Following a nearly ten-year journey, Can You Ever Forgive Me? hits theaters this weekend via Fox Searchlight. Starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, and based on the true story of celebrity biographer Lee Israel, the film will have a platform start this weekend en route to several hundred runs.

The feature is one of several Specialty titles heading into release with name casts and possible awards hopes. Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with Wildlife, which he co-wrote. The film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, opens via IFC Films after playing recent festivals.

Bleecker Street is opening What They Had with Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Blythe Danner. Launching in several locations, the film is the first-time directorial by actor Elizabeth Chomko. And on the doc side, Menemsha Films is giving a New York launch for Austria’s Foreign Language contender, The Waldheim Waltz.

Also one to watch this weekend is A24’s Mid90s by Jonah Hill and starring Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges. Other limited releases include Freestyle Digital Media’s LGBT/anti-bullying film Reach as well as Dark Star Pictures’ Brampton’s Own in a day and date start. Abramorama is opening The Price of Everything; Vertical Entertainment is taking Nigerian Prince out day and date and Archstone Distribution is rolling out Big Kill by writer-director Scott Martin in select theaters. And Oscilloscope is opening On Her Shoulders, about about Nadia Murad, a recent recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize by filmmaker Alexandria Bombach

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella
Distributor: Fox Searchlight

In 2008 a friend of producer Anne Carey gave her a manuscript about Lee Israel, the figure at the center of Fox Searchlight’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which begins its roll out Friday. “He thought I’d get a kick out of it, and I thought it would make a terrific movie,” said Carey. “I got in touch with an agent and passed our interests to Lee.”

Carey and Lee Israel had an early meeting. She gave her consent to Carey’s vision of the film (Carey was partnered at the time with producer Ted Hope though they later parted ways). They picked up the option in 2009, starting a long road en route to the big screen this weekend.

In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, the best-selling celebrity biographer (and cat lover) who made her living in the 1970s and ’80s profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estée Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee found herself unable to get published because she had fallen out of step with the marketplace, she turned her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Richard E. Grant).

“In 2009, it was hard to find equity financing,” said Carey. “But we believed in the project.” At Lee Israel’s urging, her friend David Yarnell also joined as a producer. Jawal Nga and Bob Balaband came on as executive producers with some financing. The filmmaking team eventually brought the project to Searchlight which also partnered.

Jeff Whitty, who wrote the book for Avenue Q, boarded as scriptwriter and later Nicole Holofcener also worked on the script with the idea of directing. She later departed the project. “With Nicole, we still had access to Lee Israel,” said Carey. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work that way [with Holofcener directing]. I’ve worked on a lot of adaptations and they take a long time. When you’re in the thick of it, it can be volatile. But in the long run, it’s all additive. Everyone who touched the script added to it. It became richer and richer and then the right team makes the right broth.”

Lee Israel died in December 2014 well before the project shot in early 2017 over 28 days in New York City. Although she passed away, the project had access to her correspondence and personal items such as music and clothes through David Yarnell. The shoot in New York also lent authenticity.

“There was no other place we’d really shoot it,” said Carey. “We found some great bookstores and locations that were still period specific. [Independent bookstores] are a dying breed in New York City, but we were lucky to find some. Some locations were places Lee frequented.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? debuted at Telluride followed by Toronto last month. Searchlight will open the film in three New York theaters as well as two in Los Angeles Friday before adding cities over the next month. The company expects Can You Ever Forgive Me? to eventually be in several hundred locations across North America.

Wildlife
Director-writer: Paul Dano
Writers: Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp
Distributor: IFC Films

Sundance premiere Wildlife is the directorial debut of Paul Dano, who also co-wrote with Zoe Kazan. The family drama sold to IFC Films following its debut at the January festival.

The story centers on 14-year-old Joe, the only child of Jeanette and Jerry – a housewife and a golf pro – in a small town in 1960s Montana. Nearby, an uncontrolled forest fire rages close to the Canadian border, and when Jerry loses his job – and his sense of purpose – he decides to join the cause of fighting the fire, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Suddenly forced into the role of an adult, Joe witnesses his mother’s struggle as she tries to keep her head above water.

