Fox Searchlight’s Jackie enters the Awards fray this weekend, with Oscar-winner Natalie Portman as Camelot matriarch Jacqueline Kennedy in the period surrounding the assassination of husband John F. Kennedy. The feature headlines a weekend that will have a fair number of Specialty releases vying for attention at the box office. Magnolia Pictures will open Nicolas Pesce’s drama-horror The Eyes of My Mother in about a half-dozen cities theatrically in a day and date roll-out, while First Run Features opens doc Best and Most Beautiful Things in New York. Zeitgeist Films is opening Old Stone, which the distributor says is from a filmmaker to watch. The Chinese film noir will play both coasts. And rapper Common narrates doc Two Trains Runnin’, opening in New York at Metrograph today.

Also opening this weekend is Sundance Selects’ Things To Come from French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve. The title premiered at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival, where Hansen-Løve was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Director. “The opportunity to work with Mia again as well as the great Isabelle Huppert was a perfect match for the Sundance Selects brand,” noted IFC Films’ Mark Boxer. “We will open NY and LA this weekend at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York and the Royal in L.A. followed by the top twenty markets throughout December.” Other limited releases this weekend include Freestyle Releasing’s Believe, Distrib Films’ In Her Name and High Point’s Bobby Sands: 66 Days.

Jackie
Director: Pablo Larraín
Writer: Noah Oppenheim
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Robert E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

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Fox Searchlight

Jackie producer Juan de Dios Larraín said that about one-third of the movies he and his brother, director Pablo Larraín, have made have been, “an opportunity that come up in a specific moment where the stars are in the right position.” That was the case for Jackie, which arose from a conversation at the Berlin International Film Festival with Darren Aronofsky, who was serving as the president of the jury in 2015.

“We were in Berlin with The Club (2015), where it received an award,” said Juan de Dios Larraín. “Following the awards ceremony, we were at dinner with Darren Aronofsky, who is also a producer of Jackie, and he said he had a script he wanted us to read.” The result is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, which had its world premiere in Venice before heading to festivals in Toronto, New York, AFI Fest and others.

The feature centers on one of the most important and tragic moments in American history, seen through the eyes of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman). Jackie places the viewer in her world during the days immediately following the assassination. Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, the First Lady struggles to maintain her husband’s legacy and the world of Camelot.

“We were in front of an iconic woman from the U.S. Someone we all know about, though there wasn’t much known about her private life from that period,” said Larraín who is a longtime producer of his brother’s films. “We thought of doing a psychological exploration of what was in her mind in those days. If you’re in that position — in one moment losing your husband, the White House, you position and you’re alone with your kids to plan a funeral — this is something you cannot learn. There are a lot of public images from that period, but the public didn’t know her personal story, so that gave us a lot of freedom to explore. It was during the edit that we were able to connect the dots.”

Larraín said that the final feature was different from the original script. Pablo Larraín met with Portman for dinner in Paris last year. The filmmaking team began talking about the fledgling title at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Paris-based Wild Bunch financed the project and handled pre-sales in some territories. Shooting began over 23 days in November and December in Paris, followed by another ten days in late February and early March in Washington, D.C.

“In between we had eight weeks, so we had the chance to watch the first assembly,” said Larraín. “That was very useful for [screenwriter] Noah Oppenheim and Pablo to understand the structure in order to set-up the relationship with the journalist (played by Billy Crudup) and [Jacqueline Kennedy].”

Portman’s Jackie is depicted discussing the period following JFK’s death with a journalist while living in Hyannis Port, Mass. “The interview process was re-written to achieve the right performance,” added Larraín.

Jackie debuted in Venice, while Fox Searchlight caught the title in Toronto, picking up the feature out of the festival.

“We were very nervous,” said Larraín. “You have no idea how the [festival] reaction will be. We were confident it was beautiful and well-done, though that’s our opinion, but a day after the press screening in Venice and seeing Twitter reactions — we said, ‘OK…’”

Fox Searchlight will open Jackie at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark West L.A., while in New York, the title will play at AMC Lincoln Square, Cinema 1,2,3, and the Landmark Sunshine. The film will then slowly roll-out over the next four weeks and will be in approximately 40 – 45 markets in between 175 – 225 theaters by the Christmas holiday.

The holiday season is a busy one for the Larraín brothers. Their other feature, Neruda, starring Gael García Bernal will open December 16 via The Orchard.

The Eyes of My Mother
Director-writer: Nicolas Pesce
Cast: Kika Magalhães, Will Brill, Paul Nazak, Flora Diaz, Clara Wong, Diana Agostini
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

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Magnolia Pictures

Producer Jake Wasserman introduced Nicolas Pesce to filmmaker Josh Mond while the latter was working on 2015 feature James White, which Wasserman served as a producer. Pesce worked as an editorial assistant on James White, which eventually lead to further collaboration leading to drama-horror, The Eyes of My Mother.

