A24 heads out with period drama The Exception starring Lily James, Jai Courtney, Janet McTeer and Christopher Plummer this weekend. There are a fair number of new specialties opening Friday, including Zoe Lister-Jones’ directorial debut Band Aid, in which she also stars alongside Adam Pally. IFC Films is opening the title in New York before heading to additional theaters as well as on-demand next week. Demetri Martin directs and also stars in Dean, rolling out via CBS Films. The feature, which also stars Kevin Kline, won the Tribeca Film Festival Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature in 2016. And Tilda Swinton lends her voice to Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s documentary Letters From Baghdad, opening courtesy of Vitagraph Films.
Other limited releases this weekend include Samuel Goldwyn Films’ Past Life, Pantelion’s 3 Idiotas, Breaking Glass Pictures’ Handsome Devil, Cohen Media Group’s Churchill and Vertical Entertainment’s Vincent N Roxxy.
Director: David Leveaux
Writer: Simon Burke, Alan Judd (novel)
Cast: Lily James, Jai Courtney, Janet McTeer, Christopher Plummer
Producer Lou Pitt’s journey with period drama The Exception began 10 years ago. He read the book, The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, which film title is based on and had early interest. “[The book] went to Christopher Plummer and me,” he said. “The script was still in the development stage and needed a lot of work. It was also not funded.” Once the rights to the book expired, Pitt acquired them and tapped production outfit Ostar Productions, which came on board.
“Once we got the script we knew this would be a European production,” said Pitt, who added that writer Simon Burke worked ‘intensively’ with director David Leveaux on the script. “[Production company] Egolli Tossell, who Christopher had worked with, also joined.”
The production partnered with Umedia and Lotus Entertainment for foreign sales, and Silver Reel was the primary financier. The feature shot over 33 days in six weeks in various locations in Belgium in early fall 2015. Pitt noted that the original time frame had been seven weeks but had to be reduced.
The Exception follows German soldier Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney) as he goes on a mission to investigate exiled German Monarch Kaiser Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer). The Kaiser lives in a secluded mansion in the Netherlands, and as Germany is taking over Holland, the country’s authorities are concerned that Dutch spies might be watching the Kaiser. As Brandt begins to infiltrate the Kaiser’s life in search of clues, he finds himself drawn into an unexpected and passionate romance with Mieke (Lily James), one of the Kaiser’s maids whom Brandt soon discovers is secretly Jewish.
When Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan), Head of the SS, decides to come for an unexpected visit with a large platoon of Nazis in tow, the stage is set for a showdown.
“If there was a hiccup, it was the weather, which is always an enemy,” said Pitt. “And, a few weeks before filming began, the Chinese yuan devalued, and that sent the markets into a spin cycle. So we had to manage that budget, which was ever evolving due to the valuations. A lot of productions had that problem.”
A24 picked up the film ahead of its Toronto debut last year. The film opens in limited release this weekend in New York and L.A. before adding more cities in the coming weeks.
Director-writer: Zoe Lister-Jones
Cast: Zoe Lister-Jones, Adam Pally, Fred Armisen, Susie Essman, Brooklyn Decker
Distributor: IFC Films
Band Aid filmmaker Zoe Lister-Jones and producer Natalia Anderson had worked together on the CBS series Life in Pieces. Lister-Jones, who wrote the script for Band Aid, gave it to Anderson for a look.
“Once I read it, I loved it and we were off to the races,” said Anderson. “This was about a year and a half ago. Our entire process went extremely fast. It was very atypical. We were very lucky.”
The feature follows Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally), a couple who can’t stop fighting. Advised by their therapist to try and work through their grief unconventionally, they are reminded of their shared love of music. In a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, they decide to turn all their fights into song and, with the help of their neighbor (Fred Armisen), they start a band.
“We began speaking about casting, and we also decided to have an all-female crew,” said Anderson. “I talked with people I know in financing, and they liked it. They were quickly on board.” QC Entertainment joined the project with funding. Anderson noted that they had “met on a Friday and by Monday were ready to move forward.” Lister-Jones plays the female lead, and Pally joined ahead of QC Entertainment’s involvement.
“This whole project had magic behind it. Everything kept falling into place,” said Anderson. “We relied a lot on our friendships and relationships.” Band Aid shot in L.A. last June, taking advantage of their hiatus on Life In Pieces.
“I think I’ve only done one other shoot in L.A.,” added Anderson. “There’s something really amazing about shooting at home. I think our crew really appreciated it too.”
