Specialty movie-goers looking for an escape from, or celebration of, recent political events will have plenty to choose from this weekend. Sony Pictures Classics is opening Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, the actress many festival-attendees have proclaimed her finest performance. Elsewhere, Robert Schwartzman, taking some time from his music career to concentrate on directing, makes his debut Dreamland available today in theaters via Gunpowder & Sky and on-demand. People looking for signs of reconciliation in a polarized world may find solace in Abramorama’s doc Disturbing The Peace in New York and L.A.. Oscilloscope is launching comedy-horror The Love Witch, an ode to ‘60s Technicolor pics, while the filmmaking team from Asperger’s Are Us are self-distributing their doc ahead of a Netflix launch later this year.
Also opening in limited release is Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk as well as Sir Richard Branson adventure doc Don’t Look Down and Argot Pictures’ The Anthropologist, FilmRise’s National Bird and Strand’s Kiki, Love to Love.
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: David Birke, Philippe Djian (novel)
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Christian Berkel, Judith Magre, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Classics took interest in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle in the script stage. The company acquired it during post-production ahead of the movie’s debut last May at the Cannes Film Festival.
Elle centers on Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), who seems indestructible. Head of a leading video game company, she brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. Being raped in her home by an unknown assailant changes Michèle’s life forever. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a curious and thrilling game—a game that may, at any moment, spiral out of control.
“We released [Verhoeven’s] Black Book (2006, nearly $4.4M gross) to great acclaim,” said SPC co-president Michael Barker. “Tom [Bernard] and I have known [Isabelle Huppert] for decades and we’ve released her films in the past, but this stretches her talents. It’s staggering to see her play this intelligent woman who takes control of her life.”
Huppert is nominated for a Gotham for Best Actress for her role in Elle, while the feature is France’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration. Huppert is also being feted at AFI Fest this weekend, while Verhoeven will be the subject of a full retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
“It’s a Verhoeven movie, so it’s provocative and gives what people expect,” added Barker. “The reaction from critics in Cannes was stellar and it played in Toronto and New York to ovations. This is the case where a director and actor are in sync at the top of their form.”
Sony Pictures Classics will open Elle in New York exclusively this weekend before heading to Los Angeles next week. More cities will be added until going to other top cities by Thanksgiving weekend.
Disturbing The Peace
Directors: Stephen Apkon, Andrew Young
Writer: Stephen Apkon
Subjects: Suliman al-Khatib, Chen Alon, Shifa al-Qudsi, Maia Hascal, Mohammed Owedah, Jamel Qassas, Avner Wishnitzer, Assaf Yacobovitz
Filmmakers Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young’s documentary Disturbing The Peace has been four years in the making. They went to the Middle East in 2012 out of interest in the region, then met members of Combatants for Peace, a group of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants working together through non-violence against armed conflict.
“I saw in the work they do what they represent in all of us in this polarized world and the transformation they went through on a personal level,” said Apkon. “For me, it was the ability to transcend the national narrative and the cultural means we grow up with that tells us how the world works.”
Disturbing the Peace follows a group of former enemy combatants – Israeli soldiers from the most elite units, and Palestinian fighters, many of whom served years in prison – who have come together to challenge the status quo. The film traces their transformational journeys from soldiers committed to armed battle to non-violent peace activists and their founding of Combatants for Peace. While the film is based in the Middle East, it creates an experience that addresses universal themes relevant regardless of geography.
After meeting the group, the filmmaking duo spent a lot of time building trust and understanding to attain a level of intimacy, according to Apkon: “It was important for us to tell this larger story through their personal experiences. Their experience includes violence. We wanted them to know we were there not to sensationalize and exploit their stories, but to document their work.”
Disturbing The Peace received funding from individuals. Apkon and Young were careful not to take money from entities that might compromise the project. “We didn’t want funding from government or have any agenda. We had the freedom to tell the story we wanted.”
Apkon and Young didn’t want to tell a narrative chronological story, but instead create an “immersive experience” showing the transformation each of the subjects in the film had in their lives.
