Thursday, May 3, 2012

Legendary Filmmaker Tony Buba, Part One!

Tony Buba, In His Studio
Winter 1989. I am in Baltimore, where my fiancé – now wife of 22 years, thank you! – was living at the time.  Braddock, PA filmmaker Tony Buba was appearing at the Baltimore Museum of Art, at a screening of his 1988 classic documentary, Lightning Over Braddock.  There was a full house, and in the Q and A after the screening, Tony fielded a number of questions from the attendees. My question didn’t quite reflect the depth of knowledge regarding film, or urban decay, as some of my fellow attendees. I simply asked which pizza Tony liked more, Mineo’s or Vincent’s. With a hearty laugh, Tony got it right – Mineo’s.
November, 2011. I am at the Braddock Library for a memorial service for David Demarest, the father of Jamie Demarest, one of my closest friends since High School. I knew David Demarest loved Pittsburgh and its urban landscapes, and loved to spend time in neighborhoods like Braddock.  He was extremely active not only in helping to rejuvenate towns such as Braddock, but in fighting for any number of important social causes.  He is the man who revived “Out of This Furnace,” a book by Thomas Bell that captured immigrant life in a Western Pennsylvania steel town, and he was instrumental in preventing the shut-down of the Braddock library.  The man filming the memorial service was Tony Buba.
After the service I asked Tony if he’d mind setting up a time to have a conversation.  He is a man I have long respected – a local filmmaker who stayed loyal to his home town through its worst years.  We had a fantastic conversation. Tony is an accomplished filmmaker, an icon of the Pittsburgh/Braddock community, and as you would expect, a natural story-teller. And he’s also quite active – he is working on a number of new projects, and from June 8-12 his work will be featured at the Anthology Film Archives, in New York. Here’s the link:

I am excited to share our conversation with you. It’s going to take two entries though! This entry – part one – will focus on Tony's amazing film career, which you can learn more about at   Part two, coming soon, will recount our conversation about Pittsburgh and its neighborhoods, some of the great qualities that make the city so special, and some of the challenges Tony faces as a regional filmmaker from this area.

Monte: You know, it was really the David Demarest memorial service that brought us together.
Tony with the interviewer
Tony: Well, Dave Demarest and (Demarest’s colleague and fellow Carnegie Mellon University professor) Gene Levy were really crucial to my whole career.   I was working on George Romero films and doing these short Braddock films. I worked on (Romero’s) Martin.  It was 1976, and I thought I was going to make millions because at that time there were tax shelters for films, and Romero was working on these sports documentaries. I dropped out of college, we did Rocky Blier, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw …we were making decent money but all of a sudden Carter got elected and eliminated the tax shelter!
If you were invested in independent film production, you could put up $20,000, you could write off $80,000! Nobody cared if the films didn’t make money! People started taking advantage of it.  No one was making any films, they were buying negatives and it became a scam. So they got rid of it.
Monte: And how did you get started?
Tony:  I was working with Romero, he did this low-budget vampire film called Martin, most of it was filmed at my mother’s house!  And then, I got a teaching job at the University of Southern Illonois in Cabrondale, so I was out there for a year, and then I came back and started doing these screenings of these films in Pittsburgh of the shorts I made, and I wanted to do more of a historical piece.  It was called “Voices of Steeltown,” and I had never applied for a grant before. So I went to the Humanities Council, and Gene and Dave said they’d help me with the grants. I met that at Ryan’s Pub in Regent Square.
Monte: How did you make initial contact with them?
Tony:  I did some screenings in Pittsburgh, did some publicity, so they looked at what I had written, they rolled their eyes, and said, “Tony let us work on this a little bit,” and they rewrote the entire proposal! And I ended up getting $15,000 from the Humanities Council!
Monte: And you stayed in touch?
Tony: All the time, all the time. Gene was a real movie buff. I always thought Gene was in the English department and Dave was in the Humanities Department. I didn’t realize it was the other way around!  Then Dave got involved in the Braddock library, and just stayed involved.
Monte:  So tell me more about the relationship with Dave. I’ve really come to admire him. That memorial service was just amazing!
Tony: He was just really supportive, and he really liked this film I finished just a while ago called “Ode to Steeltown,” where I went around and asked everyone  what they thought the poetry of Pittsburgh was. He really loved that.  We just became friends, but what it also taught me was that just because I never went to Carnegie Mellon, there’s people at Universities that are interested in your work and might want to support you. And that’s just what Dave and Gene did, through Struggles In Steel, everything.
