There was a time when two veteran straight actors such as John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, taking on the roles of a gay couple and their subsequent travails at married life would have been the tabloid equivalent of shock and awe. It still might raise some eyebrows, but Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange is a testimony to societal progress in terms of storytelling. Now it will face the box office as the Specialty title platforms this weekend via Sony Classics. A real-life gay marriage takes the spotlight this weekend courtesy of Starz Digital doc To Be Takei about the multi-faceted actor/activist and social media talent who is best known for playing Hikaru Sulu in TV’s original Star Trek. It will be joined by Millennium Entertainment’s Are You Here with Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler which will open day and date by Mad Men writer Matthew Weiner. The weekend’s Specialty newcomers also include Kino Lorber’s Winter In The Blood, Indican Pictures’ The Olivia Experiment and Argot Pictures’ journey into once barely known reaches of the Arctic, Expedition To The End Of The World. Also among this week’s limited release bows are Attack Entertainment’s Jersey Shore Massacre and Anchor Bay Films’ The Possession Of Michael King.
Love Is Strange
Director-writer: Ira Sachs
Writer: Mauricio Zacharias
Cast: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Tatyana Zbirovskaya, Olya Zueva, Darren E. Burrows, Charlie Tahan, Eric Tabach, Manny Perez, Cheyenne Jackson
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
New York-based filmmaker Ira Sachs began writing a very New York story along with Mauricio Zacharias at the beginning of 2012 even as his previous film Keep The Lights On began its festival run. The story, Love Is Strange, follows couple Ben and George, a mature couple who get married but whose domestic life is interrupted when George is fired from his teaching post. The pair are forced to stay separately with friends and family as they try and find less expensive housing, but their situation begins to take a toll. “[Love Is Strange] is a part of a trilogy of films about New York life,” said Sachs who noted that in a short time he himself went from living alone in Manhattan to suddenly living with a new husband and two children (and mother nearby). Alfred Molina was the first cast member to board the project, after being introduced through their agency. “I remembered his performance in Boogie Nights,” recalled Sachs. “I thought he’d be a tough guy but he’s a real teddy bear and the film shows this.”Sachs said the other half of the couple, manifested by John Lithgow, came in at the end of the casting process while Marisa Tomei came in “somewhere in the middle.” Marisa and Sachs were working for projects for production company Parts & Labor when they began talking about Love Is Strange. Financing came via 26 individuals, 22 of which are LGBT, noted Sachs. “The result of that is that I maintained authority in the film,” he said. “We’re the boss. It’s been very liberating as an independent filmmaker.” Shooting began in September 2013. Sachs added that even as the film is opening, it’s already “in the black.”
“I worked with two editors,” said Sachs. “The script felt like a studio film of the ’30s — it laid itself out very naturally. It was a 10-week editing process. All my other films were films of self discovery, but it was quite clear going in what the beginning, middle and end was [for Love Is Strange].” Sachs said that part of his directorial style is not to rehearse with his actors, though Lithgow and Tomei noted when they spoke this week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center that Sachs spent time with them in the lead-up to the shoot to become more familiar with their personalities. “I just get them comfortable,” said Sachs. “There’s no improvisation, but I hope for emotional improvisation. I think that was new for Lithgow and Molina.” The film debuted at Sundance in January and Sony Classics boarded the film several days into the festival. “It’s where art meets commerce in the most wonderful and brutal ways,” he offered up, adding that Hong Kong and Amsterdam-based sales agency Fortissimo “believed in the film early on” commercially and were crucial in its positive response from international territories while at the Berlinale where it sold solidly. They believed in the possibility of the film commercially. “The international response in Berlin which was on par with SPC in America,” said Sachs. Sony Classics will open Love Is Strange in five theaters in New York and LA this weekend including the Arclight and Landmark in California and Lincoln Plaza, Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas and Angelika Film Center in New York.
