Sean Baker Ditches iPhone For ‘Florida Project’; Rooney Mara’s Controversial ‘Una’ – Specialty Box Office Preview

The Florida Project

Rooney Mara plays a woman who tracks down an older man she once ran off with in Una, the first ‘major’ release stateside of Swen Releasing, a label backed by a large Brazilian outfit. The title opens in yet another very crowded weekend of Specialty newcomers. Just days from its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, A24’s The Florida Project bows from director Sean Baker and starring Willem Dafoe. Baker made headlines in 2015 for shooting Tangerine on the iPhone. He took a different path this time. French New Wave ‘godmother’ Agnès Varda teamed up with photo-artist JR on doc Faces Places, which will open via Cohen Media Group Friday, while Freestyle Digital Media will begin its run of Generational Sins in New York and L.A.

Among other limited roll-outs this weekend are The Orchard’s Sundance doc winner Dina at the Quad in New York followed by L.A. next week, and IFC Films’ Walking Out, bowing in two New York locations before heading to additional markets. Well Go USA has two films, City of Rock and Better Watch Out, while Breaking Glass has the curiously titled Assholes bowing in New York before a VOD launch later this month.

The Florida Project
Director-writer: Sean Baker
Writer: Chris Bergoch
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite
Distributor: A24


The Florida Project co-writer Chris Bergoch had noticed kids playing in a hotel parking lot in Orlando, the city where his mother lives. Reminded of his childhood, Bergoch noticed the kids didn’t appear to be children of tourists in a city that draws visitors to its theme parks.

“Chris brought this world to my attention and gave me a number of articles focusing on homelessness in Orlando,” said director and co-writer Sean Baker, whose 2015 film Tangerine received wide acclaim for being shot on an iPhone. “They’re technically homeless because they live in these small hotels.”

Set on a stretch of highway just outside of Disney World, The Florida Project is a drama with a cast mostly of unknowns that follows six-year-old Moonee and her rebellious mother Halley over the course of a single summer. The two live week to week at The Magic Castle, a budget motel managed by Bobby, whose stern exterior hides a deep reservoir of kindness and compassion. Despite her harsh surroundings, the precocious Moonee has no trouble making each day a celebration of life, her endless afternoons overflowing with mischief and grand adventure as she and her ragtag playmates—including Jancey, a new arrival to the area who quickly becomes Moonee’s best friend—fearlessly explore the utterly unique world into which they’ve been thrown. Unbeknownst to Moonee, however, her delicate fantasy is supported by the toil and sacrifice of Halley, who is forced to explore increasingly dangerous possibilities in order to provide for her daughter.

“I’ve always been a fan of The Little Rascals. Most of the kids on that show lived in poverty, but the focus was their adventure and imaginative vision. I always thought that was ahead of its time,” said Baker this past week at New York Film Festival. “I wanted to do something like this and when Chris brought this to me [in 2011], I thought of it as a present-day Little Rascals.”

Bergoch and Baker traveled down to Orlando. They happened upon one manager at a hotel where people had taken up residence. After some initial skepticism, the manager warmed to their idea about a movie.

“He actually inspired the character of Bobby, played by Willem Dafoe,” said Baker. “He said the story should be told. I don’t think he wants his real name mentioned, but he said he wants people to know what these families are struggling with. Dafoe ended up spending time with him.”

The production team brought in two locals casting agencies. Baker wanted locals to play the kids in order to get their accents right. Casting took place in the hotels and a community center. “We said we were just looking for great personas,” said Baker. “No acting experience necessary. I said I wouldn’t make the film unless we could find a present-day Spanky McFarland. And then, one day, she just happened to come in — Brooklynn Prince.”

Until Prince’s arrival, there was some fear the project might founder since the shoot was just a month-and-a-half off. Her audition won over the filmmaking team. They also cast newcomer Bria Vinaite as the young mother. “I was okay with casting someone established, but something kept telling me that if I did that, it would mess up the believability,” said Baker. “Thank god I had done Tangerine, which I think worked. I think that gave me the liberty to do [unconventional casting] here.”

One big departure from Tangerine, however, was using 35mm film in The Florida Project. Baker won headlines and critical response for the 2015 release shot on his iPhone, which grossed $702K at the box office.

