After making a mega-splash at the box office last year, Woody Allen gets some time in front of the camera with John Turturro‘s comedy Fading Gigolo, which he also stars in along with Sharon Stone. Millennium Entertainment will open the title in limited release. Two docs are among this weekend’s crop of new Specialty releases, including Sundance title Cesar’s Last Fast as well as penis documentary The Final Member from Drafthouse Films. China Lion is opening action-crime feature That Demon Within, which co-stars Nick Cheung who recently won Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his role in Unbeatable. Magnolia is rolling out Tasting Menu, hoping to re-create a recipe of lofty box office returns from its previously released food-oriented fare. And Anchor Bay will open Small Time from first time filmmaker Joel Surnow in just over a dozen locations.
John Turturro directed Woody Allen’s one-act play Honeymoon Hotel in 2011. “I was thinking it would be interested to do something with Woody, but I didn’t know if we’d have chemistry,” said Turturro about the beginnings of what would become Fading Gigolo. The comedy centers on Fioravante who decides to become a Don Juan as a way of making money for his cash-strapped friend, Murray. The pair wind up in the sex business. “I didn’t know how I’d approach it but we exchanged notes,” said Turturro. “I did research on living that kind of life and on the Hasidic community. I wanted to make a human comedy and [Woody Allen] encouraged me to take that route.” Financing came easily initially, but then was lost. Initially a foreign source had put up resources, but then pulled out. Luckily the production was quickly saved after QED International, headed by Bill Block stepped in. Vanessa Paradis was recommended to join the cast through an agent. While production came together easily all things considered, the shoot itself had a blow from mother nature. “We got hit by Hurricane Sandy and we had to shut down for a week,” said Turturro who added that the storm also played havoc with “his set” because trees had fallen and leaves were gone with the wind. “When we returned to the park, we had to bring foliage with us,” added Turturro. “We only had six weeks and a couple of days to do the movie since we had kids and a specific color palette to try and capture. I also didn’t want to over-work Woody.” Turturro said that while filming he had to get over “the trepidation of telling Woody what to do,” but that it only “took an hour to get over that.”
Millennium caught the film at the Toronto International Film Festival where it debuted last September. Turturro noted that the film sold to virtually every global territory to “top notch” distributors. He also said the feature opened strongly in France. “It’s a date movie and even people in their 20s like the movie,” said Turturro. “If they like the movie, then anyone will like the movie.” The movie will open in limited release in 3 theaters in New York and 2 locations in Los Angeles this weekend, followed by a general expansion.
Richard Ray Perez became involved with telling this story about labor activist and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez after a surprise phone call. The documentary centers in 1988 which would be Chavez’s last act of protest. “Lorena Parlee’s stepfather called me in the fall of 2006,” said Perez. “He told me that Lorena, Cesar’s former press secretary, had passed away of breast cancer the previous month and left a note for her mother and him to contact me to see if I would finish her film.” Perez and Parlee had spoken the previous year when she had asked him if he’d like to produce her film. He said he’d like to do it, but needed to finish a director-for-hire project first. “She explained that she needed someone right away because she was being treated for breast cancer and she could only work on the project 2 weeks out of the month,” said Perez. “I was taken aback. ‘In six months,’ I told her, ‘”f you haven’t found someone else to produce this film, call me. I’ll work on the project pro-bono or deferred payment. Whatever it takes.” He never heard from her again. After taking on the director role, Perez’s biggest challenge was getting a handle on the film’s non-linear narrative. He believed the structure was in fact the best way to tell the story to a “discerning audience.” “With the help of some talented editors, we hammered it out – essentially telling two parallel stories,” said Perez. “[There is] the story of Cesar’s work building and leading a revolutionary labor and cultural movement of poor people, and the story of Cesar’s spiritual commitment and life-risking sacrifice for this cause.” Finance provided another hurdle. Perez and producer Molly O’Brien spent five years raising funds and found some early backers. “We got some great support from the Lear Family Foundation and ultimately Lyn Davis Lear fell in love with the project and came on board as an executive producer,” said Perez. “We also got grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund, a huge grant from Ford Foundation’s Racial Justice Program and later JustFilms. But there were long stretches of time when we didn’t have the money to keep the project moving forward.” Ultimately Perez had to empty his savings and borrow “a huge some of money” to have a finished film to screen at Sundance.
While making the doc, Perez met with Pablo Cruz, who went on to produce Diego Luna’s biopic Cesar Chavez with Michael Peña. He showed him footage of the film and thinks it may have influenced Luna to seek out the rights to make the narrative. “After Diego had a first draft of their script, he and I met and I showed him a 46-min work-in-progress I had at that time. He was moved by what I showed him,” said Perez. “And from that point both of our teams monitored the progress of our respective projects. The fact that both projects were released within weeks of the other is fortuitous. We hoped we would have finished our film in 2012, but by the end of that year it was clear that we needed more time to edit.” The film is opening at the Quad Theater in New York this Friday followed by the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in LA the following week with other cities to follow. TUGG, which allows audiences to show films in theaters “on-demand” is in the mix.
