Exclusive interview with Tony Buba

Tony Buba grew up in Braddock, PA, a town that he would return to as he filmed a series of documentary shorts that dramatically showed the changes that were coming in the steel crisis of the mid 70s. After working on sound on several projects for George Romero — and appearing with his brother Pat as drug dealers in Martin and bikers in Dawn of the Dead — he made Lightning Over Braddock, a documentary that doesn’t even go deeper into Pittsburgh’s issues but found new ways to play with the documentary form itself.

Since then, Tony has made a series of documentaries that were included in a New York Anthology Film Archives retrospective on his work as part of their Sometimes Cities: Urban America Beyond NYC series. He’s an incredibly insightful voice that has not only documented the vital history of the city I call home, but also someone who was there as some of Pittsburgh’s greatest films were actually being made. You can learn more about Tony at his official site and I encourage you to watch all of his work.

After a quick introduction, some discussion of panettone, what local restaurants can trace their lineage to Vincent’s Pizza and directing commercials in Pittsburgh, we got to discussing movies. I’m in debt to him for the time he spent talking with me and how much I learned during our conversation.

B&S About Movies: I watched Lightning Over Braddock last week and it’s amazing both how much has changed in Pittsburgh and how little really has.

Tony Buba: There has been a change in terms of politics. What hasn’t changed is that the problems are still the same. Another thing that has changed is there’s no industry and you no longer see those structures or people fighting for jobs. industrial jobs — like at that time of the closures when that movie was made — I just don’t think Pittsburgh has ever really totally recovered yet. I mean, the city has some light but you get once you get beyond those narrow city borders to hit the Mon or Beaver Valley, it’s really no recovery.

B&S: As someone who lives in Monongahela and grew up in Ellwood City, I agree.

Tony: The landscape is just so much different, you know, riding on the parkway and coming into Pittsburgh and not seeing the big JNL smokestacks there. I was so disappointed when they tore them out. That should have been just left standing and become a museum. Or they could have done with these mills what they did in Germany and made those reusable. The disappearance of those structures is like the disappearance of characters I used to know and grew up with. A lot of Lightning can no longer exist today.

B&S: Speaking of characters, how much of Lightning is real?

Tony: It was really a blend. I mean, it’s what I was playing with. I was doing a lot of work with George Romero and I was also doing a lot of questioning of the documentary form. I didn’t want the film to be just the viewer consuming it. I wanted them to leave the theater and question what was real. That’s why I had people like Jimmy Roy in my films. I got them roles in George’s films too, like how Sal is in Knightriders as the pillowman selling cushions.

B&S: Sal Caru feels like a force of nature.

Tony: When I was making that movie, I became a character. I became the Tony Buba in the movie. So when I was on the TV shows being interviewed, I didn’t care what the question was, I would just sort of answer it. I knew that I could play it back on VCR to Sal later and have him respond to it. He would just go off, talking about how I left him out of the newspaper and everything else.

B&S: You’d just wind him up and let him go.

Tony: If I could write like Sal talks, I would be a screenwriter or script doctor making a lot of money. (laughs)

B&S: He’s like a Tarantino character before that was even possible.

Tony: Every time he was on a show or appeared, people were just enthralled by him. If he came around today, he’d be a multimillionaire influencer.

B&S: He reminds me of the old Italians who worked for my uncle’s refrigeration shop. I shouldn’t even say worked. They just all say around and made fun of one another and it was better than any TV show. But none of them ever really helped him fix refrigerators.

Tony: My grandfather was a shoemaker and Sal worked for him for a while. My grandmother said he never sold anything. (laughs)

B&S: What also stayed with me was when you said that a lot of millworkers would buy socialist newspapers and that’s how they got connected to the unions. Today, socialism is such a dirty word in politics. Yet Pittsburgh was such a union place and that word didn’t have the same connotation when your movie was made.

Tony: Yeah, I was working in factories in the mid 60s before I started college. All my uncles were all strong union people. What happened in the unions themselves, of course, started with the Red Scare in the 50s. They started kicking out the union members that were more socialists and Communists.

B&S: I get upset when people who live here now get negative about unions and how they had to fight for the rights we expect today. I always think, “We have a whole cemetery up in Homewood that has bodies of men and women who fought for those rights. And the Pinkerton agents they killed, too.”

