New Documentary Film Explores the Restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple
Lauren Levine | Nov 2, 2020
“Frank Lloyd Wright’s Modern Masterpiece: Unity Temple” is a new 55-minute documentary film narrated by Brad Pitt that illuminates Wright’s vision and follows the Temple’s painstaking restoration efforts. Here, the filmmaker shares some of her approach to the film.
As the producer and director of Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Modern Masterpiece, my first task was to fully realize the scope and historic nature of the restoration that began in 2015 and ended in 2017. I had an instinct that I could approach the filmmaking process in an organic way similar to the way Frank Lloyd Wright approached the design and construction of Unity Temple and that this creative strategy would help me wrap my arms around the many layers of the project as well as the elongated, complex schedule.
One of the aspects of making the film I enjoyed most was the collaboration with the restoration team of experts, historians and craftspeople. When I first met Gunny Harboe he told me “one of the wonderful things about Unity Temple is that it is an active, living building used by the congregation but it is also shared with the average tourist and aficionados of architecture that come here from all over the world making Oak Park a pilgrimage site for architecture.” I wanted to make the minutiae of this complex restoration appealing and interesting to the general audience and was very conscious that I would have hours of footage of concrete being sprayed, wood being restored, and paint drying! Interviewee’s like Gunny, professors Joseph Siry and David Sokol, architectural critic Paul Goldberger, and many others helped me to find a structure for the story during the filming process.
I decided to tell the story in the same way that Wright creates a path of discovery in so many of his works, so instead of telling or talking at the viewer, I hoped to take the viewer on a path of discovery. The interviews and the complimentary footage of process are extremely important. Every close up of a paint brush on a wall, or the sparks from a torch, or a giant crane lifting the skylights, add up to 50+ hours of footage, but the editing is the key to arranging the footage in a way that moves the viewer. My editor, Tal Skloot and I worked together for many months to create a structure for our story. It was challenging but fun to figure out ways to layer the details of the restoration with the story of Frank Lloyd Wright during those early years of his career in the late 1800’s to 1909 when the Temple was first completed.
I decided to avoid the traditional approach to narration and instead searched for relevant Frank Lloyd Wright quotes that would infuse the story with a bit of insight into Wright’s process and philosophy. Brad Pitt’s interest in architecture and willingness to participate gave me confidence that this approach would work. Those gentle, transitional moments accompanied by our beautiful music score are some of my favorite parts of the film.
The music was extremely important to the flow of the film. I was fortunate that a special donor made a generous contribution that allowed me to hire a composer to create original music. I was thrilled with Barbara Cohen’s interpretation of our conversations and her own intricate vision creating music that accentuates both the emotion in the story and the amazing historical significance of the restoration.
I’m looking forward to sharing the film with architectural enthusiasts and Frank Lloyd Wright fans all over the world.