Some days just feel like you’re living in a movie. Filmmaker Jon Hill experienced one of those when he least expected it and most needed it.
It was 2009, and the University of Pittsburgh graduate was still reeling from the recent death of his father. Hill had gone home to Abington, Pa., to be with family and, shortly after returning to life in Los Angeles, met a woman at a coffee shop and ended up spending the day with her.
“That was kind of like, OK, this is going to be a film one day,” Hill told the Union Progress.
After turning that experience into a short film, Hill spent the next 13 years figuring out how to make it into a feature-length movie. He finally completed a script and, last summer, shot “Above the Clouds,” which follows grieving comedian Jay (Chris Labadie) and the connection he forms with Dani (Kahyun Kim), a total stranger he meets at — wait for it — a coffee shop.
The film features a multitude of Pitt products behind the camera, including cinematographer Nate Cornett. Both Hill and Cornett will be on hand later this week for a free screening of “Above the Clouds” at Oakland’s Alumni Hall. Anyone can reserve a seat for Friday’s festivities via eventbrite.com.
“We started our careers at Pitt,” Hill said. “We learned everything we could at Pitt and took that with us. Now we’re going to come back and show everyone what we did.”
Hill is a 2005 Pitt graduate and was an early believer in UPTV, Pitt’s campus television station. It was still called “The Creation Station” when he and Cornett joined it, and they both reminisced about learning the ropes of film production on the 11th floor of the Cathedral of Learning.
“From the start at Pitt, that was the place we were at every day making all kinds of shows,” said Cornett, also a 2005 Pitt graduate, about the many scripted comedy bits, documentary shorts and other film concepts he and Hill spearheaded.
Those two also worked on “My Tale of Two Cities: A Comeback Story,” a 2008 documentary about a changing Pittsburgh directed by current Pitt film and media studies professor Carl Kurlander. Hill said that Kurlander remains “one of the best mentors I’ve ever had,” and he often finds himself espousing Kurlander’s filmmaking lessons to younger aspiring filmmakers. Kurlander also cameos in “Above the Clouds” as Jay’s ailing father.
Post-college, Hill spent about a decade as a freelancer in the film world before settling in to a job as a director of photography at Fox Sports. Cornett went on to do camerawork for the likes of Funny or Die, “Drunk History,” “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and the 2021-22 season of “Saturday Night Live.”
They hadn’t worked together on a narrative project in about 10 years before reuniting on “Above the Clouds.” For Hill, it had been so long since his original short film that he was just ready to get the movie he had been imagining for more than a decade out of his head.
“I just need this over with,” he remembered thinking. “It’s been 13 years. I just want this done so I can do something else with my life. … It ended up being really good.”
Hill said he was “blown away by how far” Cornett has come as he watched his former classmate execute and elevate his vision as a director. Hill chose to make the movie black and white to ensure his relatively low-budget affair would have style, and Cornett “kept it pretty small and pretty simple” as he added whatever flair he could to a rom-com that mostly involved actors walking and talking around Los Angeles.
“It is tough to make a dialogue-heavy movie visually interesting,” Cornett said. “But between the actors and locations, we were never too worried about it.”
In case you were wondering, Hill hasn’t talked to the woman who inspired “Above the Clouds” much since the short film was completed. The character of Jay is clearly a proxy for Hill, while Dani is based more on Hill’s wife and her Korean family. While writing Dani, he made a point to give her “a strong point of view” and her own hardships that she has endured so viewers wouldn’t think she’s just “this dream girl that Jay needs.”
As a Thai American, Hill had fun imbuing Jay and Dani’s dialogue with observations about various Asian cultures. His first draft of the “Above the Clouds” script wasn’t particularly heavy on that sort of humor, but he decided to lean into the comedy more as he kept writing.
“The whole point is that you want to make films about you, your friends and your family,” he recalled telling himself. “So just like, go for it.”
In terms of distribution, Hill said “the universe will tell us our plans” for how folks will be able to see “Above the Clouds” beyond this Pitt screening. It has played a few festivals so far, but Friday will most likely be Pittsburghers’ only chance to check it out for quite a while. It’ll almost certainly be their best opportunity to hang out with Hill and Cornett, who are psyched to be showing their labor of love at their alma mater.
“I feel like when we were at Pitt as students, we talked about how in the future, we were going to come back and show our stuff,” Cornett said.
Hill confirmed that account, and added: “This is it.”