Monte: Tell me about Struggles In Steel.
Tony:  I finished that in ‘98, a history of African-American steel workers. What happened is, they aired a local documentary on channel 4 about people who lost their job in the mill, and they didn’t have a single black person in it. It took us about five years to do the project, with fundraising and everything. We ended up raising $250,000 for it.  It just took forever.
Monte: What’s the last movie you made?
Tony:  The last feature length was Struggles, but I keep making shorts, including last year. Before that I had a piece called No Pets which was a fictional film. No Pets went no-where! You have a film where there’s no action, no sex and the major lead is not likeable and doesn’t develop, you won’t have an audience either! It did get some distribution in England…they showed it at a London film festival and it really went over well! A distributor picked it up but six months later, they went under.
The most popular thing I’ve finished lately is a video called Carhartt Baby You Broke My Heart –about Carhartt jeans – it’s had about 25,000 hits.  Watch the video below - or go to:
Steve Pellegrino, who did all the music for all my other films, he makes his living doing drywall, so we filmed him in his underwear, doing drywall, and singing about the Jeans! The  Carhartt company liked it so much, they started producing the Jeans again, and they flew to Pittsburgh and took him out to lunch, and they use the video with their sales reps!
So I have a couple big projects that I haven’t    finished yet.  One is on the closing of the Braddock Hospital.  The other is on my family.  I’ve been following them for 15 years and haven’t finished it yet. In 2000, I was working with WQED , and we were supposed to do to a three part series on the Italians in America. We came really close to getting fully funded, but WQED wouldn’t guarantee the money. It was close to $2 million dollars. Olive Garden was going to put up half the money and we’d raise the rest of it, but they wanted a guarantee of a national airing.  WQED was going through some hard times and didn’t want to guarantee it, so the funding fell through. I actually had a crew on call, waiting in Italy for the result of this meeting and it fell through. So that depressed me for a little bit!
Monte:  I bet it did.
Tony:  And now I have this material but you need some kind of narrative thread, and I haven’t really figured that out yet. Also, what is it? Is it a web piece? Is it short vignettes with story lines on the web? The whole distribution mode has changed so much, it’s very tough to figure.
Monte: Is it difficult to get distribution beyond the Internet these days?
Tony: Well yeah, you’re mostly talking…the universities, the museum circuit, that type of thing. It’s going to change more because DVDs are going to disappear in ten years. It’s easier to get distribution on the net because you do it yourself, but how you monetize it is a different story. It doesn’t cost as much money to shoot it, to produce it, and all that, but there’s so much product out there that the money you’re not spending on shooting you have to spend it on advertising.  And, how do you get above the clamor because there is so much!
Monte: What got you interested in film in the first place?
Tony:  It was accidental. I was at Edinboro University – I didn’t start going to college until I was almost 25. I was going to a lot of anti-war demonstrations and taking a lot of photos. For a behavioral psychology class instead of doing a paper, I did a slide show. The class had nothing to do with film, but also I had a work-study job at the campus TV station and there was one guy there who had just got his masters degree – he was only about four or five years older than me. He hired me to work on his film shoots for the school. I did audio for him, and he encouraged me to turn the slide show into a film and apply to grad school. 
So I did, and back then, going to grad school was a lot different than it is now. Five bucks to apply, I went to Ohio University. No one really had access to media so they couldn’t judge media work as an undergraduate…a funny story, the guy in charge, his name was Joe Anderson, I think he’s in Boston now, he was just a real character. He took anybody that was older, or had a funny sounding last name. He took Cathy Kodak, Tommy Tuttle…
Monte: That’s literally how these things were decided?
Tony:  He just wanted people who were interesting, because he felt he could teach anybody to just run equipment. It was like, he thought the tech end, people could learn on their own, but he wanted to create a department where people with lots of different backgrounds could bounce ideas off each other, get feedback, for their work.
Monte: Really true about how different it is in grad school. When I went to Pitt – in 1983 – I had a check from my parents for about $800 bucks.  Wouldn’t buy your books now!
Tony:  When I talk to students now, I tell them that they need to consider whether they want to go to Grad School for film or not. Because unless you want to teach, financially it doesn’t make sense. When I went to grad school, it was only a thousand dollars. And you had access to two or three hundred thousand dollars of equipment. Today you pay thirty thousand, and you have access to ten thousand dollars of equipment – all the stuff has come down in price so much!
