Carl Kurlander, the screenwriter behind the classic 1985 film “St. Elmo’s Fire,” had an unexpected career reinvention when he took a year off from Hollywood to teach – and rediscovered his home town.
“St. Elmo’s Fire” ushered in a series of movies that spoke directly to the Boomer generation. Coming on the heels of “The Big Chill,” the film was a poignant look back at our transition into adulthood — a perspective that, in our late 20s and 30s, we were just beginning to appreciate.
Kurlander based the story on incidents and characters from his own life growing up in Pittsburgh, and his college experience in Washington D.C. As a budding screenwriter, Carl’s career took off following the release of the film, which garnered attention for its constellation of “brat pack” stars (including Demi Moore and Rob Lowe). But despite the visibility and access that the film gave him, Carl struggled to get another film made, and his writing career, while steady with studio writing assignments, did not yield any further big-screen hits. He did find success, though, in television, where as a writer-producer, he shepherded a couple of TV series, including the hit show, “Saved By The Bell.”
In 2000, Carl hit a wall. Writing and producing in the entertainment industry is an endless treadmill. And Carl, born in 1959, wasn’t having that much fun anymore. The handwriting was on the wall: it wasn’t going to get any easier. While there might be a hit somewhere down the road, Carl was also thinking about the prospect of raising his family in an environment that he didn’t necessarily see as nurturing. When the University of Pittsburgh offered him a chance to take a one year sabbatical to teach in his home town, he jumped at the chance to take what he thought would only be a year off to clear his head.
To his great surprise, Carl had a life-changing epiphany. In Pittsburgh, Carl rediscovered himself through rediscovering his city, and the enduring values and personalities that have made that city what it is today — the first intentionally re-invented American city. Pittsburgh, the epicenter of 19th century industrialism, was the first city to fall apart at the end of that age, and the first city to publicly address its reinvention. Today, Pittsburgh is re-emergent as a technology and innovation center, melding industrial-era energy and ambition with information era science and curiosity.
Carl realized that there was another untapped opportunity in Pittsburgh: a significant number of top entertainment luminaries, including executives, producers, directors, actors and writers, were all Pittsburgh natives who had emigrated to Hollywood. In 2002, he published an op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette calling for Pittsburgh to not only focus on bringing Hollywood movies to shoot in Pittsburgh, but to use its Hollywood footprint to help encourage, train and support home-grown talent.
Along with fellow entertainment business “Burghers” Ellen Weiss Kander and Maxine Lapiduss, Carl founded Steeltown Entertainment Project, a non-profit cultural center designed to better establish and support an active Pittsburgh-based creative media infrastructure.
Leveraging their business relationships, the founders have turned Steeltown into a local phenomenon, incubating and, in some cases, actively producing, local short films and some high profile documentaries, including the Smithsonian Channel’s “A Shot to Save The World,” about Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine. Steeltown has become a hub that unites arts, policy, filmmaking and education initiatives throughout Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania.
Carl’s one-year sabbatical has become his life’s calling. While he travels back and forth to Los Angeles on Steeltown business, his agenda is firmly rooted in Pittsburgh’s continued emergence as a media center. His life today is diametrically opposite from his life as a writer, and he can’t quite believe how it has all played out: “You’d better align yourself with the Universe,” he laughs, “because the universe is very strong…” His story speaks to both the unexpected snowballing of events that can lead to significant life change, but also to the rekindling of our ability to engage and to create. “If you have to work for the rest of your life, you’d better find something you’re at least a little more passionate about,” he concludes, “It used to be that if you got rejected, got fired, it was terrible. Now it’s happening everywhere. Passion is the fuel that gets you going through the rejection. Tenacity and persistence are so much more important than ever before.”