A tragedy and a triumph made headlines two years ago when James Cameron took a submarine to the deepest known part of the ocean. The resulting documentary surfaces this weekend amid a fleet of Specialty newcomers heavy with non-fiction titles. James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D from distributor DisruptiveLA is also the week’s widest bow for a limited-release title, and will be going up against several wide-release rollouts from studios. Toronto ’13 doc The Dog (Drafthouse Films), which spotlights the real-life person behind Al Pacino‘s character in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, will open in New York and L.A. At the story’s center is a bank robbery and card-carrying employees of the financial institution even get a free pass to see it in its first week. Music Box Films will bow Fifi Howls From Happiness with an exclusive NYC run, while Screen Media will open one of the weekend’s narrative Specialty titles, About Alex. The weekend will also see releases from CBS Films (What If) and Cinema Guild (What Now? Remind Me) with limited rollouts.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D

Director: John Bruno, Ray Quint, Andrew Wight

Subjects: James Cameron, Frank Lotito, Lachlan Woods

Distributor: DisruptiveLA

Deepsea Challenge posterJohn Bruno had been aware of the Deepsea Challenge project over its many years of development. The 3D documentary chronicles Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron’s diving expeditions, culminating in his record-breaking 35,787-foot dive to the deepest known place on Earth, the Mariana Trench, off the coast of Guam on March 26, 2012.

At the time, my part of it was to join the expedition to support Jim,” said Bruno. “I wasn’t going to [formally] work on it. I was going to take pictures. Andrew [Wight] was going to produce and direct and I wanted to see Papua New Guinea and be there for the event. It was on my own dime.”

With the submarine ready for a test dive and Bruno set to travel to the team, a tragedy struck that made headlines: both Wight and underwater cinematographer and marine conservationist Michael DeGruy had died in a helicopter accident. As the project re-grouped, Cameron reached out to Bruno, who has worked on the director’s blockbusters Titanic and Avatar, to take over. “Jim called me and asked if I’d be willing to direct it,” said Bruno. “They sent me a script that they were going to try to follow. I had 72 hours to figure out everything and learn about the submarine. It was a historic event and all I could do was document it good or bad, and I told Jim that.”

Bruno was in the uncomfortable position of asking difficult questions about the tragedy, all made more challenging because Wight had been close to his crew. Bruno said there was a 48-hour period where expedition members considered whether to even continue. National Geographic sponsored the project.

“It’s a documentary so I had to find the truth about everything,” said Bruno. “There was a lot of pressure on them and the first week was hairy. I had to figure out where it was safe to film. [We were aboard] an industrial working ship with cables, ropes etc. that the crew had to wrangle so it was a dangerous scenario in general, never mind the fact there was also a camera crew.” D.P. Jules O’Loughlin became Bruno’s “new best friend” finding a modus operandi. “It’s difficult enough to film on a ship but with 3D equipment is more so because it’s very bulky. The cameras were smaller than normal 3D but it was still hard to do,” said Bruno.

After reaching the trench, the crew was confident the submarine would remain intact despite the enormous water pressures at those depths. Bruno noted that there was some lingering concern about whether the submarine’s mechanics would allow it to re-surface after traveling almost seven miles down. “All the tension was about the weights dropping so [Cameron] could come back to the surface,” he added.

Afterward Cameron went to London for the premiere of Titanic 3D, Bruno finished up interviews with participants, ending up with 1,200 hours of footage. Ray Quint then took over post-production, including effects and shooting re-enactments, while Bruno went off to work on Hercules. “Jane Moran, our editor, did a fantastic job,” said Bruno. “It was a long process. About 8 months.” DisruptiveLA will open James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D in 250 theaters in 25 markets this weekend, including the AMC Village 7 and AMC Empire 25 in New York and AMC Citywalk in Los Angeles.

About Alex

Director-writer: Jesse Zwick

Cast: Nate Parker, Jason Ritter, Maggie Grace, Max Greenfield, Aubrey Plaza, Max Minghella

Distributor: Screen Media

About Alex posterProducer Adam Saunders received writer-director Jesse Zwick‘s script for About Alex through Edward Zwick a couple years back. The latter Zwick and Saunders became more familiar with each other while working on last year’s feature Family Weekend. About Alex centers on a group of old college friends who reunite over a long weekend after a member of their group has attempted suicide. Former crushes and resentments highlight life decisions and bring relationships among the group members to the precipice.

“I hadn’t seen a story about how social media has changed our relationships and I wanted to produce it,” said Saunders. “With Ed [Zwick’s] endorsement, he came back to me. I told him that if he goes with me I’m going to make your movie.” Saunders noted that the script had been making its rounds. By the time Saunders boarded as a producer, there were no significant changes to the script, which was set to be cast.

“We brought on Linda Lowy who put together an incredible cast within six months,” said Saunders. “We shot [the project] over 22 days in upstate New York, which went great, though it was the rainiest summer on record [there]. Fortunately, Jesse had written in some rain sequences.” Financing for the project was in-house via Saunders’ Footprint Features label and a combined package of New York tax incentives, equity and soft money. “We’re very grateful to the Tribeca Film Festivalwhich gave us such incredible billing,” added Saunders. “They showed About Alex on the first full day of the festival in a 900-seat theater and there was a line out the door.” 

Saunders pointed out that the film had been named in a list of top ten most-anticipated Tribeca titles going in and also was still in the top 10 as the festival ended. Screen Media came on as theatrical distributor while Sony will take the title to other world territories. There had been some discussion about releasing it in winter, but in the end, an August release won out. Said Saunders: “The movie takes place in summer and its [references to social media etc. are current] and you never know when things will change, so we pushed for an August release.” About Alex will open in 12 cities this weekend and expand from there. It will also be available via VOD/digital portals.