“We shot Tangerine on the iPhone but we were doing it as cinematically as possible,” said Baker. “Shooting on the iPhone got a lot of positive attention. Filmmakers around the world said the movie democratized filmmaking, which is something I had felt about the Dogme 95 movement. So when I hear about Tangerine, I feel great. But we’re also living in an age where the death of film is a real thing. To say goodbye to film, to me, would be the death of cinema. I believe all mediums are good, so it’s a project by project basis. I chose here film because I believe in preservation and I wanted its rich organic quality.”

A24 picked up The Florida Project following its debut in the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors Fortnight. It will open in limited release this weekend.

Director: Benedict Andrews
Writer: David Harrower
Cast: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Tara Fitzgerald, Tobias Menzies, Natasha Little, Ruby Stokes
Distributor: Swen Releasing

Swen Releasing

Benedict Andrews’ Una marks the first major foray into U.S. film distribution for Swen Releasing. The Latin American-based company reached out to Rob Lynch of Eammon Films to spearhead the theatrical side of its releases stateside. Vision Films, meanwhile, is handling ancillary. Swen picked up the film, based on a play, last fall, but held off the title release until now.

The film follows Una (Mara), who 15 years earlier ran away with an older man named Ray (Mendelsohn), a crime for which he was arrested and imprisoned. When she comes across a photo of him in a trade magazine, Una tracks him down and turns up at his workplace. Her abrupt arrival threatens to destroy Ray’s new life and derail her stability. Unspoken secrets and buried memories surface as they sift through the wreckage of their past.

“It’s a challenging film, but the acting is simply amazing,” said Lynch. “Andrews handled it in an engaged way and you come out thinking about the film in a different way. It’s not done in an exploitive way.”

Lynch acknowledged they have picked a competitive period in which to release Una, coming right as the fall awards releases head into full gear, but he said the performances “screamed for awards consideration,” so the plan is to head full throttle in a crowded market.

“Obviously the subject matter will be in reviews and on film listings,” he added. “We’re not running from it, but we’re not using that as the [central] message. Our [talking points] is that it is controversial, but it’s dramatic and the performances are amazing. I’d rather people see it and then make up their minds rather than having them decide about the film without having seen it.”

Swen Releasing is opening Una exclusively at the Sunshine in New York today followed by Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and Landmark Regent the following weekend. The title will slowly expand from there, adding cities going into 2018.

Directors: Jason Cortlund, Julia Halperin
Writer: Jason Cortlund
Cast: Allison Tolman, Sophie Reid, JoBeth Williams, Luis Bordonada
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films/Orion Pictures

Samuel Goldwyn Films/Orion Pictures

Barracuda co-director/writer Jason Cortlund wrote the first draft of the feature during an artist residency in early 2013, later going with the project’s core team to the Venice Biennale workshops that fall. “It helped get the script to a showable state,” commented Cortland. “But I never really stopped the revision process. If a bit of dialog or a moment doesn’t quite work, that itch stays with me until we get it fixed.”

The film follows Merle who finds her life beginning to splinter when Sinaloa, the musician half-sister she never knew existed, appears on her doorstep in Texas. Initially distrustful of this enigmatic woman, a bond quickly forms between the two. As Merle allows her half-sister into her life, Sinaloa reveals a quiet fury through her music, and her fierce attachment begins to place Merle’s career aspirations, her relationship to her mother, and even her impending marriage, in jeopardy. Merle fights to keep her world together while Sinaloa’s increasingly intense and erratic behavior threatens to erupt into something darker.

Australian filmmaker Bruce Beresford, who saw Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin’s previous film, Now, Forager, while on a festival jury, reached out to the directing duo to ask what they were working on.

“We were honored to have him come on board as an executive producer,” the two said via email. “In the process of hitting the development program circuit (Venice, IFP, Rotterdam’s CineMart), we started talking with former-Austinite Nancy Schafer, who came aboard as a second producer to help with financing and industry support. In production, we filled out the team with amazing co-producers Logan Cooper and Sandhya Shardanand who brought a wealth of experience from working on productions for Terrence Malick and Robert Rodriguez. We also received wonderful post-services from Polish co-producer Orka Studios in Warsaw.”

Halperin and Cortland saw the first season of Fargo and were impressed with Allison Tolman’s work on the series. They reached out to her for the part of Merle. Their casting director, meanwhile, fielded 400 – 500 actress/musicians for the part of Sinaloa. Noted the pair: “After callbacks and interviews, Sophie Reid made the decision really easy. And we’ve been JoBeth Williams fans for such a long time.”

