Pittsburgh native brings ‘Dear Zoe’ to film
EntertainmentA story of resilience and healing

Pittsburgh native brings ‘Dear Zoe’ to film

Producer Marc Lhormer and his crew filmed much of the movie in Squirrel Hill.

Marc Lhormer, right, and actor Theo Rossi during the filming of "Dear Zoe" in Pittsburgh. Lhormer's father, Barry, was the founder of Busy Beaver, hence the apron. (Photo provided by Marc Lhormer)
Marc Lhormer, right, and actor Theo Rossi during the filming of "Dear Zoe" in Pittsburgh. Lhormer's father, Barry, was the founder of Busy Beaver, hence the apron. (Photo provided by Marc Lhormer)

Lots of people love movies, but Pittsburgh native Marc Lhormer has taken that love to the next level.

Not only has the Shady Side Academy alum and his wife, Brenda, been at the helm of both the Sonoma International Film Festival and the Napa Valley Film Festival, but the couple now has embarked on producing their second feature length film, the Pittsburgh-set “Dear Zoe.”

The movie is based on the 2004 young adult novel “Dear Zoe,” penned by Aspinwall’s Philip Beard, and is about a teenage girl, Tess, coping with the death of her three-year-old sister, Zoe, in a tragic accident. The screenplay was co-written by Carnegie Mellon University screenwriting instructor Melissa Martin and Lhormer.

Lhormer, son of the late Arleen and Barry Lhormer, grew up “enmeshed in the Jewish community” in Pittsburgh, and fondly recalls celebrating his bar mitzvah at Rodef Shalom. Now, a longtime California resident, he still maintains ties with his hometown. He was happy to be back in Pittsburgh most recently from late August until Thanksgiving for the filming of “Dear Zoe.”

The movie was shot in Squirrel Hill — which stood in for an upscale neighborhood not specifically identified in the book — Braddock, and at Kennywood.

While Lhormer did not plan to be a filmmaker at the outset of his career — he started out as an event producer — after spending years running the film festival in Sonoma, he “got the bug to make a movie.”

“I was excited about the power of film to bring people together around a common story,” he said.

In 2008, the Lhormers produced their first feature, “Bottle Shock,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. That movie, which was based on the true story of California wines beating those produced in France at the “Judgment of Paris” tasting in 1976, starred Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, and a then unknown Chris Pine.

“Bottle Shock” caught the attention of Beard, who was seeking a producer to turn his book into a film. Carl Kurlander, a Pittsburgh-based screenwriter and television writer and producer, and a mutual friend of Beard’s and the Lhormers’, made the connection and sent the book off to his friends in California.

“We loved it,” Lhormer said. He and Brenda then met with Beard shortly thereafter when they were in town for Thanksgiving in 2008.

That was 11 years ago, which even by Hollywood standards is a long time to finally get around to making a movie.

Although the Lhormers were smitten with the book, their responsibilities running the Napa Valley Film Festival demanded most of their attention. So it was not until last year, when they retired from running the festival, that they had the time to begin putting “Dear Zoe” on film.

The project was appealing to Lhormer, who looks for “positive stories, even if bad things happen in those stories,” he said. The themes in “Dear Zoe” “reflect the best of humanity, but the story is dealing with tough stuff.”

The book is a letter from Tess to Zoe, “written, in my mind, as the first anniversary of 9/11 is approaching,” Lhormer said. “Tess is beginning the process of healing, a process that she had been fighting. Tess tells Zoe about the year she’s been through.”

In the film, “we show what she writes,” he said.

For Lhormer, filming in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Murdoch Farms was inspiring.

“I felt so strongly the values of Fred Rogers in this story,” he said. “Caring for children and being good neighbors.”

The Lhormers, whose film company is called Zin Haze Productions, filmed in Pittsburgh from Oct.15-Nov. 23, but were here for several weeks prior to that to prepare, using a largely Pittsburgh-based crew.

The production company “took great care to really showcase Pittsburgh,” Lhormer said.

After 10 years of development, seven weeks of ground prep, six weeks of filming, followed by several weeks of post-production work, Lhormer anticipates the film being ready in May. His company — which is independent — now is in conversations with potential distributors.

“I’m passionate about the story,” Lhormer said. “I think it’s going to bring a lot of healing to so many people.”

The film stars Sadie Sink, a breakout star from the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” This is her first feature film. It is directed by Gren Wells of “The Road Within.” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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