After a break-neck debut pace for fall award hopefuls, the year is starting off decidedly slower for the Specialties, hardly unusual. Late Q4 roll-outs will continue to dominate the scene leading up to and beyond Sundance which starts in two weeks. Still, there are openers. Among those starting off the year is Samuel Goldwyn’s Blame, directed by television actor Quinn Shephard who began writing the project when she was 15 and directed the project in 2015 at 20. Vertical Entertainment is rolling out drama-thriller The Strange Ones by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein and starring Alex Pettyfer in select locations around the country. And Film Movement is opening Israeli drama In Between in a number of U.S. cities including L.A. and New York following an extensive festival run.

Samuel Goldwyn Films

Blame
Director-writer: Quinn Shephard
Cast: Chris Messina, Quinn Shephard, Nadia Alexander, Tate Donovan, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Tessa Albertson, Sarah Mezzanotte
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Writer, director and star Quinn Shephard began writing Blame when she was 15 years old. She had taken part in a telling of The Crucible, which inspired her to do a modern-day version of the story set in a high school. Explained Shephard: “There were many iterations of the script before I directed [the movie] when I was 20. I was still in school and doing acting jobs, so I worked on this on my downtime.”

Blame centers on Abigail, an outcast at a small suburban high school. She is returning for the first time after a mysterious event the previous year. Facing constant bullying, she escapes from her hostile surroundings by immersing herself in the worlds of the characters she reads about, much to the amusement of her manipulative classmate Melissa. When the girls’ intriguing new drama teacher Jeremy announces Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as their fall show, and casts Abigail over Melissa in the starring role, Abigail’s confidence blooms — but soon her relationship with Jeremy begins to move beyond the fantasy world she’s constructed. This taboo bond strikes a nerve in Melissa, fueling a vengeful jealousy that quickly spirals out of control — and brings about a chain of events that draws even further parallels to the madness of Salem.

After creating a teaser reel, Quinn found a funding source six months before shooting was set to begin, but then it fell through. “We finished the film with a combination of money from my college fund and money I had made doing a show for CBS [as well as] other acting jobs,” she said. “My dad also took on a part time job to help finance. It was low budget.”

Quinn’s mother helped with casting. Most actors were hired through the agency Quinn works with. Blame shot in New Jersey in the summer of 2015 over 19 days.

“It was very quick, but it felt like the longest 19 days of my entire life,” said Quinn. “Everyone had to be on top of their game because we had something like 190 scenes in the original script before we edited — so like 10 scenes per day. We also wanted to have some time for improv. My DP and I worked for two weeks mapping out the look of the film before we started shooting.” Two cameras were used for the shoot.

Quinn edited the title on her laptop with help from her mother. Blame was also screened for test audiences. Sound mixing and color took place in Montreal.

Blame debuted at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, while Samuel Goldwyn Films came on for the release “a handful of months ago,” according to Quinn. The feature will open at Village East in New York as well as L.A. and eight other markets today in addition to being available on-demand day and date.

Vertical Entertainment

The Strange Ones
Directors-writers: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, James Freedson-Jackson, Emily Althaus, Gene Jones, Owen Campbell, Tobias Campbell, Marin Ireland
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment

Filmmakers Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein made a short version of The Strange Ones, which debuted at Sundance and later at SXSW film festivals in 2011. Leading up to the feature version of the story, the pair met with Anne Carey who boarded as executive producer. Joining afterward were producers Eric Schultz and Michael Prall who were connected with the feature project via WME’s Craig Kestel.

“It came together faster than any other project I’ve been a part of,” recalled Schultz. “By the time we formed our core group, that was five months before we started shooting in August, 2016.”

The film revolves around mysterious events that surround two travelers, seemingly brothers, as they make their way across a remote American landscape. On the surface all seems normal, but what appears to be a simple vacation soon gives way to a dark and complex web of secrets.

