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By Mike Watt | June 25, 2004

“There are these guys from Pittsburgh who just finished a movie…”

I’d been hearing that a lot lately. Independent film is alive and thriving in Pittsburgh, pockets of artists creating these underground movies, working under the radar of the Pittsburgh Film Office and darned near anyone else. Every time I turned around, someone was telling me about this project or that. Project: Valkyrie is one of the latest of these underground masterpieces: a science-fiction action/comedy shot on digital video by Jeff Waltrowski, Steve Foland, and their producer, Nic Pesante. The title refers to a humanoid robot that was built in the ‘40s by the young and brilliant Professor Jack Cranston. “Project: Valkyrie” was to be America’s secret weapon against the Nazis. Flash forward over sixty years later, and Jack’s ne’er-do-well grandson, Jim, has inherited the robot. Just in time, too, because a crew of mutated neo-Nazis are threatening life, liberty and the American Way.

Since its completion in 2002, Project: Valkyrie has won awards, played major film festivals and has been turned down by most major distributors. It’s one of those weird little movies that just does not fit comfortably into any particular box. Vastly entertaining, it’s a veritable homage-stew, paying tribute to everything from “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” to ‘40s serials to Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy. It’s “J-Men Forever” played straight, a “Rocket-Man” retrospective with (or without) the irony. And because of this, the filmmakers have gotten blank stares, screening-room walk-outs, and rave reviews. A portrait of the new millennium independent film.

I knew Jeff from our tour of education at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where we learned the basic tenets of movie-making: camera-work, sound work, framing, lighting. It was there that Project: Valkyrie first took shape. “When I was a Junior at Filmmakers, I did a short called ‘The Electric Club’, which was done as a 1930s serial that was all about the Professor Jack character,” Jeff says. “That went over well. Everyone liked that. When I went to do my senior (thesis) film, I wanted to do something along those same lines, but set it in the present day. The thing with ‘The Electric Club’ was, if you’d never seen a serial, you wouldn’t get any of the jokes. It was completely done in the style of a serial. I know, who cares about appealing to an audience? So I had the idea about the robot, then I brought Steve in because I had no idea where to go with it.”

The co-writers decided to throw in everything they loved into one film. “Jeff’s primary influences were the serials,” Steve says. “We both had the ‘Evil Dead’ films in mind, obviously. I’m a big comic book nerd. So it was like, ‘well, we’re going to have to poison the reservoir, we’re going to have Professor Jack in the ‘40s, we’re going to have the robot, the zombies and the downy-clowny ending’.”

Pittsburgh Filmmakers requires every student to make a short film, from script to finished print, in order to graduate. “The Senior Film” has made and broken many a student. There have been students who have never finished, and there have been some who have been able to either use their senior film as a resume piece to get work at bigger film companies. There have been a few who were able to sell their shorts for distribution on compilation tapes. And every now and then, it sparks something else.

In Steve’s and Jeff’s case, the senior film took on a life of its own and went beyond what they felt Filmmakers could offer them. “The short was never completed,” Steve says. “We figured that if we were going to start dishing money into something, we’d better make it a feature.”

With the decision made, Jeff left Pittsburgh Filmmakers. Steve dropped out of Penn State with one semester to go.

“School never really worked out for any of us,” Nic says.

Nic Pesante is the youngest member of the group, twenty-one to Jeff’s twenty-four and Steve’s twenty-seven. Yet, as they describe him, “he’s the guy in the suit while we’re the goofballs in the cartoon t-shirts.” Nic and Jeff met while they were both working at Ritz Camera in Century III Mall, and Jeff started to talk about this project he wanted to do. Nic, it turned out, is a bit of an entrepreneur. He’d experimented with investment and production before, with a record label he’d started while still in high school. The record label didn’t survive, but he’d learned a lot from the experience. And the movie sparked his interest. Even though, as he jokes, “I try to stay away from the ‘art’ side of the business.”

“We brought Nic in because he knew how money worked. He knew how to add and subtract and we had no idea how to do that stuff,” Jeff says.

And Nic proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt. He was able to raise almost the entire forty-thousand dollar budget. In Hollywood terms, this is a blip on the money-radar screen. In these days of fifty-million dollar price tags, forty-thousand barely pays for the mineral water bill. The budget was spent on paying actors (an almost-foreign concept in independent productions), paying themselves so that they could take time off from work to produce the film, and to buy the equipment. They opted for a high-end digital camera and computer editing system, rather than going the route of shooting on 16mm film. “If we shot 16mm, we’d be putting all the money into the film stock and processing. We wanted to put the money into the effects and the make-up and stuff like that,” Jeff says. It saved on time as well. “We’d probably still be shooting if we shot 16mm.”

The interview continues in part two of “PROJECT: VALKYRIE” VS. THE WORLD>>>

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