A trio of documentaries that likely will factor in awards season bow this weekend, while a new feature starring Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel could give some lift into the specialty box office. Showtime Documentary Film is giving its Sundance docu Listen To Me Marlon, which tells Oscar-winning screen legend Marlon Brando’s story through his own words, a traditional theatrical window ahead of its fall debut on the network. Magnolia Pictures and Participant will open another Sundance docu Best Of Enemies, spotlighting the seeds of partisan squabble. Virgil Films will open I Am Chris Farley in limited release. A24 has had some box office hits this year, most recently with docu Amy. The company returns to narrative with The End Of The Tour, based on a critically acclaimed memoir by David Lipsky. And IFC Films will open Jenny’s Wedding, starring Katherine Heigl and Tom Wilkinson, in a limited release, with VOD starting Saturday.
Also opening this weekend in limited release are TWC’s The Young & Prodigious T.S. Spivet; Radius’ A Lego Brickumentary; That Sugar Film from Samuel Goldwyn Films; and Vertical Entertainment’s zombie thriller Extinction, starring Matthew Fox and Jeffrey Donovan, in a day-and-date release in 20 theaters.
The End Of The Tour
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Donald Margulies, David Lipsky (book)
Cast: Jessie Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Mamie Gummer, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner
In February 2011, producer David Kanter received a call from Nick Harris at ICM telling him about a script that he thought could be a project that “nobody else will see but you,” according to Kanter, who added that he took the comment as “agent flattery” but was nevertheless interested.
Based on David Lipsky’s critically acclaimed memoir, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, The End Of The Tour tells the story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter and novelist Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel Infinite Jest. As the days go on, a tenuous yet intense relationship seems to develop between journalist and subject. The two men bob and weave around each other, sharing laughs and also possibly revealing hidden frailties – but it’s never clear how truthful they are being with each other. Ironically, the interview never was published, and five days of audiotapes were packed away in Lipsky’s closet. The two men did not meet again.
“It had me hooked as I went through the process and read the transcripts as [Lipsky] presented it in the book,” said Kanter. “I knew who had to read it and sent it to writer and colleague Donald Margulies. I said in an email to him that this was either a play or a small movie — or a puppet show. I said, ‘But I think it’s something for you.'”
After reading the book in one night, Margulies called Kanter back the following day expressing his desire to adapt it into a screenplay. An earlier financier fell through, but James Dahl, a Wallace fan, came on board with financing. By the middle of 2012, the team worked out the option on the book, Margulies wrote the script that summer.
“Donald [Margulies] referred us to his former student at Yale, James Ponsoldt, and suggested we look at him,” said Kanter. “We hadn’t seen [his previous films] Smashed or The Spectacular Now, but I watched Smashed and was blown away. … We contacted his agents at UTA, and he read the script. He went to Sundance with The Spectacular Now and after that we met up, and that was it.”
Ponsoldt supported The Spectacular Now through 2013, while the team looked for casting. WME’s Sharon Jackson (who had been Kanter’s assistant back in the day) put forward Segel. After meeting Ponsoldt, he was on board. Eisenberg’s name had been on the table for the Lipsky role, though, as Kanter said, “we were committed to another direction.” Still, Eisenberg read the part and he connected with Ponsoldt and Margulies. “We had our guys,” said Kanter. “Then WME and UTA, who co-repped the film, went out and finalized financing.”
The End Of The Tour shot over 27 days in February and March 2014 around Grand Rapids, MI, with an additional day and a half at the Mall of America in Minnesota and a day in New York. “The shoot was brutal,” said Kanter. “It was creative and amazing, but it was cold, plus we were shooting on film on a super-tight budget. We shot in a part of the world where they don’t have a lot of movies. Whenever Hollywood comes to town, people have to roll with it, and movies are strange creatures. We had a lot of obstacles, but that focused our energies. … It made us better — not that I’d want to do that again.”
A24 announced its acquisition of The End Of The Tour ahead of its Sundance Film Festival premiere. It will open at the ArcLight and Landmark theaters in L.A. as well as Lincoln Center and the Angelika in New York this weekend.
Listen To Me Marlon
Director-writer: Stevan Riley
Writer: Peter Ettedgui
Subject: Marlon Brando
Distributor: Showtime Documentary Film
Initial conversations about a Marlon Brando documentary based on the Oscar-winning late actor’s extensive archive of recordings began at Soho House in Los Angeles between producer John Battsek and producer-director RJ Cutler. Cutler had contacted folks in charge of the Brando estate and began taking a look at what the archive contained. “Cut to eight months later, I spoke with Austin Wilkin (of Brando Enterprises) and I went over there and met with the trustees,” said Battsek. “I said I’d love to. He’s an iconic figure. But if they were looking for a puff piece, then we wouldn’t be the ones to do it. If they wanted to engage the material, then we’d be good.”
At the center of Listen To Me Marlon are Brando’s own words. The documentary uses hundreds of hours of audio that Brando recorded during the course of his life to tell his own story. It also includes a number of scenes from Brando’s career in addition to archival footage of his interviews over the years to create a portrait of the actor’s career and private life.
