See how it all began>>>

When I got out of work on Tuesday, I found a napkin on my dashboard. At first, I thought it was a warning from a traffic cop low on tickets (I was parked illegally, after all). I opened it up and read what was written upon it: “Rodriguez is coming,” it said. “Don’t tell anybody.”

So now I’m thinking that my partner, Bill Homan, had broken into my car and left me a cryptic note designed to drive me crazy. He, Amy and I used to do things like this all the time. Then I recognized the handwriting as Amy’s.

And that’s when I realized what it meant.

Rodriguez. Robert Rodriguez. Cameron Romero and/or Greg Nicotero had convinced him to come to the Pittsburgh “Land of the Dead” premiere. Rodriguez is one of my heroes. Instantly, my brain stopped.

But that’s what the last few weeks had been like. I’d touch base with Cameron, or his partners, Chris Lombardo, Jason Ralph or Joel Dinkle, and they’d update me on what was happening that day—or, in some cases, what had just happened.

“Simon and Edgar are confirmed,” Cameron told me over the phone a few days prior to the napkin incident, referring to the star and director (respectively) of “Shaun of the Dead”. “The only thing we have to figure out now is how to get them from JFK to Pittsburgh. There are no direct flights on Wednesday.”

A few hours later, my phone rang again. “We found a chartered plane to bring in Simon and Edgar,” Cameron told me. “I just emailed Simon and wrote, ‘You should be in Pittsburgh by 4pm, provided the pilot of the crop duster is drunk enough to fly’. He wrote back, ‘Not to worry; I’ve clocked over 4500 hours of combat flight. I’ll bring it in myself if I have to’. How f*****g cool is that?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course. One that Cameron had been asking me for days now. My mind has been reeling, and I knew I wasn’t a tenth as dizzy as the guys at CamOp must have been. The four, plus their interns, Joe Kromer and Jason Massa, had been working sixteen hour days for close to a month to get all the details ironed out. Press releases had to be approved by Steeltown, the company who first contacted Cam about the event, and then by Universal’s legal department, who almost literally had them change “a” to “the” in some cases. Add to that the hoops they had to jump through to make sure that Tarantino, Pegg, Wright, and all the other guests would be taken care of, transportation and accommodations were arranged, etc. On top of that, add two high-profile parties and a sneak screening of what was shaping up to be the most eagerly-anticipated horror movie of the year at a prestigious theater in downtown Pittsburgh…

Nobody was sleeping.

By Tuesday afternoon, just after the Rodriguez bomb was dropped, the waters seemed to calm. Cam sounded more serene on the phone than I’d heard him in over a month. “It’s all come together, man,” he said, causing me to duck the lightning bolt I was sure he’d summoned. “The details are ironed out; now it’s just a matter of pulling it all off.”

Tuesday night, I issued their last press release, though sworn to secrecy about Rodriguez. The auteur from Austin (ew, I can’t believe I just wrote that…) wanted no press. He just wanted to come and hang with his friends and see the movie. He was flying himself in Wednesday and would be leaving that night. No fuss was to be made. So I sent out the official news that George A. Romero, Tarantino, Greg Nicotero, Pegg and Wright would be in attendance at Pittsburgh. Along with Romero regulars Joe Pilato, Lori Cardille, Tom Savini… the list didn’t seem to end.

Wednesday morning. I dropped Amy off at work and headed straight over to the offices, beating everyone there save Joel. There was a weird surface tension in the air. “Things are calmer,” Joel told me. “Definitely calmer. I think it’s gonna go pretty smoothly. Chris and Cam are picking Tarantino up at the airport now, so they should be back in a bit.”

Joe and Jason, the interns, wandered in. I hadn’t seen Joe without a phone pressed to his ear in over a month. “He’s definitely a machine,” Joel said.

I ran downstairs to grab my camera to shoot some behind-the-scenes stuff, just for the hell of it. Filmmaker Chris Ivey was in charge of the real documentary stuff, but I needed something to do. As I grabbed my gear, Cam and Chris rolled up, doughnuts in hand and cigars the size of chair legs held in the corners of their mouths. They looked like they were performing a dinner-theater version of “Goodfellas”, they were that confident.

“Just hung out with Tarantino,” Cam said, with his s**t-eating, matter-of-fact style. “Picked him up at the airport. Told him, ‘This is the only fanboy thing I’m gonna say to you: I’m a big fan, and it’s an honor to meet you.’ And then we hung like we knew each other for years.”