IFC caught the film at Sundance, where it debuted. Band Aid will open at IFC Center in New York as well as the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark in Los Angeles before heading to additional locations and being available on-demand June 9.
Director-writer: Demetri Martin
Cast: Demetri Martin, Kevin Kline, Gillian Jacobs, Mary Steenburgen, Rory Scovel, Reid Scott, Christine Woods, Ginger Gonzaga, Peter Scolari, Briga Heelan
Distributor: CBS Films
First-time feature writer-director Demetri Martin’s dramedy Dean won the Tribeca Film Festival Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature in 2016. It is also where CBS Films first viewed the title.
Dean centers on a father and son coming to terms with “love, loss and everything in between.” Dean (Martin) is an illustrator whose unwillingness to deal with the recent death of his mother means escaping his hometown of New York for an interview with an ad agency in Los Angeles. His retired engineer dad, Robert (Kline), takes a more regimented approach to grief, including putting the family home up for sale. Father and son set out on their own paths to find a new normal as unexpected circumstances and potential new love interests threaten to thwart all plans.
“It’s a smart dramedy with heart and a distinctive voice, and we have always enjoyed working with first-time feature filmmakers — like Jordan Vogt-Roberts with The Kings of Summer and Maggie Carey with The To Do List,” a CBS Films spokesperson said. “Also, how could we pass up the opportunity for a Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen Last Vegas reunion?”
The distributor expects Martin’s younger fans who are familiar with his stand-up to be a core audience for the feature as it opens this weekend, though the spokesperson noted that Martin made a film that “can play all the way to age 100,” adding, “It’s a deeply personal film, and Demetri has been traveling for weeks hosting screenings, sharing the sketches and art that figure prominently in the film [as well as] doing press alongside his co-stars.”
CBS Films noted that cast have appeared on Colbert, Today, Live With Kelly and Ryan and Seth Meyers in addition to local programming. “Additionally, we have been working with the theaters on special screenings and outreach to their core art house customers,” said the company this week.
Dean opens in 15 locations across 11 markets, with expansion based on results. Concluded CBS Films: “We expect Dean to have strong word of mouth and will be continuing to work with Demetri to ensure that as many people as possible are able to see the film in theaters.”
Letters from Baghdad
Directors: Sabine Krayenbühl, Zeva Oelbaum
Distributor: Vitagraph Films
While working on another project, filmmakers Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum began exploring the work of British historical figure Gertrude Bell. Initially, they considered doing a feature film but later decided to tell the story as a documentary, in part, given the treasure trove of source material.
“She left behind thousands of photographs,” said Krayenbühl. “We also thought doing a doc would be more authentic.”
Voiced and executive produced by Academy Award-winning actor Tilda Swinton, Letters from Baghdad tells the story of Bell, a British spy, explorer and political officer who was the most powerful woman in the British Empire in her day. Bell, who died in 1926, traveled widely in Arabia before being recruited by British military intelligence to help draw the borders of Iraq after World War I, establish the modern state of Iraq and reshape the modern Middle East in ways that still reverberate today.
Among her accomplishments, she created the Iraq Museum to preserve the priceless cultural artifacts and antiquities of the region. This was the museum that infamously was ransacked during the American invasion in 2003. Many of the ancient sites Bell visited and photographed, such as Palmyra, Nineveh and Nimrud, have been destroyed by ISIL. She left more than 7,000 photographs, including stunning panoramas of these sites.
“We’re both really into archival footage. We love its beauty and decay,” said Oelbaum. “At the beginning, we were worried that we wouldn’t get enough footage. We researched for three years all over the world, and we ended up with 800 clips.”
Added Krayenbühl: “The late 1800s coincided with the invention of early cinema. People who could afford a camera would use it all the time. So there was a lot of footage.”
Although Letters from Baghdad is a documentary, the filmmaking duo worked from a script in the form of Bell’s letters and other writings. The National Endowment for the Humanities came in with early funding. They also did a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $58K but ended up topped $90K.
“Tilda came in halfway through,” said Oelbaum. “We only had two days with her, so just a limited time. We knew we had to be extremely organized. We used a stand-in for Tilda and recorded with her before Tilda actually arrived.”
Letters from Baghdad debuted at festivals in Bologna, Amsterdam, Beirut and London. Stateside, it played at Doc NYC, Cleveland and Montclair. The filmmakers began working with Vitagraph Films for the release less than a year ago. It bows Friday at Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika Film Center in New York before heading to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other cities June 9.