“I saw [complementary] personalities between Josh and Nicolas, and they became close friends quickly,” said Wasserman. “During the time, Nick made a short film that is one scene from The Eyes of My Mother, while also working on the script.” Pesce showed Mond the short, who responded well to it. The filmmaker then showed the short to colleagues at Borderline Films, the New York production company spearheaded by Mond, Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin. Along with James White, the group’s other titles include Christine, Martha Marcy May Marlene and others.

“We loved the short and from that we figured out how to get it going,” said Wasserman. “The short was there to get people excited and show what the aesthetic would be… Nick had directed music videos and short films, so he already had a lot of experience under his belt.”

The Eyes of My Mother is set in a secluded farmhouse, where a mother, formerly a surgeon in Portugal, teaches her daughter, Francisca, to understand anatomy and be unfazed by death. One afternoon, a mysterious visitor horrifyingly shatters the idyll of Francisca’s family life, deeply traumatizing the young girl, but also awakening some unique curiosities. Though she clings to her increasingly reticent father, Francisca’s loneliness and scarred nature converge years later when her longing to connect with the world around her takes on a distinctly dark form.

Pesce had worked with Kika Magalhães in a music video prior to The Eyes of My Mother and wrote the script with her in mind. Though English is not her first language, it became something of an asset for her character in the movie. “Mika is from Portugal. Nick liked that she has a bit of a language barrier,” said Wasserman. “It adds to [her character’s] disconnect. It’s an additional obstacle for this person who is looking for companionship.”

Pesce rounded out the cast with others he had worked with on his earlier music videos and short films. The feature shot September 11 – October 5 in Cooperstown, NY. Borderline Films tapped its group of regular investors for initial funding for the feature with the budget coming in under $300K including post. The Eyes of My Mother debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and Magnolia Pictures picked up the title about a month after the event.

“They are some of the most filmmaker friendly people we’ve worked with,” said Wasserman about the distributor. “They looked at us as partners which is not something every distributor does. They have a confidence in the film that we’ve felt every step of the way.” Initially, Halloween had been eyed as a release time, but then the group felt the film would better fit in early December.

“It’s horror, but it’s also an art film,” added Wasserman. “October would have been saturated, [plus] this film caters to a different audience. We’re playing around other films that are dramas, but this is a family drama with horror elements. So, this past summer, we decided a December release would be best.”

Magnolia will open The Eyes of My Mother day and date this weekend. Theatrically, the feature will bow at the IFC Center in New York, the Nuart in L.A., Music Box in Chicago, Roxie in San Francisco and West End Cinema in Washington, D.C. The feature will add nine cities December 9, followed by a slow addition of other markets throughout the month and into January.

Best and Most Beautiful Things
Director: Garrett Zevgetis
Subject: Michelle Smith
Distributor: First Run Features

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First Run Features

Producer Ariana Garfinkel became involved with Best and Most Beautiful Things four years ago. The filmmaker, Garrett Zevgetis, met the person who would be his subject, Michelle Smith, while volunteering at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. six years ago. “He had been looking to tell a story about someone who was a compelling figure on her own,” said Garfinkel. “Michelle was so warm, smart and fascinating, so he asked her if she’d like to be a part of a documentary. We followed her from age 18 to 25 and there were a lot of twists and turns.”

The film is set in rural Maine on a bright and magnetic 20-year-old woman named Michelle Smith who lives with her mother Julie. Legally blind and on the autism spectrum, Michelle defies labels as she chases big dreams with humor and bold curiosity. After graduating from Helen Keller’s alma mater, she finds herself unemployed and isolated. Searching for community, Michelle explores an uncensored world online and experiences a provocative sexual awakening.

“After graduating, Michelle quickly found herself isolated and unemployed. At that point, we knew that was the beginning of a new journey,” said Garfinkel. “We didn’t know what would happen, but we just stuck with her. One of the ways she reconnected and built a community [around her] was through her sexual awakening. It was an empowering, brave and strong move on her part. She felt passionate that we include it, so we kept on filming and presented it with joy and humor.”

Financing initially came from Zevgetis himself, but later was augmented by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $23K. Garfinkel said that the crowd-sourcing effort also helped build a supportive community around the feature. “That was the first real moment we were public with the project,” she said. “We then attended IFP’s Independent Film Week, which helped with our industry contacts, and [therefore] pushing the film to the next level. We also received grants, but Kevin Bright ultimately made the film possible.”

Friends producer, Kevin Bright, had taught a class on filmmaking at Perkins and had Michelle Smith in a class. After learning about the project, he wanted to be involved. Best and Most Beautiful Things debuted at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. It later picked up prizes at festivals in Orlando and Boston.