“Anne Carey and [producer] Shani Geva had done a lot of work with the script,” said Schultz. “When we came on, we did another three or so months of script development.” Financing for the project came through private entities familiar with the team. Casting Alex Pettyfer for the lead ‘Nick’ cemented financing.

“Finding locations was a huge part of the story since it takes place in specific iconic rural places,” said Prall. “They’re pretty far-flung, and finding a great farm, great cabin and great roadside rest stop were important. We criss-crossed the Hudson Valley [in New York] a lot. We tried to stay west of the Hudson since it’s more rural and more wild. We needed a feel of rural U.S. but a place that is hard to pin where it is located.”

Following prep in New York City, the film shot over four weeks. Radcliff and Wolkstein edited the film as they had done with their short.

“Great to have a team of financiers who were willing to put up money but also had strong opinions that came from experience. That can sometimes be a rare thing,” said Schultz. Added Prall: “It was an interesting film to figure out in the edit. It was a balancing act with what information we’re revealing and how that information is disseminated. It’s a real process to figure out how to lightly shade it one way or another and how even small tweaks could totally change an audience’s idea about the mystery and plot line.”

The Strange Ones debuted at last year’s SXSW Film Festival. Vertical Entertainment boarded for the title’s release. The film will open at the Quad Cinema in New York as well as the Laemmle Monica Film Center in L.A. today. It will also open other select locations around the country.

Film Movement

In Between
Director-writer: Maysaloun Hamoud
Cast: Mouna Hawa, Sana Jammelieh, Shaden Kanboura, Mahmud Shalaby
Distributor: Film Movement

Film Movement first caught Israeli drama In Between at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival in September and picked up the film a couple months later. The distribution label then gave the title a long festival run due to interest from various events and to build awareness.

“We have a long history of supporting first time filmmakers from around the world, and we felt that this film comes from a director with a fresh voice in cinema, and that it tells a new story in a particularly vibrant way,” commented Michael Rosenberg, president of Film Movement. “We love to support women directors as well…”

The film follows a group of housemates. Laila is a criminal lawyer who loves to burn off her workday stress in the underground club scene. Salma is a DJ and bartender who starts a romantic relationship with a female medical intern. Their new roommate is Nur, a younger, religious Muslim university student whose conservative fiancé is horrified by her secular roommates and asks to hasten their marriage, leave Tel Aviv, and assume her role as a dutiful wife. Laila and Salma also face their own turmoil. Laila has found love with a modern Muslim man whose acceptance proves less than unconditional, and Salma discovers that her Christian family is not as liberal as they claim to be.

“[In Between] was also the opening night film for the Film Movement 15th anniversary retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image this past June,” explained Rosenberg. “The film was scheduled to open November 3 right after the opening night of the Other Israel Film Festival, and since the filmmaker was coming for this event from Israel, it made a lot of sense to open the following week and have the filmmaker stay for Q&As during the opening weekend.” Rosenberg said the programmer at the theater, however, did not keep his commitment, so he was able to secure the Landmark in New York for a January release. The company banked press when director Maysalound Hamoud was in New York.

“The film has been very successful with younger audiences in France, Spain and the UK,” noted Rosenberg. “Here in the US, the film has been warmly received during its festival run. From New York’s Other Israel Film Festival to the Arab Film Festival and Outfest, the film has been connecting with a wide audience of both young and old. Because of this, we’re not only targeting Jewish audiences but also working with local and national Arab American groups as well as reaching out to the LGBT community.”

Film Movement expects to attract younger audiences that “usually don’t go to foreign language films,” according to Rosenberg. The company is utilizing an “extensive social media campaign” as well as music videos they created using music composed for the film.

Film Movement opens In Between at Landmark’s Sunshine today as well as 57 West theaters in New York, followed by Los Angeles January 12. The feature will then begin its national rollout with locations in Baltimore, Portland, Santa Fe and Scottsdale, followed by San Francisco, Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Boston and more. Added Rosenberg: “Given the positive response from press and audiences we expect to add a large number of additional markets.”