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Awkwafina traverses two cultures in Lulu Wang’s Sundance ’19 hit The Farewell, which A24 opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend. While the Specialty circuit was mostly on pause over the holiday weekend last week, the second weekend of July is seeing a notable group of indie/limited releases making its way to theaters. Filmmaker Lynn Shelton went straight comedy with Sword Of Trust starring Marc Maron, opening in New York ahead of other cities along with VOD the following week. Jesse Eisenberg, meanwhile, stars in The Art of Self-Defense by Riley Stearns. The Bleecker Street release will target audiences that skew younger than the company’s usual fare. National Geographic is launching doc Sea Of Shadows, also a Sundance premiere, in select locations, while Uncork’d Entertainment is opening writer-director Frederick Cipoletti’s Desolate with Will Brittain, Callan Mulvey and Tyson Ritter day and date with a multi-city theatrical bow.
Director-writer: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo
Family dramedy The Farewell by Lulu Wang had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and recently played Sundance London where it won an audience prize. Early on, production company Big Beach boarded the project, based on a true story shared by Wang on This American Life.
The filmmaking team wanted to keep the story close to its roots. Wang workshopped the script with the Sundance Labs and by summer 2017 the filmmaking team was ready to move forward.
“We were all on the same page with the project,” said producer Daniele Melia. “We wanted to film in China in the languages that made sense.” Melia along with others on the filmmaking team including fellow producer Andrew Miano traveled to China. Added Miano: “We wanted to meet with Chinese producers to work with. We wanted to make it a true co-production. We were in Changchun, China where Lulu is from and we saw a lot of the places where the [incidences seen in the film] took place.”
The Farewell centers on Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) who reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch Nai-Nai has been given weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself. To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding. As Billi navigates family expectations and proprieties, she finds there’s a lot to celebrate: a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child, her grandmother’s wondrous spirit, and the ties that keep on binding even when so much goes unspoken.
“[On that trip] we were able to meet [Wang’s] family and have meals with them,” said Melia. “We learned a lot about what the film would look and feel like by being there. It really helped with development.”
Awkwafina’s manager caught wind of the project early on, according to the producers. The actor showed interest in the starring role and made for a perfect fit. There were specific needs for the character, who had to be culturally rooted with an American upbringing while also authentically linked to her Chinese background.
“There was a specific need to find someone who can speak Mandarin enough to carry scenes,” said Melia. “We couldn’t cast someone who only had a Chinese identity. She had to speak American English.”
Added Andrew Miano: “[Awkwafina] fought for the role. She met with Lulu and it was obvious.” Additional casting was built around Awkwafina with the bulk of the characters coming from China, aside from the role of the mother (Diana Lin) who is Chinese-Australian, while Tzi Ma, who immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong when he was young, plays her father. Noted Daniele Melia about Ma: “He reminded Lulu of her own father.”
The Farewell shot in June 2018 in China over 24 days, while exterior New York shots took place in the city over two days. Post took place in New York with a Sundance debut in mind.
“It was a mad dash to finish for Sundance,” said Melia. “We were fortunate to have a wonderful team in place for post. Lulu moved to New York to work with the sound mixers and editors.”
The Farewell premiered at Sundance to a rousing response. Deadline reported that A24 picked up worldwide rights outside of China for the film in a $6M deal. The company will open the feature in New York at the Angelika and Lincoln Square and at The Landmark and Arcight in L.A. this weekend before expanding to other markets throughout the summer.
Sword Of Trust
Director-writer: Lynn Shelton
Writer: Michael Patrick O’Brien
Cast: Marc Maron, Jon Bass, Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell
Distributor: IFC Films
After directing her first drama, Outside In, in 2017, filmmaker Lynn Shelton was ready to something humorous. The veteran writer-director said that most of her films are a combination of both, but her two latest, including Sword Of Trust which opens this weekend, were purposeful in their genres.
“I’m incredibly proud of my last film, Outside In. It was intense,” said Shelton. “I was ready to laugh afterward. I had never set out to make a comedy before. I usually just find a scenario. My previous films were more dramatic comedy — the films themselves guide me. In this case, I set out to make a comedy.”
