Brian Brooks is a Deadline contributor.
The first weekend after Oscars brings a variety of specialty films making their U.S. theatrical debuts. South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook‘s first English-language thriller Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman, hopes to lure Park fans and new converts, while Tribeca Film hopes to draw audiences for its award winning and Oscar-nominated film War Witch. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and Jeff Bridges are just two of the marquee names behind hunger documentary A Place At The Table, which Magnolia Pictures rolls out Friday. Fellow doc Genius On Hold looks at a troubled father-son relationship (one a telecommunications genius, the other a jewel thief) in what may be a precursor to a bigger narrative feature down the road. Variance Films also taps the father-son relationship in the drama The End Of Love.
Wentworth Miller penned the screenplay for Stoker under a pseudonym, which eventually made its way to producer Michael Costigan and his colleagues. The story centers on India, whose mysterious Uncle Charlie comes to live with her and her unstable mother following the death of her father. India suspects that her charming uncle has ulterior motives although she also becomes increasingly infatuated with him. “We wondered whether [Park Chan-wook] would read Hollywood scripts as did Searchlight,” Costigan said of the Korean-based filmmaker. “So we thought, ‘let’s give it a shot’. Fortunately his group in the U.S. liked it and he wanted to talk about it. And not only did he want to talk, he started pitching ideas.” Park is the veteran filmmaker of thrillers such as Old Boy and I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK. Stoker is his first English-language film, though Costigan said it is very much a “director Park film.” Set in a stately 20th century mansion, the options for the shoot’s setting were considerable. Enter Nicole Kidman, who lives with husband/country music star Keith Urban in Nashville, who expressed interest in playing the part of Evelyn Stoker. She said in an interview on Good Morning America she’d do the part if the shoot could take place nearby. “We easily found a stately home that was empty” in Nashville, said Costigan. “The way we feel about Park is also felt by many actors.” Kidman was keen to work with Park. For the part of the uncle, Park had a Skype session with Matthew Goode. Park said “we found our Uncle Charlie”, Costigan recalled, and “Nicole always picks her directors. She’s a fan of auteurs.”
Stoker had a lengthy prep time and the shoot took place in fall 2011. “It was an 8-week shoot,” said Costigan. “In Korea he normally shoots for 100 days. We had a much longer prep period than normal for him.” The filmmaking team put together a crew that also included Park’s DOP collaborator Chung Chung-hoon. “We believe his audience will see this as a Park Chan-wook film. The cinematic language is his and hopefully the fact that it’s in English will be an entree for new audiences,” offered Costigan. This Friday, Fox Searchlight will release Stoker in five North American cities, with a total of seven theaters including Lincoln Square and the Sunshine in New York, The Landmark and the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, the Landmark Century Centre in Chicago, the Varsity in Toronto, and the Kendall Square in Boston. “The film will have a limited platform release continuing to open in specialty and upscale theaters over a four-week period,” said Searchlight’s SVP of Domestic Distribution, Frank Rodriguez. “We will also open the film in a very limited number of venues with Korean sub-titles.”
Director-writer: Kim Nguyen
Cast: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda, Mizinga Mwinga
Distributor: Tribeca Film
Writer-director Kim Nguyen developed his concept for War Witch almost a decade ago after the Canadian filmmaker read about child warriors in Africa. One in particular was 9 years old, smoked cigars and believed he had a vision that he was a reincarnated god sent to lead an army of soldiers in a rebellion against the government. War Witch takes on the subject of child warriors from the point of view of a barely teenage girl whose village is ransacked and she’s kidnapped by the conquering rebels. Her overlord believes she possesses magical powers to root out the enemy. As long as she scouts the enemy in the thick forest, she remains in his good graces. “I wanted to show the story of girl soldiers,” said Nguyen who added that half of all child soldiers are in fact girls. “Shooting in the Congo was so complex but in some ways it was a blessing in surprise. It allowed for a more authentic and organic story. The Congo gave us all these idiosyncrasies that we wouldn’t have had.” Nguyen seemed reticent to complain about the difficulties posed by filming in a country that is itself a hotbed of insurrection, calling his time filming there “pure joy” while acknowledging the challenges. “If you’re in it for the adventure, it’s an adventure that’s understated,” he said. “We had to go to film sets with an armed convoy. It was a collective process and I want to keep working this way.” Nguyen said financing for a film “is never easy, but this was as easy as it could be,” taking 2 years. Pre-production took 3 months, with challenges including obtaining the right weapons for the child soldiers in the film and getting Congolese officials’ clearance. The actual shoot took 4 months.
