Brian Brooks is a Deadline contributor.
Brian De Palma joins Labor Day weekend’s batch of Specialty newcomers along with films directed by three women, all of which have television connections. De Palma’s Passion, which has been available via Ultra-VOD, will hit more than a dozen screens this weekend with his remake of a French corporate thriller. Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, which has been on rotation on CNN, is the weekend’s new documentary offering. Lane and her producer were the unlikely “re-discoverers” of a vast amount of footage from inside the Nixon administration, made by the insiders themselves. Television producer-writer Jill Soloway hits the big screen with Afternoon Delight, starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple, while Liz W. Garcia, a fellow TV producer and writer, brings the Kristen Bell romantic drama The Lifeguard to theaters. And the kids-on-a-rampage story I Declare War joins the holiday weekend’s rollouts.
In Toronto, producers approached De Palma about the possibility of doing an English-language remake of French director Alain Corneau’s thriller Crime D’Amour. The veteran filmmaker saw how he could put his stamp to it and began the project. After writing a script and getting European financing, De Palma cast his two leading women, Rachel McAdams and Sweden-born Noomi Rapace. The pair had starred together in 2011′s Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows and came aboard Passion a week before shooting was set to begin in Berlin. “I rewrote it a few times. And then the girls came in and — well, the girls had a few ideas about how they were going to act,” said De Palma, who worked the script further with Crime D’Amour scribe Natalie Carter. “I showed them the original [film], and much to my surprise, they said, ‘We’re not doing that.’ … So Natalie and I worked for a week rewriting the script to fit how they wanted to play their characters.” De Palma tapped cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (who often works with Pedro Almodovar) to shoot the stylish corporate thriller about two ambitious women who connive to reach the top at an advertising agency. “We had other people interested in playing Isabel (Rapace), but we couldn’t find actresses that wanted to play the bitchy Christine (McAdams),” said De Palma. “Those are the fun parts to play, but I guess everyone wants to be loved.” Initially, De Palma had planned to shoot some scenes in London but opted to stay in Berlin because “people have seen those places in London before and people are less aware of Berlin”. The project had been slated for a 45-day shoot, but De Palma said he completed photography in 39 days. He also worked with many of German filmmaker Tom Tykwer’s crew members from Run Lola Run. The film has been available via Ultra-VOD since August 1. Entertainment One will open it Labor Day weekend in 14 cities including New York and L.A. It will expand to the top 25 to 30 markets based on performance.
Writer-director Soloway found inspiration for a film after visiting perhaps an unlikely place: a strip joint. A lap dance prompted an idea that eventually morphed into a script. “Part of the experience of a private dance is to make you feel like the special person in a club, and it struck me about a mom in that situation,” noted Soloway. “Later the whole scenario came to me. I was at Sundance with my short and was inspired by the low-fi production value of [films] playing there. I loved the casual way films like The Comedy were shot as well as the mumblecore-inspired films.” So Soloway borrowed from the movement that had its roots in the 2005 SXSW Film Festival and tapped what she called her “television joke writing” and came up with Afternoon Delight. The story centers on Rachel, a lovable stay-at-home mom who is frustrated by the realities of her domestic life and visits a strip clip to spice up her marriage. She then meets McKenna, a stripper she adopts as her live-in nanny. After catching the “Sundance bug” with a short film she had at the festival, Soloway pursued making Afternoon Delight, working with Inequality For All producers Sebastian Dugan and Jennifer Chaiken. “All three of us were incredibly motivated and determined to go,” said Soloway. “They have a private equity fund, and we started prepping and casting. They also got more investors and we began shooting in August and sent the film to Sundance in October.
Soloway tapped some of her actors through her relationships as a veteran TV producer and writer, eventually casting Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor and Jane Lynch. “Jane Lynch is an old friend, so that helped a lot to get word out,” said Soloway. “It happened so quickly, it was like a tornado.” At Sundance, the feature had a “few suitors” according to Soloway, but a chat with Miranda Bailey from the Film Arcade made the choice basically obvious. “[She] is a Silver Lake mom too, and I just really connected with her. She realized the movie would really appeal to women, and we trusted each other. We started talking with them at Sundance and ultimately went with them.” The Film Arcade will open Afternoon Delight at the Sunshine in New York and Landmark in L.A.
