Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hooper launch their awards contender The Danish Girl this holiday weekend, coming on the heels of what has turned into a pretty good November following a slow fall start in September and October. Last weekend’s launch of TWC’s Carol as well as the successful expansions of Open Road’s Spotlight and Searchlight’s Brooklyn and others gave some zest that The Danish Girl should add to this Thanksgiving. In the non-fiction arena, FilmRise’s Janis: Little Girl Blue by Oscar nominee Amy Berg hits theaters after winning Best Documentary at last week’s Key West Film Festival. The title, about legendary rocker Janis Joplin, had a rough road to the big screen, but has had a successful festival run this fall, leading in to its release. Sundance Selects is joining the doc fray with Killing Them Safely by Nick Berardini about the rise of tasering and the moral ambiguity that has resulted from an industry initially intended to prevent death. And just in time for Black Friday, Net Return Entertainment in association with Area 23a is opening Stink! which explores the ubiquitous chemicals used in consumer products that are too frequently unnoticed by the public.
The Danish Girl
Director: Tom Hooper
Writers: Lucinda Coxon (screenplay), David Ebershoff (novel)
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Matthias Schoenaerts
Distributor: Focus Features
Tom Hooper became aware of The Danish Girl through his casting director Nina Gold. In 2008, she told him there was “one great unmade script,” written by Lucinda Coxon — and based on the novel by David Ebershoff. “I was profoundly moved by the love story at its center, by this portrait of a marriage going though profound change,” noted Hooper. “I couldn’t believe the story of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener was not well known. I felt that the story had somehow been marginalized by history – I wanted to bring it to the world’s attention if I possibly could.”
The Danish Girl is inspired by the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener. In 1926 in Copenhagen, artist Einar Wegener is married to Gerda Wegener and is revered for landscape paintings. Gerda is also an artist, less renowned but steadily working as a portraitist of prominent citizens. Theirs is a strong and loving marriage, yet personal and professional epiphanies have eluded them both. That all begins to change one day when, on deadline for a portrait, Gerda asks her husband to fill in for a model by putting on a dress so that she can finish the painting. The experience is transformative, as Einar soon realizes that being Lili is an expression of her truest self, and she begins living her life as a woman. Gerda unexpectedly finds that she has a new muse, and renewed creative ferment. But the couple soon brush up against society’s disapproval. They leave their homeland for the more open-minded world of Paris. There, it is Gerda’s career that continues to flourish. The couple’s marriage evolves – and not without strain. But again and again Gerda supports Lili during her journey as a transgender woman.
“I handed Eddie Redmayne the script in an unmarked brown paper envelope on the barricades of Les Miserables in French Revolutionary Pinewood and said simply, ‘Read this,’” said Hooper. “He fell in love with the script and we committed to making it together.” Hooper knew actress Alicia Vikander from her early work including A Royal Affair. She later “blew him away” during a screen test with Redmayne.
Shooting took place over 44 days to shoot The Danish Girl‘s 186 scenes in four countries. Hooper noted that the project had the same “low budget as his Oscar-winning title, The King’s Speech”, which reportedly had about a $15 million budget. That film, released in November, 2010, went on to make over $135.4 million domestically. “[The schedule averaged] four scenes per day every day,” added Hooper. “Thankfully we had three weeks rehearsal and I was reunited with my brilliant first asst. director and co-producer Ben Howarth who seems to conjure time out of nowhere.” Sets for the Danish and Paris apartments were built in the Elstree Studios in London and additional shooting took place in Copenhagen and Brussels. They shot establishers in Paris and Dresden with a five-person unit during post.
The feature received some official recognition via the White House on Monday. Filmmakers and cast from The Danish Girl were part of a day that recognized nine individuals from across the country as part of “White House LGBT Artists Champion Change.” Individuals were selected by the White House for their artistry in advocating for the LGBT community. The Danish Girl team was joined by the cast and creators from Transparent who were also recognized.
Focus Features will open The Danish Girl in four theaters in New York and L.A. this weekend, followed by a slow expansion heading into December.
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Director: Amy Berg
Subjects: Janis Joplin, Cat Power (narration)
Janis: Little Girl Blue examines the meteoric rise and untimely fall of legendary rock ’n’ roll singer, Janis Joplin. Her life story is revealed for the first time on film through extensive archival footage, combined with interviews with friends and family and rare personal letters, presenting an intimate and insightful portrait of a bright, complicated artist who changed music forever.
Amy Berg’s long road to Janis: Little Girl Blue began in 2007 when she was sitting on bleachers watching her son play baseball. She had just finished doc Deliver Us From Evil, which received an Oscar nomination. “My son played with a kid whose dad is a music supervisor and was working with the Janis Joplin estate,” said Berg. “He told me the estate was meeting with filmmakers about sharing the Janis Joplin archive. I’m a big Janis Joplin fan, so I got in to meet with them.”
Momentum moved forward initially, but production ran into problems after a conflict emerged between the financier/producer and the estate. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it,’” said Berg at last weekend’s Key West Film Festival where the title won the Best Documentary prize. “I was devastated because I loved the project and I had put all this time into it at that point.”
Berg then began work on West Of Memphis, which came out in late 2012. “While working on West Of Memphis, I heard from the estate that they had worked some things out,” said Berg. “There [were problems] because the estate had separate narrative feature film project agreements in development and there were terms and verbiage that stepped over our release plans.”
