George Romero and Pittsburgh: The Early Years
The Horror Studies Working Group (HSWG) focuses on structuring as many opportunities as we can for academic, student, and fan work in horror because it is difficult to predict where the next great thing will come from. In our effort to help bring awareness to academic and student work in horror, the HSWG was thrilled to help premiere three student-produced documentaries on George Romero’s birthday (February 4th 2021). The event was realized through the cooperation of Carl Kurlander’s Making the Documentary course and the George A. Romero Foundation in a private University of Pittsburgh event hosted by Pitt’s University Library System (ULS). The film received essential funding and practical support from ULS, the University Honors College (UHC), the Office of the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, the Center for Creativity, the Department of English, and the Film and Media Studies Program. The HSWG, through the generous participation of the UHC, provided some further funding aid to help students finish two short documentaries, on Night of the Living Dead leading-man legend and Pitt alumnus Duane Jones and another on making a documentary during a pandemic. These films served as informative introductions to the night’s main feature: George Romero and Pittsburgh: The Early Years. The film runs almost an hour, boasts dozens of interviews with prominent figures in the Romero universe, has thoroughly excavated archival material, and according to the students who made it, represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of material that they found. The impressive array of documentaries were made by Carl Kurlander’s Making the Documentary course (ENGFILM 1671/FMST 1740), where students are mentored by film professionals and given access to archival materials as well as interview subjects. I was able to sit down with Kurlander to discuss the course, its history, and the journey to the Romero-based documentaries. Carl Kurlander is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh in English and Film & Media. Kurlander is the faculty adviser of Pitt in Hollywood, a student group which led to the creation of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, a non-profit which has helped Pittsburgh become a leading regional production center. In June 2019, Kurlander helped launch the Pitt in LA film program, taught at Lionsgate Studios.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”
– Ursula K. Leguin 1
Journeys are taken together and that’s a key part to the value of these projects. Carl Kurlander stressed the collaborative effort making a documentary takes. He noted that he thinks of himself as a guide to help students do research, organize that research, and form what they find into clear narratives. He noted that he thinks of former Pitt Vice Chancellor for Research Conduct and Compliance Randy Juhl as a mentor for his methods in the course, which works from science models for lab-based research. Kurlander finds that these methods of combining individual labor and group work on a project function well in the combination of archival research, constructing narratives, and making films. The students proved to be particularly responsive to the group work which allowed them to delegate labor, specialize in collaborative forms of filmmaking, learn from each other, and share their passions. This was particularly clear in the GARF Network event where there was a lot of discussion about the “infectious energy” of undergraduate students. In this way, while this special version of the course is a chance to develop these worthy projects, it is also a way of injecting these subjects with energy and current perspectives. This liveliness along with the combination of individual work and group collaboration is necessary given the constraints on a single semester. Documentaries often take years to make—Kurlander, his TAs, and the students have only a few months.
Therefore, the first real hurdle in beginning the journey to a Romero documentary was to get the class started to begin with. Are enough materials available? Is there the necessary time required to invest? Are interview subjects available? The seed for the Romero iteration of the class began when Adam Lowenstein and Jeanne Marie Laskas approached Kurlander to use his Making the Documentary course with the then forthcoming George A. Romero Archival Collection at Pitt’s ULS. While not a horror fan, Kurlander does have an interesting connection to Romero in that his mother is in his film Season of the Witch (1973). Kurlander was also very intrigued by the question of why Romero stayed so dedicated to Pittsburgh, maintaining residence here and shooting many of his films here, for so long. Romero was originally from the Bronx and then came to CMU to study art, so why stay so stubbornly in Pittsburgh after gaining success with Night of the Living Dead and not go to LA where there would likely be many more opportunities? These questions and the incoming archival material proved enough of a stimulus for another Making the Documentary course.
Complicating the usual difficulties that accompany one of these documentary journeys, Romero had a huge career and even if just centering on his time in Pittsburgh there is still a lot of material. Add to that the fact that the archive had not yet been processed, so students had to find their own ways through material and ways to structure it with help from staff at ULS. Notably, Adam C. Hart came to the course to instruct them on best practices for archival research. Further, horror scholar Adam Lowenstein and Suzanne Desrocher-Romero came to the class on multiple occasions to help guide students and, ultimately, even view rough cuts of the work in progress. Kurlander began by having students make individual research presentations so they could see how their work began to fit together. They were all using production and reception materials to better understand the process of an artist and put these individual projects into conversation. Interviews, which themselves require a large amount of research to prepare for, were also a huge part of the class’s research and can often send projects in many different directions given the huge amount of divergent information often found in interviews. Both Kurlander and the students credit the interview with Richard Ricci, who had been a projectionist at Pitt in the 1960s and befriended Romero, as the key that began to bring everything together into a clearer narrative. Ricci gave a lot of previously unknown information to the research team, such as bringing to light the fact that Romero dropped out of CMU whereas most writing on him has assumed he graduated in 1960. The interview began to fill in gaps in Romero’s history that had previously been overlooked or unknown in terms of his filmmaking origins. It turns out Ricci and Romero were both big film fans and with Ricci’s access as a projectionist were able to watch a huge collection of films that moved through Pitt during that time. Ricci also had access to film equipment and with their shared cinephilia, Romero and Ricci started their Latent Image production company in 1962. From Ricci and the cooperation of Suzanne Romero, much more interview access followed and students were able to compile so much information between that and the archival materials that it extended beyond the bounds of this initial project. They began the short documentary on Duane Jones, which they hope to extend, and have begun working on a follow-up Romero documentary in Kurlander’s Producers course--George Romero and Pittsburgh: The Lost Years.
While there is a film that now exists, technically the journey to it is still ongoing. Not only are there the previously mentioned continuing film projects, but George Romero and Pittsburgh: The Early Years is unfortunately unavailable for public screenings due to copyright and licensing concerns. George Romero did not hold the rights to many of his films so any footage used by the class would need to be cleared for any non-academic showing of the film. Films from past Making the Documentary courses have been made available, such as the polio documentary released through Lionsgate on the Smithsonian Channel and the BBC. The Starzl documentary is also forthcoming on PBS. Kurlander explained that most documentaries have a budget of around $500,000, in part to cover such licensing costs; without significant outside support the level of licensing needed for a Romero documentary will be difficult to come by. There may be some hope, however, in that students reported at the GARF Network event that Pitt Magazine wants to work with them on getting licensing and to help expand the Duane Jones documentary which is certainly a step in the right direction and a very worthy film in its own right about another amazing Pittsburgh figure.
It's thus hard to say that this journey has ended even though we’re often used to hearing that journeys must do so. Therefore, as the journey continues it seems clear to all involved that the rewards have certainly outweighed the risks. Many students reported surprise at becoming so passionate about Romero’s films and becoming true fans as well as true scholars during this process. The Horror Studies Working Group, through the generous participation of the UHC, was able to provide some funding to these students to allow them to spend time outside of the many, many hours they worked on these projects for the class to edit and finish the Duane Jones and making a documentary during a pandemic short films. In these films alone you can see the incredible access the students were able to get through both the archival materials and interviews they compiled. The continued passion for their new project in a new class also shows the dedication inspired by Romero. For his own part, Kurlander made sure to note the real reason why he continues to offer this special Making the Documentary project-based class when he told me, “I love these students. We go on a journey together.”
1 Ursula K. Leguin. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace Books, 1976.