BEHIND THE SCENES
by Suzanne Kashuba
“The first question a producer asks is, ‘Where’s the drama?’ ” said WNED Producer Paul Lamont. For his latest project, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo, which Lamont also wrote and directed, he didn’t have to look far.
In the story of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the wealthy Buffalo businessman he called his ‘best friend,’ “all elements combined into a producer’s dream,” said Lamont. In their own unique ways, both men led lives of intense struggle and tragedy, as well as great achievement. The story of their 30-year friendship is laden with irony.
It’s also the story of ‘the little guy’ who stands behind a famous icon and makes things happen.
The Human Element
Although the program features spectacular cinematography of architectural masterworks, Lamont sought to capture not just the structures, but the compelling human drama that played out within them.
“From day one,” Lamont saw that the project had “the potential to transcend architecture.”
“It’s a compelling story when you look at the human element,” he said. “It’s the perfect convergence of characters and events.”
To tell that story, Lamont and his team focused on the universal themes of home, family and friendship. “It’s a story people can relate to on so many levels,” he said.
“I want viewers to walk away feeling something, to see not just bricks and windows, but to have an emotional attachment to the buildings and to Martin and Wright,” he said.
Then, when people visit the Martin House, “they don’t just see the architecture but the presence of Martin and Wright within the walls and the spaces. They understand why the Martin estate is (designed) the way that it is.”
Lamont describes his creative process as “organic” and “amorphous.” Initially, there’s no plan or precognition.
It begins with a search for a story line and themes, “the right angle.” Then, people who can address those themes are identified and interviewed.
For Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo, interviewing began more than two years before the show would air (in February 2004) with noted Wright scholar Robert McCarter.
“They (the interviewees) tell you the story, interpret events, and put the story in context. They convey not facts but the reasons why.” Through letters preserved for the future, the historic characters of Wright and Martin lent their own voices and context to the story.
Related visuals are not used literally (as in a news broadcast) but metaphorically and symbolically or transitionally to depict or convey concepts. The idea of rebirth, for example, was depicted in an image of flowering blooms.
Through an extensive editing process, a voluminous collection of images and interviews are “stripped to the essence” of, and shaped into, the story. More than 50 hours of tape was shot for the one-hour Wright program.
Script writing doesn’t begin until the bulk of the shooting is done. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo was 70 percent shot before the initial script was written.) Once scripted, numerous revisions follow. (Wright’s sequence of scripts fills seven 3-inch binders.)
A Guiding Quest
In conveying the Martin-Wright story, the number one question Lamont sought to answer was: Why would Darwin Martin continue to support Frank Lloyd Wright, both financially and emotionally?
“I scoured through hundreds of letters seeking the essence of their connection,” he said.
The “goosebump moment” occurred when he read one of Martin’s letters to Wright, through which he encouraged the architect to move forward, despite financial woes and a lack of popular acceptance of his work. He assured Wright that one day he would achieve commercial, as well as artistic, success. And when that happens, Martin told his friend, “there’ll be no losses to count.”
“He saw the genius of the artist,” Lamont concludes. “He saw the guy and his work was good despite his human foibles. He did it for art’s sake.”
Just as Martin gave Wright the freedom to realize his artistic vision in the Martin House, Lamont said he was given the creative freedom to tell their story “the way it needed to be told.”
“I was grateful to pursue the vision I had,” he said. “PBS does allow you that freedom.”
FROM THE FILM'S WEBSITE
More than a biography of America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo is a story of family, friendship, and the meaning of home in American life. Narrated by David Ogden Stiers, the high-definition film explores how a friendship spanning decades affected the structural aesthetic of a major American city and made a significant impact on architectural history. Armand Assante plays the voice of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Buffalo, New York has the unique privilege of having more Frank Lloyd Wright structures than any other city in America outside of Chicago. This collection of architecture is due to one man: Buffalo businessman Darwin D. Martin. The centerpiece of Wright’s work in Buffalo is one of Wright's earliest designs, the Darwin Martin House. Built in 1904, it precedes such masterpieces as the Robie House and Fallingwater and is considered by many as the finest example of his prairie house design.
Contained within the walls of the estate is the extraordinary story of the thirty year friendship that developed between Wright and Martin—a friendship that has been largely overlooked by Wright historians. Through the prism of this friendship, the film explores the importance of Buffalo during Wright’s early career, the architectural significance of the Martin estate, and the development of Wright’s first large-scale commercial commission, the Larkin Building.
Over the course of thirty years, Martin became Wright’s closest friend and confidant. He looked to Martin for support both financially and emotionally. Insightful letters between the two men dramatically tell of the architect’s motivations, his human frailties and foibles. More than a story of architecture, the film is a revealing and surprising look into the world of the greatest architect that America has ever produced.
The film features spectacular cinematography (by James P. Gribbins) of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, his home and studios in Oak Park, Illinois and Spring Green, Wisconsin, and dramatic footage of significant architecture in Buffalo, New York. It also utilizes numerous interpretive interviews with such noted scholars as Neil Levine, Professor of Architecture at Harvard University; Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic for The New Yorker; and Wright biographer Meryle Secrest.
Wright’s grandson, Eric Lloyd Wright, and the grandchildren of Darwin Martin also share personal stories. Mingled with rare archival imagery, these elements are all are woven together with a powerful and poignant soundtrack.
Funding for Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo was provided by The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, the Zemsky Family Foundation, The Buffalo News, The Gioia Family Fund, and the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Promotional consideration provided by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo 21st Century Fund.
SUCCESS LEADS TO FUNDING
The national success of this film on PBS and its high-art feel stunned one of its funders. Having delivered him a finished product that far exceeded his initial expectations, he approached the film's producers to duplicate its approach with another film.
Hence the birth of
An American Original
Often proclaimed as the greatest architect that ever lived, Frank Lloyd Wright saw many low points in his life and career. But he was always able to rise above situations due to a close, fortunate friendship with one of his clients.
Written, Produced and Directed by: Paul Lamont
Associate Producer: Regina Ticco
Cinematography by: James P. Gribbins
Edited by: Chris Bové
This was one of my first national ventures into a genre that some are calling "cinematic documentary". Under the clever disguise of a biography, it reveals itself as a true art piece through awesome cinematography and highly-crafted dramatic moments.
This film catapulted the producers into the PBS limelight. Because of the storytelling style and the film-like imagery, it paved the way for full-funding opportunities of future productions.
Historical documentaries need to use archive images and films. The first twenty seconds of the film was where we decided to place a piece of 1950's film of Wright - which turned out to be the most expensive archive piece to acquire. So it became a constant joke throughout our edit that if viewers were late to catch the beginning, they would have missed our most expensive footage.