Dear Esther: A Film by and Conversation with Nora Stone
By Annie BerkeSeptember 10, 2021
Who could be patient enough to wait for the leaves and branches to cast shadows, the only decoration on the white walls? The house was a marvel when it was built, but it seems like it was only complete for us, in our time, and the trees had grown tall enough to balance out the house’s mass. I guess that house was a shell for our dreams. With no applied decoration, we projected our visions on the house, inside and out.
The Dodge is a blank, white-walled screen onto which a series of intertwined love stories are projected: a romance between a man and a woman, between a woman and a building, and between the city of Los Angeles and the institution of cinema. But something about the Dodge is also, somehow, primeval and organic, being “only complete [once] the trees had grown tall enough.” A movie-house that grows right out of the ground? Only in La La Land.
Dear Esther has played at the Wisconsin Film Festival (2020), Maryland Film Festival (2020), Better Cities Film Festival (2020), Architecture & Design Film Festival (2020), and, in October 2021, will play at Festival Film a Architektura in Prague. Below is a brief conversation with filmmaker Nora Stone.
ANNIE BERKE: How did you come across the story of the Dodge and that of Esther McCoy? What inspired you to turn this history into a short film?
NORA STONE: When I was an undergrad, I wrote a paper about Irving Gill for an architectural history class, and part of my research involved reading Esther McCoy’s writings on him. The story of her work to save the Dodge House was dramatic and poignant — and relatable — to me. I've experienced the mysterious process by which studying something makes it familiar and dear to you, so you feel like it's part of your heart. I always thought this preservation campaign could be the great starting point for a film, but finding the film of the Dodge House on YouTube was the moment I decided I could actually make it. The creative use of archival footage allows a microbudget filmmaker like me to make a period piece.
In the credits, you list two Antonioni films, L’Eclisse and Zabriskie Point. How did the work of Antonioni impact your style in Dear Esther, and what were some other cinematic or aesthetic influences for you in making this movie?
I love Antonioni’s elliptical narratives and attention to the built environment. The makers of the “Save the Dodge House” campaign film must have agreed, because they mimicked a famous sequence from the end of L'Eclisse, framing chimneys tighter and tighter in three successive shots. I also gesture to Zabriskie Point, because Antonioni was in Los Angeles making the film while the campaign to save the Dodge House was going on. I get a thrill from this confluence of events, in time and location, and I hoped it would deepen the story for viewers.
The most substantial formal influences were Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Sierra Pettengill's short film Graven Image. The Virgin Suicides is a major touchstone for me, particularly the reminiscing voiceover from the neighborhood boy who watched and adored the Lisbon sisters from afar. Pettengill's playful, suggestive use of archival footage is a potent way to rewrite history in cinema.
You drew on a series of different archives and library collections in the making of this film. How long did this research take, and what challenges did you face in reconstructing this history?
I already knew the basic story from Esther McCoy’s own writings, some collected in Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader, edited by Susan Morgan, because I had been interested in the subject for many years. The archival research did not take long: the Archives of American Art has so much of the Esther McCoy papers available digitally, and the Getty Research Institute is an absolute treasure trove. I enjoy sifting through archives and putting together history in my mind through the artifacts. Keeping files organized is always a challenge, however.
Re-enactment and other fictionalized modes have become increasingly central to contemporary documentary practice. What was your rationale in telling the story the way you have here? Did you always intended to frame the story of the Dodge with this fictionalized love story, or did that idea come later?
My main rationale for overlaying fiction on top of the real story of the Dodge House campaign was to make it more affecting and personal. I wanted to capture the emotional side of losing a campaign and seeing a local landmark demolished. The story of the demolition of the Dodge House is not well-known, so I didn't assume a viewer would necessarily be moved by it, the way they might be with a more familiar piece of history.
I always planned to frame the history with a fictionalized love story, partly because I love a doomed love story, and partly because it reflected my own experience while studying the Dodge House. I was in an emotionally heightened state while researching Irving Gill (in a love triangle, and the Virginia Tech shooting hit close to home). It was a creative choice to weave those feelings into the story.
You are both a maker and a scholar of documentary. How do these different ways of engaging with film complement each other, and do they ever come in conflict?
Generally, my scholarship and creative activity complement each other well. Studying film for a long time has helped me understand the possibilities of the medium and time to figure out what I value most about film. While my scholarship comes from a place of passion and curiosity, it is also constrained by the state of the field of film studies and the need to create new knowledge. Much of my research deals with the creative and professional realities that filmmakers face, not with the film text.
But making creative work is about conjuring a film to life. I can forget about context. I dive in deep to explore my own emotions, experiences, and obsessions. I experiment with narrative and stylistic forms to transform them into a satisfying whole. The work is only constrained by my own taste, intuition, and judgment.
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