“The estate said they were [fine with] it,” said Battsek. “They opened the doors to the archive with no strings attached. To be honest with you, I’ve read some things that would suggest otherwise. But to be clear, their next connecting point to the film was showing them a cut of the film. [The estate and Brando family] did not have final cut. We had their support and they trusted us. Nothing was off limits in the archive.”
Battsek tapped filmmaker Stevan Riley, with whom he had worked on previous projects including 2012 docu Everything Or Nothing and Fire In Babylon (2010), and asked him if he’d be interested in taking on the Brando story. “I had just worked with Stevan, and I am a big fan of his,” said Battsek. “I was keen to find another film for him to do. I discussed it with Stevan and he was immediately into the subject matter.”As Riley plowed through the archive, Battsek approached Showtime, where Cutler was also working as a consultant. The company boarded the project early. Battsek said that similarly to the estate, the premium network “didn’t have an impact” on how the project proceeded and gave the filmmaking team “free rein.” “They were very supportive,” added Battsek. “They financed it with NBCUniversal, which has international rights.”
The feature includes an animated bust of Brando’s head that speaks his words during some moments. Battsek’s Passion Pictures, which produces animation, created the image, which Brando first had digitized himself. Passion’s Alex Webster oversaw the in-house animation, which saved the production money. Initially, Battsek was concerned whether the concept for the film with Brando’s words at its center would carry the feature but was assured after hearing a portion of it early on in production. “We sat in the edit with my team and watched the first 45 minutes of black screen and audio. I was just listening to the man’s voice and watching a black screen. I was trepidatious whether it would work, but at the end of the 45 minutes, I thought, ‘My god, I’ve been compelled watching a black screen with audio for 45 minutes.'”
With the Brando estate and Showtime on board, studios mostly were cooperative in giving over footage of Brando’s work from his early career through his final roles. Listen To Me Marlon premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The Brando family had a chance to see the mostly finished film.
“Like all filmmakers, we had our hearts set on some kind of theatrical. For this, I’m incredibly grateful to David Nevins at Showtime,” said Battsek. “They are not accustomed to doing full theatrical releases, but when they saw the finished film, they were fully committed to it.” Veteran film distributor Richard Abramowitz will guide Listen To Me Marlon‘s 90-day theatrical window, which begins this weekend at Film Forum in New York and the Landmark in Los Angeles. The film will add major markets through summer.
Best Of Enemies
Directors-writers: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
Subjects: Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, Dick Cavett, Neil Buckley, Noam Chomsky, John Lithgow, Matt Tyrnauer, Christopher Hitchens
Distributors: Magnolia Pictures/Participant Media
Best Of Enemies is quite a different topic from co-director Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning 2013 docu Twenty Feet From Stardom. He and fellow director Robert Gordon collaborated on Best Of Enemies, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
The film spotlights what might be the early beginnings of public discourse. Dead last in the ratings, ABC hired two towering public intellectuals to debate each other during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. William F. Buckley Jr. was a leading light of the new conservative movement. A Democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, Gore Vidal was a leftist novelist and polemicist. Armed with deep-seated distrust and enmity, Vidal and Buckley believed each other’s political ideologies were dangerous for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight battle, they pummeled out policy and personal insult — their explosive exchanges devolving into vitriolic name-calling. Live and unscripted, they kept viewers riveted, and ratings for ABC News skyrocketed.
“A friend of mine in Memphis had always been interested in this and obtained a bootleg copy of the debates, which I saw in 2010 and I was immediately struck by how it was a great documentary waiting to happen,” said Robert Gordon, who co-directed 2008 docu Johnny Cash’s America with Morgan Neville. “I’ve made four films with Morgan, and we started doing an [initial] round of shooting. We also sent query letters to Dick Cavett [and others]. After we saw their responses, we knew we had the ability to make a good film.”
Neville and Gordon set out to make a trailer to raise funds and Buckley’s brother, Neil, joined as a subject. The filmmakers finished the trailer in summer 2010 and had envisioned finishing Best Of Enemies in time for the 2012 presidential election. “We saw and felt its possibilities early on, but it took some convincing,” said Gordon. “There were people who didn’t see how the subject related to [the present].” Initial funds came from a private investor who had seen Gordon’s previous film, Very Extremely Dangerous (2012). PBS’ Independent Lens came in to give finishing funds.
“When PBS stepped up, we were in full production by throughout 2014,” said Gordon. “Eileen Meyer came on as editor, and was there throughout the shoot to create scenes based on what we had. Immediately, we saw they were fun and wonderful. We also brought on a senior editor, Aaron Wickenden, to work with Eileen.”
Best Of Enemies was completed just days before its Sundance premiere. Magnolia Pictures picked up the title out of the festival. Participant is also taking part in the title’s release.
