Celebrated French filmmaker Claire Denis will have her English-language feature debut with High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, opening this weekend via A24. Specialty distributors continue to ramp up spring releases, though with a somewhat less-packed slate of newcomers compared with last weekend. Nearly five decades after its recording, Aretha Franklin concert documentary Amazing Grace begins a regular theatrical run via Neon, which picked up the title in December. Amazon Studios is launching multiple-Oscar-nominated British director Mike Leigh’s historical epic Peterloo in select New York and L.A. locations. Greenwich Entertainment, meanwhile, is heading out with Emilio Estevez-directed drama The Public, with Jena Malone, Gabrielle Union, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Estevez.
Also launching in limited release is IFC Films’ horror Western The Wind, in addition to Good Deed drama Storm Boy at AMC Empire in New York and AMC CityWalk in L.A. along with other major cities.
Also in bowing is Astute Films’ bio-drama The Best of Enemies, with Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell. The company said it has targeted the “broad spectrum of adult audiences,” with “special outreach to African-American, faith-friendly, and socially-conscious audiences.” Noted Astute’s Fred Berstein: “This true story has fantastic performances, drama, emotion, and humor, and we believe the story of Ann Atwater and CP Ellis will have resonance for all audiences.” Read Deadline’s review of The Best of Enemies here.
Director-writer: Claire Denis
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin
Producers D.J. Gugenheim and Andrew Lauren were given an abbreviated script of sci-fi-thriller High Life via CAA. The pair, who lead Andrew Lauren Productions, quickly were drawn to the project, which is the first English-language feature for French filmmaker Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In, Chocolat).
“It was enough for us to be intrigued, and we wanted to get on the phone with Claire,” said Gugenheim, who along with Lauren first spoke to Denis in 2016. “We had both stayed up until 3 a.m. reading but also had a lot of scientific questions. We were immediately smitten by her. My dad made me watch her films, so I knew about her work, but I realized this would be very ambitious.” Added Lauren: “A lot of filmmaker friends see her as one of the best filmmakers right now, and we thought it was an opportunity to work with one of the greats.”
High Life centers on Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his baby daughter who are the last survivors of a damned and dangerous mission to deep space. The crew — death-row inmates led by a doctor (Juliette Binoche) with sinister motives — has vanished. As the mystery of what happened onboard the ship is unraveled, father and daughter must rely on each other to survive as they hurtle toward the oblivion of a black hole.
“The finance structure was unique,” said Lauren. “We were the equity financing and that was combined with the European financial model.”
Early on, Denis eyed Philip Seymour Hoffman for the lead. Following his death in 2014, Pattinson lobbied for the role. “Robert wasn’t in Claire’s mind,” said Lauren. “But he was extremely persistent. Following Twilight, he’s wanted to push himself as an actor, and he won her over.” Patricia Arquette also had been a possible cast member, and later came on board.
High Life shot over 45 days in Cologne, Germany. “She runs a tight ship,” Gugenheim said of Denis. “She’s a filmmaker that’s so specific and used to working in the natural world. It was quite a process seeing her create this unique ship in this unique world. She worked with a famous French physicist to figure out how the ship would function in this space.”
The title debuted at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival. The initial screening left some in the audience cold, according to Gugenheim, but the title won over the press and audiences at later screenings.
“There was an older audience all dressed up [for the premiere]. About 150 people left, but then the reviews came out and they were glowing. She’s an artist you have to be prepared for. Then those people came back and loved it.”
A24 began talks for theatrical soon after the premiere. The pair had worked with the distributor for the release of The Spectacular Now (2013). High Life opens today in select New York and L.A. locations before expanding around the country in the coming weeks.
Added Gugenheim: “It’s an art house film, but we’re hoping to go beyond that. It’s a unique cast and filmmaker, so we hope it crosses over and reaches for the stars.”
Directors: Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollock
Subject: Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace took more than four decades to get to the big screen. Shot in 1972 by Sydney Pollack, the feature chronicles Franklin’s famed performance with the choir at the New Bethel Baptist Church in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood when she was 29. The occasion begat the biggest-selling gospel album of all time and had been mired in legal technicalities for years, according to a Deadline article in December announcing Neon’s pickup of the title. The film played a qualifying run at New York’s Film Forum in the fall.
“I saw it a couple years ago at a private screening,” Neon chief Tom Quinn said. “I wanted to see it with an audience, so I watched it again at a premiere. It was the single most-riveting experience I’ve ever had. … I’ve had extraordinary [cinematic] experiences, but this took the cake. It transcends barriers of the fourth wall, the theater and time. It’s something that must be experienced, and it functions to make you feel like you’re there in 1972.”
Neon has been leveraging partners for group sales with allied organizations including churches leading into the weekend’s release in a “multi-layered launch.” Said Quinn, “There are multiple audiences and theaters this film could go for.” Amazing Grace will bow today in several locations each in New York and Los Angeles ahead of a sizable expansion timed to Easter weekend.
