WEIRTON - In the 50 years he's lived in this former steel town, Paul Schultz had never seen anything so exciting as the woman in a stunt harness hoisted from his front yard by cranes that flung her across the street.
By late fall 2010, strange occurrences of this sort were regular sights here. On Main Street, men in military uniforms were lifted into a ring of dazzling lights atop a recently constructed water tower made not of steel but of thick, sturdy cardboard.
Neil C. Stewart Jr., manager at Weirton Electric Supply, could watch these abductions from the store's windows.
Last Sept. 20, writer and director J.J. Abrams arrived on the set in Weirton to begin filming "Super 8," the high-budget, well-hyped, 1970s-era sci-fi thriller produced by Steven Spielberg that opens Friday, and this small city 35 miles west of Pittsburgh would never be the same.
Although the crew of hundreds carefully cleaned up the damage done by explosions and tanks and removed the '70s decor, Mr. Abrams gave business owners the choice of keeping parts of the set after the filming. So Mr. Stewart's store, which figures centrally as a camera store in the film named after the old movie camera, still has the shelves and countertop the crew built.
While useful, they might be the city's least exciting souvenir of "Super 8." Mr. Stewart also has a traffic cone he swiped from the set and had signed by Mr. Abrams and the cast. Steve Amendola, owner of Marland Heights Deli & Co., which was transformed into a historically accurate 7-Eleven, has empty boxes labeled with '70s logos: Moon Pies, Wheat Thins, Hank's Orange Cream Soda. He wanted to keep the Asteroids video game, but the crew took it away.
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Dennis Jones, director of the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center, kept several items for the museum. Memorabilia from Mr. Abrams' fictional town, Lillian, Ohio - a copy of the Lillian Journal, for example - now mingles with thousands of badges worn by former workers at the Weirton Steel Co.
Mr. Jones held on to the props for the same reason he took countless photos of the set and collected them into binders: "For history's sake." After all, the filming of "Super 8" was the most exciting thing to happen in a long time to this city in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia.
Weirton began in 1909, when Ernest T. Weir left Pittsburgh for the small town of Holiday's Cove and built a steel mill later known as the Weirton Steel Co. Weir went on to found the National Steel Corp., and Holiday's Cove and surrounding areas were incorporated as Weirton in 1947. Thomas E. Millsop, the head of the Weirton Steel division of the National Steel Corp., was elected the city's first mayor.
Cardboard figures of Weir and Millsop line the windows of the new building of the Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center, which houses volumes of the Weirton Steel Employees Bulletin dating to 1934 alongside old yearbooks of Weir Senior High School, named, like the city, for Weir.
The city's steel industry reached its peak in the 1960s, recalled Mr. Jones. Like many residents of Weirton, he has lived here all his life. In the '70s, competition from imports caused manufacturing to struggle, and in 1983, after National Steel Corp. announced plans to sell Weirton Steel Co., the workers of Weirton Steel formed an employee stock ownership program to save the company.
Mr. Jones' collection of the Weirton Steel Employees Bulletin stops at 1990. In 2004, International Steel Group purchased Weirton Steel, by then bankrupt. Now, international corporation ArcelorMittel owns the company, and the plant works mostly in finishing processes, plating steel coils.
Weirton Steel, which at one time was the fifth largest steel producer in the country, also was the largest private employer in West Virginia. The plant now employs 1,000 workers, estimated City Manager Gary DuFour - about 8 percent of its largest workforce in the 1960s.
If the industrial city appealed to filmmakers looking to re-create 1979, that may be because there hasn't been much new construction in years. The town's population - 28,201 in 1960, 18,574 today - fell off "along with the steel industry," Mr. Jones recalled. He thinks the filmmakers took over one block of Main Street because of its many vacant storefronts.
"The look of the town fit the needs of the script," said Pam Haynes, director of the West Virginia Film Office. She confirmed filmmakers were looking for an "industrial" or "manufacturing" city.
Mr. DuFour agreed. "I think one of the features they were looking for was a community like this, a steel town," he said. "I think they liked the imposing shots they were getting of the steel buildings."
Mr. Jones, the museum director who played a mill worker as an extra, noted that the fictional Lillian Steel logo created for the film closely resembles Weirton Steel's.
