Sewickley Academy grad makes 'West Side Story' smooth

·5 min read

What’s it like to work with Steven Spielberg?

Sewickley Academy graduate John “Buzz” Moyer, one of Hollywood's top camera operators, will answer that question during a free presentation Dec. 12 at the Tull Family Theater.

Moyer will offer insights from his 32-year career working with famed directors like M. Night Shyamalan, George Clooney and most recently, Spielberg on "West Side Story."

Moyer's 3 p.m. chat will take place between the Sewickley theater's screenings of Spielberg's "West Side Story" reboot, which stars 20-year-old newcomer Rachel Zegler, and Ansel Elgort from the Bellevue-Pittsburgh-Mount Lebanon-made "The Fault in Our Stars" (on which Moyer served as camera operator.)

Moyer's camera skills were used in two of this year's HBO must-sees; "In The Heights" and "The White Lotus." His career began in Pittsburgh, including work as a grip in 1988's "Prince of Pennsylvania" starring Keanu Reeves and set at Young's Custard Stand in New Sewickley Township, then a few years later on "Kingpin," with Woody Harrelson at the Beaver Valley Bowl in Rochester.

"Woody and ("Kingpin" directors) the Farrelly brothers were so much fun," Moyer said. "That was a great experience."

Sewickley native John "Buzz" Moyer will discuss filmmaking and working with Steven Spielberg in an appearance at the Tull Family Theater.
Sewickley native John "Buzz" Moyer will discuss filmmaking and working with Steven Spielberg in an appearance at the Tull Family Theater.

As a student raised in Sewickley and Edgeworth, Moyer took an interest in acting, and landed roles in a national Diet Coke commercial and in a TV spot for Hills discount stores.

When he saw the 1981 horror film "Wolfen," he was mesmerized by the fresh camera technology used to depict a wolf's visual point of view.

"I need to get into that," he thought, and soon found himself learning the then-revolutionary camera system called a Steadicam, which isolates the camera from the camera operator's body movements, allowing for smooth, steady camera shots.

Sewickley's John "Buzz" Moyer is a much-in-demand Hollywood camera operator.
Sewickley's John "Buzz" Moyer is a much-in-demand Hollywood camera operator.

He mastered the Steadicam, and got called on to work films like "Dumb and Dumber To," "Concussion" with Will Smith, and 2012's "The Avengers."

Moyer has had a fascinating career.

Think about it: The moment a director yells "Cut!", the first person the actor looks at is the camera operator whose expression might convey how well their scene just went.

Moyer has fond memories of Steve Buscemi ("Boardwalk Empire"), John Turturro ("The Bronx is Burning") and Paul Rudd (Netflix's "Living With Yourself") looking relieved when they heard or saw positive reinforcement from him immediately after challenging, emotional takes.

"I sometimes give them a little nod or shake my head and quietly say 'That was awesome,'" Moyer said.

Nearly 27 years into his career, Moyer faced a monumental challenge when chosen to work with the esteemed Spielberg and Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep on "The Post."

Spielberg only picks the best crew, but expects greatness at every turn.

"If you did something wrong, he lets you know," Moyer said. "He'll say something just once, and if you miss it, it's your fault."

In the very first scene shot for "The Post," actor Matthew Rhys walks down a hallway past framed posters.

After hearing Spielberg say how cool the framed artwork looked, Moyer called over Rhys and suggested a way the actor could walk down that hallway that would give Moyer a perfect camera angle to capture the posters vividly in the background.

Rhys agreed, Moyer nailed the camera angle, and afterward, numerous crew members told Moyer they overheard Spielberg highly praising the skills of his newfound camera operator.

Four years later they'd work together again on "West Side Story," with Spielberg's face lighting up when he recognized Moyer from "The Post."

Moyer, who lives in Osborne, can't wait for people to see "West Side Story."

"It's not trying to improve on the original, it's rethinking it," he said. "That was amazing to be part of; the production values are outstanding and the dancers were incredible. They were always laughing and enjoying themselves. The set was very alive."

Next time you watch a major movie, pay attention to the camera work and realize it might have been handled by a guy who still calls the Sewickley area home.

"It's a pretty neat way to make a living, telling stories with a camera," Moyer said.

Sewickley Academy graduate John "Buzz" Moyer in action as a highly regarded camera operator.
Sewickley Academy graduate John "Buzz" Moyer in action as a highly regarded camera operator.

Remembering Jill

Western Pennsylvania's blues scene continues to mourn the death last week of Jill West, the powerhouse vocalist for one of Pittsburgh's supreme blues bands, Jill West & Blues Attack. A pediatric nurse in her daytime life, West died at age 68 after a long battle with cancer.

From major Pittsburgh festivals to Beaver Valley gigs at Wooley Bully's in New Brighton, O'Donna's in Rochester Township, Kendrew's in Aliquippa, and others, West commanded the stage, leaving audience members spellbound with her singing.

"A consummate pro who always took pride in letting her band shine," posted Moon musician Jack Sanso, who shared stages with West for decades, including her final set the weekend before her death.

Pittsburgh blues guitar ace Jimmy Adler added on Facebook, "I always admired and respected the way Jill West conducted business on the bandstand... Jill always led the band with passion, precision, and a commitment to excellence."

Jill West was a highly touted singer in the Pittsburgh blues scene.
Jill West was a highly touted singer in the Pittsburgh blues scene.

Fierce indeed

Sumpn Fierce lives up to its name on its impressive new EP, "Good Daze."

The Beaver Valley-Pittsburgh hard-rock band's five new originals achieve an Alice in Chains-like vocal quality, and guitar note-bending intensity from Ambridge grad Tom Budjanec.

From the Las Vegas-set title track, to "Twisted Thing" with its line "we're having fun again/playing, singing," there's a theme of triumph.

Check out "Good Daze" and keep an eye on gig announcements at sumpnfierce.com

Sumpn Fierce has more music on the way.

"We have three more EPs coming out soon," Budjanec said. "I'm going to start renting halls and have three bands at each show. We have a concert sound system and lights. We're a concert band, not a copy band. We don't sell tickets anymore because we have a big following of around 500, and we're losing thousands of dollars because clubs are greedy and won't let us take the (cover charge at the) door, and they won't advertise. That's why they are dying. Concert promoters are the same, too. So we're going to start our own shows and give other bands a chance to play."

Sumpn Fierce, a Beaver Valley-Pittsburgh rock band, has an impressive new EP, "Good Daze."
Sumpn Fierce, a Beaver Valley-Pittsburgh rock band, has an impressive new EP, "Good Daze."

Scott Tady is the local Entertainment Reporter for The Beaver County Times and Ellwood City Ledger. Reach him at stady@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Tady column: Sewickley Academy grad makes 'West Side Story' smooth

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