Nguyen found his female lead Rachel Mwanza through an exhaustive auditioning process in Congo’s capital Kinshasa. The director said Mwanza she had lived in the streets and possessed a screen quality that can’t be learned. The child soldier who eventually befriends her and saves her from sure death, Serge Kanyinda (aka Magicien), came on board the production through sheer force of will. Kanyinda “is a DJ and the people in Kinshasa call him Eminem. It wasn’t written that he’d be an albino, but we incorporated that into the story. He came in yelling [during the casting to find out] why he wasn’t allowed to do an audition. He carries this inner authority and what you see on screen is what he is.” Nguyen noted that the film’s biggest challenge was finding distribution. At first people thought it would be too niche, but Tribeca Film came on board after the film premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won Best Actress (for Mwanza) and Best Narrative Feature. “We were lucky we sold the film in niche markets in 30 territories,” noted Nguyen. War Witch, which is available via VOD will open at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York this weekend, followed by three locations March 8 in the LA area with further expansions to the Bay Area, Seattle and Palm Springs March 15, followed by other markets.
A Place At The Table
Directors: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush
Subjects: Jeff Bridges, Tom Colicchio, Ken Cook
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures/Participant Media
Sundance 2012 doc A Place At The Table has its roots in a conversation about hunger between filmmakers Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. Each had been close to the issue that is surprisingly widespread in America. Producers Ryan Harrington and Julie Goldman became involved in what became a filmmaking project to expose the problem. “It’s a sleeping giant, I was shocked,” said Harrington. “Julie and I had worked together before and she had known about this crisis for years because her mom has been a hunger activist.” While at the Sarasota Film Festival, the producing pair met one of the project’s early investors, while celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who is also married to Silverbush, raised more funds along with colleagues at events in New York and Los Angeles. “Participant came to the fundraiser in L.A. and saw a teaser for [the film] and asked us to come in the next day for a meeting,” said Harrington. “I think we were so surprised that we got along so well and I think they were surprised that [hunger] is so pervasive.” Added Goldman, “This was a natural progression from [Participant’s doc] Food Inc. They had already laid a lot of the groundwork.” The project also picked up the help of T-Bone Burnett who provided music and actor Jeff Bridges who is a passionate advocate for combating hunger.
The production also had help through partners the team met during SilverDocs near Washington, D.C. and they received help from the Fledgling Fund and Bread for the World. But Colicchio has been a driving force along with the co-directors, producers and Participant. “Tom Colicchio has been involved since day one since before we were involved,” noted Goldman. “This is one of his big issues. It extends from his mother as well who was active in this issue and it is an organic extension of what he does.” Silverbush, the veteran narrative filmmaker of On The Outs and Jacobson (American Standoff), who is experienced in docs, teamed up, shooting the doc over three years. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and distributor Magnolia Pictures came on board a couple of months afterward (Magnolia also released Food Inc.). Colicchio and the filmmakers have set up a number of word-of-mouth screenings ahead of its weekend theatrical rollout as well as an appearance on The Daily Show and other events. A Place At The Table will open in New York and Los Angeles and head into 35 markets this weekend with further expansions into April. It will also be available via iTunes and VOD.
