do what you did with the polio archives,’” Kurlander said.
Romero and his associates’ preference for Pittsburgh allows the class to access a variety of resources on the famed director, including the George A. Romero Foundation’s Pittsburgh headquarters.
According to Kurlander, the board of the foundation has worked closely with students to help provide access to those close to Romero, as well as to the archives of his work. The foundation, Kurlander said, was created with the intention of broadening the legacy of George Romero from horror director to Pittsburgh icon and independent film father.
“It is important that George is remembered,” he said, “when George knew he had cancer and that he was dying, [his wife] said he didn’t think people would care.”
According to Kurlander, the documentary the students are working on is their way of preserving the legacy of Romero. The footage that does not go into the classes’ final film will be archived elsewhere. He said his ultimate goal of the class is not just to have students appreciate the work of Romero, but also to realize their potential in creating their own film.
“You’re the first generation who ever grew up with the ability to make a movie in your pocket,” he said. “By looking at George Romero’s life, [students] are going to look at their own lives differently.”