Tony: I mean, it did work. In some ways, you go through towns like Braddock and some of these mill towns, they’re not a victim of failure. They’re sometimes a victim of success, because unions got these guys decent pay, so they bought houses outside of the mill town. Their kids went to college and never came back. I remember the big strike in 1959 and it went on forever. My dad cleared this property up in Braddock Hills and we planted corn to help pay the bills. But that strike is why people got big wages in the 70s and 80s. They said they wouldn’t ever do a wildcat strike again, but they also added a cost of living raise. And so what people think were exorbitant salaries in the 80s was really because of the contract. The cost of living adjustment because of the inflation at that time was like 15%. These guys automatically got that kind of raise to cover for inflation. So you had them making the big bucks and people were jealous of the steelworkers, especially people that had gone to college and weren’t making the money that the guys in a mill made.

I can never understand that sort of jealousy of someone making more than you. If someone’s collecting garbage and makes more than you, quit your job and collect garbage. Stop trying to make someone else make less than you.

B&S: My grandfather was in the furnace at J&L for 46 years. He’d come home sunburnt on one side and frostbitten on the other. He would tell me about “hell with the lid off” and I couldn’t understand working like that, but that’s how he provided for his family.

Tony: My dad spent 46 years as a boilermaker and welder. I always tried to get into the mill where he worked and today, I realize he kept me from getting hired. Maybe he thought I was a little too goofy (laughs).

B&S: When people come here now, they always say, “I’m surprised it’s so clean.” Well, it wasn’t.

Tony: There were such heavy pollutants, you would feel burning when you breathed the air. Your nose would ache. You don’t smell the rotten egg smell anymore.

B&S: Come to Monongahela. (laughs)

Tony: I love driving down that way on 837, but you can really see the devastation from the mills closing.

B&S: What was it like being here when movies weren’t just being filmed in Pittsburgh, but actually coming from here? What was the energy like with Romero making his films in the mid 70s?

Tony: There were some movies before. At the time, most of it was non-union and when ABC, NBC and CBS are doing the movies of the week, they were coming in shooting. For people like me, you wouldn’t work on them because you made more money working on industrial videos. Most of the crew on those movies came from outside the city, but when I came back from college in 76, there was so much industrial work shooting things for Westinghouse, U.S. Steel, PPG, they all had their own video units.

It was really like an explosion of talent. What an amazing group of people that were that that were here working. And that’s because of WQED. They had a program that my brother was in where he got his MFA. You basically did like two or three years of labor for almost no money but you got your MFA through Carnegie Mellon and you worked on all these PBS shows that were being produced. Plus you got your degree!

In 1976, all anyone was doing was bicentennial stuff and money for that was flowing in.

So where does the explosion of all the independent films after that come from? Tax shelters. Want to make a feature? You didn’t need much money back then, like $40,000. You could go to doctors or chiropractors, dentists, anybody who was high income. Because I think tax rate might have been 50% at the time. You could invest in high risk businesses — which film was considered (laughs) — and you got a five-to-one write-off.

If you went to the chiropractor and got him to invest like $5,000 into your film, over a five year period, he can write off $25,000.

There was a boom in independent productions but then people started cheating on it. They never completed their films but still got the tax deductions. Then they made up a title and claimed they did have a movie. So Carter got elected and all that money dried up.

B&S: And everyone went to Canada.

Tony: (laughs) Yeah. The Romero project, The Winners, that was a tax shelter project.

You had to have a Canadian percentage of your crew. That happened when a lot of filmmakers from Europe came here and wanted to shoot, too. They needed some Americans on the crew. That’s how Ed Lachman got his start because he got to shoot for Herzog.

B&S: Now it makes sense why Sal keeps flipping out over Herzog in Lightning!

Tony: They come into New York to shoot and you needed a New York union person to shoot who would bring their own camera. Ed did that and got to learn from Herzog.

B&S: Within a very short period of time, you had movies that are so important, from Martin and Dawn of the Dead to a movie your brother was part of, Effects.

Tony: They took that movie all the way to the USA Film Festival, which is now Sundance. And then it played King’s Court and then, well…

I don’t know all about the distribution history but it was a hard thing. I think it’s harder to get stuff distributed today than it was back then. Or maybe it’s harder to get stuff known. One of the big things years ago was getting the upfront money. You had all the gatekeepers on the front end and whether you’re going for grant money or investment money to really go over your project, you had to go through them. But now, there’s no problem getting it made but what do you do on the back end? How do you get anyone to see your movie when there’s so much out there?

How do you cut through all that noise if you don’t have a budget for advertising?