“After SXSW, sales Agent Preferred Content pitched to us. A bunch of us here saw it after the festival and we fell in love with it and wanted to be involved,” said First Run Features’ Marc Mauceri whose company is releasing the title. “We were able to strike a deal for the remaining rights of the film.” The company has been reaching out to groups aligned with Michelle Smith’s interests ahead of the roll-out, which begins Friday at Cinema Village in New York. The film will then head to the Laemmle Monica in L.A. ahead of its digital bow on iTunes December 20.

Old Stone
Director-writer: Johnny Ma
Cast: Chen Gang, Nai An, Wang Hongwei, Zhang Zebin, Luo Xue’er
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films

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Zeitgeist Films

Zeitgeist Films co-president and co-founder Nancy Gerstman saw Old Stone by chance at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival after a screening she had previously planned to watch was cancelled. The change in schedule worked out well. “I sat down in another theater and when Old Stone began, I was riveted until the end when I was blown away,” she explained. “At almost the same time, [Zeitgeist partner] Emily Russo, who had flown home, was contacted by our Columbia University intern who said we should look out for a film at the Berlinale by a former graduate, Johnny Ma called Old Stone. We both loved it…Old Stone is on the level of first films of Toddy Haynes, Christopher Nolan, Laura Poitras and others whose first films we’ve distributed.”

Old Stone centers on an accident. When a drunken passenger causes driver Lao Shi to swerve and hit a motorcyclist, he stops to help the injured man. As no police or ambulance arrive, he drives the victim to the hospital, checks him in and finds himself liable for the man’s medical bills. The repercussions of Shi’s selfless act expose a society rife with bone-chilling callousness and bureaucratic indifference. On the verge of losing his cab, his job and his family, Lao Shi resorts to desperate measures in order to survive.

“We’re marketing it as a Chinese ‘film noir’ and a thriller, though it is an unusual one with its emphasis on an aspect of life in China that’s basically unknown here,” noted Gerstman. “It definitely has a cinephile audience since Johnny is and will be a major ‘someone to watch’. We’ve had so much good advance reaction [including great reviews], that we were able to do more outreach earlier. And of course we’re going after lovers of Asian film, especially the younger audience. The film has a dynamite trailer by the way.”

Gerstman added that Zeitgeist typically looks for films that “festivals will want to show” and that have received prizes. The film won the Best Canadian First Feature Film prize in Toronto in September. “We’ve had a lot of interest in Old Stone and I expect to see many more cities when the fist reviews come out,” said Gerstman. “We’re giving Old Stone the option of a long theatrical roll-out before it goes to digital release.”

For now, Zeitgeist opened Old Stone at IFC Center in New York on Wednesday and will bow in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle and Philadelphia this weekend.

Two Trains Runnin’
Director: Samuel D. Pollard
Writer: Benjamin Hedin
Subjects: Taylor Branch, Phil Spiro, David Evans, Peter Guralnick, Ed Denson, Dick Waterman, Amanda Petrusich, Lucinda Williams, Katherine Perls, Common (narration)
Self-Distributed

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Benjamin Hedin & Samuel Pollard

Three-and-a-half years ago, writer producer Benjamin Hedin reached out to Samuel Pollard about directing a parallel story centered in the Mississippi Delta in the mid ‘60s.

Two Trains Runnin’ tells the story of two groups of young men who traveled to the deep south in pursuit of the same thing. In June of 1964 hundreds of college students traveled to Mississippi, starting what would be known as Freedom Summer. That same month, two groups of young men—made up of musicians, college students and record collectors—also traveled to Mississippi. Though neither group was aware of the other, each had come on the same errand: to find an old blues singer and coax him out of retirement. Thirty years before, Son House and Skip James had recorded some of the most memorable music of their era, but now they seemed lost to time.

There were few clues to their whereabouts. It was not even known for certain if they were still alive, and Mississippi, that summer, was a tense and violent place. The Ku Klux Klan and police force of many towns vowed that Freedom Summer would not succeed. Churches were bombed, shotguns blasted into cars and homes. It was easy to mistake the young men looking for Son House and Skip James as activists. Finally, on June 21, 1964, these two campaigns collided in memorable and tragic fashion.

“Heeding got the film funded. Bob Moses was still alive and with the help of some other people we were able to get going,” said Samuel Pollard. “We received funds from private sources and began shooting in the summer of 2013. Lucinda Williams was my first interview.”

Two Trains Runnin’ shot over two years. The biggest challenge, according to Pollard, was how to tell the parallel stories. Instead of re-enactments, the filmmaking team opted for animation. “I liked the animation in Searching for Sugar Man (2012), so we reached out to [Stockholm-based] Apparat, which did the animation for that movie. We did back and forth and then [decided on a plan].”

Close to the project’s final cut, the filmmaking team were considering possibilities for narration. Around the time the film was accepted to the Full Frame Documentary Festival, Common saw the feature and came on board as executive producer and narrator.

Post festival run, the filmmaking team decided to handle its release, spearheaded mostly by Benjamin Hedin. Two Trains Runnin’ will open Friday in New York.