Tilda Swinton and daughter Honor Swinton Byrne play mother and daughter in writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, which took the World Cinema – Dramatic prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted in January. In fact, the filmmaking team already is readying their follow-up even as the first installment heads to several theaters this weekend via A24. Roadside Attractions took rights to Telluride premiere Trial by Fire last fall. Starring Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell, the title takes on the death penalty, based on a true story. Amazon Studios is heading out with Sundance debut Photograph by Ritesh Batra in over a half-dozen markets, while Magnolia Pictures is going day-and-date with sci-fi title Aniara, which it acquired out of last year’s Toronto. Samuel Goldwyn Films is “counterprogramming” the early-summer blockbuster season with All Creatures Here Below starring Karen Gillan and David Dastmalchian.
Other limited releases this weekend include Film Movement’s Vietnam-set The Third Wife by Ash Mayfair, A Violent Separation from Screen Media by Kevin and Michael Goetz and documentary Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury from Abramorama.
Director-writer: Joanna Hogg
Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton
Producer Luke Schiller worked with filmmaker Joanna Hogg on her second feature, Archipelago (2010). Several years ago, she asked him if he’d be interested in working on a new project, resulting in Sundance prize winner, The Souvenir, which hits theaters this weekend.
“I leapt at the chance. I love her work,” said Schiller. “She had an idea and a rough outline of a story she wanted to tell.” Schiller added that Hogg created a 30-page “story document” including photos and character description. There was no formal script for The Souvenir. The dialogue was created at the moment based off of the document. The project secured financing through BBC Films and BFI.
The Souvenir centers on a shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) who begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
Aside from the role of the mother, who Hogg had pegged for Tilda Swinton early on, the casting process was lengthy, according to Schiller — particularly the search for the lead, Julie. “We needed someone who could inhabit the character and be confident enough to work without a script,” said Schiller. “Joanna spent a long time meeting people.”
Hogg gave some of that time speaking with Tilda Swinton’s real-life daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, and had what he described as a “eureka’ moment. Noted Schiller: “This is mother and daughter playing mother and daughter. This is [Honor’s] first film.”
The Souvenir shot over 36 days with an additional two days of second unit cuts, with the bulk of the production taking place at a large abandoned aircraft hangar in England. “It’s a vast space and away from the pressure and expense of London,” said Schiller. “We spent a long time doing it up — patching the roof, getting the pigeons out. The [space] provided us an ‘island,’ though. We created a set within the hangar and the officers’ mess became a film school. It was a set location and a holding place.” Shooting also took place in London for one day in addition to four days in Venice.
Editing took about seven months, with an extensive amount of material to work through. Said Schiller: “Working without a script means you’re cutting the story together through the editing process.” Hogg worked with Helle le Fevre during the process. Unlike Hogg’s previous films, The Souvenir also features an extensive amount of music, which helps set the 1980-85 time period.
The Souvenir debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. “Sundance was fantastic,” said Schiller. “We weren’t sure how it would play in America, but it went better than we could’ve hoped for, going on to win the World Dramatic Competition.” The title then played the Berlinale in its Panorama section.
The Souvenir’s story doesn’t end with this weekend’s limited release in four theaters. Schiller noted that the filmmaking team is in pre-production for a sequel. “It’s a sign of confidence from investors in the project,” he said. “We will have a similar cast, and we’ll be back to our hangar.”
Trial by Fire
Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: Geoffrey Fletcher, David Grann Polk (article)
Cast: Laura Dern, Jack O’Connell, Emily Meade, Jade Pettyjohn, Jeff Perry, Chris Coy
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Telluride premiere Trial by Fire is based on a New Yorker article by David Grann Polk. Producer Allyn Stewart along with business partner Kipp Nelson purchased rights to the article through their development fund, while director-producer Edward Zwick recruited Precious writer Geoffrey Fletcher to adapt the story. Roadside Attractions picked up the title following its Telluride bow.
Trial by Fire centers on Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a poor, uneducated heavy metal devotee with a violent streak and a criminal record, who is convicted of arson-related triple homicide in 1992. During his 12 years on death row, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), an improbable ally, uncovers questionable methods and illogical conclusions in his case, and battles with the state to expose suppressed evidence that could save him. Her efforts ultimately fail, and since Willingham’s execution, the disturbing question remains: Did Texas execute an innocent man?
The film was shot in and around Atlanta, over 40 days. The entire project’s 60 sets were on location, many built as standing sets within a decommissioned prison.
“Laura Dern’s performance is [fantastic], and there’s certainly a timeliness to the film,” said Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. “We’re taking advantage of recent publicity around the film, particularly the recent New York Times piece on Laura. There has been a [significant focus] on the death penalty, most recently here in California.”
Cohen added that the divisive issue has taken on added focus with California’s move to effectively end the practice in addition to attention given to individual cases around the country where executions have taken place.
Added Cohen: “Trial by Fire will open with a unique rollout [today], going to 100-plus markets around the country in its first weekend.”
Director-writer: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanya Malhotra, Sachin Khedekar
Distributor: Amazon Studios
New York-based filmmaker Ritesh Batra wrote a first draft of Indian-set drama-romance Photograph several years back. He put it aside to work on another project and then picked it up again.
