Veteran Actor Elizabeth McGovern steps out with her first producing gig in The Chaperone. The title is also the first narrative release for PBS Distribution, which had a who’s who screening earlier this week at MoMA in New York, hosted by publicity maven Peggy Siegal. McGovern stars opposite Haley Lu Richardson in the period drama, directed by Downton Abbey director, Michael Engler. It is a packed weekend of Specialty releases. Writer-director Kent Jones heads out with Diane, starring Mary Kay Place via IFC Films. Sundance debut doc The Brink opens via Magnolia Pictures, which financed the intimate feature profiling infamous right-winter Steve Bannon. Also opening is Israeli drama Working Woman from Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber. Greenwich Entertainment is maximizing the opening of the baseball season with doc Screwball. American Relapse is a self-distributed non-fiction title which captures 72 hours of two ex-addicts diving in to help others on the streets. And Prime Media is heading out to about 100 theaters with India’s Super Deluxe.
Though a wide release, it should be mentioned that longtime indie director Harmony Korine is opening SXSW debut The Beach Bum with Matthew McConaughey. Back to the limited releases, others this weekend include Yash Raj’s Notebook and Comedy Dynamics’ Slut In A Good Way!
Director: Michael Engler
Writers: Julian Fellowes, Laura Moriarty (book)
Cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Haley Lu Richardson, Campbell Scott, Miranda Otto, Blythe Danner, Victoria Hill, Ellen Toland, Robert Fairchild, Géza Röhrig, Matt McGrath
Distributor: PBS Distribution
While working on Downton Abbey — the series — Elizabeth McGovern came across Laura Moriarty’s novel The Chaperone. McGovern had agreed to read the book on tape, but the moment gave her a feature film epiphany.
“I had gone to read this book on tape and it just seemed like it had to be a movie,” said McGovern, who both stars in the film and is a producer. “In the beginning, it was really easy. At first I thought producing was such a dream, but then realized how [enormously challenging it can be].”
The Chaperone is a coming-of-age story centering on the relationship between the young, free-spirited and soon-to-be international screen starlet Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) and her teetotaling chaperone (McGovern). On their journey from the conservative confines of Wichita, Kansas to the flash and sizzle of New York City, both women are driven by a kindred desire for self-discovery and liberation from the past.
Initially the title had the backing of Fox Searchlight, but it was later dropped out of the company’s slate. “It went to Searchlight just as Downton was ‘taking over the world’ and they said they’d love to do it,” said McGovern. “Then, there was a regime change and they didn’t think it was right for them. We were suddenly in a situation where we had already incurred costs and we had to reimburse them for their investment in the script.”
Attention was turned to finding financing to salvage the project. Two investors breathed new life into The Chaperone, coming on about two years ago. “I was very lucky in finding financiers who had courage and would circumvent the challenges,” said McGovern. “[Producers] Greg Clark and Victoria Hill came on board.”
McGovern added that foreign sales were needed to augment the project’s budget. Finding those partners, however, meant possible creative compromise. “We needed the foreign sales but that can be cast contingent,” noted McGovern. “That was a scary time because one could have names in the cast that may not be appropriate. You’re sensitive to their needs, but you also want an authentic cast. We were lucky in that every time an inauthentic person was cast, they would not be able to do it. Then I was like, ‘Thank you Lord.’”
Haley Lu Richardson came on to star opposite McGovern as the teenage Louise Brooks “at the final hour,” according to McGovern. Originally another person was set to star, but a scheduling conflict arose. “Haley Lu just prepared so well and without the amount of time one would have liked, but I can’t imagine now anyone else doing it,” added McGovern.
The filmmaking team, which includes Downton Abbey director Michael Engler from a script adapted by Julian Fellowes, shot the feature over 21 days last summer in New York. Challenges cropped up during the shoot as well. “We would have to scramble after losing locations, but then we’d end up finding something better,” said McGovern. “We shot in every borough. Staten Island was our Kansas.”
Continuing McGovern added: “The choice of Michael Engler [as director] was serendipity. I don’t think anyone else could do it. He knows New York like the back of his hand and can shoot so economically.” Engler also brought costume and design veterans to the project, who worked “below their normal cost,” noted McGovern.
Once again tapping Downton Abbey connections, McGovern’s husband, Emmy Award-winning producer and director Simon Curtis, had lunch with producer Rebecca Eaton in London. After discussing the project, it became a vehicle for PBS Distribution’s first foray into narrative distribution (the label has released documentaries theatrically).
