Hanson used Pittsburgh -- with its snowy, gray skies, industrial smokestacks, and maze of railroad tracks and bridges (it has over 2,000, more than any other U.S. city) -- to help tell his story. ''I realized that bridges are the visual theme of the movie. Each of the characters is trying to get from here to there,'' he explains. What's more, the 54-year-old director says the land of the Steelers is much like his main character, Prof. Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), an author who writes the Great American Novel but is unable to produce a follow-up. ''Pittsburgh is a 'wonder boy,''' Hanson says. ''It's a city that had this glorious past of wealth and success that ended. And then it had to deal with figuring out what's next. What happens after triumph?''
But Oscar winner Frances McDormand (''Fargo''), who plays a college chancellor and Douglas's age-appropriate love interest, offers a much simpler advantage to shooting on location: realism. ''I did one movie where it was supposed to take place in New York, but most of it was shot in a studio back lot,'' recalls McDormand. ''The movie [ended up being] unrecognizable to me as someone who lives in New York.'' One big tip-off? ''The graffiti was way too readable.''