After his first viewing of “Room,” Jesse Shapira thought, “This is pretty darn good,” recalled the Pittsburgh native whose company produced the film.
Turns out a lot of other people think it is pretty darn good as well.
Nominated for three Golden Globe awards — best drama, best actress (Brie Larson) and best screenplay — the film also took the Audience Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is generating a lot of Oscar buzz.
“It’s sort of surreal,” said Shapira, speaking from Toronto, where he spends his time when he is not in Los Angeles. “Growing up you just don’t set out for that kind of thing.”
That’s not to say, though, that Shapira did not have great ambitions.
Shapira was raised in Squirrel Hill, the son of Daniel and Barbara Shapira, and the grandson of the late Frieda Shapira, whose father co-founded the Giant Eagle supermarket empire. A 1995 graduate of Shady Side Academy, his big dream growing up, he said, was to be the general manager of a sports team.
Shapira, 39, worked for the Steelers while in college, and eventually became a scout for the Buffalo Bills. But something was missing, he said.
“I realized I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Shapira said. “There was a creative passion I had as a kid that wasn’t being fulfilled.”
Enter David Gross, Shapira’s best friend from Camp White Pine in Canada, who was working on his Master of Fine Arts in producing at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Gross encouraged Shapira to go to film school to help satisfy his creative itch.
Shapira already had some experience in production, having worked as an associate producer at Fox Sports News and the Keith Olbermann Evening News when he graduated from college. In 2005, at the urging of Gross, he entered the producing program at AFI, and in 2008, the two friends formed their production company, No Trace Camping.
Jeff Arkuss, a former studio executive at 20th Century Fox, joined the team shortly thereafter.
The first film they produced was “Goon” in 2012, a sports comedy about the enforcer for a minor league hockey team.
“I came up with the idea for a movie based on my love of hockey,” said Shapira, noting that passion was cultivated in Pittsburgh through an “obsession” with Mario Lemieux.
Pittsburgh’s contribution to Shapira’s entertainment career runs deeper than hockey, though, he noted, recalling the countless hours he spent with his late grandmother at the Squirrel Hill Theater and the Manor Theatre watching films.
“After the movie was over — she was an incredible woman — we would talk about the movie,” he said. “We would talk about why I felt certain ways and why she felt certain ways about what we had seen. That was my first opportunity to articulate what movies mean to me. She was just one of the smartest ladies I have ever met.”
His instincts about what makes a film great were developed while growing up in Squirrel Hill, and those instincts certainly contributed to his decision to make “Room,” which The New York Times has referred to as “an unlikely crowd-pleaser.”
“Room” is based on Irish novelist Emma Donoghue’s 2010 book about a young woman held captive by a sexual predator in a small shed, along with her young son that she bore while imprisoned there. Donoghue adapted the script from her novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a literary prize awarded each year for the best original English novel published in the United Kingdom.
The film is currently showing at the Waterworks Cinema, with an expansion to more screens planned for next month.
While it is his passion, making movies “has not been easy,” Shapira said, noting he has been “very, very fortunate.”
“Getting any movie made is really, really hard,” he said, adding that he is overwhelmed by the support of the people in his hometown.
“The city, especially the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, these are people I’ve looked up to my whole life,” said Shapira, acknowledging the financial backing of his father and his uncle, David Shapira.
“They are the people who have supported us,” he said. ‘That’s what I mean by being lucky. They’ve been incredible to me. And being an independent producer, you need that kind of support. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.