“This seemed like a great fit for PBS Distribution,” said McGovern. “And they would be reaching out to the Downton Abbey and PBS audience, which will be many of the same people who would be attracted to this film.”
McGovern added that the main focus will be releasing The Chaperone slowly in markets, while PBS stations in a given area promotes its local release. Said McGovern: “It seemed like an innovative idea as opposed to other low budget feature films just hoping to get the big audience in the first weekend. We’re going to do it territory by territory… That seemed like an exciting idea to me.”
PBS Distribution will open at the Quad and Landmark 57 West in New York this weekend. The title will head to Los Angeles in two locations April 5, followed by other select cities the following week.
Director: Alison Kalyman
Subject: Steve Bannon
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Veteran producer Marie Therese Guirgis helped lead one of the most cutting edge indie distribution companies in the early to mid-2000s, Wellspring Media, championing domestic and foreign filmmakers. The position also meant she became familiar with Steve Bannon, who was her higher up.
“He became my direct boss for three years until the company closed,” said Guirgis. “He had some of the horrible traits then that are apparent in The Brink, but not related to politics. At the time, I thought he was more of a Reagan Democrat.”
Still, Guirgis said that Bannon had been a mentor and gave her “creative freedom.” Post-Wellspring, she lost touch with Bannon, partly due to the end of their professional relationship, but also due to his increased involvement with the Tea Party. Guirgis’ politics are quite opposite of Bannon’s.
“By the time he joined the Trump campaign, we hadn’t been in touch,” explained Guirgis. “I was shocked honestly. I reached out to him and wrote scathing letters and thought somehow I could be a voice of reason. That started a correspondence of sorts of me sending nasty texts and emails. He was always polite.”
At the same time he was becoming more of a public figure. Guirgis thought that Bannon’s public persona was misrepresentative. “I felt the depiction of him was misleading and dangerous,” she said. “It seemed he was becoming this mater strategist and dark philosopher of the far right. I knew [differently]. That branding was something he really wanted because it made him feel more powerful…”
Guirgis, who has produced a number of films, thought of doing a Bannon documentary. She reached out to him multiple times while he was still in the White House, but Bannon declined. After leaving the White House — and a fourth ask — he consented.
The Brink follows Bannon through the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States, shedding light on his efforts to mobilize and unify far-right parties in order to win seats in the May 2019 European Parliamentary elections. To maintain his power and influence, the former Goldman Sachs banker and media investor reinvents himself — as he has many times before — this time as the self-appointed leader of a global populist movement. Keen manipulator of the press and gifted self-promoter, Bannon continues to draw headlines and protests wherever he goes, feeding the powerful myth on which his survival relies.
Guirgis tapped filmmaker Alyson Klayman who boarded the project as director. Early on in the project, Guirgis had dinner with Magnolia Pictures acquisitions exec Dori Begley. The friendly meal became a vital conduit for the project. “I told her I wanted her advice and whether she thought this sort of film would be of interest generally,” said Guirgis. “She said that not only would it be of interest, but they would finance and distribute. [The moment] was so old school Hollywood.”
The Brink shot over a year. Guirgis said that with any vérité film, access increased over time. “His schedule can be very erratic. Little is planned,” she said. “A lot of it was us being there. The only control he’d have would be to say, ‘stop filming’ and [those occasions] are reflected in the film… I told him he wouldn’t have creative control and I wouldn’t either. It would be the filmmaker’s.”
The shoot resulted in several hundred hours of footage. Post was a fairly quick process in order to have the title ready for Sundance. Magnolia also wanted it ready for a first quarter roll out.
“I had never been more nervous with a festival premiere than this film at Sundance,” said Guirgis. Bannon was given a separate preview. Guirgis said he “was quiet,” adding: “He remained neutral. We were in touch a lot leading up to Sundance, but then after the reviews came out he stopped talking to me.”
The Brink opens at IFC Center and Landmark 57 West in New York along with The Landmark in L.A. and E Street in Washington, D.C. The filmmakers will take part in select Q&As.
Director-writer: Kent Jones
Cast: Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, Deirdre O’Connell, Joyce Van Patten, Phyllis Somerville, Glynnis O’Connor, Paul McIsaac
Distributor: IFC Films
Filmmaker Kent Jones had met with actor Mary Kay Place, “some time ago,” according to producer, Caroline Kaplan, about a script he had been working on titled Diane. The pair were looking to work together, but the main component was finding the window of time that aligned.
