When put in the always–uncomfortable situation of sharing fun fact ice breakers, my go–to answer has always been, “My home town is obsessed with zombies.” It’s more than a little strange and, while not a lie, there’s more to the story. Night of the Living Dead, the horror movie credited with first bringing zombies to the big screen and putting an unexpected critique of racial tensions onscreen in the 60s, was filmed in my hometown’s cemetery. Moreover, that cemetery is right behind the backyard of my childhood home. As a kid, I could slip between the grave stones and envision hoards of corpses stalking me. I have a love–hate relationship with zombie media, because it's so integral to how I grew up and because, to this day, I still occasionally wake up in sweat and terror over a nightmare of living through the apocalypse. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” Oh, the amount of times I’ve heard that line.
Sandwiched between the city of Pittsburgh and rural Western Pennsylvania is Evans City, the small town I grew up in. Though its claim to fame may be in zombies, Evans City is far from the only place touched by cinema. Along with many other facets of the city's culture, like the colors black and yellow, our sports teams, Mac Miller, and the 412 area code, Pittsburgh natives hold up the city’s involvement with the film industry with pride. From Flashdance to Silence of the Lambs to Zach and Miri Make a Porno, plenty of iconic films feature scenes in and around the Steel City.
Released in late December of 2022, The Pale Blue Eye is the latest addition to the ongoing list of films in Pittsburgh. Starring Christian Bale, the movie follows Bale’s Augustus Landor as he befriends a young Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling) and enlists Poe’s help to solve a murder. McConnells Mill, a well known park on this side of the state, serves as the backdrop of the movie’s many wintry outdoor scenes. I’ve spent my fair share of time hiking around the same woods in which Bale’s character isolates himself.
A fellow classmate of mine even worked on the movie as an extra during our senior year of high school. She tells me, “I had gotten an email in need of extras for this upcoming period piece Netflix film and I knew I had to apply, as it was something right up my alley. Getting to see all that goes on behind the scenes of a movie to then seeing it complete on your tv screen was surprising. The process of costuming and the days on set weren’t at all what I had expected, but I loved getting to see the movie come to life in the end.”
The Pale Blue Eye is the third movie Bale has filmed in the area, following The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Out of the Furnace (2013). His time spent in Western PA has even led to an unexpected friendship with PA senator John Fetterman. Having met Fetterman back in 2013 when he was the mayor of Braddock, Bale later invited Fetterman to make an appearance in The Pale Blue Eye. According to director Scott Cooper, Bale told him, “You know what, John has such a great face that looks like it came from 1830, why don’t we put him in the film?" That's how then–State Senator John Fetterman, alongside his wife Gisele, briefly appear as background characters in a tavern scene.
Cooper reflects fondly on his time spent filming in Western Pennsylvania and his decision to film both The Pale Blue Eye and Out of the Furnace in the region, stating, “I love the people of Pittsburgh; the crews are fantastic. Love the people of Braddock. I have a real affinity for that city.” Cooper also cites both the landscape and the weather as a large reason for returning to the area for his most recent film.
Pittsburgh and its surrounding area have drawn in many a filmmaker, with over 200 films and TV show productions taking place here. And, with state tax incentives peaking at $100 million in 2022 to support the industry, it's certainly an economic decision for both production teams and the city itself.
But heart and beauty is at the core of what makes Pittsburgh so popular. Not quite midwest, not quite east coast, Western PA delivers on a city setting with Pittsburgh and breathtaking rural mountain scenery just twenty minutes outside of city limits. The people of Pittsburgh have a real love for their home, and one that they are more than willing to share with others. With our roots as a steel city and the surrounding small towns, there’s a working class, down to earth appeal that has managed to remain even after the steel mill fog has lifted. As director at the Pittsburgh Film Office Dawn Keezer puts it, “People feel like home when they’re here.”
And it would appear that the imagery and soul of western Pennsylvania appeals to many filmmakers' visions. In The Dark Knight Rises, Heinz Field becomes “Gotham Stadium,” and for the first time, people tailgate outside the stadium not for the Steelers, but to catch a glimpse of movie magic. The Christmas vibe of Happiest Season is first set by opening with a scene of the two main characters touring Candy Cane Lane in Duboistown. And the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which was once only an entrance into the city, is now home to the iconic tunnel scene from The Perks of Being A Wallflower.
Prompted by taking on the task of writing this article, and hoping to develop an even deeper love for this city, I took it upon myself to recreate the scene. With the help of my high school best friends Danny and Ava (who had to be phoned in) we took on the challenge. I sat behind the wheel. Danny sat in the passenger’s seat with his dad’s old camcorder in one hand and Ava’s video call in the other. We queued up David Bowie's “Heroes” and rolled down the windows (yes, physically rolled down, because my car is that old), and barreled through the tunnel. The wind whipped around us and both the music and the screech of other drivers echoed off the walls. As we neared the exit, traffic sped up, and before us, the city of Pittsburgh unfolded. The night sky in its perpetual overcast, the bright yellow bridge, the skyline of makeshift neighborhoods combined into one, and the river rushing below us were all in their full glory. It was cliche, and eleven years late, but it was incredible. As we entered the highway and headed home, Danny told me, “I think they were really onto something in that scene.”