Here’s a head start on the upcoming weekend’s specialty releases. Sony Classics’ Michael Barker gives Deadline an inside snapshot of the distributor’s long ties to Polish director Agnieszka Holland and her latest Polish Holocaust feature In Darkness, based on a true story. Return director Liza Johnson offers her casting and financing coup for her film about an Iraqi war veteran’s return home which Focus World is rolling out Friday. Also among specialties this weekend is Woody Harrelson starrer Rampart about a cop in a scandal-plagued department.

In Darkness
Director: Agnieszka Holland; Writer: David F. Shamoon; Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Hubert Knaup, Kinga Preis, Krzysztof Skonieczny; Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics; Awards: Best Foreign Language Oscar Nomination (Poland)

Polish Director Agnieszka Holland has had a longstanding relationship with Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard dating back to their time at Orion Classics when they acquired her 1990 feature Europa Europa, one of their last releases at the company before founding SPC. They worked with her again on Olivier, Olivier (1992), one of the first releases at the new Sony division they ran with Marcie Bloom which opened the New York Film Festival, but Europa Europa and the mini-Oscar controversy surrounding the title put Holland on the map in America.

“It was a tremendous success for us,” Barker told Deadline. “It was a major film about the Holocaust and not told before. We had an incredible experience with her. Germany refused to submit it for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration which really upset the German film community in Los Angeles.” Filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and others campaigned on its behalf and it eventually nabbed a screenplay nomination and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

Fast forward to last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, Barker and Bernard met with Holland where she showed them a rough cut of In Darkness, also a Holocaust story based on a true story (In The Sewers Of Lvov by Robert Marshall) of a sewer worker’s rescue of Jewish refugees in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov. “We were so taken by the cut of the film we made an offer for the film right before Berlin started,” said Barker. This time around, Holland’s film is a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and Barker noted the film has done gangbusters in Poland where it opened a month ago with about 700,000 admissions to date. In the U.S. SPC decided to open the film between the Oscar noms and the actual ceremony because “our history shows that this is a good time to open good quality art film” said Barker. SPC did a qualifying run for In Darkness for possible screenplay and art direction nominations though the film only landed in the foreign-language category. “It didn’t happen but the short run jumpstarted the word-of-mouth,” added Barker.

Director/Writer: Liza Johnson; Cast: Linda Cardellini, Michael Shannon, John Slattery, Talia Balsam, Paul Sparks, Louisa Krause

Following work on a series of shorts Liza Johnson scored a slot at Directors Fortnight in Cannes last year. Before heading the to the Croisette though she caught the attention of actor Michael Shannon with the script she wrote about a woman who slowly feels alienated after returning to her family in a rust belt town following a tour of duty in Iraq. Johnson told Deadline that Shannon expressed interest in the film before his work on Revolutionary Road which earned him a best supporting actor nomination in 2009. When production drew closer Johnson set out to find someone who could star opposite Shannon in the key role of Kelli the mother and wife returning from war. “I was excited when I met Linda [Cardellini],” said Johnson who added that the actress’ work in a pair of perhaps unlikely television and film roles sold her on Cardellini. “I had seen her in Freaks and Geeks and Brokeback Mountain. But the moment I had to cast her was when I saw her in Scooby Doo 2. It’s a very physical role and I thought if she can do that she can do my movie.”

Finding financing proved challenging in 2008 because of the financial crisis. “It’s a woman lead drama with themes related to war which people don’t always think is lucrative,” said Johnson. But she and producers Ben Howe and Noah Harlan found an ally in Abigail Disney’s company Fork. Disney had done work for TBS about women in war and she was “utterly confident in the film,” Johnson said. Former Today show host Meredith Vieira also came on board as executive producer taking time out in Cannes for the film’s beach-side party. The team began talks with Focus World about releasing the film following the festival with a deal finalized in the fall. Focus World (which will also release Tribeca ’11 Icelandic doc Gnarr this week) will release Return on VOD as well as iTunes and Netflix on the 28th following its theatrical rollout Friday.

Director: Oren Moverman; Cast: Woody Harrelson, Anne Heche, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Brie Larson, Sammy Boyarsky, Ben Foster, Robin Wright; Writer: Oren Moverman (screenplay) and James Ellroy (story, screenplay)

The filmmaking team behind Rampart stumbled on a marketing home run when images plastered on the streets of New York and Los Angeles went viral. Producer Lawrence Inglee told Deadline a chance marketing campaign designed by New York-based Bond, which was behind last year’s successful Bansky rollout, scored with the public once again ahead of this weekend’s release of Rampart. The image shows a cop apparently beating a suspect. The policeman appears to be Rampart star Woody Harrelson but the poster’s only text says, “I Work For You.”

“People were photographing [the posters] and blogging about them,” Inglee told Deadline. “It was an interesting phenomenon because it went to the content of the film in a low cost way, engaging the political climate.” The film explores the dark and romantic misadventures of an LAPD cop (Harrelson) whose past catches up with him in the wake of a department-wide corruption scandal.

Inglee, who produced Rampart director Oren Moverman’s previous film The Messenger which Woody Harrelson also starred in, said casting for their latest film came together quickly half joking that “everybody loves Woody Harrelson,” opening up a minor tide of name actors to the project. “We kept inviting people and it just kept happening. We had five people in place before we got financing,” adding that Steve Buscemi also came over from The Messenger. In the case of Ice Cube, Inglee noted the irony that two decades prior Ice Cube wrote “Fuck the Police” for LA rap group N.W.A. “We approached him initially for The Messenger but it didn’t work. But he was one of the early stars on this as well.”