James Gray’s Lost City of Z opens in several New York and Los Angeles theaters this weekend. Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson star in the true-life story of British explorers seeking an unknown, advanced civilization in the Amazon. The Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street release bows in a crowded weekend of new Specialty titles hitting theaters. Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in Sony Classics’ Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, also in L.A. and New York, while Roadside Attractions’ golf drama Tommy’s Honour with Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond and Peter Mullan is in over 160 locations. Abramorama will bow veteran documentary filmmaker John Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary in limited release ahead of a slow roll-out around the country and Music Box Films is taking Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson in A Quite Passion to two New York theaters before an expansion. And distributor Gunpowder & Sky will open Tribeca ’16 feature Little Boxes with Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson and Janeane Garofalo Friday.

Among other limited releases bowing this weekend are Open Road’s animated Spark: A Space Tail, Under the Milky Way’s The Student, FilmRise’s doc Finding Oscar, The Orchard’s Jeremiah Tower and Indican’s thriller 7 Witches.

Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

Lost City of Z
Director-writer: James Gray
Writer: David Grann (novel)
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland
Distributor: Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street

James Gray received a copy of author David Grann’s non-fiction book Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon ahead of its publication in 2009. Gray had read about the story behind Lost City of Z previously in a New Yorker article, but hadn’t conceived at the time of spearheading a big screen version of the story, until later when Plan B Entertainment’s Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner reached out to Gray about directing Z.

“[They] called me up and said they wanted me to do this,” said Gray. “I don’t really know what inspired them to do that since nothing in my previous work indicated I’d be the one for this, but I was certainly blown away by the material. The scope and scale was difficult, but that challenge excited me.”

The Lost City of Z recalls the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who journeys into the Amazon at the dawn of the 20th century and discovers evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilization that may have once inhabited the region. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment who regard indigenous populations as “savages,” the determined Fawcett — supported by his devoted wife (Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland) and aide-de-camp (Robert Pattinson) — returns time and again to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case, culminating in his mysterious disappearance in 1925.

“I didn’t think about the logistical challenges when writing the script. You can’t do that,” explained Gray. “I’d never leave my bed if I [concentrated] on the challenges. The production itself was like making three different movies.”

The trio of shooting schedules included about three-and-a-half months in the Amazon including prep time as well as the sequences showing the main characters’ home in the U.K. (about five weeks) and scenes from the First World War (two weeks). Logistical challenges, not surprisingly, were greatest in the jungle between heat, insects, animals and the often unpredictable weather.

“The Don Diego River [in Colombia] could be just up to your knees or over 12 feet deep,” said Gray. “It would take just thirty seconds for a [flood] to obliterate the banks of the river and overcome your equipment if it’s raining in the mountains.”

Initially Brad Pitt and later Benedict Cumberbatch were slated to play the starring role of Percy Fawcett, but both had to drop out because of conflicts, according to Gray, though Pitt retained his executive producer connection through Plan B Entertainment, which produced the project. Gray said he was initially hesitant about Charlie Hunnam playing Fawcett, but after meeting, he was convinced he was the ideal match to play the explorer.

“He was so charming and dedicated,” said Gray. “He and Rob [Pattinson] would have starvation contests in the jungle. I think at one point, Charlie had lost 50 pounds.”

The Lost City of Z debuted at the New York Film Festival where it screened as the Closing Night Film in October and later played at the Berlinale in February as well as more recently at the San Francisco International Film Festival ahead of its release this weekend.

Amazon Studios picked up the film ahead of its festival premieres. Bleecker Street is handling the film’s theatrical roll-out beginning Friday. The Lost City of Z will bow at Lincoln Square and the Sunshine in New York as well as the Arclight Hollywood and Landmark in L.A. The title will expand to about 500 locations nationwide April 21.

Sony Pictures Classics

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Director-writer: Joseph Cedar
Cast: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen Dan Stevens, Josh Charles
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Two of filmmaker Joseph Cedar’s films, Footnote (2011) and Beaufort (2007) were nominated in the Oscar Foreign Language category. His latest, Norman, starring Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen and Steve Buscemi, is in English and Hebrew.