IFC Films is opening the title this weekend as awards season is revving up. “We first saw it at Sundance and I thought it was one of the best films [by a first-time director] I had ever seen,” said IFC Films co-president Jonathan Sehring. “Everyone was talking about Carey Mulligan’s [performance], but everyone in the film is amazing. Jake has the toughest role. It’s like you’ve never seen him before.”

Sehring said that long before Wildlife, he encouraged Dano to try taking the helm behind the camera. “I remember saying to Paul back during a Boyhood event that he should direct. It doesn’t surprise me that he has made such an accomplished films.”

IFC Films said it is expecting a younger skewing audience, but that it will also play to mature demos due to its “Oscar worthy” performances.

Wildlife will open in New York at IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center and in Los Angeles at The Landmark ad Arclight Hollywood this weekend before broadening to other markets.

What They Had
Director-writer: Elizabeth Chomko
Cast: Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster, Blythe Danner
Distributor: Bleecker Street

Also a Sundance ’18 debut from a first-time director with a named cast, Elizabeth Chomko’s drama What They Had became a Bleecker Street title in the production phase. Also written by Chomko, the company is expecting the title to have legs with both baby boomers and millennials who will spread the word.

“We were attracted to the cast, which is a quartet of superlative talent,” said Bleecker Street’s Jack Foley. “The script showed itself to be challenging, and as it turned out, it all jelled beautifully. It is what we had hoped for.”

What They Had centers on a family in crisis. Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home to Chicago at her brother’s (Michael Shannon) urging to deal with her ailing mother (Blythe Danner) and her father’s (Robert Forster) reluctance to let go of their life together.

“It deals with things that Boomers and Millennials are going through right now,” touted Foley. “It’s very real, but at the same time, one of the magical things we found very vividly is the humor — and that captivates the audience. We’re excited about its prospects.”

Bleecker Street is targeting the traditional art house crowd 45 and older to see the film in its opening weekend and then spread the word to friends and family. “It’s a splendid story that will fit with an avid, core arthouse crowd,” noted Foley. “And by the way, that’s a good thing because they will advocate for the film.”

What They Had will open at Lincoln Square, Cine Bistro and the Angelika in New York and will have an exclusive weekend run at The Landmark in Los Angeles. Next weekend, the feature will head to markets including Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis and St. Louis. Bleecker Street will then take it wide.

Added Foley: “We want to be wider at the beginning of November before more of the competition gets their films out.”

The Waldheim Waltz
Director-writer: Ruth Beckermann
Subject: Kurt Waldheim
Distributor: Menemsha Films

Documentary The Waldheim Waltz is Austria’s official entry for Academy Award Foreign Language consideration. Menemsha Films picked up the title at the Berlin International Film Festival last February. The company noted that the film’s subject, Kurt Waldheim, is a “precursor to Donald Trump,” adding, “He could lie without flinching.”

An Austrian diplomat and politician who served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1982, Kurt Waldheim ran for the presidency of Austria in 1986. His nation elected him despite a controversy over his previously undisclosed role in the Nazi regime during World War II: it was alleged that Waldheim participated in the deportation of over 60,000 Jews in Greece during WWII – which he and Austria’s political class vehemently and disingenuously denied. The outbreak of anti-Semitism and nationalism along with the country’s collective whitewashing of its Nazi-era past all led to Waldheim’s election. Although discredited by Western nations and placed on the U.S.’ watch list, Waldheim astonishingly went on to serve with impunity as head of state for six years.

“The film had just presented in the New York Film Festival which was the perfect launchpad for its theatrical release in North America,” noted Neil Friedman, founder and president of Menemsha Films. “We chose this weekend to open because the New York Festival screenings on October 11 and 14 work as word of mouth preview screenings for the film in New York.”

Friedman said that the title is being propelled by early reaction from critics and it is promoting that through its social media. He also noted that the film is also eligible for the Oscar documentary since it had won the Grand Prize in the non-fiction category in Berlin.

Commented Friedman: “If the film is lucky enough to make the short list either for Documentary section or Foreign Language section it will enhance its visibility for a longer theatrical run.”

The Waldheim Waltz will open exclusively at the Metrograph in New York Friday. It will begin its L.A. run November 16 along with Toronto. Added Friedman: “From there we will go city by city and release the film in as many markets as the film warrants.”