Best Of Enemies will open in New York and Lincoln Plaza and IFC Center as well as The Landmark 12 in Los Angeles in addition to showings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and Fifth Avenue Cinemas in Vancouver. The feature will expand to other locations around L.A. and NYC as well as the Bay Area, Portland, Chicago and Washington, D.C. It will continue to expand to major markets throughout August and into September. Added Gordon: “I’m afraid people will be intimidated and think it’s not funny. But it is very funny.”
I Am Chris Farley
Directors: Derik Murray, Brent Hodge
Writer: Steve Burgess
Subjects: Chris Farley, David Spade, Christina Applegate, Dan Aykroyd, Bo Derek, Mike Myers, Bob Saget, Adam Sandler, Jay Mohr, Tom Arnold, Kevin P. Farley, Tom Farley, Barbara Farley
Distributor: Virgil Films
Canadian filmmaker-producer Derik Murray produced the 2012 feature I Am Bruce Lee and 2014’s I Am Evel Knievel. For his latest project, I Am Chris Farley, Murray teamed up with A Brony Tale director Brent Hodge to co-direct.
I Am Chris Farley tells the late comedian’s story from his early days in Madison, WI, and at Marquette University, through his work at the legendary Second City to his rapid rise to the top of the comedy world on Saturday Night Live and in hit films including Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. The documentary showcases the performer’s most memorable characters and skits from television and film, paired with photographs, home movies and family snapshots. Clips from some of Farley’s memorable performances fill the documentary, from his Chippendales audition alongside Patrick Swayze to his comically ill-fated salesman in Tommy Boy and his diatribes as Matt Foley, the motivational speaker who “lives in a van down by the river.”
“I’ve been working with Spike Television for a couple years on a slate of docs including I Am Bruce Lee, which was a massive rating success for Spike,” said Derik Murray. “There were a number of people we looked into and we thought he’d be a phenomenal subject, [plus] there had been little done on him. Spike loved the idea of Chris Farley, and they greenlit it in a matter of days.”
Murray headed to L.A. to meet with Farley’s brother, Kevin. The comedian’s sibling was willing to sit down and talk, but according to Murray, the Farleys weren’t “looking to do a feature documentary.” Added Murray: “Through the course of talking about [Farley growing up], we developed a trust, and over time, he invited us to Madison.” Co-director Hodge set out to meet Farley’s friends, rugby pals and even his priest while in Madison.
In winter 2014, he returned to L.A. to speak with David Reeder, who was involved with the Farley brand and is an executive producer of the film. “David and I had worked together before, and I didn’t realize he was involved with the family,” said Murray. In addition to financing from Spike, which is an ongoing relationship for Murray and his company, Network Entertainment, the project received additional resources from international partners including their Canadian distributor, Thunderbird.
David Spade was the project’s first celebrity interview, and that, coupled with the Farley family’s cooperation, helped to open a floodgate of other A-lister participation. “We started reaching out to his illustrious crowd,” said Murray. “The family was supportive of it and showed it’s not coming from a tabloid approach. So with David’s support, others began to trust what our motives were, and one by one we got people to come on board.” Filming took place over a full year and editing took place as shooting proceeded. “We were piecing together the film’s [structure],” added Hodge.
Virgil Films boarded the project six months ago. I Am Chris Farley had a premiere this week at Second City in Chicago with 200 people and opened at the Music Box in the Windy City. It bows Friday in about 30 locations around the country. Spike will have it available on-demand August 10.
Director-writer: Mary Agnes Donoghue
Cast: Katherine Heigl, Alexis Bledel, Tom Wilkinson, Linda Emond, Grace Gummer, Matthew Metzger
Distributor: IFC Films
Jenny’s Wedding producers Michelle Manning and Gail Levin had worked together at Paramount and joined forces to produce the story written by Mary Agnes Donoghue (who also directs) after reading the script six years ago. In the film, Katherine Heigl plays Jenny Farrell, who has led an openly gay life, with one major exception: her conventional family. When she finally decides to start a family and marry the woman they thought was just her roommate, the small, safe world the Farrells inhabited changes forever. They are left with a simple and difficult choice: either change with it or drown.
“I ran the casting department at Paramount and I worked with [Manning] to put the cast together because we needed the cast to get the financing,” said Levin. “We had to keep all the balls in the air so to speak. We reached out to actors to see who would be interested in doing a smaller-budget movie. … Katherine and Tom [Wilkinson] came on board about three or four months before shooting. Financing came together through a combination of foreign presales and through the efforts of Manning and Levin’s teams at Gersh and CAA.
The shoot took place in Cleveland over 18 days in the fall 2013. Locations were selected by Donoghue’s sibling, who scouted various neighborhoods that would reflect the personality of the main characters, Jenny’s family. “The tax incentives are good in Ohio, but this is one of the few movies where the film is actually set in Cleveland,” said Manning. Postproduction was “very long,” according to Manning and Levin.
“We showed it to various distributors and IFC Films [boarded] in April 2015,” added Levin. Jenny’s Wedding will open at the Sundance Sunset in Los Angeles and IFC Center in New York this Friday, with VOD beginning the next day.