Disturbing The Peace debuted at the Jerusalem Film Festival, attended by Israelis and Palestinians alike. The filmmakers also screened the film in the Palestinian territories, also attended by both groups. Stateside, it played to 1,500 people at Ebertfest as a surprise screening. “[The organizers] said they had never seen a reaction like that,” said Apkon. “There’s a longing that there has to be another way in this polarized world.”
Abramorama is spearheading the title’s theatrical release. It will open at locations in New York City and Los Angeles as well as the Jacob Burns Center in Pleasantville, NY.
Director-writer: Robert Schwartzman
Writer: Benjamin Font
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Amy Landecker, Jason Schwartzman, Frankie Shaw, Beverly D’Angelo
Distributor: Gunpowder & Sky
Dreamland is the directorial debut of Robert Schwartzman. While taking a hiatus from his band Rooney, he worked on a screenplay around the end of 2012 initially titled Mother F*cker, but then re-titled Dreamland.
The feature centers on L.A. musician Monty Fagan (Johnny Simmons), who is going through a rough patch. He’s a grown man who lives with his girlfriend… in her mom’s house. He wants to open a piano bar but suffers from an extreme case of insufficient funds. Things take an interesting turn, however, when Monty gets the chance to fill in as the pianist in a swanky hotel bar, where he meets Olivia, an older, wealthy femme fatale with whom he begins a rather torrid affair. Enlivened by Olivia’s presence in his life, Monty gets a newfound self-confidence and sexual prowess. But when Olivia starts to throw some much-needed cash at Monty — dressing him in expensive clothes and offering to fund his dream bar — he begins to worry that being a kept man will destroy his ability to make it on his own terms.
“I’ve been wanting to direct a film from the ground up,” said Schwartzman. “There’s a great feeling to make something that doesn’t exist before and create something. I wanted to take what I learned in music and take it to indie film. I like to problem solve — [finding] the team, money etc. I enjoy this. To make a film where you don’t have a lot of budget you have to wear a lot of hats.”
Schwartzman decided to set the project in Los Angeles, figuring they would be able to pull favors and get locations for a lower cost. While writing the script, he kept cognizant of the bottom line. “When you are writing a screenplay, you’re motivated by the story, but you’re also thinking about how to get this done,” he said. “It’s also a creative process to think of logistics. You have to be creative about how you’re going to get this together. You have to be crafty.”
Financing had some false starts. In the meantime, Schwartzman worked on the soundtrack for Palo Alto. Producer Mel Eslyn joined the project in the summer of 2014 after reading the script. “I also met the Duplass brothers and learned about how to pull off a movie with the smallest of budgets. It’s exciting to see people out there making movies with interesting actors and telling great stories for so little. That touched a nerve for me, it’s the kind of stuff I like.”
Schwartzman worked with ICM for cast, but there were also some false starts before pulling together the lineup. Some people joined but had to leave the project and shoot dates were pushed “a couple times,” according to Schwartzman. “At some point we decided not to push again, so we identified February 2015. You have to believe in a project to keep it real…From a producer perspective, the biggest thing is believing. It may sound preachy, but believing is [important]. Like a [sports] team, you believe you’ll get that trophy. It exists in your head and it’s a beautiful thing when you connect with people who also believe it.”
Dreamland shot over 18 days in February, 2015, in addition to some scenic pick-ups. Schwartzman worked with cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke, who was a major presence in the project. “It’s my first film, I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers,” said Schwartzman. “Going in, I felt we needed someone with that kind of background. Although we had a limited budget, I felt we could make a beautiful movie. We storyboarded and stuck to that…”
Dreamland played the Tribeca Film Festival and after some offers, landed at Gunpowder & Sky (formerly FilmBuff). Dreamland is opening day and date in ten cities Friday including Cinema Village East in New York and the Laemmle Santa Monica as well as on-demand via Amazon and iTunes.
The Love Witch
Director-writer: Anna Biller
Cast: Samantha Robinson, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Gian Keys, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum
Oscilloscope said that The Love Witch “caught everyone by surprise,” since it hadn’t been on “anyone’s radar.” The company heard of it following the advice of several people who saw it at the Maryland Film Festival. “People kept mentioning to us and they’d say, ‘Just watch it. It’s definitely an O-scope film,’” said Oscilloscope’s Andrew Carlin. “We ended up screening it on a laptop in Cannes and, ironically, it was maybe the best thing we saw at the festival.”
