A long time in the making, Reach Me, from filmmaker/actor John Herzfeld brings ‘positive thinking’ and ‘self-help’ to the big screen. It stars a bevy of Herzfeld’s actor friends and friends of friends, including Sylvester Stallone, Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Connolly.

The title is one of a dozen or so newcomers opening in limited release this weekend. Music Box’s Happy Valley and Kino Lorber’s Monk With A Camera are among Friday’s debuting documentaries.

Happy Valley, named after the area where Pennsylvania State University is located, dives into the child sexual-abuse scandal that rocked Penn State, while Monk looks at an unlikely ascetic who gave up life in the fast lane.

Kino Lorber also is launching Iranian Western Vampire pic A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which it is releasing with VICE Films. The title, which was born out of a previous short film, debuted at Sundance in January. And France’s gem of an animated film, The King And The Mockingbird, will finally get a U.S. release via Rialto following a restoration.

Other limited release openers include Wolfe Releasing’s The Circle, which is Switzerland’s Best Foreign Language Oscar entry; Dark Sky Films’ Late Phases; IFC Films’ Sleepwalker, Magnolia’s V/H/S, eOne’s The Mule and Oscilloscope’s PULP.

Reach Me

Director-writer: John Herzfeld
Cast: Lauren Cohan, Kyra Sedgwick, Thomas Jane, Kevin Connolly, Tom Sizemore, Kelsey Grammer, Tom Berenger, Sylvester Stallone, Danny Trejo
Distributor: Millennium Entertainment
“I always wanted to do a movie [about] positive thinking and belief in oneself,” said Herzfeld about Reach Me.

Reach Me group sceneHerzfeld tapped friends and “friends of friends” to play a group of strangers whose lives intersect because of a self-published motivational book by a reclusive author (Tom Berenger). The book’s positive message goes viral, causing the lives of a tabloid journalist (Connolly), his editor (Stallone) an arsonist ex-con (Sedgwick), a gunfighter cop (Jane) and an alcoholic priest (Danny Aiello) to collide and irrevocably impact each other.

Years ago, Herzfeld read 1937 self-help book Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and later attended an Harlem appearance by televangelist Reverend Ike. Both affected Herzfeld enough to influence the creation of Reach Me.

“I was 25 when I saw [Reverend Ike] and at the time I was down to my last $20,” said Herzfeld. “I was so cynical walking in, but I sat there and before I knew it, when they passed those buckets around for a donation, I put my last $20 in and walked home. He got me…I felt for many years that I could capture this underlying theme without sentimentality. It’s not about getting rich, but believing in yourself.”

Herzfeld, who also appears in the feature, has worked in film and TV for years, including as Starsky’s brother in the final episode of Starsky And Hutch as well as in Cannonball! in 1976 and Cobra in 1986. He’s also directed for both the big and small screen, including 2 Days In The Valley.

“I wrote the initial Reach Me draft about 10 years ago, but it was a much more expensive movie,” said Herzfeld. “It would have been an ensemble movie [like] 2 Days In The Valley. That wasn’t easy, but it got done.”

For the final draft, he condensed locations, collapsed characters and streamlined the shoot so it could be finished at a quicker pace.

“We qualified for the California tax incentive, but our number [in the lottery] was 172,” said Herzfeld. “They only had $100 million back then and we didn’t think we’d [get it] with that high of a number.”

The rules for the tax incentive required principal photography to begin within 90 days or it is rescinded, which helped Herzfeld’s project.

Reach Me Poster“People [ahead of us] weren’t able to start their projects for whatever reason, so then our number came up,” he said. “We then put the pedal to the metal and started. I felt strongly about keeping the movie in California.”

Herzfeld said that they had looked into other states, which at the time offered more generous incentives, but thought the story worked best in the Golden State.

“The incentive triggered other financing from private investors,” added Herzfeld. “We started out on a 29-day schedule, but ended up shooting 21 days. The actors were getting far less than they usually receive. It was a tight budget.”

After adding a couple of scenes following the main shoot, production held off for five months to raise more money, in part through a crowd-funding campaign. Millennium came on board  last spring and the title finished in July. Reach Me will open in New York, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Florida, Colorado, California and Arizona, and will be available on demand through VOD the same day.

Happy Valley

Director-writer: Amir Bar-Lev
Distributor: Music Box Films
Happy Valley Penn State gateVeteran documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) went to the center of one of college sports’ biggest scandals ever. Happy Valley in Pennsylvania is the idyllic setting for State College and Penn State University. For more than four decades, Joe Paterno reigned as the celebrated coach of the school’s revered football team, receiving accolades on the field and beyond for his old-school approach and celebration of academics.