Are You Here
Director-writer: Matthew Weiner
Cast: Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Jay Gates, Jason Davis, Melanie Ratcliff, Alana De La Garza, Grek Cromer
Distributor: Millennium Entertainment
Gilbert Films chief Gary Gilbert first met Matthew Weiner seven to eight years ago when he was a writer on The Sopranos. At the time he told Gilbert about a first draft for what would become Are You Here and that he had worked on a pilot (at the time) for Mad Men. The two had met about Are You Here during intermittent hiatuses, but the project finally started coming together in 2012. “During different phases through the years, different [different potential cast members] were [interested] including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Aniston. Matt had Renée Zellweger in mind, but Zach [Galifianakis] was the first of the final main three cast members to commit,” said Gilbert. The comedy centers on two childhood best friends who go on a road trip back to their hometown after one learns he has inherited a large sum of money from his estranged father who recently died. Lionsgate sold international rights to the project while Gilbert Films stepped in to cover some of the gap. The shoot took place in North Carolina where the production took advantage of the state’s tax incentive. The project shot in summer 2012, incidentally, not far from Galifianakis’ home in Winston-Salem. “Matt is extremely particular down to every little detail,” said Gilbert. “He looked at every single prop before the shoot. He doesn’t like surprises.”
Millennium showed “an immediate” interest in the film out of its Toronto debut, but negotiations continued into the next year. The film and Weiner had a bit of a rough and tumble with some critics at last year’s TIFF, though Gilbert chalks some of that up to Weiner’s status as a television vet. “One blogger said that the ‘founder of the Age of TV’ is doing a film’ [in a disparaging way],” said Gilbert. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have been treated differently had it not been for his Mad Men credentials.” Millennium will open Are You Here in ten cities including New York and Los Angeles in addition to other cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Tampa, Denver and Orlando. It is a day and date release with a DVD launch planned for September.
To Be Takei
Director: Jennifer M. Kroot
Subjects: George Takei, Brad Takei, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, tom Ammiano, John Cho, Daniel Inouye, Telly Leung
Distributor: Starz Digital Media
Perhaps not terribly surprisingly, filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot is a life-long Star Trek fan. When George Takei, one of the original series cast members came out of the closet as openly gay in 2005, she became particularly interested. “I read his autobiography and it talks about his [imprisonment] in Japanese-American internment camps [during WWII],” said Kroot. “I was surprised that someone who is still so positive went through so much, so I wanted to connect the dots.” Kroot reached out to Takei’s agent who was familiar with her previous documentary It Came From Kuchar (2009). They were introduced and Kroot laid out what she had in mind for a documentary over a 6-month period. Filming began in 2010 and lasted over three-and-a-half years through post-production. “George [and husband] Brad watched my previous film. I tried to tone down my Star Trek ‘fandom’ so they didn’t think I was a nut,” said Kroot. “They just wanted to know what I had in mind.” Kroot of course became familiar with the couple as she filmed them. Kroot said that Brad Takei had some discomfort with the camera at times, though George was, not surprisingly, quite comfortable. Though the multi-faceted story had at its center, George Takei, the 77-year-old activist, actor and social media wizard (he has over 7 million Facebook fans), financing was nevertheless tough. “There were some grants including the Creative Work Fund and individual donations,” said Kroot. “Also the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program (CCLEP), which works to raise awareness of the internment of Japanese-Americans, also gave money.”
To Be Takei had its World Premiere at Sundance earlier this year and Starz Digital boarded the project ahead of its SXSW screenings in March. The Takeis took part in a unique press day aboard the Queen Mary 2 docked in Brooklyn in late July, which lured out journalists (I did not attend). “It was an elegant old-Hollywood type of event,” added Kroot. George Takei took part in screening the film as the QM2 crossed the Atlantic to Southampton, England and discussed the WWII-era internment. The documentary had an exclusive DirecTV exclusive in July. It will head into about 35 theaters this weekend.
Winter In The Blood
Directors-writers: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith
Writer: Ken White
Cast: Chaske Spencer, David Morse, Gary Farmer, Julia Jones, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Lily Gladstone, Richard Ray Whitman
Distributor: Kino Lorber Films
Filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith adapted the novel with co-writer Ken White from the novel beginning in 2009, finishing drafts in separate locations and getting together occasionally in a cabin in rural Montana. The story follows Virgil First Raise who wakes up injured and hungover in a roadside ditch. He rises to a surreal vision and returns to find that his wife has left him. As he sets out to find her, he begins an odyssey of inebriated encounters, sexual skirmishes and improbably cloak and dagger intrigues with the mysterious ‘Airplane Man.’ “In the week right before production in fall 2011, we sat in a hotel room in Havre and cut 12 pages from the script for budget reasons. It was a cruel cut and an essential one to make prior to shooting,” said co-director Andrew Smith. “We attached many of the significant actors prior to raising financing– on the basis of the script, prior relationships, and the strength of our wonderful casting director, Rene Haynes, who had cast all the native roles in Twilight and The New World and many other films.” A number of the actors attended fundraisers in winter and spring 2011 to help spark financing. In the end, the project was financed by private equity investors, as well as numerous grants, and a “sizable Kickstarter campaign,” according to Smith. Winter In The Blood shot just over 21 days.
