"The Rehabilitation of The Hill" actor Joshua Elijah Reese (right) doing a behind-the-scenes interview. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

There’s a flurry of activity as a stately home in Squirrel Hill slowly transforms into a set for The Rehabilitation of The Hill. Cameras and lights take up every corner of various rooms, from a dining room where hors d’oeuvres sit undisturbed, to a sitting room where a band sets up their instruments. Upstairs, jazz vocalists rehearse a rendition of “Take the ‘A’ Train” while downstairs local actor, activist and former council member Sala Udin chats with crew members.

Outside, film students take advantage of the pleasant spring weather to seat actor Joshua Elijah Reese for an interview, one of many they’re doing as part of a behind-the-scenes documentary.

Meanwhile, writer and director Demetrius Wren remains cool and composed as he’s pulled in all directions by people requesting his attention.

The home belongs to a relative of executive producer Carl Kurlander, who volunteered it as the setting for an 85th birthday party celebrating one of the film’s major characters, an influential African-American matriarch named Laverne Livingston. Played by Rita Gregory, she’s described as a business magnate who grew a national media company and real estate conglomerate from a small daily paper in the Hill District.

The Squirrel Hill location marks a departure for a weeks-long shoot that has primarily taken place in the Hill District, with scenes being shot at places like the Energy Innovation Center and the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center.

Writer/director Demetrius Wren (right) pauses on the steps of his Squirrel Hill set. Photo by Amanda Waltz.
Writer/director Demetrius Wren (right) pauses on the steps of his Squirrel Hill set. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

Kurlander has become instrumental in bringing the micro-budget indie to life through his organization, Steeltown. But it’s more than another local movie productionit’s also playing a role in making Pittsburgh’s growing film scene more diverse by giving real-world experience to students and Hill District residents who have never worked on a shoot.

“It’s as ambitious as any movie I’ve been involved in,” says Kurlander, whose credits include writing the 1985 film, St. Elmo’s Fire, and acting as a writer and producer for the Saved By the Bell: The New Class television series.

He adds that Steeltown hosted workshops at the Hill House last February to recruit amateur local talent able to fill about 200 positions ranging “from camera to catering.” He estimates that the project now boasts two dozen inexperienced crew members and more than a dozen people from the Hill District.

In one of the lead roles is Wren’s wife and producing partner, Christina, who’s a North Side native. The couple started a production company, Two Kids With a Camera, and have worked on multiple projects together, including the PBS kids show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Even with the hectic schedule and shoestring budget, she’s pleased with how well The Rehabilitation of The Hill has come together.

“It has been crazy, but it’s been kind of miraculous,” says Christina, who plays Kelly, a nonprofit manager who comes up against Laverne’s granddaughter, Gwen (Kelsey Packwood). “It feels like all the pieces have come together. So many people have supported it and wanted to be a part of it. It’s been kind of amazing to see.”

Actress/producer Christina Wren has her hair styled by Taquaya Williams. Photo by Amanda Waltz.
Actress/producer Christina Wren has her hair styled by crew member Taquaya Williams. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

The film owes much to Denzel Washington, who insisted on using a diverse crew when he shot his Oscar-winning August Wilson adaptation Fences here. Kurlander says the experience “brought to light that we need to do better” and inspired him to invest in Wren, an African-American filmmaker who has built a career in Los Angeles.

Pittsburgh has grown increasingly desirable as a hub for more movie and television production since Pennsylvania became one of the few states to offer a film tax credit. Last year, two major motion pictures and four television series shot in southwestern Pa., which translated into $115 million being spent in the region, according to the Pittsburgh Film Office.

With that growth comes the concern that not everyone has access to participate in the city’s film and television economy. Even The Rehabilitation of The Hill ‘s premisea wealthy African-American family in the Hill District considers the possible gentrification of their neighborhoodreflects fears of residents being left behind as Pittsburgh undergoes its latest renaissance.

To ensure the project would get off the ground, Kurlander got Wren hired as a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh so the film could serve as a teaching exercise for students. The project also receives support as part of Pitt’s Year of Diversity, an event meant to highlight and promote opportunities for marginalized groups in Pittsburgh.

The shoot includes a large number of people of color, some of whom come from all over the world. An assistant cameraman, Haji Muja, came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia, while Victor Gariseb, a senior at Pittsburgh Milliones, University Preparatory School, emigrated from Namibia.

There’s also a mix of experiences. Extras who have never acted perform with cast members like Harry Lennix, a seasoned professional actor playing Laverne’s son, Davidson, a businessman who’s intent on redeveloping The Hill.

Makeup special effects artist Masie Kuh (left) works on an extra. Photo by Amanda Waltz.
Makeup special effects artist Masie Kuh (left) works on an extra. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

For her first-ever film job, Taquaya Williamsa hair stylist who works under her personal brand Quay Styleswields a curling iron and other tools in the bathroom of a bedroom that’s been converted into a makeshift hair, makeup and wardrobe department. She admits it took a while to get used to the 12-hour days and “hurry up and wait” speed of production, but she now sees film as a potential career.

“I really love it,” she says as she finishes with a “party girl” extra whose hair is done in an elaborate up-do complete with eye-catching gold accents.

Williams also believes the project highlights the need for more diversity in a city where race issues still very much exist.

“I feel like we’re so segregated in Pittsburgh and I hate that,” says Williams, who adds that she was always the only Black girl working in local salons.

She believes her ability to style all hair types makes her more than “a Black hairstylist for Black movies.”

“If you have a movie where you need a 1920s look with finger waves or whatever, I can do it all,” she adds.

Demetrius Wren (left) and Carl Kurlander (right). Photo by Amanda Waltz.
Demetrius Wren (left) and Carl Kurlander (right). Photo by Amanda Waltz.

She works alongside veterans like Patty Bell, a makeup artist who has worked on Pittsburgh film and television productions for nearly 30 years, most recently on Fences and WGN’s Outsiders series.

Like Williams, Bell was also surprised at the long, demanding work hours when she first started.

“People think it’s so glamorousit’s not glamorous,” she says, recalling how her first job, a 1991 thriller called Iron Maze, required her to wear a protective suit and headgear on location in a steel mill where asbestos rained down from the ceiling.

Still, Bell, who resides in Green Tree, feels grateful for being able to work in the industry without having to leave Pittsburgh. “I’ve made a really great living doing this,” she says.

As The Rehabilitation of The Hill prepares to wrap this week, Kurlander looks forward to it having an impact on breaking down barriers in the city.

“It’s really a nice script and has wonderful actors,” says Kurlander. “The making of the movie, the process, is going to have an effect.”

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.