Brian Brooks is managing editor of MovieLine.

Smashed is a surprising story with an impressive cast including Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Will & Grace‘s Megan Mullally. Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Gayby began its life as a short but progressed to an outright feature after producers Anne Hubbell and Amy Hobby gave their a go-ahead last year at the Sarasota Film Festival. The complicated WWII coming-of-age story Simon And The Oaks stalled when the director dropped out, but the project came back to life when a former European Film Commissioner took over. Excuse Me For Living filmmaker Ric Klass, not only produced and directed his project, he wrote the screenplay and the novel. He also used his business acumen to figure out financing: DIY. And Ava DuVernay’s Middle Of Nowhere took some time to come together, but the publicity-maven-turned-director convinced investors her second feature would find an audience.

Middle Of NowhereMiddle Of Nowhere
Director-writer: Ava DuVernay
Cast: Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Lorraine Toussaint, Sharon Lawrence, Omari Hardwick
Distributor: AFFRM

Writer-director DuVernay segued into filmmaking after running a successful publicity agency for years. She “stumbled” upon what she thinks may be her true calling while working on Collateral (DreamWorks) in 1999. “I was standing on a street in Compton and that’s where the idea of Middle of Nowhere came about,” said DuVernay. “I worked on the script weekends and evenings beginning in 2003. I didn’t know how to produce a film.” The film concerns a medical student who drops out of school after her husband is sentenced to prison. Middle Of Nowhere continued to gestate in subsequent years as DuVernay focused on publicity, repping Dreamgirls and later The Help through her DuVernay Agency. She also focused on making some music docs such as This Is The Life and feature I Will Follow.

I Will Follow was my first film which was self-financed from $50K out my own savings,” DuVernay said. “It was a good model to show investors. I made eight times that [amount] back.” She convinced investors the same could be done for Middle Of Nowhere, eventually raising $200K, with Participant Media among the companies on board. The project shot for 19 days in LA although DuVernay noted that they were “not among the lucky ones” to get a California tax credit. The film played in competition this year at Sundance, winning DuVernay the Best Director prize. “It caused excitement in the African American community and the film has had a wonderful life since then.” Middle Of Nowhere also was one of the gala movies at last year’s L.A. Film Festival, playing a 1,200-seat theater at L.A. Live. After screening in Toronto it closed the recent Urban World Film Festival. DuVernay said “I think all these things show that not only black people will turn out” for this kind of movie.

Specialty unit AFFRM will open Middle Of Nowhere on six screens this weekend in LA, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Next weekend 19 screens will be added in seven more cities.

Director-writer: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Producer Jennifer Cochis and writer-director James Ponsoldt had been friends for a number of years before he approached her with the idea for Smashed. In February 2010 he called her with the idea of a mostly functional married couple whose bond is built on a mutual love of alcohol. Their relationship, however, is challenged when the wife decides to get sober. Cochis solicited the help of producer Jonathan Schwartz with whom she worked on Douchebag in 2010. Schwartz runs Super Crispy with partner Andrea Sperling, which came on board with financing. For casting, the producing team “sat around and talked about who would be great to play the role of [wife Kate Hannah] and we had lunch with Mary Elizabeth Winstead. We thought it would be great showcase for her,” said Cochis. Then Aaron Paul joined as the husband Charlie Hannah and “after that it was like dominos,” said Cochis. “James had always wanted Octavia Spencer and to his credit he had made the offer before everything started snowballing with The Help.” Fellow cast member Nick Offerman suggested they consider his wife Megan Mullally for another role and that helped lock casting. “We were lucky that everyone who read [the script] were right for us,” said Cochis. “We were very lucky.”

Shooting took place over 19 days and wrapped in October of last year. Sony Pictures Classics saw the film at its Sundance premiere and closed the acquisition right after the festival ended. “When I was in Toronto I was surprised by the number of people of that generation in the theater,” said SPC co-president Tom Bernard. “Basically they looked like the people in the movie. And that is the audience. It’s an every day story about people dealing with their problems and people connect with that.” To attract 20-somethings SPC has been using social networking. An NFL team owner also helped finance Smashed and will assist via the league’s marketing apparatus. “We’re going to open it like a can opener,” joked Bernard. Smashed will open in New York and Los Angeles with a slow rollout to other cities.

Excuse Me For Living
Director-writer: Ric Klass
Cast: Tom Pelphrey, Christopher Lloyd, Robert Vaughn, Melissa Archer, Jerry Stiller
Distributor: Dada Films

As the novelist, writer, producer and director, Ric Klass understood the Excuse Me For Living story inside-out, which was a great help when he worked with his actors. “Wayne Knight, Christopher Lloyd and Jerry Stiller wanted to know … the reality of the character so they could make them funny,” Klass said. The production mostly went “smoothly” for the 25-day shoot except for his stars’ erratic schedules. “Scheduling international stars on a low-budget film was nightmarish,” said Klass. “One actor could be here one day, not the other day… I think there were 43 speaking parts.”