“We had a couple of memorable dust-ups in the hot dry sun — it was an intense shoot — with more than a few ghosts inhabiting the ‘sets,” said Smith. “We shot in locations specifically mentioned in the novel with and many glorious gifts provided by chance or fate.” Winter In The Blood bowed at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year and played at the Austin Film Festival in October. Kino Lorber boarded the project in July. It will open in New York this weekend followed by Los Angeles in October in addition to other cities including smaller markets in the Rocky Mountain West where Smith notes there’s “a strong base.” Kino Lorber is also supporting the feature through its Alive Mind Cinema series.
The Olivia Experiment
Director: Sonja Schenk
Writer: Alexandra Komisaruk
Cast: Skye Noel, Jen Lilley, Brett Baumayr, Michelynne McGuire, Kyle S. More, Dan Gordon
Distributor: Indican Pictures
Comedy The Olivia Experiment had its roots among two film school roommates that became a full-blown production years down the line. Writer Alexandra Komisaruk had the idea for the story about a 27-year-old grad student who suspects she’s asexual and accepts an offer to try out sex with a friend’s boyfriend. “I forgot about it and in 2010 we talked about it again and then we started doing re-writes,” said Schenk who is the film’s director. “We started casting right away.” The film’s lead Skye Noel was found on the second day of auditions, with Schenk praising she was “perfect.” “What drew us to Brett Baumayr was that he seemed real, like someone you’d actually meet on a college campus, believably good-looking, and sweet enough for Olivia to agree to try having sex with him,” added Komisaruk. Initially the filmmaking duo did an initial shoot to create a test reel in order to help raise money, but in the end they financed the bulk of it. “We basically had such a low budget that Sonja and I had to wear many hats,” added Komisaruk. “We also had limited shoot days, and knew that going in.” Schenk has an extensive background as an executive producer on reality shows including The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. “We had a skeleton crew and cheap or free locations,” said Schenk. “We used every in-kind service we could.” Schenk said her reality TV background helped with the shoot though it also provided a bit of a “reality check.” The wheels turned much more slowly, though she pushed the crew to move things along. “I was probably the opposite of most directors in that sense,” she said, adding, “In reality television you’re trying to make sure something happens and capture that to ‘make the scene.’ You don’t take it at face value, so you try and capture an emotion or something [in particular] like a laugh.”
The Olivia Experiment played Dances With Films and the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2012 and started to receive offers for distribution, according to Schenk. Indican’s plan included a theatrical component, so the distributor received rights, though the title had to accommodate Indican’s roster, so it held out for a 2014 roll out. The Olivia Experiment will open in Los Angeles, Lakeland, FL and Chicago this weekend with additional cities to follow.
Expedition To The End Of The World
Director-writer: Daniel Dencik
Writer: Michael Haslund-Christensen, Janus Metz Pedersen
Subjects: Per Bak Jensen, Jonas Bergsøe, Bo Elberling, Jens Fog Jensen, Jeppe Møhl
Distributor: Argot Pictures
Argot Pictures received a tip from New York organization Rooftop Films about documentary Expedition To The End Of The World last year, saying that the distributor may be interested. And the end of the world it is, in areas of Greenland that were formerly unnavigable but are now accessible for brief periods during the year. A three-masted schooner carrying a geologist, geographer, geochemist, marine biologist (the only woman), and a couple of artists skims through the rarely visited arctic wilderness. “Not surprisingly we’ve done a lot of outreach with groups like the Sierra Club and other organizations that focus on climate change,” said Argot’s Jim Browne about their campaign leading up to this weekend’s exclusive release at New York’s Film Forum. Browne said that Expedition will play at the downtown Manhattan art house venue for a week and the plan is for it to go to six to ten additional cities for now. The crew aboard the vessel in the film are Scandinavian and Argot has been working with the Danish and Swedish consulates. They’re also relying on media to spread awareness, though they acknowledge the title will have a limited reach. “Doc lovers will like [Expedition]. We have a nice piece in The Onion and people who like Werner Herzog will like this film,” said Browne. After its one-week run (with the possibility of holdover), Argot will take the feature to other cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and Austin with playdates through November. It will be available digitally at the end of November.