Just before Carl Kurlander, Steeltown Entertainment Project president, announced the winner of this year’s Ellen Weiss Kander Award, he foreshadowed the journey upon which its recipient was about to embark.
“The contest isn’t the end,” he told the crowd of hundreds gathered at Point Park University in May. “It’s the beginning.”
In the six months since, Stephen Knezovich has experienced many beginnings. Knezovich, winner of the $15,000 prize slated for bringing his short screenplay to the screen, has attended the first casting session, the first meeting of his crew, day 1 of filming. And, in the midst of all of it, he began a new life with his bride.
Now, Knezovich is preparing for another beginning. His 20-minute film, “Franksgiving,” is slated to premiere at the Three Rivers Film Festival on Nov. 10, and a “Franksgiving” anticipation video screening is planned for Nov. 4 . The debut marks the end of a summer that tested the young writer in ways only the unpredictable world of filmmaking can.
Knezovich, 33, who works as an editor for Creative Nonfiction Magazine, is a fifth-generation Pittsburgher. His script is an ode to his hometown and all the oddities and quirks that make it so … Pittsburgh. But underneath all the laughs is a story about a man just trying to do right by the people he loves.
“It’s about a gentleman who’s a lifelong Pittsburgh guy,” Knezovich says. Frank “has a very special talent, which is bowling strikes, and every year, he wins a Thanksgiving bowling contest whereby stringing several strikes in a row — known as a ‘turkey’ in the bowling world — earns you an actual turkey. He dominates it every year to the point where he is feeding dozens of people at his Thanksgiving meal. The movie is about the first year he fails to accomplish that goal.”
Knezovich gave the Trib behind-the-scenes access as he brought “Franksgiving” from script to screen.
First cast and crew meeting
July 14, Satalio’s, Mt. Washington
“Well, we won Steeltown!”
Christy Leonardo, the film’s producer, opens the first gathering of the “Franksgiving” cast and crew with a line that elicits a big round of applause. With the Pittsburgh cityscape spanning out behind the glass walls of Satalio’s, those gathered break into groups to get to know one another. Within moments, the packed room pulsates with conversation.
This is the team who will breathe life into the pages Knezovich has written. He’s worked with many of them on previous projects, though some faces, such as that of the man who will play Frank, are new. Tony Bingham, a local actor with an extensive background in theater, embodies the underdog likability needed to capture Frank.
“Tony captured both the swagger and the sadness that is Frank O.,” Knezovich says.
The “O.” stands for Ovitchovic, a moniker Knezovich made up specifically to mimic his own often-mangled name. It’s a fate the writer embraces, even naming the production company for this film Mispronounced LLC.
Manipulation of language is a key component to “Franksgiving’s” comedy, and overseeing the authenticity of all that Pittsburghese is Carnegie Mellon University’s Barbara Johnstone, author of “Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect.” After everyone feels confident, Knezovich calls for a table read.
Everyone stumbles over Ovitchovic, sometimes intentionally, other times in earnest. There is much laughter, but once the read is through, Leonardo is back to business, reviewing the details of the coming four days of filming.
“This is set in stone,” Leonardo concludes. “Although, it’s subject to change. Stone does change, right?”
In the weeks to come, change will become an everyday occurrence. Yet, just days before filming is set to start, everyone remains cautiously optimistic. The schedule will be daunting, but time constraints require calm. With Knezovich’s pending nuptials, he’ll be out of commission for a chunk of time in late summer. In the meantime, it’s full speed ahead.
“At this point, it kind of does feel like an unstoppable train,” Knezovich says. “Like, we just started moving, and we’re just picking up bodies, and it’s going to happen.”
Complications so far have included a key crew member backing out of his role because of scheduling conflicts, nearly losing an actor because of a SAG technicality and an actress deciding at the last minute she couldn’t commit to the part.
“It’s par for the course,” Leonardo says. “We’ve done a couple of these, and everything goes wrong. It’s just in what order and how surprising it is.”
Day 1 of filming
July 29, Elks Lodge No. 339, North Side
Let the surprises begin. Call time is 8:15 a.m. By 8:20, many people still aren’t on set because of a backup on Route 28. The crew sets up as wardrobe organizes some old bowling shirts the Elks league has provided. They hang alongside a custom “Thank God It’s Franksgiving” shirt depicting Bingham’s grinning mug.
The real Bingham waits upstairs in the thick air of the bowling alley, a scene straight out of the 1980s with dusty shelves of old bowling shoes, a small bar stocked with cloudy glassware and a trophy case complete with fake press materials covering Frank’s annual win. Two hours later, as the cast warms up on the lanes, Bingham rolls an actual turkey.
“I don’t know if that’s a good sign or a bad omen,” Knezovich says with a laugh.
At 10:45 a.m., he says, “Action.”
Bingham and Gino DiNardo, playing Frank’s nemesis Tony, go head to head on the lanes for the next few hours. Stephen, squatting on his haunches, watches the scene. A smoke machine meant to make it seem like the group is puffing on Marlboros occasionally gets a bit overwhelming when mixed with the stifling alley air, and production assistants have to wave it away with large chunks of cardboard. At one point, the bar phone rings, interrupting the shoot.
But, other than those few distractions, the day goes smooth, and at the end of it, Knezovich is still smiling.
Days 2 and 3 of filming
July 31 and Aug. 1, Corday Way, Bloomfield
It’s another hot mid-summer day, and Joe and Kathy Tabuso’s home is ready for a feast.