Monte:  Have you been able to make a living through the films all these years?
Tony:  I’ve made a living, it’s a combination of the films and doing audio work. When I first came back to Pittsburgh in the seventies, there was the work with George Romero, I was teaching adjunct at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, there was always industrial video, with Westinghouse, US Steel. I worked a lot with Westinghouse. I did audio. And what I would do between all that, I would get visiting artist appointments at all these universities. So you know, you taught for a year, maybe get unemployment for 26 weeks, went to Edinboro, Ohio University, University of Wisconsin in Madison…
Monte: Beautiful campus.
Tony:  I didn’t want to go there, but I fell in love with Madison. Then I worked on, Dawn of the Dead, and Martin, Creepshow, all this Romero stuff. You know back in the late 70s early 80s there was a lot of made for TV movies made here in Pittsburgh, and so people would go work on those crews, and people liked going to work on these features, but that left industrial jobs open, which paid better and also gave me time to work on my own projects.
Monte:  I was in Dawn of the Dead, by the way!  I played a zombie!  Do you know Romero’s makeup guy, Tom Savini?
Tony:  Yeah, I just saw him last Sunday.  I first met him on Martin.
Monte:  What’s George Romero doing these days?
Tony:   He’s up in Toronto, he’s out of Pittsburgh. He made a film last year, a low-budget piece.
Monte:  I think he took the zombie theme about as far as it could go.
Tony:  Yeah but the man generated an industry. You go to these conventions, there are all these books, you get the Walking Dead on TV now, he created the industry. It’s amazing.
Monte: Something I’ve wondered about…do you see yourself as a political person, or a social commentary guy? How do you view yourself in that context?
Tony:  Goes back and forth. My mother was born in Italy, my grandparents were born there, my dad was born here, but his dad was born there. So, you’re caught between two cultures, not quite a part of either one, so you always feel a distance, so no matter how emotionally involved I get in something, I’m always able to step back, and it drives my friends crazy sometimes, because I can distance myself from a lot of things and that’s really helped with the films.
But I got interested in filmmaking because of politics. The same stuff that Third World Newsreel was doing, back in the late 60s and early 70s, on the Black Panther party, and all the movements, and I was actually part of the anti-war movement, so it was actually politics first, and I wanted to get in films so I could make anti-war films.  But my personality has never let me do that. I mean I start off with what I think is a real political position, but I end up bordering on bourgeoise sentimentalism! For filmmaking, everything is just too complex and all the issues are too complex. To simplify everything just doesn’t do justice to everything.
But then I saw the films from Appalshop, from Whitesburg, Kentucky. And their documentaries were social.  They started a film-making co-op, in this small town in Kentucky.  They got so tired of CBS, Walter Kronkite coming down and saying how poor they were, and send shoes to Kentucky, and they were part of this whole series on poverty in Appalachia, so they thought, if anyone was going to tell the story, they would tell their own story. So I got influenced by that, and then started doing stuff on Braddock.
Braddock started somewhat accidental. I broke up with a woman and was coming home a lot – it was when I was in graduate school, at Ohio University.  So I ended up coming home one weekend and they were clearing out my grandfather’s shoemaker shop on Braddock Avenue. They rented it out to someone, and they quit the business and sold it to Keystone tire, so I did a documentary on that. Then another weekend, Jimmy Roy was having a grand opening of a used furniture store. So, I had just got done seeing all these Luis Bunuel films, surrealism, and I got interested in how the American dream was reduced to opening up a used furniture store.
Monte: That sounds like your movies.
Tony: Yeah. So I think they’re political, but not overtly political.
Monte:  It’s the underlying message. What I like about your films is that you let the story tell itself. You use humor and don’t hit people over the head with it.
 Tony: The thing is, sometimes filmmakers do the same subjects over and over. I got tired of doing the cutaway things, so we ended up with Sal doing more observational stuff, with extended takes.  But when the mills started closing, I was shooting stuff but not getting paid for it, so I came up with that film on Sal (Sweet Sal), and then I came up with the idea for Lightning Over Braddock. I had the idea of making a film about a filmmaker, he makes a film on some subject but then he can’t get that subject out of his life. What I wanted to do was set it against all the mills closing down. So every time there was a rally, we’d shoot a scene.
At the time there were all these documentaries – you’ve seen them – where they’d interview someone like me, or some other cranky communist, show some archival material, Pete Seeger would sing a song, and they were successful, but they got to the point of being parodies.
