Following the success of last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, director Jean-Marc Vallée returns with another high profile title and a big Hollywood star that should easily be this week’s Specialty Box Office go-getter, Wild. Starring Reese Witherspoon, who also produces with Bruna Papandrea under their Pacific Standard label, the Fox Searchlight title will open in a comparatively wider release by this weekend (it opened in NY and LA Wednesday) than some of its more recent high-profile brethren including last week’s The Imitation Game or last month’s Foxcatcher. Liv Ullmann returns to the director’s chair after a long absence with her take on Strindberg’s Miss Julie with Jessica Chastain, Collin Farrell and Samantha Morton via Wrekin Hill Entertainment. IFC Films and Magnolia Pictures will each open features Comet and Life Partners respectively which have at their center two people in an intense relationship. And two docs join this weekend’s fray of Specialty newcomers including Paladin’s The Barefoot Artist, which it will roll out over some time with a focus on the title’s “long tail” value, while International Film Circuit will bow She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. The non-fiction pic, a decade in the making, looks at the women who were at the forefront of the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s. Other films opening this weekend in limited release include Lionsgate’s Nicolas Cage-starrer Dying Of The Light with a simultaneous theatrical and on-demand day and date roll out in 10 major markets, while Magnolia will open Pioneer, Entertainment One is rolling out Take Care in theaters and VOD, and Zeitgeist will bow Zero Motivation.
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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Nick Hornby, Cheryl Strayed (book)
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Michiel Huisman, Thomas Sadoski, Kevin Rankin, Charles Baker, Brian Van Holt, W. Earl Brown, Nick Eversman
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Wild is coming to the big screen by way of Reese Witherspoon and producer Bruna Papandrea’s production banner Pacific Standard, one of the first projects announced when the label launched in spring 2012. Directed by Québécois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon plays Strayed who set out to hike more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail on her own after years of reckless behavior. She is haunted by memories of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and has endured heroin addiction and the destruction of her marriage. Taking to the trail without any experience, she experiences both terror and pleasure as she presses forward on a journey that maddens, strengthens and ultimately heals her.
“Reese and I met two-and-a-half years ago and we started [Pacific Standard],” said Papandrea, who added the project coincided with their initial work on Gone Girl. “Within weeks she had sent me Wild and I said, ‘Let’s do it.'” Papandrea and Witherspoon set out to fast-track the project’s production and wanted to go the “indie route.” They spoke with Nick Hornby about adapting the memoir, and “loved” what he had said about the book. “We wanted to choose our timeframe and wanted to keep our creative choices,” said Papandrea about why they opted out of working with a studio. “We wanted to remain faithful to the story. We wanted to keep the fact that she had used heroin [in the story].” Papandrea added that they had met with five companies who were interested in Wild, but that the choice “was clearly Fox Searchlight.”
Witherspoon and Papandrea had sent the script to Jean-Marc Vallée not long after opening their office, but he was in the thick of Dallas Buyers Club (nearly $27.3M gross). “We circled back. He and Reese had a great Skype call,” said Papandrea. “Then [production executive] David Greenbaum and I went to Montreal to meet with him…We knew we had to [get on with the project] quickly. This group wouldn’t come together again and the book was out in the world. Plus Reese had a window of time.” David Rubin cast the feature’s sizable roster of actors (“She meets a lot of people in her journey,” offered Papandrea) and the project shot in October and November in Oregon over 35 days last year. “We were lucky with the weather, but we would have preferred to have done it earlier,” she added, saying they nevertheless endured a good amount of rain and cold. An unforeseen problem came courtesy of the Federal government’s shutdown, which meant locations within the National Park system were off limits, at least until the political stalemate in Washington was resolved. “The biggest challenge was being so remote,” said Papandrea. “But Jean-Marc was so great about being flexible and making the location about the environment and the actors.”
Fox Searchlight opened Wild Wednesday in limited release in New York and L.A. Wild will go to an additional five markets including San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. on Friday to a total of 21 theaters. It will expand further on a limited platform basis over the next month across North America.