“I’ve known Norman for years and have found myself in different circumstances either deeply proud of his resilience, or extremely embarrassed by his behavior,” explained Cedar. “You can only feel this way about someone who is very close. I decided to write a movie about Norman, a cinematic portrait of him, or maybe an investigation into his operating system, when I realized that this duality in how I felt towards him is a reflection of my own burning identity crisis.”

The story centers on Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), who lives a lonely life in the margins of New York City power and money. Always on the lookout for someone willing to pay attention to him, Norman sets his sights on Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), a charismatic Israeli politician alone in New York at a low point in his career. Sensing Eshel’s vulnerability, Norman reaches out with a gift of a very expensive pair of shoes, a gesture that deeply touches Eshel.

When Eshel becomes Prime Minister three years later, he remembers. With the connection to the leader of a major nation, Norman is awash in the respect he has always craved, and attempts to leverage Eshel’s name on his biggest deal ever: a series of pro quo transactions linking the Prime Minister to Norman’s nephew (Michael Sheen), a rabbi (Steve Buscemi), a mogul (Harris Yulin), his assistant (Dan Stevens) and a treasury official from the Ivory Coast. Norman’s plans soon go awry, creating the potential for an international catastrophe he must struggle to prevent.

“We had great success with Footnote and were always hoping to have this film,” said Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker. “We kept up with his progress on Norman throughout the shoot. He showed us an early cut of the film and loved it and bought the film.”

Sony Classics opened Footnote in March, 2012 grossing just over $2M in the box office. Norman debuted at Telluride and Toronto last fall. Both Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar have been traveling together promoting the film, including the recent Miami International Film Festival where it was the opening night selection.

“This is very much an American film,” added Barker. “Joseph is one of the freshest young directors around and this gives a fresh look at New York.” Barker said the film will open in L.A. and New York this weekend, followed by other major markets including Chicago and Washington, D.C. next week. Added Barker: “This is going to be platformed, but will go wider than Footnote.”

Roadside Attractions

Tommy’s Honour
Director: Jason Connery
Writers: Pamela Marin, Kevin Cook (book)
Cast: Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Peter Mullan, Sam Neill
Distributor: Roadside Attractions

Based on the 2007 book by Kevin Cook Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son, director Jason Connery’s Tommy’s Honour, appropriately, opened last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Both Cook and Pamela Marin collaborated on the screenplay. The title won Best Feature Film at the 2016 British Academy Scotland Awards.

The film is the true story of the challenging relationship between “Old” Tom and “Young” Tommy Morris, the dynamic father-son team who ushered in the modern game of golf. As their fame grew, Tom and Tommy, Scotland’s Golf Royalty, were touched by drama and personal tragedy. At first matching his father’s success, Tommy’s talent and fame grew to outshine his father’s accomplishments and respect as founder of the Open Championship in 1860 with a series of his own triumphs. But in contrast to Tommy’s public persona, his personal turmoil ultimately led him to rebel against both the aristocracy who gave him opportunity and the parents who shunned his passionate relationship with his wife.

“It’s opening in a somewhat unusual pattern for us because we’re orienting it toward the golf audience,” said Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. “We picked theaters where we think there are grassroots audiences inclined toward golf such as in Arizona, Florida, California, etc.” Fittingly, the feature had its U.S. debut at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January.

Not surprisingly, Roadside has targeted the golf world in getting the word out to fans of the sport. The Golf Channel bought the first basic cable window. “We have a lot of advertising happening there and [the channel] is very involved in promoting the film,” added Cohen. “We’ve also been promoting it at various golf tournaments including the Masters last week. Everything that targets a golf audience has written a piece on it.” The company is also making a push to select art houses.

Roadside will open Tommy’s Honour in 167 locations this weekend. The film will open in the U.K. following this side of the Atlantic, while its Golf Channel launch will be later this spring.

Abramorama

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
Director: John Scheinfeld
Subjects: John Coltrane, Common, Bill Clinton, Carolos Santana, Denzel Washington (voice)
Distributor: Abramorama

John Scheinfeld’s documentary Chasing Trane received the full support of musician/artist John Coltrane’s family as well as his record labels, which provided Coltrane’s music. A producer of the feature asked Scheinfeld — a veteran of many music-oriented documentaries — if he’d be interested in directing a non-fiction film about Coltrane and decided to do more research.