B&S: Martin remains so vital to me, even today. I feel like it’s the most Pittsburgh of all Romero’s films and perhaps you can understand so many of its themes, but if you didn’t spend time here, I wonder if you understand why the radio show is so important for Martin.

Tony: KDKA was a big deal here. And George saw how talk radio was just taking off and he incorporated it into his script.

When I was working with George, I was working for my brother’s company Image Works. On the sports stuff we did, I was doing mostly assistant editing working. Synching up footage. It was fun work and the pay was really good. I was also doing assistant camera work on the road and traveling so much. We got to go film Terry Bradshaw’s parents. We got to know Rocky Bleier.

Right before Martin, I was shooting a Chatham College PR spot with George. And at the same time, he was shooting inserts for this Italian splatter film called Spasmo.

B&S: Really!

Tony: They needed more sex and violence for the American version. So we ended up shooting a sequence that I’ve never seen for the American version. I don’t know if it’s even been released, but we shot all this stuff with mannequins.

George’s usual camera person was Michael Gornick. He got married and was on his honeymoon. And the other person who worked with George all the time was Nicholas Mastandrea who has gone on to an amazing career as an assistant director on films like the Scream movies and Looper.

Nick was playing Frisbee with his friends in the park and broke his arm. George then hired me to work on those two films and then we got to become friends. And then he looked at all the films that I had made about Braddock at that time, and he got entranced with Braddock to the point where it became a character almost in Martin.

Martin predicted the decline of the industry and my attraction to it was with Martin being the vampire, to me, he represented the sort of capitalism that has sucked the community dry.

It was shot in my mother’s house, too! I did a The Moth talk about it.

My grandmother stayed downstairs the entire time they shot Martin getting staked through the heart. She prayed the rosary for hours because she was sure they were going to kill him for real.

That’s also George’s comeback movie. There would be no Dawn of the Dead without Martin.

B&S: Can you explain?

Tony: He was making the sports series and all those industrials to pay off the debts from making Season of the Witch and The Crazies. He didn’t want to stiff his investors.

B&S: That explains all the Calgon commercials, which no one realized was George Romero and came from Pittsburgh.

Tony: I got lucky in the film because there were so many crew people and everybody was helping each other out.

On Lightning, you have the opening shot where J. Roy is singing under the archway. That was built by Jan Pascale, who ended up winning an Oscar for set design for Mank. If you look closely in that scene, the fog machine broke so you can see the crew running around and throwing smoke bombs.

One of those guys was Greg Funk. He kept asking, “Can I blow up a car?” He wanted to have a scene where a car blew up so he could put it on his reel.

B&S: When you were working on Dawn of the Dead, did you have idea how big it was going to be?

Tony: There are people who can verify this but one time, when we were getting ready to roll you, right before I said “Roll sound,” I also said, “This is going to be a classic.”

There was something going on with it and you could feel it in the crew. I didn’t think it was going to last for fifty years, but I did think it was going to be equivalent or bigger to what was hot then, something like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Here’s what’s so interesting about making a film that nobody goes into. Whether it’s a documentary, fiction or a short, you never go in thinking your project is bad. You think, “This can be a great film.” But sometimes something takes place while you’re doing it and it turns out to have staying power or something magical about it. And other times it doesn’t and it dawned on me I really sort of felt it when we’re making Dawn. It was going to be something bigger and I had to call attention to it.

The slapstick zombie stuff got added because George didn’t think he had enough footage! He had been shooting 16mm — in addition to 35mm — so that he could see footage sooner and get a sense of the film over the holidays. We couldn’t shoot at the mall so he was editing. And he miscalculated the 35 to 16 for lengths and thought the movie was short on time, so that’s why we did all the stuff in the mall like the pie throwing.

B&S: He was ahead by using the Monroeville Mall the way he did.

Tony: There were a lot of sociology books being written about malls at the time. There’s one I remember called The Malling of America. George was able to take the mall phenomena, the way he captures news and talk shows — the same way he did talk radio in Martin — and he was always there to critique the culture and that’s where his stuff stands out versus just making splatter.

B&S: The scenes in the newsroom came back when COVID-19 coverage first started. It felt like I was watching the chaos of that scene.

Tony: He doesn’t give a big exposition on why this has happened. You’re just thrown into the middle of the situation with no explanation and this is it. He was also fed up with how the news leads to more chaos. He was playing with that at the opening of Dawn, how you just get these bits of news and it causes more panic. And, of course, he was ahead of COVID-19 with The Crazies.

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