But everything came crashing down three years ago when Paterno’s prominent long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of child sex abuse. The resulting charges and countercharges led to the ouster of Paterno, the school’s president and other leaders, and a huge fine and lengthy probation for the school’s football program.

Filmed over the year after Sandusky’s arrest as key players shared their stories, the doc uncovers a much more complicated and tragic tale than the many headlines suggest.

“It’s a microcosm of the larger culture that places an over-emphasis on [football] and the notion that the coach, no matter how successful and virtuous, still has a limited perspective,” said Music Box Films’ Managing Director Ed Arentz. “There was a time when Joe Paterno could have run for governor and he would have won.”

Arentz, a Pennsylvania native who frequented Penn State games, said that he was first drawn to Bar-Lev’s filmmaking reputation and said Happy Valley is “providing balance” in a controversy-torn issue, but acknowledged some people may not want to re-live the scandal.

“Some people may say, ‘I’ve already made up my mind about Sandusky,'” added Arentz. “But this is also a ‘thinking sports person’s’ [film].”

Music Box is opening Happy Valley on VOD and in theaters  in New York and Los Angeles. Arentz said finding screens for a doc in the fall is a challenge, but Music Box is taking Happy Valley out for an Oscar-qualifying run.The film also had a sold-out event screening in State College, PA last Friday.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Director-writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marno, Dominic Rains, Rome Shadanloo, Milad Eghbali
Distributor: Kino Lorber/VICE Films

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night posterProducer Sina Sayyah and director Ana Lily Amirpour have been working together since early in Amirpour’s career, including on 2011’s short film version of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

“I remember when Lily told me that she was going to make a feature-length version of Girl and I was like, ‘Sounds a little thin, but I’m all for it,'” recalled Sayyah. “About a month [in], we had a script with a whole world of exciting complex characters and intricate story lines that was like nothing I’d ever read.”

This is, and it’s likely not a surprise to industry readers, the first Iranian Vampire Western ever made. It’s a mash-up of genre, archetype and iconography with influences spanning spaghetti Westerns, graphic novels, horror films and the Iranian New Wave. Set in the Iranian ghost town of Bad City (actually a small town in Kern County north of Los Angeles), the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire.

“We decided to go out and make something that we could do on our own, and make a movie using the elements – or ingredients, as she says – that were available to us,” said Sayyah. “Casting was relatively easy. We knew a bunch of Iranian actors based in LA and Lily actually had them each in mind when she was writing.”

An Indiegogo campaign raised $60K, which then spurred an investor to give a personal loan, getting the project to green-light status

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night “Shortly [afterward] Elijah and SpectreVision came to the project and E.P.s Logan Pictures and Black Light District followed shortly thereafter, giving us enough cash to put the film in the can and get through post,” Sayyah said. “Also, we couldn’t have done what we did without the help of people who believed in the project from Panavision, Technicolor, Runway Post, and Sonic Magic.”

The project shot over 16 days in Taft, CA, five days in San Bernardino and one day in LA.

“Taft had very little signage and lies in the densest oil field in California, so it was the perfect backdrop for the Iranian ghost town of Bad City,” noted Sayyah. The title debuted at Sundance last January and was the opening night of the New Directors/New Films series in New  York. Kino Lorber and VICE Films will open A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night in New York and Los Angeles followed by other nationwide playdates.

Monk With A Camera

Directors: Tina Mascara, Guido Santi
Subjects: Nicky Vreeland, Khyongla Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama, Richard Gere, Alexander Vreeland, Jon Avedon
Distributor: Kino Lorber
Monk With a CameraThe grandson of legendary Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland (herself the subject of 2011 doc Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel), Nicky Vreeland would have seemed an unlikely person to end up a Tibetan Buddhist monk, but that’s what happened.

The son of a diplomatic couple who grew up amidst privilege mostly in Europe and with an eye for the finer things, Nicholas Vreeland trained under Irving Penn to become a photographer. But after meeting a Tibetan master, who was one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama, he gave up his glamor-centered life for a remote monastery in India where he studied Buddhism for 14 years. But in a twist of fate, financing on a new monastery fell through after the 2008 financial crisis and Vreeland returned to photography to raise funding.

“We were doing research on a novel about Buddhist monks we had optioned,” said co-director Guido Santi. “We then read this story about him in the Calcutta Telegraph and gave him a call.”

Initially, Vreeland politely declined a documentary, but called back two months later after his teacher Khyongla Rinpoche encouraged him to reconsider.

“We learned later that he didn’t want to have a film made about himself but his teacher heard him talking to us and said [that he should help us] make a documentary to help with the construction of the monastery,” said Santi. “Nicky then asked the Dalai Lama for permission.”

The duo went to India three times to see Vreeland and followed openings of his photo shows around the world. The crew was kept to a minimum, working with five friends, including two cinematographers.