Amazing Grace is the second of three ambitious documentaries that Neon is releasing in the first part of the year. Sundance premiere Apollo 11 has cumed more than $7.7M since opening in early March. Following today’s release, the company’s next nonfiction title is Biggest Little Farm, which played last fall’s Telluride and Toronto festivals before heading to Sundance. “They’re all aspirational messages in their own ways,” said Quinn. “In a world that’s off-kilter, they’re able to give back.”
After it took decades en route to the big screen, Amazing Grace won the best documentary prize from the NAACP. Quinn noted its long time coming while whimsically giving two caveats: “There are two faults with this film: It should have been released 47 years ago, and you have to see it sitting down. But if the spirit moves you, by all means, get out of your seats… Where it takes you is incredible.”
Director-writer: Mike Leigh
Cast: Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson, Vincent Franklin, Karl Johnson, Tim McInnerny
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Five-time Oscar nominated British filmmaker Mike Leigh and producer Georgina Lowe came out of their previous feature project, Mr. Turner (2014), with an aim for an even more ambitious historical epic. Leigh found the vehicle for his next film from tragic events that took place 200 years ago in Manchester, England.
“He was conscious of the events that took [place then] from the locals he grew up with,” said Lowe. “After Mr. Turner, he gave me a document with the sequence of events [from the period] and I immediately thought it would make a great film.”
Peterloo is an epic portrayal of the events surrounding the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre, where a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England turned into one of the bloodiest and most notorious episodes in British history.
“We had our loyal supporters at BFI and Film4,” said Lowe. “Then we met with Ted Hope at Amazon [in 2015]. He said he’d like to be involved. We are grateful to the financiers especially Amazon, which allowed us to have a bigger budget than we typically do. This gave the scale to achieve what we wanted.”
Extensive research around the events at the center of the film took place over two years in addition to “a long period of casting and six months of rehearsal,” noted Lowe. “There were over 160 actors involved. Shooting took place in the center of Manchester where [the massacre] took place, but also in Lancashire, Lincoln, Chester [and other areas].”
The shoot took place over 15 weeks with intermittent preparation. “Mike always has rehearsal periods built in,” said Lowe. “We ended up at a historic fort in Essex where we did the shoot of the massacre itself. That took four weeks. It was really exciting with people getting trampled and horses. We had calls for hundreds of people each day.”
The title debuted in Venice followed by Telluride and Toronto on this side of the Atlantic. The title’s U.K. premiere took place in Manchester as part of the London Film Festival in October.
Peterloo bows in New York at the Angelika and Landmark 57 West as well as the Laemmle Royal this weekend. Leigh will take part in select Q&As. Amazon Studios will take the title to Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. the following weekend ahead of an expansion around the country on April 19.
Director-writer: Emilio Estevez
Cast: Jena Malone, Gabrielle Union, Emilio Estevez, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright, Che Smith, Jacob Vargas, Taylor Schilling, Michael K. Williams
Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
Greenwich Entertainment and UPHE Content Group previously worked together for the February release of Nicolas Pesce’s thriller Piercing with Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska. Both companies caught writer-director Emilio Estevez drama The Public at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. UPHE Content Group acquired the title and they soon discussed collaborating on the release.
In The Public, an unusually bitter Arctic blast has made its way to downtown Cincinnati and the front doors of the public library where the action of the film takes place. The story revolves around the library patrons, many of whom are homeless, mentally ill and marginalized, as well as an exhausted and overwhelmed staff of librarians who often build emotional connections and a sense of obligation to care for those regular patrons. At odds with library officials over how to handle the extreme weather event, the patrons turn the building into a homeless shelter for the night by staging an “Occupy”-style sit in.
“First and foremost, Emilio has made a very entertaining film that sold out its festival and word-of-mouth screenings, so our marketing is leaning into the crowd-pleasing aspects for a mainstream audience,” noted Greenwich’s Andy Bohn. “However, as is true for Emilio’s recent films, The Public has a loftier message with its focus on homelessness and the vital role of public libraries in our democracy. Librarians are unsung heroes protecting the fundamental human right to freedom of information and our grassroots team has organized a ton of group sales screenings this weekend for librarians.”
Bohn said that a “robust” national and regional publicity campaign, which included press involving Estevez as well as Taylor Schilling, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Gabrielle Union, Che Smith and Jacob Vargas took place in the lead up to the film’s roll out Friday. Added Bohn: “Emilio has worked tirelessly for months doing 45 Q&A screenings in 30 cities via film festivals, libraries and nonprofit partners.”
The Public is opening in 265 locations with a traditional roll out. Commented Bohn: “Based on the enthusiastic audience response, we’re very optimistic about the playability throughout the country and want to capitalize on the national publicity and an aggressive media campaign encompassing spot cable, programmatic, paid social and NPR.”