The comedy-horror pays tribute to the Technicolor thrillers of the ‘60s. The film follows Elaine, a beautiful young witch, who is determined to find a man to love her. In her gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, and then picks up men and seduces them. However, her spells work too well, leaving her with a string of hapless victims. When she finally meets the man of her dreams, her desperation to be loved will drive her to the brink of insanity and murder.
“Anna’s film is a technicolor, feminist-sexploitation fable that’s eight years in the making,” said Carlin. “And when you watch it, you understand why it took eight years. The level of artistry and precision that went into it is astounding. She was totally uncompromising in her vision and, in that sense, I think it’s one of the most ambitious films of the year.”
Oscilloscope wanted to stay clear of Halloween, which it acknowledged “sounds counter-intuitive,” but the company noted that the marketplace was already crowded. They also pointed out a truth: “Audiences crave good, well-reviewed genre titles all year-round. They don’t wait for Halloween.”
“I think The Love Witch is destined to become a cult classic,” said Carlin. “Anna’s debut feature, Viva, developed a remarkable following. When I first approached exhibitors about The Love Witch I’d say, ’It’s Anna Biller’s new film,’ and they’d cut me off mid-sentence and say, ‘Oh, she directed Viva!’”
After playing the Maryland Film Festival, The Love Witch went on to play BAMCinemaFest where it received positive critical response, according to Oscilloscope. Since then, the title has had a mini-onslaught of editorial attention including features in Rolling Stone, Jezebel, the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly.
“In terms of marketing, we worked closely with Anna on all the materials, from the poster art to the trailer to a 60-second ‘No Talking/No Textin’” promo that she directed herself,” said Carlin. “She was involved every step of the way. Everything received her stamp of approval. We also have a limited number of 35mm prints in circulation, which is a great selling point. If you buy a ticket at the Nuart in Los Angeles or the Drafthouse in Austin this weekend, you’re seeing it on celluloid.”
Oscilloscope opens The Love Witch in L.A., Austin and the Bay Area today, followed by New York and the rest of the top 20 markets November 18. Added Carlin: “After the outcome of this election, I think people are going to need a few hours to just unplug and escape this weekend.”
Asperger’s Are Us
Director: Alex Lehmann
Subjects: Noah Britton, Ethan Finlan, Janck Hanke
Filmmaker Alex Lehmann spent some time Googling “Asperger’s and comedy,” while researching a script, and came across an article on a comedy troupe, which shattered what he describes as his “preconceptions” of Aspergers. He then set aside the script he was working on after coming to the conclusion that he should make a documentary about the group.
“Before committing to the doc, I looked them up on YouTube to make sure they were actually funny,” noted Lehmann. “What I saw was comedy that wasn’t for everyone, but I found it hilarious and genuine, so I committed to making a movie about them.”
Asperger’s Are Us is a coming of age documentary focusing on four friends with autism, who have bonded through humor and performed as the comedy troupe, Asperger’s Are Us as they prepare for one final, ambitious show.
“I self-financed through most of this, shooting over the summer of 2013,” added Lehmann. “This was a side project while I was making a living as a cameraman. It took me two years to get to an edit I could be proud of, at which point I showed it to Mark Duplass. He helped me with the finishing of the film both creatively and financially.”
Lehmann had minimal contact with the troupe prior to shooting. A planned rendezvous in Boston, however, didn’t work out. “I was pretty sure they had pranked me,” he said. “They eventually showed up and told me we had to go look for a rehearsal space. If you’ve seen the doc you know this is the part of the movie where we keep getting kicked out of places, early on I had no idea what they were doing or what the doc would become.”
Asperger’s Are Us’ theatrical release is being handled by the filmmaking team. The feature will open Village East in New York today followed by Arena Cinelounge in L.A. next weekend. Digitally, it will be available on iTunes November 15 and via Netflix later this year.