Chris shrugged and grinned around his cigar. “It was sweet,” he said.

Tarantino was registered under an alias at the William Penn hotel, as were the others. (And as far as I knew, they were all registered under the same alias. Which is a CamOp joke. “We should call down and ask for just that name,” Amy joked later, “Listen as the desk attendant’s head explodes.”) The “Pulp Fiction” director’s room wasn’t ready when they arrived, though. “They had to put him in the Executive King Suite,” Chris told me. “They were still making up the Executive Presidential Suite for him.”

We’re talking about a pair of rooms that rival entire neighborhoods in terms of space. The difference can only be measured in kilometers.

“God, how will he ever survive in such squalor?” I said.

I hung out at the office until it was time to pick Amy up from work. I watched everyone swarm around the office like worker ants on cell phones. People were still calling for tickets, both for purchase and shlubs looking for last-minute comps. Word had finally gotten around that this was a big f*****g deal. The last movie this big to premiere in Pittsburgh was “Silence of the Lambs”, and, if I recall, Demme, Foster, and Hopkins were not present at that one. Nor was it held at the Byham, which is one of the oldest theaters in Pittsburgh (under a new name, but regardless…). Romero was regarded as Pittsburgh royalty, but his reign came in fits and starts over the past few years. Tonight, he was back on the throne where he belonged. Alongside similar royalty from Hollywoodland.

The CamOp guys had worked miracles.

There was a last-minute ball-busting session with Universal, to work out scheduling and press meetings. Red carpet details. I hadn’t yet heard confirmation about the previous night’s L.A. premiere, but I know for a fact that Tarantino hadn’t been at that one. There were more rumors circulating around the office: “Land of the Dead”’s star, Simon Baker, was in New York and was considering driving down as well. There’d been an Asia Argento sighting on the East Coast (which turned out to be false). The zombie star “Big Daddy”, Eugene Clark, was also coming for the premiere.

I picked up Amy. We grabbed lunch for the guys and came back to the office. She started making phone calls—mostly to irate procrastinators demanding to know why there were no more tickets available. “Because we f*****g sold them all,” Chris growled, then quickly corrected. “Oh, don’t say it like that, though.”

Around 2:30, we took off for town. We were going to grab some pictures of the make-up sessions going on at the Byham. Students from the “Savini School” were coming down to turn Byham ushers and Café Euro volunteers into zombies. There were over a dozen students making up somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty people, giving them wounds and rotting flesh. Amy and I were also, unofficially, supposed to make sure that the volunteers knew that they were “Romero zombies” and, therefore, slow walkers. They were also not to approach the celebrities. (Originally, there was supposed to be a “zombie school” taught by Russ Streiner (“Night of the Living Dead”), but too many folks volunteered and there was no way to get them all in one place at the same time.) When we got there, we heard the students giving much the same instructions, so we realized they had everything under control. So we hung out, took pictures, watched as our friend and “Severe Injuries” co-star, Stacy Bartlebaugh-Gmys, was transformed into one of the “stenches”. She was the Byham’s house manager for the evening. It was fun to watch her bark orders into her walkie-talkie later, looking for all the world like her nose was about to fall off. Later, someone put her picture on a sandwich board that read “Your House Manager For the Evening”. Earlier, it had been a glamour-shot; now it was “undead Stacy” in all her rotting glory.

While we were there, we bumped into Mike Furno, director of “UnConventional”, who was there shooting doc footage for the Horror Channel. Other HC reps were also present, shooting us shooting them. It was like the scene in the middle of “Drop Dead Gorgeous”: one doc crew hanging out with another.

Our own cell phones were ringing constantly. Joel wanted to make sure that things were under control as he was stuck in traffic on his way back from meeting Rodriguez at the airport. Low Budget Pictures’ Chris and Lauren Seaver, on their honeymoon, were lost in the wilds of Pittsburgh’s illogical street network during rush hour and we were trying to guide them down to the theater. Between all that, we made arrangements to meet with Bill Homan while we hobnobbed with fans that had already begun to line up.

There was one young girl at the head of the line, Melissa Bradley, a zombie in a bloody wedding dress, nearly passing out from excitement. Her mother kept trying to get her to eat and drink something, before the 80-degree heat and excessive giddiness burst her into flames. “Oh my god, that’s ‘Johnny’ from ‘Night of the Living Dead’! Hi, Johnny!”