“I was not an obsessed fan,” explained Scheinfeld. “I knew a little about his career. We’re used to the cliche story of an artist who comes from nowhere and makes it big, then abuses substances and dies young. He did have his challenges, but he overcame them — and when he did, he ascended. I think that was an inspiring story and felt it was a story needed to be told.”

Set against the social, political and cultural landscape of the times, Chasing Trane brings John Coltrane to life as a fully dimensional being, inviting the audience to engage with Coltrane the man, Coltrane the artist. Featuring never-before-seen Coltrane family home movies, footage of John Coltrane and band in the studio — discovered in a California garage during production of this film — along with hundreds of never-before-seen photographs and rare television appearances from around the world, Coltrane’s story is told by the musicians that worked with him including Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Reggie Workman, musicians that have been inspired by his fearless artistry and creative vision like Common, John Densmore, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, Kamasi Washington, along with Coltrane’s children and biographers, in addition to well-known admirers such as President Bill Clinton and philosopher Dr. Cornel West.

“With every film I do comes unique challenges,” said Scheinfeld. “In the case of Coltrane, there was only limited performance footage available. He only did two TV shows in America, most of the others were in Europe. He also didn’t do television interviews. We made up for it by casting a wide net globally to bring in rarely seen or heard audio-visual material. Between Japan and America, we feature 500 photographs never seen by anyone. Photographers had the shot photos but they were only negatives.”

Scheinfeld said he “casts” his features “like a narrative film,” finding “unique voices” who don’t duplicate what others say. Chasing Coltrane took over a year-and-a-half to finish.

“We went to people who knew and worked with Coltrane (other musicians) and also family members,” said Scheinfeld. “We persuaded his stepdaughter Antonia to do her first interview ever. It took several months to do this, but that really helped us to understand the man… The goal is to bring him alive as a three dimensional human being, not a survey of the music. It’s a portrait of an artist. The final category for me is to find some ‘unexpected voices.’ Cornell West and Bill Clinton were that for me.”

Scheinfeld saw Clinton on David Letterman who said Coltrane had inspired him to pick up a saxophone at age 10. The then future president actually had more scholarship offers for music than traditional academics, but decided against pursuing music at university. “He said, ‘I realized I’m not John Coltrane,’” said Scheinfeld of Clinton on the David Letterman Show. “So I knew there was a story there. I contacted his chief of staff, but it took ten months to pin him down.”

Scheinfeld said that he wanted a “well-known actor” to voice Coltrane in the documentary. He put together a list of five, but said, “happily I didn’t have to go beyond my first choice.” The filmmaker flew to Pittsburgh where Denzel Washington was shooting Fences, managing to catch the actor on a day off to record his part for the film. “I’ve worked with actors in the past who come in with large entourages, but Washington was very professional and came in prepared. He knew how he wanted to [voice Coltrane].”

A cut of the film was completed in time for its world premiere at Telluride. The feature then went to Toronto and others followed. Scheinfeld wanted to pursue a theatrical component for the title’s release. Conversations began with Richard Abramowitz’s Abramorama label in the fall, with an agreement finalized in the new year.

“He did a great job on The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” added Scheinfeld. Abramorama released that film in September 2016 grossing over $2.9M theatrically.

Added the director: “We set out to make a portrait of an artist film… I wanted to broaden his audience. Some columns and reviews say it’s a jazz film, but it isn’t. His music defies genre.”

Chasing Trane opens exclusively at IFC Center in New York this weekend, followed by The Landmark in L.A. and Laemmle Pasadena with the rest of the country rolling out in the weeks immediately following, well into June. The current theater total exceeds 100.

Music Box Films

A Quiet Passion
Director-writer: Terence Davies
Cast: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Ducan Duff, Jodhi May, Joanna Bacon, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright
Distributor: Music Box Films

Distributor Music Box Films first caught Terence Davies’ A Quite Passion, focusing on 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, last year in New York at a distributors screening following its Berlinale debut. The company had released Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea in 2012 (over $1.12M).