The Final Member has its roots from an NPR program filmmaker Zach Math heard about an Icelandic museum that displays penises. The institution is located 30 miles from the Arctic Circle and boasts that it is the only museum of its kind. “I was blown away. It’s so comic and strange and yet the story was so matter of fact,” said co-director Jonah Bekhor. “In just a few weeks we were in Iceland.” After tracking down the museum curators in 2007, the filmmakers headed to Iceland to confirm there was a story to be told. The museum had many penises on display, but missed a human specimen. Bekhor and Math found that a donor was willing to give his appendage after his death, but the personalities involved in this exchange opened a wider story that brought out the heart of The Final Member. “There’s a lot of discord and angst in this relationship that develops,” said Bekhor. “That is what fascinated us. “There’s a real human need to leave a legacy, but the whole thing became an absurd situation and that was the tipping point.” After the sojourn to Iceland in 2007, shooting began in earnest in 2008. Production would then head to Tom Mitchell’s (the potential donor) home in the U.S. and later to a plastination lab in Italy. The production was long, lasting until 2012. “There were many seminal moments in doing a documentary like this and you have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” said Bekhor. Bekhor and Math were very dedicated, fronting the financing initially, but secured financing as the project rolled on. “It’s a real indie project. People I went to AFI with shot the film,” he said.
The Final Member screened at a festival in Australia which lead to its circuitous acquisition. A friend of a festival organizer sent it to a friend in New Zealand — Anthony Timpson who is heavily involved with genre films there. He in turn sent it to Tim League at Alamo Drafthouse who immediately contacted the filmmakers about releasing the feature. It later played Fantastic Fest in Austin. It will open in eight cities Friday including Cinema Village in New York and at Alamo Drafthouse theaters in Dallas, Austin and Houston. It will head to other cities including Los Angeles April 25, expanding into early May.
China Lion nabbed That Demon Within from Emperor Motion Pictures during AFM. The company had previously released filmmaker Dante Lam’s The Viral Factor in limited release and it wanted to continue the relationship. “We like the director’s style which is dark, brooding, but still action-oriented,” said China Lion’s Robert Lundberg. The company missed out on Lam’s previous film Unbeatable, which won a Hong Kong Film Award for its star Nick Cheung. In That Demon Within, Cheung stars along with Daniel Wu in the film, which screened in the Panorama section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. “We’ve focused in on both the director’s fans and the two lead stars’ fan-base, as all three individuals are incredibly popular both with Chinese-speakers — both Mandarin and Cantonese — and with Western arthouse and fanboys,” said Lundberg. “There’s been splashy premieres at HKIFF and we’ve piggy-backed on those events as well as the marketing push in the Mainland. We’ve put together a mixture of traditional and new media advertising, with an emphasis towards student populations who would be attracted to the particular style of filmmaking.” China Lion will open That Demon Within in 16 theaters in North America. “[We have] focused on our usual great locations on the AMC and Cineplex circuit,” said Lundberg, “[But] we’re also opening in Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Cinemark’s Century 20 in Daly City and Rainbow Cinemas Elgin Mills in the Toronto area which are all new locations for us. [We are] looking to both build and extend our usual Chinese-speaking audience.”
Tasting Menu follows a couple in the midst of a divorce who reunite for a final once in a lifetime meal at one of the world’s best restaurants. The two had made the reservation the year prior before separating. “We’ve had great success with food films like Jiro Dreams Of Sushi And Food, Inc.,” said Matt Cowal about Tasting Menu, which Magnolia picked up last year. “It’s a delight for foodies.” The restaurant in the film is modeled after the famed (and now shuttered) elBulli in Spain. The chef who consulted on the tasting menu which figures in the comedy is the current chef at El Celler de Can Roca in Gerona, Spain, currently ranked number one in the world by World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Magnolia cashed in with Jiro theatrically. The foreign doc grossed over $2.55 million in the U.S. Food, Inc., meanwhile grossed over $4.417 million in the U.S. Magnolia is doing promotions with local restaurants near theaters showing the film to augment the culinary experience. Tasting Menu is opening at the Quad Cinemas in New York and Music Hall and Town Center 5 in Beverly Hills and Encino respectively as well as in Santa Monica and Santa Ana, CA. It will head to two theaters in the Bay Area next weekend followed by further playmates in select cities in May. It will be available via VOD at a later date.
First-time writer-director Joel Surnow screened his drama Small Time for Anchor Bay’s Kevin Kasha who then brought it to other folks at the company. The feature follows a young guy who decides to skip college in order to join his father on the lot of his used-car business. “It fits the Anchor Bay model perfectly,” said the company’s president Bill Clark. “Small Time is a comedy with themes that resonate across all generations – families, fathers and sons, love and relationships, missed opportunities. The filmmakers and the cast have been extremely involved in helping promote the film through their robust social channels and at film festivals and publicity events leading up to this weekend’s opening.” Anchor Bay will open Small Time in 13 theaters in 13 markets as well as on iTunes and on-demand platforms.