“Wave hello, Russ,” I said.

“Have you seen any of Romero’s other movies?”

“A few,” Amy replied.

“I love them all. I love ‘Monkey Shines’. You don’t understand. I would wait here for, like, eight hours for this!”

“Lucky you only have about an hour.”

“But if I had to, I would.”

We said we believed her.

She was standing next to another fan dressed in zombie-garb, Matt Kramer. He had “Land of the Dead” shaved into the side of his head. We assumed that they were together and assumed wrong. They were just two fans brought together through a shared love of Romero and dressing like zombies in 90 degree heat.

She then resumed jumping up and down as “Dawn”’s Joe Shelby walked by. We realized it was time to head up town for the pre-party.

Which was a nightmare.

Not that it was bad. On the contrary, it was packed. Solid. Café Euro isn’t that large of a restaurant. So if you pack 600 people into it, it becomes even smaller. We had walked the five or so blocks to the restaurant with Mike and Mia, the promoters of “Flashback Weekend”, who recognized Amy’s name. “Are you the Amy Lynn Best?” he asked, making me wonder if there was another one out there somewhere, just as there are numerous “Mike Watts” in the world. They were both terribly nice, but as wiped out as we were by the heat and the walk.

Inside, Café Euro wasn’t much better. The door was being watched by Jason Massa, who checked for tickets, ushering them over to CamOp’s Clearchannel partners, Margaret and Lynn, who checked for reservations, etc. Just inside the revolving door, before you reached the multiple-hundred-some-odd people, was a little platform with chairs. Chairs with celebrities sitting in them.

You’d think after ten years of professional journalism, I’d cease becoming star-struck. I was about six feet from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Gob-smacked, I could only stare at them. It didn’t seem real.

“Hey guys,” said a voice. “What’s going on?”

It was Greg Nicotero.

Now, I’ve met Greg a couple of times over the past year or so and interviewed him for The Dark Side. He’s always been tremendously nice to us, always returns a phone call. Reinforcing the fact that it’s not always a bad thing to meet one of your heroes. But each time we bump into him and he not only recognizes us (well, me) but also remembers my name just gives me a little thrill. I don’t get starstruck often, but it’s nice to know that it can still happen.

We bullshitted with Greg for a few minutes, commiserating as crowds aren’t his bag either. Before he excused himself to meet up with his A-List buddies on the dais, he gave Amy a hug and said, “Remember, if you need some gory effects for your next movie, give me a call.”

“But we’d have to figure out how to afford both you and the movie,” she said.

“Let me worry about that,” he said and made his way through the crowd.

Leaving Amy and I to pick our jaws up off the floor.

Time began to warp about then. I’m not sure if it was the heat or the utter surreality of the entire day. This was Pittsburgh, for Christ’s sake, (and I don’t even live here any more)—we don’t see events like this. This is a spirit-and-bone sports town—part of the problem that presented the failures at the Pittsburgh Film Office when they tried to turn the town into “Hollywood on the Mon” (i.e. the Monongahela River) over a decade ago. It’s the problem that faces every indie filmmaker that tries to make a feature here, despite Pittsburgh Filmmakers, despite Point Park College, despite Performance Lighting and countless other production houses: the majority people in this town don’t really care about anything that doesn’t involve a football, a stadium, or vast amounts of beer.

Yet here I was, watching the Savini students pile out of a tricked-out hearse and the CamOp guys file out of a stretch Hummer (action geeks all way, these guys!). Here I was, just a few feet from the two biggest powerhouse maverick filmmakers of the past ten years, while the creative team from “Shaun of the Dead” smiled and waved at me from behind their large escorts as they entered the building behind me.

Here I was, with my two best friends in the world, the two people with whom I created Happy Cloud Pictures, joined periodically by folks like Michael Felsher, formerly of Anchor Bay, now of Red Shirt Productions; or Patrick Desmond, the director of “Absence of Light”; or my old editing instructor, Tony Buba, who directed “Lightning Over Braddock” but was best-known as the “Blood-Pressure Biker” from “Dawn of the Dead”, who reminisced with me while we stood with Joe “Rhodes” Pilato. Faces swirled around me—people I recognized from past conventions, people I’d known all my life and people I’d only ever seen staring back at me from television and movie theater screens.

The heat and the crowd began to really clobber us. We made our way back down to the theater…

Stay tuned for part three of this story!

Photos courtesy of CamOp.

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