Director-writer: Liv Ullmann
Writer: August Strindberg (play)
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton
Distributor: Wrekin Hill Entertainment
After a 15-year absence from the director’s chair, veteran actress Liv Ullmann returns behind the camera for her adaptation of Swedish playwright Johan August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. In Ullmann’s version, the setting is 1880s Ireland on the estate of Anglo-Irish aristocrat who is away. Over the course of a midsummer night, a dramatic evening plays out between the daughter of the Baron (Jessica Chastain) and his valet (Collin Farrell) replete with sexual tension, class turmoil and emotional upheaval. “I set it in Ireland because I wanted it to be in English,” said Ullmann during a Q&A I moderated at the Film Society of Lincoln Center earlier this week. Growing up in Scandinavia, Ullmann was familiar with Strindberg’s work, but re-discovered his work while directing Cate Blanchett in A Street Car Named Desire. “Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and Bernard Shaw were inspired by Strindberg,” recalled Ullmann. “I never thought of playing Miss Julie, but I read it again and I thought I’d love to do this film. But I never thought I could ever do it because nobody would ever ask someone my age to do something like this…” But Ullmann found two producers willing to take her on. She first met with Jessica Chastain in a meeting in Los Angeles (“You don’t audition actors,” she said).
Beyond the change of setting, Ullmann brought new dimensions to the female lead that goes beyond Strindberg’s original. “Strindberg didn’t like women at all. He didn’t really hide it,” said Ullmann. “In the forward of Miss Julie, he wrote a lot of things he believed about women… So I thought I’d allow Miss Julie to say things that Strindberg [did not].” Wrekin Hill Entertainment will release Miss Julie Friday at The Landmark LA, Landmark Sunshine in NYC, Landmark Clay Theatre in San Francisco, Landmark’s Kendall Square and Landmark’s Bethesda Row in Bethesda, MD with further markets to follow. [For more on Liv Ullmann’s conversation at the Film Society read Jeremy Gerard’s article.
Director-writer: Sam Esmail
Cast: Justin Long, Emmy Rossum, Eric Winter, Lou Beatty, Jr., Kayla Servi, Nicole Lucas, Ben Pace
Distributor: IFC Films
With a finished script, writer-director Sam Esmail set out to direct his first feature-length film. The film chronicles two star-crossed lovers (Justin Long and Emmy Rossum) whose relationship blooms and unravels over the course of six years. A chance encounter brings together the cynical Dell and the quick-witted Kimberly, which sets the stage for a tempestuous love affair that unfolds like a puzzle. The film zigzags back and forth in time—from a meteor shower in L.A., to an encounter in a Paris hotel room, to a fateful phone call—creating a portrait of a relationship that emerges. “[Sam Esmail] came to me and said, ‘I’m going to direct it and nobody’s talking me out of it,'” said producer Chad Hamilton. “He told me he had written the script with a budget in mind.” Before heading out to gather financing, the team set out for some cast. Emmy Rossum boarded the project and then Hamilton reached out to Fubar Film which signed on in 2012, committing to make the film in 2013. The normal casting process proceeded, but Rossum suggested her friend Justin Long to play the male lead opposite her character. “He read the script over night and was in,” added Hamilton.
Comet shot over 18 days in Los Angeles on a limited budget. Initially the plan had been to shoot in New York. “Sam is an impressive guy,” said Hamilton. “He took Comet from the start of production through post-production.” Comet debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and IFC Films came on board as distributor in October. Content Media repped the film at AFM in November. Comet will open simultaneously in theaters at IFC Center in New York and Sundance Sunset in L.A. as well as VOD day and date Friday. It will head to additional top markets throughout the month.
Director-writer: Susanna Fogel
Writer: Joni Lefkowitz
Cast: Leighton Meester, Gillian Jacobs, Adam Brody, Gabourey Sidibe, Beth Dover, Abby Elliott, Kate McKinnon, Mark Feuerstein
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
After filming Life Partners, the filmmakers made a major change in the story during post-production following a major ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The feature centers on straight woman Paige (Gillian Jacobs) and lesbian Sasha (Leighton Meester) who are co-dependent best friends acting more like wives than friends. Their close relationship continues unhindered until the night Paige meets Tim (Adam Brody). He has some flaws, but he’s a keeper. Paige and Tim’s relationship grows and conversely her relationship with Sasha changes. Suddenly without her partner, Sasha is left to self examine her own shortcomings as her 30th birthday approaches. Life Partners took life in Unscreened, an initiative that seeks to promote screen and television writers. The screenplay progressed via the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2012. Producer Jordana Mollick, meanwhile was a producing fellow at the Sundance Producers Lab that same year. “We went to IFP’s Independent Film Week in September and separately met with Red Crown Productions and they loved the project and came on as financiers,” said Mollick. “They brought on two independent financiers as executive producers and we shot in April and May, 2013.”
