“Dear Zoe,” a Pittsburgh film with universal themes
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“Dear Zoe,” a Pittsburgh film with universal themes

A 'loud and proud' Pittsburgh story

A still at Kennywood from the new film shot in Pittsburgh "Dear Zoe." Photograph provided by by Zin Haze Productions.
A still at Kennywood from the new film shot in Pittsburgh "Dear Zoe." Photograph provided by by Zin Haze Productions.

Marc Lhormer was certain where he would set his latest film, “Dear Zoe.”

“I was never to going to film this anywhere else,” he said. “It had to be Pittsburgh. I wanted it to be authentic.”

Philip Beard’s novel of the same name is set in two unidentified Pittsburgh communities. In Beard’s mind, those neighborhoods were Aspinwall and Braddock, along with Kennywood Amusement Park. When Lhormer adapted the work, he decided to substitute Squirrel Hill for Aspinwall but kept the other two locations.

Lhormer read the novel at the suggestion of his friend screenwriter Carl Kurlander, who is perhaps best known for his work on the film “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Lhormer said his mind immediately went to the eastern Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up when he read the book.

“I pictured Squirrel Hill immediately and a particular section of Squirrel Hill that was traditionally referred to as Murdoch Farms, around Bennington Avenue, Inverness Avenue and Fair Oaks Street.”

Lhormer, who co-produced the film with his wife, Brenda, and lives in California, has deep Pittsburgh roots. His father founded the popular hardware chain Busy Beaver, and his family attended Rodef Shalom Congregation where the future filmmaker had his bar mitzvah.

He credits his dad, who grew up in Clairton, Pennsylvania, with helping to select the second location, which in the book is simply identified as a dirty, gritty, old mill town.

“I asked my dad where I should set this part of the story, and he said there’s only one place to do it. You have to do it in Braddock,” he said. “I went and poked around, and he was right.”

Lhormer said that other potential partners wanted the motion picture to be filmed in different cities that were offering tax credits and experienced film crews, such as Providence, Rhode Island, Youngstown, Ohio, and even Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“It was always going to be Pittsburgh, as far as I was concerned,” Lhormer said. “We’re loud and proud — this is a Pittsburgh story.”

The Steel City connections run deeper than Lhormer’s roots or author Beard’s ties.

The Lhormers originally hired Melissa Martin, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who teaches screenwriting, to pen the script. Martin’s credits include “The Bread, My Sweet,” filmed in the Strip District.

Unfortunately, because of a medical emergency with her family, Martin had to withdraw from the project. Lhormer, who had practiced creative writing since college decided to finish the script.

The movie was filmed in 2019 and is an adaptation, rather than a literal translation, of Beard’s novel.

The story centers on 15-year-old Tess Denunzio, who decides to spend the summer with her father in Braddock, leaving Squirrel Hill, and her mother and stepfather who are grieving the loss of Tess’ younger sister, Zoe. It is told in the form of a letter written by Tess to Zoe.

“Dear Zoe” movie poster. Poster provided by by Zin Haze Productions.

Beard said the initial idea for the story came about from a habit he had of keeping notes in a recipe-card notebook.

“I carried it around since I was 18 and, going back 20-plus years now, I was taking notes in the voice of my stepdaughter who was 15 at the time and having her, through this voice, ruminate on the challenges of both adolescence and having these two very different fathers and moving back and forth between those two lives,” Beard said. “At the same time, there were a couple of horrific incidents involving children in our community who died very suddenly under very bizarre circumstances. I had two much younger daughters, and it made me afraid every time they went out the door.”

Beard said the actual Pittsburgh locations aren’t too important to the story.

“It could be any town, anywhere where there’s sort of distinct socio-economic differences between these two communities,” he said. “I envisioned Aspinwall and Braddock … but you get these contrasting elements between the beautiful front lawns and these smoking steel mills.”

Lhormer said the universality and nostalgic nature of the story stuck with him and his wife, who had worked together producing the film “Bottle Shock” in 2008 and were co-founders of the Napa Valley Film Festival.

“We were both so taken with it,” he said. “It was easy to think back to being a teenager and getting into an argument with one or both of your parents and having little brothers and sisters, your little cabal, to gang up on Mom and Dad, threatening to run away, or maybe actually running away for a day. All that kind of stuff and the summer jobs at the ice cream shop and falling in love for the first time. It’s universally relatable. We completely connected with it.”

The film has won several awards including Best Actress at the Woods Hole Film Festival.

“Dear Zoe” stars Sadie Sink of “Stranger Things” as Zoe, along with Theo Rossi (“Sons of Anarchy”), Kweku Collins, Vivien Lyra Blair, Justin Bartha and Jessica Capshaw of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The film will premiere in November during Children’s Grief Awareness Month.

“It’s a core issue that’s dealt with in the story,” Lhormer said. “We wanted to align with that.”

“Dear Zoe” makes its red-carpet debut at the Augusts Wilson African American Cultural Center on Wednesday, Nov. 2, during an event featuring the film’s stars. One day later, it will be shown at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont during a screening that will include a question-and-answer period with Brenda and Marc Lhormer. The movie will then open at several local theaters including the Manor Theatre (featuring a question-and-answer period with the Lhormers on Nov. 4 and 5), Waterworks Cinema (featuring novel author Philip Beard on Nov. 5), Cranberry Cinemas and Century Square Luxury Cinemas. It will also be available to rent or purchase on multiple video-on-demand platforms. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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