[Interview] ‘Steel Town’ Director Nick Hurt Talks Pittsburgh History

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A city as old as Pittsburgh has a long and illustrious history full of world-shaping events. One local filmmaker and his crew will hone in on one of these moments for a new project.

Carnegie Mellon graduate Nick Hurt will direct Steel Town, an 18-minute short film portraying the harrowing 1892 Homestead Steel Strike. The film, which was co-written by Hurt and Steeltown Film Factory winner Yulin Kuang, follows the story of Hugh O’Donnell, leader of the Homestead steelworkers, in their ill-fated negotiations with Henry Clay Frick and ultimate strike against Carnegie Steel. The mounting tensions forebode a brutal workers’ strike, but O’Donnell is determined to find a peaceful solution to this historic clash between capital and labor.

On Oct. 2nd, Hurt will address the audience at a live table read of the film’s script, which is being held in order to raise funds for production. In an exclusive interview with Steel Cinema, he discusses the event, the future of the film, and a very unusual perk for a a contributor willing to make a big pledge.

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What attracted you to this story?

I first learned about the Homestead Strike a few years ago when I was in a history class at Carnegie Mellon and I immediately pictured it as a movie. I thought it would be a really exciting feature film. So a good place to start was to make a short film version of it. I finally decided to direct and produce it with Yulin Kuang, who won the Steeltown Film Factory last year with her film The Perils of Growing Up Flat-Chested. I produced Perils with Yulin last summer and now we’re co-writing Steel Town together and producing it.

You have some really well-rendered concept art on your Kickstarter. I was impressed by how many details you have ironed out.

I’m really happy with how the concept art (by Nik Hagialas) turned out. With taking on such a big project, there are so many things to consider. I needed to get all of those details straightened out before we even launched the Kickstarter. We’re working on storyboards right now, and Pittsburgh has so many amazing locations to offer, so we’re still in the middle of location scouting. We’re gonna film at Carrie Furnace, and hopefully film at Hartwood Acres. Maybe we’ll shoot in a nationality room at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

The scale of the event would make this a fairly ambitious project. How are you going to fit all of it into a short film?

It is such an enormous event, and after I started doing research, I realized that it was years in the making. So we had to really narrow it down and choose a chunk of time. The story is going to focus on the week leading up to the Homestead Strike and it’s going to culminate with the final battle of Homestead with the strikers facing off against the Pinkertons.

I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for over ten years and I’m not familiar this incredible event.

Most people I talk to have heard of the Homestead Strike but they don’t know very much about it. Obviously everyone has heard of Carnegie, and some people have heard of Frick, but they’re not really sure about just how interesting the relationship between Frick and Carnegie was and all of the different feuds that they had. That’s something that I’m gonna explore more in the feature version. The short film is really gonna serve as sort of a teaser for a longer feature length film which I hope to pursue sometime next year. So once I finish the short, I’ll be working on the feature length script next spring, and hopefully I can take it to producers and get it financed. That’s the long term plan. We’ll see what happens.

That would be really amazing for Pittsburgh if that happened.

Especially if I can convince people to film it in Pittsburgh. That would be a great thing for the film crew members here. We have such a blossoming film economy with all of the recent larger Hollywood productions coming here, and I think it’s definitely a city that could support a film of this scale. I’m excited about all of the possibilities.

This is a pretty accurate retelling of the event, but obviously you have to embellish some of the details. How are you balancing the history with the fictionalized elements?

We borrowed a handful of true historical figures who actually lived through the period – we kept Henry Clay Frick, we kept Hugh O’Donnell, we kept Frick’s accountant, Francis Lovejoy, we kept the leader of the Pinkertons, Captain Heinde. Some storylines are based on true events, but we changed the names of some of the characters involved. And a few of the characters I just straight up invented to convey what the time period was like. So it’s a combination of true historical figures that I read about and fictional characters that I’m using to tell a truthful story.

I think people tend to see Frick and Carnegie as philanthropic figures. Do you think this film would change that perception?

The film would focus more on Frick – Carnegie was in Scotland at the time of the strike. There have been a lot of different ideas of Frick. Some people think that he was just a nasty, bulldog-type guy who just wanted to squash all of the workers and smash out the union. And when I started to do more research I realized that, as expected, he’s just a real person with many complexities. He was a family man and a loving father. And he loved art, and that’s why he had such a large art collection and donated it to New York City. So there’s a lot of complexities that I’m playing with, and I’m doing my best to present him not as a one-sided character like a Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, but rather as a guy with sympathies and weaknesses.

Why do you think this story is important to tell now?

Initially, I liked it just because of how interesting the characters are. You have your steel magnate, robber baron millionaires like Carnegie and Frick, and it’s amazing to think of the kind of lifestyle they lived compared with the lifestyles of the poor steel workers. And then about a month ago, producer Dan Vetanovetz and I started interacting with members of labor unions such as SEIU, AFL-CIO, and the Teachers’ Union, and we realized out that even though workers aren’t fighting their battles with rifles anymore, there still is a very serious relevance to the Homestead Strike 120 years ago. There still is the idea of a group of workers banning together to protect their rights against a larger corporation or non-profit. And I think it’s important not to forget the history of organized labor and where we came from, especially since Pittsburgh is the biggest steel town in the country.

And this was one of the first organized labor uprisings?

There were riots in coal fields and some train stations before, I believe. But the reason the Homestead Strike was so important was that so many people knew about it and were following it in the news. The whole country was watching, and it really started to shift public opinion away from the owners to the workers. So it was a big step for labor history.

How are you in terms of casting?

We cast most of the roles, but the character of of Frick is still up in the air. We’re going to have casting calls for that role pretty soon. And it’s exciting because we’re hiring a lot of actors from Pittsburgh. We have one guy we’re flying out from LA, and we have a couple actors coming in from New York City. So we’re getting people from all over the place, but a lot of them are going to be from Pittsburgh.

I’m guessing you’re going to need a lot of extras.

When we held auditions over the summer, we had about 200 responses, which is really encouraging. I think we’ll be able to get a lot of people interested in being extras in the film. And one really cool idea I had was to get actual steel workers. We have two scenes inside the Homestead Steel Mill, so we’ll need a few dozen steel worker extras. That will be shot at the Carrie Furnace. Also, we’ll need a lot of extras for the final Pinkerton stand-off scene. So we’ll need quite a few Pinkerton extras and dozens of Homestead villager and striker extras. As many as we can get, really.

Tell me about your upcoming table read.

We’ll have a group of live actors read through the scripts. People can bring donations. It’s also two days before the end of our Kickstarter, so if we need a final boost, we’ll encourage people to donate to the Kickstarter. Beyond that it’s just a chance to get more people excited about the film.

I noticed you have a lot of perks for your Kickstarter contributors, but the one I found most interesting was that for anyone who donates $5,000 you would shoot a second all-cat version of the film.

(Laughs) That was mostly for fun, but I’m entirely serious about that. If we can get one person or a group of people to pool their money and donate $5,000, that will absolutely happen and I’m super excited to do that.

I think that’s worth $5,000.

Absolutely! I would love to make that my spring project.

The Steel Town live table read begins at 6 p.m. at Bar Marco. The event is open to the public, but interested patrons are encouraged to RSVP at steeltownmovie@gmail.com. Hurt will address the audience beforehand, and head up a Q&A session after the script has been read. For more information on Steel Town, please visit the film’s website. Donations for the project will be accepted at the film’s Kickstarter campaign through Oct. 4th.

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