Barracuda shot over 26 days in Austin, TX and the surrounding area. One scene involved a swimming hole at night with one character in the water. After one take, they noticed something slithering by, which meant there would be no re-takes. “Our EMS supervisor spotted a snake swimming nearby. In Texas, that could be a harmless water snake or it could be a highly venomous cottonmouth. So there was no second take. We’d rather have to revise or reshoot something in a more controlled environment than put any of our people at risk. Fortunately, everyone nailed the first take that time.”

Following the film’s SXSW Film Festival premiere, Halperin and Cortlund went with Samuel Goldwyn Films. Samuel Goldwyn Films/Orion Pictures opens Barracuda today in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Columbus, followed by Austin, Chicago, Cleveland and San Diego on October 13.

Faces Places
Directed by Agnès Varda, JR
Distributor: Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group

Eighty-nine year old Agnès Varda, one of the leading figures of the French New Wave, and acclaimed 33 year-old French photographer and muralist JR teamed up to co-direct their documentary/road movie Faces Places, which screened at Cannes and recently at the New York Film Festival.

Kindred spirits, Varda and JR share a lifelong passion for images and how they are created, displayed and shared. Together they travel around the villages of France in JR’s photo truck meeting locals, learning their stories and producing epic-size portraits of them. The photos are prominently displayed on houses, barns, storefronts and trains revealing the humanity in their subjects, and themselves. Faces Places documents these encounters as well as the unlikely friendship formed along the way.

“It’s my first film collaboration,” said Varda during a moderated talk at the New York Film Festival earlier this week. “It came to me in a strange but natural way. We met once through a friend and decided to do something together.”

“We didn’t know if it would be a film though,” said JR. “If someone had said we’d end up working together for two years on a film, I don’t know if we would have done it. But a little project of just a few minutes later became twenty minutes and then…”

The pair traveled to various parts of France, often putting the camera to ordinary people going about their lives. “We didn’t scout for working class people, but we encountered people working in factories, for instance,” said JR. “We did make sure not to interview the mayor for example. The mailman was the most ‘important’ person we interviewed. Our approach is playful.”

Cohen Media Group will open Faces Places in New York at Lincoln Plaza and the Quad Cinemas in addition to select metro area locations as well as several locations in the Los Angeles area including The Royal and Pasadena Playhouse. The company noted additional cities are also in the works.

Generational Sins
Director-writer: Spencer T. Folmar
Writer: Dax Spanogle
Cast: Daniel MacPherson, Dax Spanogle, Barrett Donner, Kristen Jezek, Leesa Folmar, Bill Farmer, Nick Coble
Distributor: Freestyle Digital Media

Freestyle Digital Media

Filmmaker Spencer T. Folmar co-wrote Generational Sins with his cousin Dax Spanogle, who also appears in the film. The two seamlessly wrote the script and managed to shoot the project in a relatively short period, but then faced hurdles when heading into post and figuring out distribution.

The story borrows from their upbringing in rural central Pennsylvania. Executive producer Thurman Mason boarded the project in April, 2016 and Folmar and Spanogle had a shooting draft ready by June, 2016.

In the film, two estranged brothers are brought together by the death of their mother, whose dying wish it to see them return to their birthplace and reunite with their abusive, alcoholic father. The brothers set out on an emotional journey that leads them to their hometown. As each reconnects to the town and its people, the brothers struggle to find the meaning of “home.” Together they must confront their father – the memory and the man himself, and are ultimately forced to choose between a bitter existence or forgiveness.

“The funding and the permits came in and we hired the talent ourselves,” said Folmar. “It was remarkably fast. Obviously an atypical story. We even had a 22-day shoot plan, but we finished in just 21.”

The project shot five days in Orlando before heading to central Pennsylvania. “Since I grew up in the area, the location scouting was very easy,” added Folmar. “It was post-production that was brutal. We hit a wall there. We lost a lot of years of our lives in post-production.” Folmar said that he ran into software troubles, but eventually was able to get back on track with the help of Chris Cibelli.

Fulmar also spent six months courting various distributors. The film contains religious elements, so Folmar said many distributors would hand off the film, unsuccessfully, to their faith departments.

“They wouldn’t like the cussing,” said Folmar. “But Freestyle didn’t mind the controversial parts.”

Generational Sins will open at eight AMC theaters including in New York and Los Angeles this weekend. The filmmakers have also booked showings independently of Freestyle, bringing its theater count to fourteen. The title will also be available on-demand day and date.

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