Klass wrote an outline for the story’s script ahead of writing the novel. Afterward, he wrote the screenplay and then went forward with the film. “There are probably two other movies in the novel,” said Klass. “When I was writing I knew where I was heading.” Excuse Me For Living revolves around a suicidal drug user who must obey his rehab clinic’s demand that he lead a senior men’s group or face incarceration — and lose the love of his psychiatrist’s daughter.

Aside from knowing the story thoroughly, Klass also noted “As far as financing goes, I have a business background, so I know how to do that sort of thing.” He asked casting director Donna McKenna to find “at least one name actor.” Klass said, “When we went to the agency for Jerry Stiller, I was fortunate that they liked my script and they were familiar” with his work. That resulted in additional “name actors” and Klass shot in April of last year. Dada Films came on board as distributor after shooting completed. Excuse Me For Living will bow in 14 cities and VOD via cable, iTunes, Amazon and other platforms this weekend.

Simon And The Oaks
Director: Lisa Ohlin
Writers: Linda Aronson (script consultant), Marnie Blok (novel), Marianne Fredriksson (novel), Lisa Ohlin (additional screenwriting)
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Helen Sjoholm, Jan Josef Liefers, Stefan Godicke, Karl Linnertorp
Distributor: The Film Arcade

The story of two boys coming of age against the backdrop of World War II-era Sweden is based on a 1985 book. Ohlin first came across the story as a Swedish Film Commissioner when an earlier group of filmmakers approached the government agency for funding. She said adapting the novel was very complex but “a Dutch writer had managed to ‘crack the code,’ finding a way to write this complex story. So I gave some public funds.” Not long afterward, the director left and the project crashed. Producers later approached Ohlin about taking on the director job. She was no longer a film commissioner and agreed to take a chance. “After doing 18 versions of the script, we got it done,” said Ohlin. “Doing period pieces is very hard because of all the money needed. We had 30 different financiers for the €6 million ($7.8 million) budget. Because it’s so complicated, we had to change the script to adjust for what the budget would allow. But, we were able to open the old Tempelhof Airport in Berlin and there was still one American plane there.”

Raising money from various European film commissions also obligated the production to bring some aspects of the filmmaking to those jurisdictions. There were seven different producers from five countries. The team shot scenes in Germany, did sound in Holland and shot external scenes at a house in Sweden, but did the interiors at a studio in Hamburg. “Some people think European soft money is easy to come by but it’s not,” said Ohlin. The project began shooting in December 2009 but the bulk of the shoot took place in February 2010. “We were very lucky because it was the most snowy winter in Sweden in 30 years.” The story resonated with Ohlin personally, which may explain some of her persistence on the project. “I had found out I was Jewish and like the character in the book my parents had hid this from me. It was a great way to explore about family secrets. There was a lot of anti semitism in Sweden at the time even though it was considered the neutral country.” Simon And The Oaks opens at New York’s Paris Theater this weekend followed by a rollout in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago and Highland Park, Illinois October 19th with additional cities in November.

Director-writer: Jonathan Lisecki
Cast: Jenn Harris, Matthew Wilkas, Mike Doyle, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Jack Ferver
Distributor: Film Collaborative (theatrical), Wolfe Releasing (VOD/DVD)

Producing team Anne Hubbell and Amy Hobby saw a short film making its way around the festival circuit that became the precursor for Gayby. The duo liked the story about a straight woman and gay man who are best friends and trying to have a baby. “We saw it on the festival circuit and at the Sarasota Film Festival last year we nailed down the director and said ‘Do it.’ He wrote a script in LA and we had an investor in place,” said Hubbell. After bringing on another investor and initiating a Kickstarter campaign the production came together rather quickly. Kickstarter “was important for the base community and we needed the money. It helped us a lot,” added Hubbell. “A lot of people had seen the short and we were able to capitalize on that.” The project took advantage of the New York State incentive program and began its quick 15-day shoot last August. Hubbell said, “We were able to rent an apartment we shot in, and it doubled as housing for our camera crew which saved money.”

Initially, Hubbell and Hobby were inclined to cast different actors, but director Lisecki insisted on Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas to return as the unlikely couple. He had written the script for them, although Harris’ tight schedule posed some challenges to the equally tight shoot. “Jenn was doing Silence, the musical while filming and she’s in almost every scene. “So on Thursdays and Fridays she’d have to go directly to the theater from the set,” said Hubbell. The film debuted at the SXSW Film Festival and has since screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival, followed by Frameline where it sold out the huge Castro Theatre as well as Provincetown and Outfest. Gayby will open in New York at Cinema Village followed by LA on October 26th and then other cities. Wolfe will have it available on VOD/DVD before the end of the year.