Trib Total Media’s TV Writer Rob Owen shares a TV tip for the coming week.
It’s hard to imagine a more Pittsburgh-esque film than the indie film Dear Zoe.
Featuring scenes filmed in Kennywood, the North Shore, the Strip District, Squirrel Hill and Braddock; With a look at “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on TV and Iron City Beer, Steelers and Penguins logos adorning many walls, and even some Pittsburghs (“You’re gonna start reddin’ up your room!”), ” Dear Zoe” it’s easy to bear the title “Dear Pittsburgh”.
That was intentional, said Sonoma, Calif.-based writer/producer Marc Lhormer (“Bottle Shock”), who grew up on the Shadyside-Oakland border and graduated from Shady Side Academy in 1978.
“We wanted to write the love letter to Pittsburgh,” Lhormer said in a recent phone interview.
Dear Zoe will be available Friday as video-on-demand for rental or purchase across cable and satellite systems and streaming platforms (Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu, YouTube). The film will also open in local cinemas (Manor Theatre, Waterworks Cinemas, Cranberry Cinemas, Century Square Luxury Cinemas) starting the same day.
Dear Zoe is based on the 2005 novel by Pittsburgh author Philip Beard, who saw the first film, Bottle Shock, produced by Marc and his wife/producing partner Brenda Lhormer, at the Waterworks Cinema in 2008. Producer Carl Kurlander (“St. Elmo’s Fire”) — they were in the same Shady Side Junior Academy carpool — introduced Lhormer and Beard.
The Lhormers and their Zin Haze Productions acquired the rights to adapt Dear Zoe as a film, with Pittsburgh resident Melissa Martin (“The Bread, My Sweet”) writing the screenplay. A family emergency prompted Martin to retire from “Dear Zoe” in 2010, prompting Marc to take over writing with the goal of directing the 10th anniversary of 9/11 film.
Stranger Things actress Sadie Sink plays Tess in Dear Zoe, who is recounting the death of her younger sister Zoe on September 11, 2001, unrelated to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The film also stars Theo Rossi (“Sons of Anarchy”) as Tess’ father, Jessica Capshaw (“Grey’s Anatomy”) as Tess’ mother, and Justin Bartha (“National Treasure”) as Tess’ stepfather. Young actress Vivien Lyra Blair, who played a young princess Leia in Obi-Wan Kenobi, filmed her role as Tess’ sister Em before traveling to a galaxy far, far away.
So why an 11-year delay between Dear Zoe’s original release schedule and what actually happened? The Lhormers were tapped to create the Napa Valley Film Festival, which took all of their time to return to Dear Zoe from 2010 until their exit in 2018.
They shot Dear Zoe in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2019 for around $5 million (they applied for the Pennsylvania film tax credit but didn’t receive it). The film was finished in 2020 and Lhormer, who always wanted the film to have a play, considered a September 2021 release to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but the Covid-19 Delta variant made that one plans shattered.
Lhormer said “Dear Zoe” arrives in November to coincide with Children’s Grief Awareness Month, which includes Pittsburgh’s Caring Place, which marks Children’s Grief Awareness Day on November 17.
“I met the people there and got very close to them,” Lhormer said. “It ties into the notion that you’ve probably heard that the holidays are really tough, especially the first year after someone’s death, in a very poignant way.”
Local actors in Dear Zoe include Laurie Klatscher (Outsiders), Adrienne Wehr (Riddle), Jonathan Visser (Banshee), Sophie Guest (Them) and Mckenzie Noel Rusiewicz as Zoe.
In a scene where Tess and her father go to church, the actual pastor and singer of the Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock, Richard Freeman Sr., and Annie Cunningham, the church’s pastor and soloist, play the part.
Lhormer said Rossi worked in a small Pittsburghese — a scene with a “How about you Stillers?” ended up on the cutting room floor — but the producers chose not to go all out.
“If you’re not a native speaker, it’s difficult to get the accent right,” Lhormer said. “He was trying to be a little more Pittsburgh, but we said, ‘Let’s not mess with that. Let’s really focus on your character.” It’s such a great character. He is a multifaceted person.”
Lhormer worked in a nod to Busy Beaver, the hardware store his father founded in 1962, by having Rossi’s character wear a Busy Beaver apron while grilling during a barbecue scene.
Filming in Kennywood over two week days in October 2019, when the park was closed to the public, went well barring inclement weather.
“They were thrilled to have us, especially since Kennywood isn’t Adventureland or any other park in our film,” Lhormer said, referring to the 2009 film Adventureland, which was filmed in Kennywood.
“Dear Zoe” premieres Wednesday at a sold-out public screening at the August Wilson African American Center in downtown Pittsburgh. Star Sadie Sink is also expected.
A second public screening at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont on Thursday will be followed by a Q&A with the producers. Dear Zoe plays at 7:30 p.m. with Q&A at 9:00 p.m. (Cost: $20 per person, including popcorn).
You can reach television writer Rob Owen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-8559. Keep following Rob Twitter or Facebook. Ask TV questions by email or phone. Please enter your first name and location.