In “American Rust”, buildings collapse, passions burn

The setting is both beautiful and ugly, resplendent and dilapidated. The green foliage wraps around the rusty mills, which are no longer in use; steep hills flow into the river, like the plummeting dreams of local residents.

This is Monongahela Valley, home to the new nine-episode Showtime series “American Rust,” which premieres September 12. been hit hard in recent decades. Unemployment is rampant. Opioid abuse too.

Based on Philipp Meyer’s 2009 debut novel, “American Rust” tells the story of those who call the Mon home, those who want to leave and those who fail, no matter how hard they try.

“It’s like a gravitational pull,” Jeff Daniels said on a recent video call from his home in Michigan. Daniels plays Del Harris, the police chief of the fictional town of Buell, which the book locates about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh in Fayette County, Pa., Near the actual towns of Belle Vernon, Fayette City, and Monessen. .

Chief Harris leads a complicated life. He’s in love with Grace Poe (Maura Tierney), who sews in a local clothing factory and lives in a trailer on the verge of foreclosure. Grace’s son Billy (Alex Neustaedter), who chose to stay at Buell instead of accepting a Division I football scholarship, continues to get caught up in violent crimes, including murder.

You could say that the chef is compromised by his circumstances and his passions.

He is not the only one. Billy’s best (and perhaps the only) friend, Isaac English (David Alvarez), is also the brother of his heartbroken woman, Lee (Julia Mayorga) – and that is perhaps the least. complications from their friendship. Meanwhile, Isaac and Lee have their own issues: their father (Bill Camp) was nearly killed in a mill accident, and their mother committed suicide while walking in the river with pockets full of stones, like Virginia Woolf .

Lee, although married and living in New York – she’s the rare “American Rust” character who managed to escape – nonetheless finds herself drawn to Billy. Isaac gets stuck at home, forced to deal with an angry, wheelchair-bound father who constantly puts him down.

“Any of these characters could pull over their car and go, but they don’t,” Daniels said. “Maybe they can’t. Maybe they have nowhere to go. They’re downstairs.

Daniels’ road to Buell began over 10 years ago when he went to see Meyer read his novel in New York City. Daniels was struck by how Meyer located the humanity of characters who don’t have much cultural glamor, characters he knows for having spent most of his life in Michigan.

“No one is famous,” Daniels said. “Nobody is trendy. These are just normal everyday people who are in every corner of every county in this country. “

Meyer grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood of Baltimore in the 1980s, when he saw various industries – textiles, shipyards, steel, automobiles – slowly decline. “The violent crimes were very high,” Meyer said from his home in Austin. “But it was also clear that you had this giant population of unemployed young men, guys in their twenties and thirties who had been laid off last year or four or five years ago. The American dream had disappointed them.

But for his first novel, he decided that Baltimore, with its many industries, was too complicated for what he had in mind. When he visited Pittsburgh, where his brother was in college, Meyer realized, “This is where I put the story.”

Shortly after Daniels met Meyer, the actor was knee deep in “The Newsroom” (2012-14) and other projects. But “Rust” never left his mind. Her father, Robert Lee Daniels, had been mayor of Daniels’ hometown, Chelsea, Michigan, and owned a lumber yard. Daniels recognized the characters from “American Rust”.

“I know these guys,” he said. “I know what they look like. I know how they talk. I know how they think. I know how they work. I live around them. This is their world.

So when he found the bandwidth, he looked for two writer-producers he had worked with on a TV adaptation of another acclaimed book, “The Looming Tower”: Dan Futterman and Adam Rapp. (They, along with Daniels, are executive producers.)

Futterman, the “Rust” showrunner, recalled Daniels’ question: “‘If you like it, will you remind me what I like about it?'”

“I told him I liked what I felt was a central theme of the book and something I had written about before,” Futterman said from his New York home. “Can you both love someone and use it at the same time?” “

In other words, what terrible things are we ready to do in the name of love? And what kinds of things can a chief of police overlook?

Chef Harris’ apple of eye, his moral blind spot, is Grace de Tierney, who loves the chef but also knows he can be of help.

“I don’t know if anyone has liked her before, and I think she made a lot of choices based on that,” Tierney said on a video call from New York. “He’s an interesting person to try to get in.”

“She really had to make her own way, all over the place,” she continued. “Then she has this fierce devotion to her child, which I think she’s trying to make up for in some way or another, but I don’t know if it’s the smartest thing to do. is a flawed person who tries to keep his head above water.

Prior to filming, Daniels emailed Tierney. “I’m not a big talker,” he wrote, “but if you want to chat I’m happy to. Or if you just want to jump off the cliff, let’s do it.

She wanted to jump off the cliff. And him too.

“I don’t like to talk too much,” she said. “We’ve both been doing this for a very long time. So it’s really nice to show up and know that your labor partner is going to be prepared, and we would just let it fly.

As with any adaptation, “American Rust” made intriguing detours in the way from the page to the screen. Grace is now a union organizer, quite a challenge in a corporate town where many workers are immigrants who do not speak English. Isaac’s personal journey has been hijacked. His Mexican heritage and that of Lee were further fleshed out. The story’s central crime is now a mystery, not only to most of the city but to viewers as well.

Although Meyer did not take part in the series, he is delighted with the results.

“I’m pretty happy it got on the air,” he said. “When people think of the center of the country, they might think of ‘Yellowstone,’ which is a fun show but more fantastic than reality. It’s the story of what happens to about half of America. we don’t hear a lot of talk. ”

There is a feeling in “American Rust” that everyone is doing their best, which is not always good enough in a country plagued by fatalism and inertia. While researching the place and the people, Daniels came to see them for what they are – and are not.

“They aren’t just a bunch of desperate drug addicts,” Daniels said. “Much like the characters in the show that Danny took out of the book, they are good people who have to make bad choices just to survive or to maintain their dignity.”

Pittsburgh, once known as Steel City, has a population of less than half of what it was at its peak in the 1950s. Yet the city has been revitalized in recent decades, having successfully diversified its economy after the collapse of the steel industry. Interiors shot by the actors and the crew at 31st Street Studios, a home for dozens of film and television productions to date. Futterman described a city in the midst of a resurgence of technology and art, with a vibrant theatrical scene.

It’s when you travel outside of Pittsburgh that you notice what has happened. The economic downturn has left cities like Donora, Monessen and Rankin like shells of themselves. This is where most of “American Rust” takes place and where much of the show was filmed. (As in “Mare of Easttown,” another gothic drama from Pennsylvania, Rolling Rock and ruins abound.)

“There are places where steel mills are still working, and places where they just left,” Futterman said. “In the town of Buell, let’s go. The steel plant is closed and you can feel the repercussions all over town and through everyone who is affected in one way or another.

And yet, the region retains a haunting beauty.

“There’s these steep drops to the river and all these steel bridges,” Futterman said. “There are a lot of steel plants, some semi-functional, others rusting in the ground right on the banks of the river. It’s not like other places I have been.

Meyer describes the landscape with austere lyricism in the novel: “The mill itself had been like a small town, but they had closed it in 1987, partially dismantled 10 years later; it now stood like an ancient ruin, its buildings covered with bittersweet vines, devil’s tearful thumbs and trees of heaven. The tracks of deer and coyotes roamed the land; there was only an occasional human squatter.

It may sound sorry. But for Daniels, it all comes down to the most basic human emotions.

“They are all looking for love and they are capable of hate,” he said. “They are capable of anything. When they’re with their backs to the wall, these people are just trying to survive, do whatever it takes, and try to hold on to what’s right and what’s wrong. That’s what makes it interesting to me.

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