From The New York Times | Sunday, Aug. 5, 1990

The New York Times

East Meets West In a Dying Steel Town

In Braddock, a Japanese director films a tale of assault on a Japanese investor

By Harry Kloman

ON A HUMID SATURDAY IN JULY, police stop traffic along a largely abandoned two-block portion of the main street through Braddock, Pa. (population 4,775 and falling) to allow the Japanese film maker Hiroaki Yoshida to continue shooting his first American movie, "Iron Maze," in some of the town's abandoned buildings.

As the sparse afternoon traffic detours along the bumpier side roads, an elderly man, his breath thick with alcohol, approaches the set and asks the production designer, Tony Corbett, for a cigarette. Mr. Corbett has just smoked his last one and recommends the man to a crew member nearby. "These people live in the past," Mr. Corbett later remarks about his encounter with Braddock. "And there's no future for them and no present. Many of them are hoping there will be a third World War."

His observation referred to the heyday of Braddock, a once-booming steel town located up the Monongahela River about 10 miles from downtown Pittsburgh. In the 1940s, the city and its surrounding towns lived on the steel industry, and the region especially profited during World War II, when man and steel together fought the Germans and the Japanese. In the last few decades, the flow of Japanese steel and automobiles to America has turned Braddock and other communities like it in the Pittsburgh area into decaying industrial landscapes.

"We needed an American steel town where the industry was not healthy any more and it was affecting the town around it," says the film's producer, Ilona Herzberg, who grew up in East Germany, West Berlin and Toronto. "There was never really any other city that was being considered." She calls the production's maze of economic and political ironies "a mirror within a mirror within a mirror."

"Iron Maze" is based on a story idea by Mr. Yoshida ("Twilight of the Cockroaches," 1987), who took his inspiration from "In a Grove," the 1927 Japanese novel by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which was also the basis for Akira Kurosawa's classic 1951 film, "Rashomon." Mr. Yoshida's latest movie concerns a Japanese investor, Sugita, who buys a dying Pennsylvania steel town and wants to turn its defunct mill into an amusement park. The investor is almost killed by an assailant in the empty mill, and a local man named Barry, who once worked in the mill, confesses to the crime. When the town police chief grows suspicious, an investigation unfolds in which various witnesses to the assault, including Sugita's young American wife (played by Bridget Fonda), tell their versions of what happened.

Japanese investors provided the film's $10 million budget, $7.5 of which was spent in Pittsburgh. The company filmed nearly eight weeks in the area, and two of those weeks in Braddock, where Ms. Herzberg says the company tried, whenever possible, to buy local products and services. Though Mr. Yoshida had no time to meet Braddock residents, Ms. Herzberg would occasionally talk with people during breaks in the filming, and she became familiar to some of them.

"If you had been here 30 years ago, you would have seen one hell of a town," said Steve (Straighty) Vasko, a Braddock native, to Ms. Herzberg on the last day of filming. Mr. Vasko happened upon Ms. Herzberg in front of a weedy lot between some abandoned buildings on Braddock Avenue, the main street. The two had met and spoken before, and Mr. Herzberg says the people of Braddock treated the movie's crew like good neighbors. The town's volunteer fire company used its hoses to create a rainstorm for the movie, and as a memento, Ms. Herzberg offered to photograph the firemen in a barroom set constructed in an abandoned Braddock building. She told the men they could ask "the prettiest girls on the set" to join them in the photo.

Mr. Herzberg recognizes the dubious honor bestowed upon Pittsburgh by the production's choice of the region as a place to make af film abouut industrial decline. So, too, does Mr. Yoshida, though both say residents showed them no resentment. The closest they came was in pre-production, when Mr. Yoshida and three other Japanese men toured an operating mill they were considering for use in the movie. The mill workers grew silent when the foreigners passed through because, according to Ms. Herzberg, they thought the visitors wanted to buy the mill.

MR. YOSHIDA SAYS HE REALIZES that Americans who see "Iron Maze" may have trouble sympathizing with Sugita, but he insists his work has a wider context than mere politics or economics. "Sugita has a dream," Mr. Yoshida says. "He wants to build an amusement park. He's trying to realize his own dreams, his own innocent dream. It's a very traditional American way, having a dream and trying to make it true.

"Before being an American," Mr. Toshida continues, "Barry is a guy who used to be very proud of his job and his town. Then he lost everything. Sugita is a Japanese guy, but before being a Japanese guy, his father is a sucessful businesssman and a millionaire, so he was born rich, and he doesn't know about danger. Before being Japanese and American, they're human. This exists all over the world."

Though Mr. Yoshida hopes to enlighten people with his movie, he is going about it with a rather unusual philosophy. "Right now, Japanese people are trying to avoid misunderstanding, but I don't think it works. Misunderstanding is very important to understanding each other. We cannot understand each other without making misunderstandings, so finally we will be able to be friends. It doesn't make sense to try to avoid trouble or conflict or struggle." Mr. Yoshida says his film involves many misunderstandings, some between Japanese and Americans and some among the Americans themselves.

One of the film's executive producers, Edward R. Pressman ("Wall Street"), says that having a Japanese director make "Iron Maze" may help buffer reactions to the subject matter. "If a film portraying the influence of Japanese financial power - how it's brought to bear in a foreign arena like Pittsburgh - were described by an American film maker," says Mr. Pressman, "it would perhaps seem like a self-evident, Japanese-bashing kind of subject. The very fact that it's being told by a Japanese film maker makes it less confrontational."

MOST OF THE MILL SCENES in "Iron Maze" were shot in an empty mill in nearby Duquesne. A week before filming ended, Mr. Corbett said he found the decaying mill to be a safer workplace than an abandoned Braddock hotel and its mounds of diseased pigeon droppings on the third floor, which he had to transform into several sets.

A contract with the Regional Industrial Development Corporation, the mill's current owner, banned visitors from the set and required that the production company have the mill inspected by experts. A structural engineeer determined that its catwalks could support camera equipment and dozens of crew members, and an environemntalist identified areas with hazardous materials, like asbestos and heavy-metal dust. On the environmentalist's advice, the production company removed the hazards and offered the entire company fitness tests, X-rays and masks to wear. "It's not worth a movie to jeopardize anyone's health," Ms. Herzberg said of the precautions. "It was a real education in environmental issues."

Now that filming has ended, the mill's owners will tear down the steel-making buildings at the site and restore numerous others, such as machine shops, in an industrial development project that is designed to salvage 18 of the approximately 50 buildings there. Mr. Yoshida's film, then, will be the last use for much of the century-old mill, which made national news headlines in the mid-1980s when local residents fought to preserve some of its steelmaking operations after United States Steel, its owner at the time, announced the mill's closing.

Yet depsite their grim recent histories, both the mill and town of Braddock evoked brighter feelings for their foreign visitors. "When I went to the steel mill for the first time last year," Mr. Yoshida says, "I felt I was in a church, or in some way I felt I was in an amusement park. I felt a lot of exciting or happy or interesting things in the abandoned steel mill. I don't feel it's a dirty place or a boring place or ugly place."