To capture the very particular ambiance of a top shelf university, the production of SMART PEOPLE took place largely in and around the campus of Carnegie Mellon, which was recently named by Newsweek as one of the “New Ivies” and has long been one of America's most selective leading colleges. The setting of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburrgh, Pennsylvania was especially attractive to Michael London and Bruna Papandrea, who had developed a great affection for the Northeastern city when they shot a screen adaptation of Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh there earlier that year. London talked to Mark Poirier about incorporating the location into the screenplay, not just idly but weaving the school and the town into the very fabric of the story.
“I tend to gravitate towards movies that have a sense of place, that aren't set in some generic `movieland,'” says London. “So it's not just that we shot SMART PEOPLE in Pittsburgh; we reset the movie in Pittsburgh. We took Carnegie Mellon and we made Dennis' character a teacher at Carnegie Mellon. Dennis really feels like a Pittsburgh character to me and that all becomes part of the experience.”
The filmmakers were also excited by the visual uniqueness of Pittsburgh, a city that Lawrence Wetherhold jokes is “the Paris of Western Pennsylvania.” “A great thing about shooting in Pittsburgh is that it's a painting you haven't seen before,” says Bruna Papandrea. “Up till now, not a lot of films have been shot here.”
Noam Murro was taken with the visual possibilities inherent to Carnegie Mellon's campus, which sits on 140 acres about three miles outside of downtown Pittsburgh. “It's not he traditional Ivy League campus, with red brick with ivy growing on the walls. It gave us a much fresher, more interesting look for the film,” he says. “Additionally, Carnegie has a strong English Department and is also renowned for their Drama and Engineering Departments, so that suited the storyline of SMART PEOPLE. Most of all, it felt like the University that Lawrence would teach at.”
The campus not only provided authentic locations, from offices to lecture halls, but a bevy of enthusiastic students who served as extras, production assistants and interns during the shoot. Production designer Patti Podesta, whose work has ranged from the backwards universe of Memento to recreating the Ambassador Hotel of 1968 in Bobby, worked closely with Murro to take full advantage of the rich academic atmosphere. Moving off campus, she especially enjoyed delving into the details of the Wetherholds' on-hold lives to create their well-worn home. After scouring the city, Podesta chose a house in the area known as Friendship, drawn to its genteel neighborhood feel. Over a period of two weeks, the house was completely remodeled and refurnished in a manner befitting a family that has been stuck in a mire of grief and missed connections over the last decade. When cast and crew arrived in Pittsburgh, they hit the ground running, shooting the film in just 29 tightly scheduled days. Murro set an electrifying pace and kept things moving at a rapid-fire speed.
“Noam brought to the project an abundance of energy and was able to make very quick decisions on scenes and move through the schedule,” says Papandrea. “I worked with Sydney Pollack for years and what always amazed me was that, even though he had been making movies for 40 or 50 years, he still did it with the energy of a 30 year old. Noam has that same energy - no amount of work is too much. He has an amazing mind and it was incredible to watch him on set.”