“[He is] an inspiring speaker who works very hard to help promote his films,” commented Music Box’s Ed Arentz. “Beyond that, the film is quite extraordinary with wonderful performances, convincing period evocations, and is about a vastly intriguing figure that will have long term audience interest.”

Not publicly recognized during her lifetime, Massachusetts-born writer Emily Dickinson had her first volume of works published posthumously in 1890 after her family discovered forty hardbound volumes containing nearly 1,800 poems. Cynthia Nixon portrays Dickinson, personifying her wit, intellectual independence and pathos who had a deep attachment to her close-knit family. The feature typifies the manners, mores and spiritual convictions of her time, which she struggled with and transcended in her poetry.

“The core audience is the traditional arthouse audience with some very specific sub-categories,” explained Arentz. “Emily Dickinson is a revered and still very contemporary poet with a surprisingly large ‘fanbase.’ We’re reaching out to poetry enthusiasts generally and Emily Dickinson fans specifically with online advertising and social media. This also entails outreach to universities American literature, American history and Women’s Studies departments.”

Arentz added that the company is tapping fans of Nixon, who has been active in supporting the film despite her onstage obligations in The Little Foxes, though he said that that has also allowed for “some co-publicity synergies.”

Music Box eyed the post-Oscars period for the film’s release. Additionally, the roll-out overlaps significantly with an Emily Dickinson exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York. Added Arentz: “[The release date] also worked with Terence’s travel schedule, allowing for him to do press interviews and speak at personal appearances at Harvard, several screenings in the New York City area, the Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison and finally in Chicago for a screening with the Poetry Foundation.”

Music Box Films will open A Quite Passion in a traditional release starting at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad Cinema in New York. Tapping Dickinson’s roots, it will also open Boston, Cape Cod and Amherst this weekend before going to L.A. April 21 followed by the next 50 major markets in the following weeks.

Gunpowder & Sky

Little Boxes
Director: Rob Meyer
Writer: Annie Howell
Cast: Melanie Lynskey, Nelsan Ellis, Armani Jackson, Janeane Garofalo, Oona Laurence, Miranda McKeon, Nadia Dajani
Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky

Filmmaker Rob Meyer first received the script for what was then titled Black Kid – and became Little Boxes – by writer Annie Howell in March, 2014 from producers Jared Goldman and Jordan Horowitz. The filmmaker said he was moved by the story and the relevant topics it touches upon.

“It was a beautifully written screenplay that told a gentle story of a family moving and being tested,” commented Meyer. “It also touched on a lot of difficult and sensitive issues — race, class, regionalism, parenthood. There aren’t a lot of scripts like that floating around so it immediately got my interest.”

The log line for the feature reads: “It’s the summer before 6th grade, and Clark (Armani Jackson) is the new bi-racial kid in a very white town. Discovering that to be cool he needs to act ‘more black’, he fumbles to meet expectations. Meanwhile, his urban intellectual parents Mack (Nelson Ellis) and Gina (Melanie Lynskey) try to adjust to small-town living. Accustomed to life in New York, the tight-knit family is ill-prepared for the drastically different set of obstacles that their new community presents. They soon find themselves struggling to understand themselves and each other in this new context.”

“There wasn’t a cast attached when I came on board, but once I did we were incredibly lucky to land Melanie Lysnkey and Nelsan Ellis as the leads to shoot in the summer of 2015,” explained Meyer. “We ended up shooting for 21 days mainly around New York City, with Harrison and Newburgh, New York as stand-ins for Washington State. We were wowed with the brand new sound stages up in Newburgh. It was a classic New York independent film shoot full of passion and talent [along with] our healthy share of logistical setbacks.”

Little Boxes debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. Netflix came on board while Gunpowder & Sky picked up theatrical. Noted Meyer: “It was important to us to have a theatrical run before Netflix streams it worldwide later this summer and we found a great partner in Film Buff, who was acquired by Gunpowder and Sky right as we were finalizing our deal with them. They have been a pleasure to work with and have done a great job preparing us for the big release on April 14.”

The feature will open in New York and L.A. Friday.