I wanted to try something with Lightning, where the audience would get mad at the director because he’s fooling around with this chacacter Sal, while behind him, the mills are closing; the whole economy is going under, you are playing with that fourth wall and all that kind of stuff.
Monte: Why do you think it caught on like it did?
 Tony:  One thing was our timing, nobody had done anything like that, combining a documentary and fiction, but the other thing is that Sal was just so riveting. I just showed it up in Brooklyn, the whole audience was under 25, and it still works.
Monte:  Was Sal an old friend of yours? How did you know him?
Tony:  In those days there were always people hanging out at street corners, and Sal was one of those people. He and my cousin had a numbers joint together.  Sal was 15 years older than us. We were 15 and he was 30. He would hang out with all the teenagers. You know, he was always smoking dope, he had the alligator lizard shoes, he carried a gun. He hung out in Braddock…
Monte:  It sounds like people I knew at the Corner Pocket, in Squirrel Hill.
Tony:  And that’s what made it universal. You know at that time, everyone from our age down, knew the street corner crew, and the whole group that was always out there…I always thought that street corner life would never die. You see it still in the African-American community, but in the whte community, you don’t see guys just hanging out, people would just stand out there and wait for the midnight edition of the Post-Gazette. You’d hang out, have coffee…
Monte: Did you ever think about doing a movie about them, about the street corner culture?
Tony:  No I just…took it for granted.  I didn’t realize how interesting some of these subjects were until I showed them. I mean, no one had thought about documenting them before. But you know, J Roy, Sal, Betty’s Corner Café…I knew the culture was disappearing but I didn’t expect it to disappear so fast.
Monte:  I remember going out with my mom and dad, every Saturday night around 11 when I was a kid…to pick up that Post-Gazette.  It was the Sunday morning, early morning edition.  It was my dad, who grew up in the North Side, who would always make sure we got it.
Tony:  It was always a mixture of ages, so you always heard these stories from all these different people…it was just fascinating.
Monte: So were you part of the street culture group?
Tony:  Oh yeah, even in college!
Monte: What are you planning to do next?
Tony:  I mentioned the Italian film, and the closing of the Braddock hospital, and then I do have a third one, it’ll be my last Braddock film, starting where Lighting Over Braddock left off…maybe like a musical. I’d have people singing songs to different images, my ballad to Braddock. I’ll have Steve write a song, “This Ain’t Your Town Anymore.”  Because the people I know they’re all dead. I still know some people, but it’s not my town anymore. I live in Braddock Hills now. I just sold my mother’s house last week. Someone else owns it.
Note: This film now has a name – Thunder Over Braddock – and here’s the preview for it that Tony has put together:
Monte:  Well, let me just ask you about some recent activities, past and present.
Tony:  Latoya (note – Latoya Ruby Frazier is a visual artist from Braddock, PA whose association with Tony will be discussed in part two), she was in Braddock photographing, and I was out there protesting the closing of the hospital. We ended up becoming friends…and she’s one of the hot young artists in New York City. She’s also really generous. She has been pushing my films to all these other people, she looked at them and she has an understanding of where she’s from because of my films, especially Struggles in Steel. She set up this screening for me in Brooklyn last week, and on May 11, she’s doing a performance piece at the Whitney and I’m going up for that.  My wife and I are in it, though I’m not sure what we’ll be doing!
The Anthology Films Archive in New York City, they want to do this retrospective on every film I’ve made. So I’ll be up there June 8th to the 14th.  I hope to have something finished by then, even if it’s only a five minute short, just something I can show in the lobby.
But what I’m really working on, I’ve signed up with the Filmmakers, I’m trying to raise funds…because I have all these films sitting around, I need them to be transferred to video and archived. Even the old prints are falling apart…I need to raise money to get new prints struck and to figure out how to have all this stuff available for people in the future. It’s footage from a different era. All the photographs I’ve taken I’m getting that all digitized…and even the videos I’ve shot that I’ve never done anything with, I need to get all those transferred.
Monte:  How many movies have you made?
Tony:  Maybe around 20 I guess, including the shorts.
Monte: So overall, when you look back…
Tony:  It’s been a great life! Barely graduated high school... My mother had to cry to the principal so they let me graduate with a general diploma, so my whole life has been gravy. It’s been an interesting ride!
Learn More About Tony and his films at:
End Part One! More To Come!


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