The residents of Weirton don't much mind their tradition being co-opted. Instead, they take the attitude of Dan Greathouse, director of the Top of West Virginia Convention and Visitors' Bureau in Weirton, who last week sported a specially made red T-shirt with the Lillian Steel logo beneath his jacket.
He was part of the committee behind an event held Sunday - Celebr8 Weirton Summer Kick-Off - which celebrated the release of "Super 8" and inaugurated a walking and driving tour of filming locations prepared by the museum and visitors' bureau. The city expects a surge in tourism after the film is released.
At its height, the steel industry gave Weirton much to celebrate. On Sunday, nearly 8,000 people turned out for the festival, most of them Weirton residents, estimated Fred Marsh, city council member and chairman of the event planning committee. "Everybody stuck around to see the fireworks," he said.
The mood in Weirton during the filming was unmistakable. "It was a boost to their pride for a town that's been hit a lot by the downturn in the steel industry," Ms. Haynes said.
"This town is a very depressed town," said Betty Duffy, a biology teacher at Weirton High. "Because of the steel industry, we don't have jobs. But this - Anyone I was talking to, what would we talk about? The movie. I had students who saw me movie stalking."
Like many Weirton residents, Ms. Duffy frequently sneaked peeks at the filming. Mr. Schultz was asked not to sit on his porch during filming of scenes on his street, so "I had to go inside and peek out the window," he said. "A car crashed just across the street."
"My whole life was, I'd get home, and my sister and I would go stalking," Ms. Duffy said. "The main thing was the morale. You'd talk to strangers like they were your friends."
The 25 days of filming, as well as pre-production time, also affected Weirton more tangibly. The West Virginia Film Office estimates an impact of roughly $13 million to $14 million on the region's economy, Ms. Haynes said. Besides boosting business for restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, dry cleaners, gas stations and shipping and transportation companies, the filmmakers also hired locals to work on the set.
Mr. Amendola worked as a grip - setting up lighting - and Chris Krishak, who works at the Weirton Millsop Community Center, helped marshal the extras gathered there and also worked as an extra and a production assistant, securing the set and running errands. He estimated that nearly 2,000 people auditioned to be extras.
The Marland Heights Community Church, which was transformed temporarily into fictional Lillian Middle School during the filming, built a sloped red roof with the funds it received in compensation.
"They're always talking about development, making Main Street nice - well, they got it," Mr. Schultz said.
Mr. Stewart said of Main Street, "[The filming] brought a lot of business here, for one, and people were actually here. People haven't been here for a long time."
Four years ago, West Virginia followed the example of many other states and created a tax incentive program to encourage movies to film here. Production companies receive 27 percent to 31 percent of their expenditures in West Virginia tax credit vouchers they can sell to local businesses, so long as they hire at least 10 West Virginia residents.
"We believe this is just the beginning here," Ms. Haynes said of the West Virginia Film Office. "Just last week, we received three new clients specifically based on their knowledge of 'Super 8.'"
Mr. DuFour would like to see more film production in Weirton. He hopes the city's educational base can evolve to train people so they can be hired for more specialized film-related jobs. "There's a lot of potential we haven't exploited in that way," he said.
Over time, a beautiful friendship developed between the town and the film crew. When Mr. Abrams ordered an ice cream truck for the numerous extras in one evacuation scene, he made sure that frozen treats were also passed out to townspeople watching the shoot.
Residents called the filmmakers polite, professional, and "very, very good to work with," said Martin Hudak, principal of Weir High, where many students served as extras.
"Down to the litter," Mr. DuFour agreed. "They left no litter behind."
The special-effects crew even gave a presentation about the math and science behind their craft to assembled students at the high school. The event, entitled "Industrial Light and Magic Show," was a hit, Mr. Hudak said.
His souvenir from the filming is a framed photograph of Mr. Abrams with costumed high school students who served as extras. Mr. Hudak, also an extra, stands front and center, smiling.
"I'm there in the John Travolta shirt," he said.
Although she was made to wear orange bell-bottoms as an extra, Andrea Anderson, a chemistry teacher at Weir High, said repeatedly: "We miss them. We want them back."
Above all, Weirton was a generous host. The West Virginia Film Office placed an advertisement in The Weirton Daily Times to thank the city.
"They opened their doors, they allowed military tanks to roll down their streets, they had explosions late at night, and I would bet that they would do it all again," Ms. Haynes said.
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