Brian L. Frye was aware that a treasure-trove of footage made by Nixon administration insiders existed in a government archive and had been left untapped. The scenes in Our Nixon — which includes Super 8 home movies filmed by Nixon’s closest aides, and convicted Watergate conspirators — offer an intimate look at his presidency. “My co-producer knew about the footage for over 10 years, and we wanted to do something with it. But it’s a significant amount of money to access,” said director Lane. “It’s in the public domain, but you have to pay for access copies, which is very expensive.” In summer 2010, the duo began the process of transferring the footage, not entirely knowing what they would find, though given the subject and the amount of footage, expected they’d find something. “We knew there would be something interesting, but had no idea what it was going to be. It was all surprising to me,” said Lane. “I think on some level that there would be a lot of intimate scenes with Nixon, but a lot of it is intimate with the staff.” With footage in hand, they began crafting a movie not knowing how the financing would be figured out. They began a Kickstarter campaign, which raised enough money to pay themselves back for the initial transfer of footage, but the crowdsourcing campaign also had another added benefit. “Through the Kickstarter campaign, [the project] gained notice, and it paved the way for all our relationships later,” said Lane. “We found our executive producers through awareness from our campaign and even got press. For whatever reason, nobody knew about this ‘lost footage.’ People were surprised by it, and we were surprised they were surprised.”
Our Nixon debuted at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and also screened at New Directors/New Films and SXSW, where it was acquired. It also won the Documentary Award at the Seattle International Film Festival. The acquisition included rights to CNN, which began broadcasting Our Nixon in August, weeks before its theatrical rollout this weekend. Lane and Cinedigm said that the film’s exposure on CNN has raised awareness on a level that would have been economically impossible otherwise. “In demographic terms, there will be some overlap, but most importantly the film has benefited from CNN’s promotions and the extremely positive response to their broadcast,” said Cinedigm VP Acquisitions Vincent Scordino. “At the end of the day, Penny has made a film that delights history buffs and young, media-savvy audiences alike. What we’ve seen over the past months is that people recognize the tremendous value in seeing her work in cinemas and on the big screen.” Added Lane: “It’s hard to get people into theaters for any doc. And this is completely made independently and to have this recognition out there is insane and a lot of that is CNN.” Cinedigm will open the theatrical version of Our Nixon at IFC Center this weekend. It will head to L.A. on September 6, followed by San Francisco. It’ slated to play the top 5 to 10 markets for now.
Just in time for the end of summer, writer-director Garcia’s The Lifeguard will dive into the fray. The film centers on a former valedictorian who quits her reporter job in New York — imagine that — and returns to her childhood home in Connecticut. But things get a bit complicated when she begins work as a lifeguard and starts a relationship with a troubled teenager. “I had been interested in telling a story about a lifeguard at a pool since I was, in fact, a lifeguard at a pool,” said Garcia. “I didn’t want it to be about me but about an adult woman that returned to that job as an adult. I knew I had to write it and tried to divorce the idea it would ever be made.” Despite initial skepticism, the project went off running after the Garcia and her husband began working with friends to get financing underway. They gave the finished script to a friend who had experience working on micro-budget movies. Film incentives in Pittsburgh lured the production there, and the cast came on board through connections Garcia had through CAA as a television producer in addition to cold-calling people. “That wasn’t fun, but it’s interesting to see how people react to you who can’t give you the time of day, and then there are others who really rose above and had faith,” said Garcia.
The film shot in Pittsburgh over 21 days and one day in New York, though the tight schedule kept choices to a minimum. “Being from a television background, the pace felt natural,” said Garcia. “People really came together, but there is never enough time and not enough funds. So you have to make hard choices at the end of the day. … Does it really need to rain in that scene? But ultimately you make the movie you’re meant to make.” The Lifeguard premiered at Sundance. Screen Media and Focus approached the filmmakers, with Focus handling digital, while Screen Media will release the film theatrically. It opens in 15 markets.
Producer Lewin Webb had been looking for a number of projects to develop. Agents submitted various scripts, but one popped that began a long journey for him. “Unusually, I phoned the writer and said that I wasn’t sure how, but I’m going to produce this film.” Webb continued to pursue writer/co-director Jason Lapeyre though he didn’t initially have the resources to produce the script. Lapeyre eventually optioned the project, but it just sat there. “So I kept calling him,” said Webb. “I got him to take possession of the screenplay, and I set up an equity fund with partners in Canada. We produced the film under our banner, Samaritan Entertainment Production Fund.” I Declare War shot in summer 2011 and was completed by Christmas after casting more than a dozen young mostly newcomers. The film revolves around neighborhood kids who turn summer war games into a deadly drama when jealousy and betrayal enter the mix. “These kids were the most professional and prepared group of kids I’ve ever worked with,” Lewin said. “Jason is 30-plus and had a certain anachronism to the dialogue, so we workshopped it. It helped bind the cast together, and we worked with them out in the woods where they learned how to handle weapons.”
Lewin reached out to Andrew Herwitz from the Film Sales Company, who repped the film. It played Toronto last year and later won the Audience Award at Fantastic Fest. Herwitz brokered a deal with Drafthouse Films. “They are a boutique and have treated us very well,” said Lewin. “It was a good fit in terms of our business model.” Drafthouse will open I Declare War in 14 theaters/cities Friday and will expand to seven others through October 3.