Originally actors Evan Rachel Wood and Kristen Bell were slated to be Paige and Sasha, but had to depart the project after both became pregnant. Leighton Meester and Gillian Jacobs then became the onscreen duo and Adam Brody boarded quickly as well. “[Life Partners] was cast [about] two months before the shoot, so there was not a lot of fusion for prep,” said Mollick. “But the shoot was great. It was like summer camp. We didn’t know that Leighton and Adam were together when we cast. But it was like all women — and Adam.” While the project was in post, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which had forbidden the U.S. government from recognizing marriages on a federal level that were performed in states allowing same-sex marriage. “In the original story, Paige promised not to marry ‘until everyone could get married,'” said Mollick. “But when DOMA was overturned, we didn’t want Life Partners to become a [de facto] period piece, so we changed that part and did a one-day re-shoot.” Life Partners debuted at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and Magnolia came on board as distributor.
The film bowed in ultra-VOD on November 6 and begins its theatrical run Friday at the Quad Cinemas in New York and the Sunset Sundance Cinemas in L.A. as well as Fort Lauderdale, FL. It will add locations in Lancaster, PA and Vancouver, WA December 12 with more locations slated through the start of the New Year.
The Barefoot Artist
Directors: Glenn Holsten, Daniel Traub
Subject: Lily Yeh
Paladin head Mark Urman was drawn to doc The Barefoot Artist‘s subject, Philadelphia-based artist Lily Yeh. The company became doubly interested in being the film’s distributor after Philadelphia Inquirer critic and blogger Carrie Rickey championed the title after seeing it at The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. The feature takes a look at Yeh’s life, a Chinese expatriate who has dedicated her creativity to community-based art projects in some of the world’s most troubled areas. Her projects have traversed north Philadelphia, with an installation known as “The Village of Arts and Humanities” to far-flung locales in Rwanda and Kenya. “[Paladin] is eager to stay in the doc space and I fell in love with Lily and the film,” said Urman. “[The non-fiction space] changes season to season, but it’s so great to meet new [filmmakers] who aren’t jaded or regular habitués of the medium.” Urman noted that Paladin’s previous doc Kids For Cash ($143,178 cume) had been championed by a critic ahead of its bow last February which gave it momentum. Although the two are very different films, he sees a parallel as The Barefoot Artist heads out into release. “Kids For Cash [played] an enormous number of venues, was acclaimed and embraced by policymakers,” said Urman. “These are different docs, but we’ve been trying to cultivate similar momentum.”
Ahead of this weekend’s release, Paladin has been doing outreach to the Chinese-American community via press targeting that group. Urman noted an important moment in the film takes place when Yeh returns to China and reunites with her family. “The Chinese community is an important niche,” he said. “But we’re also targeting museums and art societies. We need to be artisanal in creating a release that touches every aspect [of the film’s potential]. The release will be a combination of theatrical bookings, limited engagements, museum screenings and one-night only events.” Added Urman, “There are so few docs that flare up and become solely independent runs. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s about assembling a lot of pieces.” The beginning of that piece will be its bow at IFC Center in New York starting Friday followed by the Laemmle Noho in Los Angeles two weeks later. After the New Year, the “mosaic” of regional releases, arts events where Yeh is well-known and other screenings will continue in various markets. “We’re comfortable with it,” said Urman. “It’s not about stress, it’s about perspiration.”
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Director: Mary Dore
Subjects: Chude Pamela Allen, Alta Judith Arcana, Nona Willis Aronowitz, Fran Beal, Heather Booth, Rita Mae Brown
Distributor: International Film Circuit
Filmmaker Mary Dore has been making documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry for about a decade. The historical feature spotlights the somewhat enigmatic history of the women who founded the modern women’s movement from 1966 – 1971. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry goes from the founding of NOW, when ladies wore hats and gloves, to the emergence of more radical factions of women’s liberation. It includes intellectuals like Kate Millett to the street theatrics of WITCH (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell!), in all spotlighting 30 women who were at the forefront of the movement that took the mantra “the personal is political” and created a revolution in the bedroom, the workplace and all spheres of life. The FBI even called it “threatening.” “I’ve known Mary Dore since The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade In The Spanish Civil War (1984),” said International Film Circuit founder Wendy Lidell. “We’ve been talking about this [film] for over a year and she showed me a nearly finished version earlier on.”
Lidell noted that the film has caught the attention of a sizable chunk of its obvious audience, noting that a feature in The Village Voice written ahead of this weekend’s release received over 66K hits. “I’ve rarely seen a film with so much enthusiasm among audiences ahead of its release,” said Lidell. “I always get excited before a release, but the buzz on this one is great. Social media is good and the [exhibitors] are coming to me. I rarely get this.” Dore has appeared on MSNBC and online via women’s press ahead of this weekend’s bow at the Landmark Sunshine in New York. The title will head to the Nuart in L.A. December 12 and will continue to roll out in over 30 cities through March. Beautiful is on most of Landmark’s calendars.
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