Throughout the morning, the “Franksgiving” crew has transformed the house into a holiday party complete with a table weaving through three rooms and covered with a mix of China plates and plastic ware, wine goblets, beer bottles and multicolored cups. The scene will accommodate the horde of extras portraying relatives of Donna, Frank’s girlfriend, played by Jen Chervenick.
Adding the holiday accessories was about all the crew had to do. The kitchen fit the script perfectly with its quintessential nostalgic ‘Burgh decor with bright orange paint, metallic wallpaper and dark wooden cabinetry.
“It’s just so perfect,” Leonardo says. “There was a golden age of Pittsburgh, and we feel this is a golden-age home.”
The Tabusos have lived in the house for 48 years. Joe Tabuso’s father, Augustino, 102, lives next door, where they all watch the filming from the back porch.
“I saw all the tables — I never had it set up like that!” Kathy Tabuso says. “I’ve never seen a table setting with so many different dishes and colors. They’re all mismatched.”
At 4:45 p.m., the parade of extras finds seats at the table. Everyone is in festive winterwear, adding to the heat index in the already close house. People fan themselves as they’re set.
This is one of the film’s most challenging scenes — a single shot through the house showing everyone getting ready to eat. One mess up means having to start all over.
“There were so many people and rigging lights and sound and making sure those things are clear of the frame when you’re shooting,” Knezovich says. “It was a challenge for the lighting guys, the sound guys. We had to choreograph all this movement.”
Eventually, it all works, and the shot is in the can. There’s enough time for a handful of other scenes, and the day wraps up long after the sun has set on Corday Way.
The next day doesn’t require nearly as many extras, but there is a new star on set. Leonardo shows up with a rented black 1970s Oldsmobile Cutlass that will serve as Frank’s ride. It’s parked along the alleyway behind the Tabusos’ home, a narrow, rowhouse-heavy road that everyone soon learns is extremely popular with drivers avoiding Liberty Avenue.
“The busiest street in Bloomfield!” Knezovich says after the fifth car comes down the alley, creating another pause in filming. The crew doesn’t have permission from the city to close the road, so they make do.
At one point, Bingham is supposed to fling open the car door, but it sticks, so he crawls out the window instead. It’s just one of his many improv moments, for which Knezovich seems surprisingly grateful. Sometimes, they’re for laughs, like when Bingham emerges from the car singing Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” with his own non-family-friendly lyrics, prompting Knezovich to crack up and ask Leonardo, “That should be usable, right?”
Other times, it’s to add depth to Frank, particularly during a scene when he’s realized he might not be able to save the day after all. Knezovich wrote a scene riddled with jokes. Bingham suggested creating a more somber mood.
“If you talk to Tony about what this story is about, it’s very much about family, doing right,” Knezovich says. “He has these very strong feelings about this being a very real story.”
They compromise, a rare move between any director and actor that isn’t lost on Bingham.
“Stephen is totally collaborative and appreciative of collaboration,” he says. “It’s like the Pittsburgh ‘Big Lebowski.’ Stephen and Christy remind me of those two guys. I would do 100 projects with these guys.”
Day 4 of filming
Aug. 3, Safran’s Supermarket, Sewickley
“We made it to the last day, and we’re all still here.”
Assistant director Heidi Schlegel stops to take it all in as the crew hustles around Safran’s, which closed minutes ago, and sets up the scene.
“I’m very proud of everything we’ve done,” Schlegel says. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
That positive vibe remains palpable, despite the grueling pace everyone has maintained throughout the week. Now, with just a few short scenes left, that energy is crucial.
Bingham is prepping for the scene in which Frank tries to win a charity fundraiser by tossing a frozen turkey toward a row of canned goods. After each throw, he executes an over-the-top turkey trot and swings open all the freezer doors in celebration.
Associate producer Tim Papciak can’t help but laugh as he looks on.
“Stephen got a lot of things right,” he says. “He’s really observant of the Pittsburgh culture. It’s like when the Coen Brothers brought small groups of society to light and showed how people in other parts of the county operate. They’re not cracking jokes, but you still find hilarious moments. You have to be pretty intelligent to get laughs that way.”
It’s now late September, and even more change has come. A rough cut of the film shows a need for some reshooting, and the team organized a Kickstarter campaign to secure the last $5,000 needed for post-production. They’ve also planned a “Franksgiving” anticipation screening event for Nov. 4.
Knezovich is married, has honeymooned in Costa Rica, and is packing for a move to Philadelphia for his wife’s job. When reflecting on the week of filming, it’s as if any snafus are a distant memory.
“It helped that the cast was genuinely really fun to be around,” Knezovich says. “I don’t feel like there were a ton of egos on set.”
That’s something Leonardo calls “a very Pittsburgh thing.”
“No one we had on the crew, even though some were working for free, no one felt like they were doing us any favors by being there,” he says. “They were genuinely exciting and putting themselves forth. That obviously makes things a lot easier.”
Now, as the premiere approaches, Knezovich just hopes the life “Franksgiving” has taken on is one that resonates with audiences both local and beyond.
“I feel like there are people who have expectations about it. It may not be what some people think it’s going to be,” Knezovich says. “I just hope it’s still good, and people still enjoy it. It’s certainly different than what I’d envisioned it to be. That’s just sort of the nature of creating things like this, really. It’s never what it is in your head.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].