“This meant we were very flexible,” said Mascara. “We didn’t want to create a distraction for the monks. Nicky would call us and say, ‘This would be a great thing for the doc and we would come.'”

Richard Gere, also a devoted Buddhist, was present on one occasion when the Dalai Lama named Vreeland abbot of the monastery where he lived. The filmmakers initially weren’t going to interview Gere, but circumstance (or karma) intervened and Gere agreed to participate. Monk With A Camera will open in New York for an exclusive one-week run with the filmmakers and Vreeland taking part in Q&As. Gere will also be present for a related event Saturday afternoon. The film will open in LA in mid December.

Late Phases

Director: Adrián García Bogliano
Writer: Eric Stolze
Cast: Nick Damici, Ethan Embry, Lance Guest, Tina Louise, Rutanya Alda, Erin Cummings,
Distributor: Dark Sky Films
Late Phases posterWriter Eric Stolze and producer Zak Zeman are longtime friends and had worked together on 2012 thriller Under The Bed. While working on another thriller, Zeman took the concept to production company Dark Sky Films where they quickly came to terms on a deal.

Late Phases, the result, follows Ambrose (Nick Damici), a blind Vietnam War veteran who moves into a retirement community with his seeing-eye dog on the prompting of his son (Ethan Embry).

After moving in, he’s narrowly survives an attack by what appears to be a werewolf. The community had experienced similar attacks which they believe to be from feral dogs, but Ambrose is focused on werewolves. So, he prepares himself for the next full moon when he can make a counter-attack.

Mexican-born filmmaker Bogliano and Damici boarded the project after signing on with Dark Sky and some tweaks were made to the story.

Damici is actually younger than the character he plays, but he proved adept at the stunts required for the role. Though not actually blind, he ‘trained’ living without sight in the lead-up to the shoot.

“We had the best experience shooting in this [Hudson Valley] community,” said Zeman. “They had these great streets, but also there were some areas that had been affected by the economic crash, so there were these homes that were [going to be demolished].”

The Late Phases production team took advantage of one doomed home as a set, which proved a windfall for a production on a tight budget.

“Usually when you’re doing a horror movie, you have to be careful not to get ‘blood’ everywhere,” Zeman said. “But we didn’t have to worry about that. We were allowed to break down walls, etc., which was great.”

Post-production concentrated on “practical effects” and sound. The film debuted at the SXSW Film Festival last March. Late Phases will open at one New York location with a simultaneous on-demand debut. The film will head to Los Angeles and other cities in December. Related, Zak Zeman is also a producer on V/H/S which Magnolia will release this Friday.

The King And The Mockingbird (1980)

Director-writer: Paul Grimault
Writers: Hans Christian Andersen (fairy tale), Jacques Prévert
Voices: Jean Martin, Pascal Mazzotti, Raymond Bussières, Agnès Viala, Renaud Marx, Hubert Deschamps,
Distributor: Rialto Pictures
The King and the MockingbirdConsidered a national treasure in France, the late Paul Grimault’s The King And The Mockingbird has only been seen in the U.S. in a handful of festivals. The animated feature actually has its roots in post-war France, and is based on a fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.

Grimault and poet/screenwriter Jacques Prévert spearheaded the animated adaptation, but the project stopped production and was released at home without their approval. Eventually Grimault acquired the rights to the project and finished it to his own vision.

The story centers on a shepherdess and a chimney sweep who seek to escape from the grasp of a tyrannical king who is hated by his people as much as he hates them.

“We’ve been interested in this title for over 10 years and, in fact, in the early 2000s met with the widow and son of Paul Grimault with the intention of reissuing it then,” said Rialto co-president Bruce Goldstein. “But at the time there were rights issues that kept it out of circulation worldwide and we had to move on to other projects.” StudioCanal eventually cleared the rights, making it available to Rialto, which represents StudioCanal’s U.S. library

The King And The Mockingbird‘s multi-decade process of creation meant that its existing elements were in varying conditions, but StudioCanal worked on its restoration.

“StudioCanal has digitally restored all of the elements to create a version that probably looks better than it ever did,” said Goldstein. “Rialto also worked very hard to create subtitles that accurately reflect the poetry and humor of Jacques Prévert’s dialogue.”

The latest version premiered at the recent New York Film Festival and Rialto is pushing it out through social media in addition to traditional publicity for this weekend’s release.

“Unlike most of our films, this is not a reissue, but a premiere, so it will be reviewed in the New York Times and elsewhere,” said Goldstein. “We have an English-language version that can be shown at matinees to families and younger audiences and the original French-language version, with English subtitles, for older audiences.”

Goldstein said the company will open the title “judiciously,” beginning in New York  this Friday, followed by Los Angeles, Pasadena and Detroit venues on Dec. 19, with more cities will follow.