The Dog

Directors: Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren

Subjects: John Wojtowicz, Carmen Bifulco, Jeremy Bowker, George Heath, Liz Debbie Eden, Theresa Basso Wojtowicz

Distributors: Drafthouse Films and Cinedigm (for non-theatrical)

Documentary Dog Day AfternoonFilmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren had the initial idea for what would become documentary The Dog after watching Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino. At the heart of the story is John Wojtowicz, who attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank in the early ’70s to pay for his male lover’s sex-reassignment surgery. Berg and Keraudren noticed that the real-life Wojtowicz had been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. When they first conceived of the doc in 2002, they wanted to film his prison release, but soon found that Wojtowicz had been released in 1978.

Still, they were fascinated by the potential to film a flamboyant character. They tracked down his mother in Brooklyn and gave her a call. “She was really sweet,” said Berg. “We didn’t realize that they lived together and in the middle of the night John gave us a call.” Added Keraudren: “He was outrageous from the first moment. He’s a one-in-a-million New York character from days gone by. At first, it was difficult to know how it would work because he was great and captivating, but also out of his mind and scary.”

The filmmakers self-financed the project, making quick headway with a two-day interview of Wojtowicz. “He spoke about the first half of his life, which led up to the bank robbery, but we knew we wanted to go much further than that,” said Keraudren. “We had to find archival footage, which wasn’t so hard at the beginning but then became increasingly difficult. When you search, you realize how much is mislabeled.” Both filmmakers took other film and TV assignments that helped finance their work on The Dog. “It’s a bit like gambling because you’re a reckless, crazy person but you reach that point where you [just do it],” said Keraudren. “After a year, you just have to finish it.”

But the project actually took about ten years. Along the way, others from Wojtowicz’ past surfaced, filling in gaps in the story. George Heath knew him from prison and his wife Carmen also participated. “We [initially] thought  we’d have to get animators to fill in the gaps but then we met these people who could do it and they were so good on their own,” said Kenaudren. “We had a 2.5- hour version of the film and decided to show it to people because we weren’t sure what would resonate. But the real story existed in the past tense.”

Added Berg: “The story dictated what it had to be and we had to go with that.” Berg and Kenaudren did a crowd-funding campaign so they could attend the film’s Toronto International Film Festival debut last year. Soon after, they began talking to Drafthouse Films. The Drafthouse execs were fans of Dog Day Afternoon, which led them to pursue an acquisition of The Dog. The company will release it theatrically beginning Friday in New York and L.A. Of note, Chase bank employees will be able to see the film for free through Aug. 14 at IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York as well as Cinefamily and Downtown Independent in Los Angeles. Then known as Chase Manhattan, the bank’s branch in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn was the site of Wojtowicz’s robbery attempt.

Fifi Howls From Happiness

Director-writer: Mitra Farahani

Subject: Bahman Mohasses

Distributor: Music Box Films

Documentary Fifi Howls From Happiness posterProducer Marjaneh Moghimi‘s Butimar Productions is actually a non-profit established to “promote and introduce Iranian artists to the West.” Bahman Mohasses, known as the “Persian Picasso,” could not have been a better subject for Moghimi’s organization. A painter and a sculptor, Mohasses was a celebrated figure in Iran in the pre-revolutionary 1960s and 1970s. He remained in the country following the fall of the Shah, but finally made Italy his home in the mid-2000s after traveling there frequently in previous years.

In Fifi Howls From Happiness, director Mitra Farahani tracks down Mohasses in a Roman hotel and films him over the last six months of his life. “Since Mohassess had tried so hard for so long to stay reclusive, and for his whereabouts to remain a mystery, we decided to keep this a secret as well,” said Moghimi. “Initially he did not want to participate, and it was understandable. He had been living in seclusion for thirty years and the idea of having his life become public was an uncomfortable thought. But he slowly warmed up to the idea, and to Mitra as a person.” The filmmakers’ wanted to feature Mohassess’ work, a notion that also appealed to the artist. Initally, Farahani had slated two days to interview Mohassess as part of initial research, but the 48-hour window turned into nearly three months of conversations.

“She called me from Rome and said I think we should shoot as much as we can now in case he changes his mind or something unpredictable happens,” said Moghimi. “We had no money and no crew. I borrowed money from my parents and sent her a check to get started. And the phone and Skype conversations we had every night after each meeting she had with Mohassess were just mesmerizing.” 

A breakthrough in financing came courtesy of a close source, Fereydoun Firouz, who had produced their previous film Sadr, but then a new challenge emerged. “Everything happened very quickly, as if the film had taken a life of its own,” said Moghimi. “Our biggest challenge was the fact that Mohassess died the night before the actual production was to start. The development/research/preproduction/production of the film took 2.5 months but the editing took more than 2 years because we had to go back to the drawing board and put all the pieces together from scratch.”

Fifi Howls From Happiness had its debut at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festivalfollowed in the U.S. by the big fests in New York and Seattle this past May. The Telluride Film Festival helped the filmmaking team find a U.S. home, introducing them to insiders.

“We are extremely lucky to have Tom Luddy as the ‘Godfather’ of the project,” said Moghimi. “He has been incredibly supportive and have introduced us to many amazing people such as Dan Talbot [from] Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, who has been instrumental in getting distribution for this film.” Urban Distribution International served as sales agents and the group helped bring in Music Box Films as U.S. distributor. Fifi opens exclusively at Lincoln Plaza in New York, with other markets to come.