“We tried to shoot it once before. Mary Kay and Kent are prolific people, so it was about trying to get them to line up,” said Kaplan. Added fellow Diane producer, Luca Borghese: “We found out the week of Thanksgiving that she had an out the first week of February . We had a short time to figure out where to make the film. Everyone was excited about it though, and we decided to just go for it. We got the [additional] casting together in three weeks.”
The feature centers its namesake, Diane (Mary Kay Place). For her, everyone else comes first. Generous but with little patience for self-pity, she spends her days checking in on sick friends, volunteering at her local soup kitchen, and trying valiantly to save her troubled, drug-addicted adult son (Jake Lacy) from himself. But beneath her relentless routine of self-sacrifice, Diane is fighting a desperate internal battle, haunted by a past she can’t forget and which threatens to tear her increasingly chaotic world apart.
Diane shot in upstate New York in Kingston over 20 days. Said Kaplan: “Kent had such a strong opinion of what he wanted and that’s the only way we could have made it so quickly.” Noted Borghese: “Kent has a meditative personality. He’s a film critic, [New York Film Festival director] and writer. He’s extremely calm, so there was nothing frantic about the shoot.”
Both Borghese and Jones tapped their relationship with Skywalker for post. They screened the project for a small group of people and did a couple of pickups in the spring. Mary Kay Place talked to Leon Russell’s widow about including music and more was obtained from Bob Dylan through connections.
Diane debuted at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. IFC Films came on shortly afterward. “I think that the press reception was helpful for them to come on with the film,” said Borghese. “Caroline [Kaplan] also has an extensive relationship with them.”
Diane is opening day and date this weekend. Theatrically, Diane will play at IFC Center and BAM in New York and the Nuart in L.A. There will be select high-profile Q&As moderated by Martin Scorsese, Michael Moore and others.
Director-writer: Michal Aviad
Writers: Sharon Azulay Eyal, Michal Vinik\
Cast: Liron Ben-Shlush, Menashe Noy, Oshri Cohen, Sarah Markowitz
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber
Zeitgeist Films caught Israeli drama Working Woman ahead of its Toronto bow and picked it up for the U.S. before it screened at the festival.
“This film has played in Jewish film festivals all over the country but we’ve also played at the Athena Film Festival which highlights films by woman as well as being programmed into international film festivals like Mill Valley,” explained Zeitgeist co-president Nancy Gerstman. “In every context we’ve gotten great feedback from programmers about the how the film opens up conversations about the sexual harassment we’re hearing about on a daily basis. So we think there is a broader ‘core’ audience, not just of women but of anyone who is interested in a story of a woman who pays the economic and social price for her interaction with a powerful — male — employer.”
Gerstman added that the film’s publicity and outreach all present the film as one of the only films that has dealt with sexual harassment in the workplace “without romanticizing it.”
Working Woman centers on Orna, (Liron Ben Shlush), who is the mother of three young children with a husband struggling to start his own restaurant. To help support her family Orna returns to the workplace, landing a job with a former army superior, Benny (Menashe Noy) who is now a successful real estate developer. While Orna embraces her new position and tries to balance its demands with her home life, she begins to experience escalating sexual harassment from her boss. Her rapid rise through the ranks and her increasing financial success seem to parallel a pattern of predatory behavior which ultimately brings her career and marital relationship to the brink.
“We wanted to release the film as soon as possible this spring,” noted Gerstman. “The film is such a valuable contribution to the ongoing national discussion about sexual harassment and gender issues in the workplace. We also coordinated the release with our director Michal Aviad, who is doing a big grassroots and promotional tour in New York. She is a force and is articulate and eloquent about her film and the issues it speaks to. And in March there is less likelihood of a snowstorm in New York.”
Zeitgeist said is opening Working Woman on Wednesday to “optimize exposure in The New York Times and national publications.” The title opens at IFC Center and JCC of Manhattan. It will head to the Laemmle Royal, Town Center and Playhouse in L.A. on April 12 with additional theaters set for the spring around the country.
Director: Billy Corben
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Greenwich Entertainment caught Billy Corben’s doc Screwball at the Toronto International Film Festival. The company was attracted by its style that recalled celebrated filmmakers for their absurdist style, but in the form of non-fiction.