“I was eager to get back to my own writing,” said Batra. “I enjoy directing from my own writing. Photograph came together [after partnering] with [production company] Film Science in New York.” Amazon Studios also joined the project in the script stage with financing.
Photograph follows a struggling street photographer in Mumbai who is pressured to marry by his grandmother. He persuades a shy stranger to pose as his fiancée, and the pair develop a connection that transforms them in ways they could not expect.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui who starred in Batra’s 2013 feature, Lunchbox, boarded the project early on, while other cast members joined via the casting process.
The title shot over 36 days in Mumbai. “We had a strong sense we wanted the [male lead’s] character’s house to be ‘beautiful,’ though it was still in a shanty,” explained Batra. “Her place is lit more starkly and coldly. It was a tough shoot. There’s a chaos there that you just have to embrace.”
Batra said that the original plans were set to shoot in a slum, but the area was then demolished a week prior to the shoot. The production had to recalibrate its location quickly. Post-production took place in part in New York, taking advantage of some incentives, followed by Berlin where they received German funding. “Doing smaller movies forces you to be creative,” said Batra. “But you get some autonomy and you get to collaborate with people around the world.”
Like Lunchbox, Photograph debuted at Sundance. Amazon Studios is opening the film at the Landmark 57 West and Angelika Film Center in New York as well as the Laemmle Royal in L.A. and Westpark in Irvine. The title is also launching today at locations in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. Amazon will expand the feature nationwide May 24.
Directors-writers: Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja
Cast: Emelie Jonsson, Arvin Kananian, Bianca Cruzeiro, Anneli Martini, Jennie Silfverhjelm, Peter Carlberg, Emma Broomé
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Magnolia Pictures picked up Swedish sci-fi title Aniara, based on a concept by Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson, following its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Exec Neal Block noted that the title was “one of the rare films” at Toronto in which everyone on their team agreed.
“It’s a fairly significant achievement I just say,” he commented. “We responded to the way it injects realism into science fiction, and explores human relationships in very un-human surroundings. Plus, it’s nice to mix up a slate heavy on docs with something very different.”
Aniara is the story of one of many spaceships used for transporting Earth’s fleeing population to their new home-planet Mars. But just as the ship leaves the destroyed Earth, she collides with space junk and is thrown off her course. The passengers slowly realize that they’ll never be able to return. The protagonist, MR, runs a room where a sentient computer allows humans to experience near-spiritual memories of the Earth. As the ship drifts further into the endless void more and more passengers are in need of MR’s services. Pressure builds on MR as she is the only one who can keep the growing insanity and lethal depression at bay.
Heading out in a day-and-day release, Magnolia has not surprisingly targeting the core sci-fi audience. The company noted that the specialty market has been slow of late, but is giving faith that Aniara can show some box office zest.
“The sci-fi audience is a huge, hungry, and largely agnostic about how they’ll consume a film as long as it’s a good film,” added Block. “Aniara is really satisfying – big, bold, scary, philosophically adept. The specialty marketplace has been suffering the last few months. Hopefully films like Aniara and some of the other new openers this week can help bring it back around.”
Along with Aniara this week, Magnolia will be releasing a trio of Sundance docs this summer: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am later next month, followed by Mike Wallace Is Here in July and the Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjold in August.
Theatrically, Magnolia will take Aniara to 20 theaters followed by additional locations in the following weeks.
All Creatures Here Below
Director: Collin Schiffli
Writer: David Dastmalchian
Cast: Karen Gillan, David Dastmalchian, Jennifer Morrison, John Doe, Richard Cabral, David Koechner
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Samuel Goldwyn Films picked up drama All Creatures Here Below in January after tracking the title. The company was attracted to main cast in the title. “We felt that the performances were incredible and loved that these two great actors who are more known for studio fare were finally able to really stretch their wings with this film,” commented Miles Fineburg, Director of Acquisitions/Theatrical Sales. “The film exudes a natural authenticity that we think will really resonate with audiences from all walks of life.”
All Creatures Here Below follows Gensan and Ruby who live on the fringes of society in Los Angeles, struggling to survive in the face of abject poverty. On a fateful night, they strike out to seize something that has always been denied them, which sets in motion a series of events with dire consequences. Their impulsively committed crime puts them on run from the police. They seek refuge in their hometown of Kansas City, a place filled with the dark secrets that have haunted them since they fled years ago.
Goldwyn is focused on digital and social media outreach ahead of this weekend’s release, focusing on both the specialty audience and fans of the title’s stars. “We are marketing this towards the fans of the cast, as there are great cameos throughout the film, and to the independent film audience,” explained Fineburg. “The messaging focuses on both the story and the performances of the cast which reviews have been highlighting.”
The company added that its release will offer “solid counter-programming for the late spring and early summer blockbusters, adding: “As everyone can see we are being bombarded with the usual studio tentpoles and felt that there is an underserved audience who would like a more intimate story about characters based in reality.”
All Creatures Here Below is opening day-and-date Friday. Theatrically, the title bows in 11 markets and theaters. The company plans a week run before pushing audiences to find the film via VOD.