Berg met with Alex Gibney who had been doing work with Content Media. The Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker told Berg that the company was on the lookout for music-related projects. Content eventually boarded the project with resources in addition to handling pre-sales. American Masters also came on as well as Adam Block of Sony Music, whom Berg had worked with on Memphis. “He gave money not knowing how this would ultimately go,” noted Berg. Another conflict that emerged was the use of Joplin’s letters. A stipulation in the contract said there could be no “re-enactments,” and the strict interpretation of the clause meant that the letters could not be read in the documentary.
“[The letters] were the heart and soul of the narrative of this documentary, so I had to step and back and say I’m not making the film unless I can use the letters,” said Berg. “There was a lot of negotiation, but that worked out another year later.” In the meantime, Showtime approached Berg about doing Profits Prey, which she took on.
“Then, suddenly, they signed the deal,” said Berg. “So there was a lot of pressure, because once the contract was signed, there were all these international deadlines that came into play.”
Shooting began in 2011, though by that time, Berg had a good amount of research under her belt. Berg said she believes other attempts had been made to make Joplin documentaries, though she never asked the estate directly. “Over time, I noticed I’d call somebody [for an interview] and they wouldn’t believe me because they’d say they had heard from people before and then nothing would happen,” said Berg. “I wanted it to be a concert film and be a personal story of the woman. At one point, I had a three-hour [movie]. The edit process took a long time. At some point, they had to just lock me out of there.”
Janis: Little Girl Blue premiered at the Venice Film Festival where Berg received a six-minute standing ovation. It went on to screen at Deauville, Toronto and the London festivals before its final Key West Film Festival screening ahead of its theatrical run starting this weekend. Distributor FilmRise opens the feature Friday at IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center and will head to 20 additional markets December 4 including the Royal Theater in L.A. and the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. The film will add more cities in December and the doc will have its U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS’ American Masters next year.
Killing Them Safely
Director-writer: Nick Berardini
Subjects: Rick Smith, Tom Smith
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Director Nick Berardini originally began his project with a question about what happened to Stanley Harlan… The result was a look into the moral ambiguity that exists when confronted with multiple perspectives and interpretations of the same set of facts.
Tasers, used by police, have resulted in hundreds of deaths and yet there is little oversight. In the early 2000s, brothers Tom and Rick Smith revolutionized policing by marketing the Taser to law enforcement agencies. This supposedly safe alternative to handguns was supposed to curb the use of deadly force, yet over 500 people died from Taser-related injuries since they became widely used. At a time when questions about police methods are at the forefront of the national dialogue, Killing Them Safely brings together ample archival footage combined with first-hand interviews with experts on both sides of the issue.
In August, 2008, Athena Bachtel was witness to her son being tasered after an argument with police in Moberly, MO during what initially seemed like a routine traffic stop. Stanley Harlan was stunned three times. He then collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. Paramedics arrived, but by then he was gone.
Killing Them Safely’s original title was Tom Swift And His Electric Rifle. “The [documentary] began with Stanley Harlan, but became a much more [complex] look at moral choices as the focus turned to Taser International founders Rick and Tom Smith,” said producer Glen Zipper of Zipper Brothers Films who co-produced 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated along with brother Ralph Zipper, also a producer of Killing Them Safely. The title, which had its World Premiere in competition at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, was also produced by Boxcar Films.
Sundance Selects picked up rights for Killing Them Safely in late summer. It will open at IFC Center in New York Friday in addition to being available on-demand. The feature will head to other cities including the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena as well as three locations in Missouri and others in addition to Tacoma, WA and Fort Collins, CO in the coming weeks.
Director: Jon Whelan
Distributor: Net Return Entertainment in association with Area 23a
Just in time for the holiday buying season, Stink! reveals how “everyday products can contain dangerous levels of undisclosed chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive damage.”
U.S. manufacturers have no obligation to reveal the potentially hazardous chemicals used in their products. After purchasing brand new pajamas for his young daughters as a Christmas gift, single father Jon Whelan is troubled when opening the packaging releases a foul odor. Determined to uncover the source of this mysterious stench and whether it poses a health risk to his daughters, Whelan journeys from retailers and manufacturers to corporate boardrooms and the halls of Congress, clashing with political and corporate operatives all trying to protect the darkest secrets of the chemical industry.
“We teamed up with Jon Whelan, director and producer of Stink! and his company Net Return Entertainment in Summer, 2015,” said Area23a founder/president Kirt Eftekhar. “Area 23a specializes in event-based theatrical releases creating one of kind events at theaters featuring post screening discussions, music performances and exhibits. Stink! was a natural fit, as there is a plethora of organizations — host groups — committed to host Stink! screening events throughout the country.”
The distribution team have formed partnerships with both NGOs including Breast Cancer Fund and sponsors like Beauty Counter who are, “committed to the film’s message of full disclosure of ingredients in products sold to the American consumer,” according to Eftekhar. Along with traditional advertising, Net Return and Area 23a are utilizing their partners’ email lists and social media to reach out to moviegoers. Additionally, in each targeted market, at least one group has signed on to host and market a screening event, which will result in a “commitment from their members to attend, along with family, friends and work colleagues,” added Eftekhar. “Our primary audience is individuals [such as moms and dads] who are dedicated to ensure their families live healthy lifestyles without harmful chemicals and want to share the film’s message within their communities.”
Stink! is opening in New York this weekend, followed by Los Angeles December 4. The feature will then embark on a nationwide “theatrical roadshow,” with a combination of full-week runs and one- off theatrical events. It will be available on VOD in the first quarter of 2016.