“I was a fan of Billy Corben’s earlier film, Cocaine Cowboys, and his 30 for 30s on ESPN so I was excited to see Screwball at TIFF and absolutely loved it,” commented Greenwich Entertainment’s Andy Bohn. “I vividly remember the Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Tony Bosch scandal that rocked Major League Baseball, but had no idea of the absurd cast of characters and series of events that brought it all crashing down. It’s the Coen brothers in documentary form.”
Set in Miami, Screwball is an irreverent investigation of Major League Baseball’s infamous doping scandal that involves a nefarious clinician and his most famous client: the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez.
The film has found favor from baseball journalists and former players, according to Greenwich Entertainment, though, perhaps not surprisingly, Rodriguez and Major League Baseball haven’t commented. Added Bohn: “They know it’s true and love that Billy told it in a way that is as wild as the story itself.”
The company premiered the trailer during spring training to spur conversation amongst the baseball world talking while congregated in Arizona and Florida. The company is releasing the film timed to opening day as outlets look for baseball stories heading into the new season. “The publicity team has done a fantastic job booking Billy on national radio shows and we’re highlighting this outrageous, yet not widely known, backstory to one of the biggest scandals in sports history,” noted Bohn.
Greenwich Entertainment is opening Screwball in 15 theaters in New York, L.A., Miami and other top markets. The feature will also be available on iTunes, Amazon and other on-demand platforms next Friday.
Directors: Pat McGee, Adam Linkenhelt
Distributor: Self Distributed theatrically; Gravitas Ventures for VOD
The filmmakers of documentary American Relapse, Pat McGee and Adam Linkenhelt, met the two subjects at the center of their feature through executive producers, Ian and Jaime Manheimer. The latter went to high school with Allie who has survived addiction.
The doc follows Frankie, a 38 year-old who has relapsed multiple times but continues to operate his F*ck Heroin Foundation with his mother. Allie is 28 and has been clean and sober for 10 years. While they are at different points on the recovery spectrum, they both share a deep belief in the 12th step: helping others. These unlikely and imperfect heroes opened their lives for the world to see, hoping to shine a light anywhere and any way they can. In the process, they show viewers and addicts alike that despite seemingly impossible odds and devastating damage, empathy and hope can restore a little bit of humanity to those who struggle and can sometimes save their lives.
“I let Frankie and Allie know that this documentary is about them; that this is their story,” explained McGee. “If they trust my team we will tell their story with honestly and with dignity. American Relapse is a story that speaks the language of those affected — addict’s friends and family members. The point-of-view is coming from two recovering addicts trying to help other people struggling with addiction.”
The doc shot over 72 hours with the modus operandi to “chase the story and see what happens.” Added McGee: “We wanted to paint a picture that could make an outsider understand how dark the depths of addiction really are. Looking away or turning off the camera wasn’t really an option. We had to show everything even if it grossed us out or terrified us. We didn’t want to tell the audience how to feel – instead we just drag them into the trenches right with us.”
The film is being self-released theatrically in Los Angeles and New York exclusively for one week beginning Friday at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles and Cinema Village in New York City. Gravitas Ventures will distribute the film on VOD beginning April 2.
Concluded McGee: “We were given entry into a world where best friend’s drop dead, kid’s become parentless, and families search for their missing loved ones every single day. To us it was a nightmare. To Frankie and Allie, it was Monday. And that was the main idea behind the structure of the film. We had no outline. Our plan was to follow the story in the truest sense.”
Director: Thiagarajan Kumararaja
Cast: Vijay Sethupathy, Fahadh Fassil, Samantha Akkineni, Mysskin, Ramya Krishnan
Distributor: Prime Media
Prime Media became involved with action-thriller Super Deluxe early in the project, boarding as one of the original investors in mid-2017. The company had admired director Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s first title, Aaranya Kaandam (2010). “Through a friend, we were introduced to him and been having a great journey since we started working together,” noted Prabhakar Muthuswamy, the company’s Content Syndication & Marketing Officer. “We have always supported Independent Indian regional movies and this movie fits right into that category.”
The official synopsis given of the title goes: “One fine day when fate decides to f#%* the lives of certain characters, they experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows.”
“The director arranged few online screeners to some American reviewers who write about Indian movies and also submitted the movie for Cannes and Toronto,” explained Muthuswamy. “On March 26, we had a press show in New York for select Hollywood press. This is not a typical Indian mainstream movie and we strongly feel this has the potential to go beyond the South Asian audience.”
Super Deluxe will bow in about 100 U.S. and Canadian theaters Friday. Added Muthuswamy: “We are already working on expansion plans based on the initial audience reports.”