Genius On Hold
Director-writer: Gregory Marquette
Cast Frank Langella, Walter L. Shaw, Frank Langella (narrator)
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
Documentary Genius On Hold is a precursor to a Hollywood narrative feature, but it will only be done with producer Walter T. Shaw calling the shots, or at least with his strict consent. The doc, opening this weekend, is centered on Shaw’s father, telecommunications pioneer Walter L. Shaw. The younger Shaw, a producer of the film, was a ruthless jewel thief and the elder Shaw’s son. The two are presented as a metaphor for 20th century America. “In 1989 I met Micky Rourke who wanted to do a film about my life,” said the younger Shaw. “But I decided to tell my dad’s story [instead]. I wanted to tell the story about my father and how he’s a genius in telecommunications.” Shaw noted that another proposed feature that would have been focused on his life in organized crime would have been a multimillion-dollar project that would have also included a change in facts. The idea of making another “GoodFellas,” as he noted, did not appeal to him. “Paramount wanted to do it with Matt Dillon playing me,” Shaw said. “But I wanted to go the independent way and not the Hollywood way. It was more important to tell the story about [my father] than about just me as a jewel thief. That is the way I felt about my dad, he’s the ‘wind beneath my wings’ as the saying goes.” Without much filmmaking background, Shaw set out to raise funds for the doc. “Raising $1.8 million is really hard to do for a documentary unless you’re Michael Moore,” he said. In the meantime, filmmaker Gregory Marquette (Innocents) impressed Shaw delivering a write up for Genius On Hold that did not play into the typical Hollywood mob story and came on board as writer-director.
To raise funds, Shaw met a billionaire and told him the story of his father and the investor put up the funds after hearing the details in an emotional afternoon. “I met him on a Sunday and told him my story and he had tears running from his eyes,” said Shaw. “He gave me $300K to complete 45 minutes and after I showed him the footage, he gave me the rest of the money.” Saw said others had offered him money, but they wanted some creative control. But this angel investor was willing to let Marquette and Shaw tell the story their way. Shaw said he had met high power distributors in Cannes as well as as corporate chiefs, but they all wanted to control the filmmaking. “This investor didn’t want any control. His only stipulation was that I don’t give him credit.” The man, who Shaw identified as a head of a large mortgage company that went defunct, later committed suicide. “I would have loved to share it with him, but he wasn’t alive by the time it was finished,” said Shaw. “I’m not glamorizing organized crime. Being a wiseguy is not glamorous,” noted Shaw who said a Broadway play and a narrative film based on the story is in the works. “I didn’t talk to my dad for 20 years. It broke his heart. And I knew Greg [Marquette] got it.” Shaw said Jeremy Renner will star in the narrative version of the film, which is tentatively titled, License To Steal. Genius On Hold will open one theater each in New York and Los Angeles with further cities added in the coming weeks.
The End Of Love
Writer-Director: Mark Webber
Cast: Mark Webber, Alia Shawkat, Shannyn Sossamon
Distributor: Variance Films
Variance Films came on board The End Of Love last August after viewing the feature at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film centers on a mother who passes away unexpectedly, leaving the father to grapple with caring for his infant son and confront his own inability to grow up. “We were blown away,” said Variance’s Dylan Marchetti. “What is unique about the film is that it bridges the line between vérité and traditional narrative.” Marchetti noted that Mark Webber, who wrote, directed and stars in the feature, appears opposite a 2-year-old in the film when he’s just learning to speak. “Their interaction is so intimate, I think it’s need been done on screen before. It’s the kind of film that could be so cliche and maudlin, but it doesn’t go there.”
The filmmaking team had originally planned on a summer 2012 release prior to Variance’s participation. The film will likely strike a chord with audiences in tune with Sundance releases. “It is an art house film through and through,” said Marchetti. “It will resonate with them and the film’s availability on demand will broaden the audience.” The End Of Love has been available via VOD since the beginning of February where it has done “really well,” according to Marchetti. “It has been in top 10 lists, so we think it should be fine.” Variance will open The End Of Love in New York and LA where Webber will take part in Q&As. It will hit Chicago and Denver soon after and on March 15th it will head to more locations in Southern California followed by other markets.