Before Sword of Trust, Shelton had been working in episodic, directing a couple of episodes of Marc Maron’s IFC TV series Maron. They began working together on another project, which ran into some obstacles. “We were frustrated and he said to me, ‘Find another movie,’” recalled Shelton. “One day, I passed a pawnshop and then the seed of an idea [came to me]. Marc Maron could be a pawnshop owner. He liked the idea…”
Sword Of Trust follows Mel (Maron), a cantankerous pawnshop owner in Alabama who spends most of his time swindling customers while trying and failing to get his man-child employee Nathaniel (Jon Bass) to do any work. When Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and her wife Mary (Michaela Watkins) try to hawk a Civil War-era sword inherited from Cynthia’s recently deceased grandfather, Mel tries to get the better of them. The sword, however, comes with a convoluted report from Cynthia’s grandfather claiming the relic to be proof the South actually won the war. It isn’t long before the coveted “prover item” draws the attention of overzealous conspiracy theorists and the two duos have to join forces in order to sell the sword to the highest bidder. The journey that ensues takes the ragtag bunch on a tour through the deep South and the minds of the local fanatics who inhabit it.
While working on a separate project for TV, Shelton met Michael O’Brien who came from the Chicago Improv scene. “He’s extremely funny… I took a flying leap and said, ‘Do you want to just co-write [Sword Of Trust] with me?’”
The pair created a 50-page “scriptment,” which included some written dialog, but mostly it formed the foundation for the storyline. “There’s structure in its scaffolding,” explained Shelton. “I do ask the actors to do a ton of the heavy lifting… It’s not something everyone can do. Even great actors aren’t necessarily great at improvisation.” Shelton worked with the actors individually and in groups. The cast also worked together before shooting to develop their on-screen dynamic.
Production company Forager Films tapped private sources for financing and shot over 12 days in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I’ve always been firmly planted in Washington, but it was invigorating to be in a different region,” said Shelton. “The South is very different — the culture and vibe are different. It kept me on my toes because I didn’t want to be a Northerner coming in misrepresenting the South. My producer is Southern and my D.P. is from there. Plus all the crew [minus a few] were from there. I had a lot of folks around me giving feedback.”
Post took place in L.A. The first cut of the film was two-and-a-half hours long, but Shelton wanted it to be in line with most feature-length films. “I’m a firm believer that a comedy needs to be 90 minutes or below, so we just kept sharpening and sharpening,” she said. “It’s now 88 minutes.”
Sword Of Trust bowed at the SXSW Film Festival. IFC Films, which released Shelton’s 2011 title Your Sister’s Sister, boarded for the release of Sword. The title opens in select New York locations this weekend where Shelton and Mason will take part in Q&As. The title will then head to additional cities including L.A. on July 19 in addition to nationwide VOD.
The Art Of Self-Defense
Director-writer: Riley Stearns
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Bleecker Street boarded action-drama The Art Of Self-Defense in the production phase. The company expects the title to go beyond its typically core 30s and older crowd to attract younger audiences.
The film centers on Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), who is attacked at random on the street and, in an effort to learn how to defend himself, enlists in a local dojo led by a charismatic and mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). What Casey uncovers is a sinister world of fraternity, violence and hyper-masculinity and a woman (Imogen Poots) fighting for a place in it. Casey undertakes a journey, both frightening and darkly funny, that will place him squarely at odds with his enigmatic new mentor.
“The Art of Self-Defense is different for Bleecker,” explained the company’s president of Distribution, Jack Foley. “It’s an outlier for us in terms of its content. It appeals to people who would [gravitate] to Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die or Quentin Tarantino fans. It’s black humor and has a great cast. It has broadened the challenges in terms of marketing.”
Foley said the company’s marketing and P.R. have been heavily concentrated on “inventive digital” outreach along with advertising. Bleecker Street has also partnered with Alamo Drafthouse to promote the film to its younger skewing audiences.
“This film is really Jesse’s film. It works on account of him, particularly his character and [physique],” said Foley. “Riley Stearns is an auteur and will be doing Q&As this weekend and next.”
Bleecker Street will open The Art Of Self-Defense in four markets including in New York at AMC Lincoln Square, AMC Village and Regal Essex House as well as Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. The film will open at Alamo Drafthouses in Austin and San Francisco, while in L.A. the title will play excessively at the Arclight.
Added Foley about its opening L.A. weekend: “I’m excited about the business we’re going to do there. This is right in their wheelhouse.”
Sea Of Shadows
Director: Richard Ladkani
Co-directors: Sean Bogle, Matthew Podolsky
Distributor: National Geographic Entertainment
Sea Of Shadows won the World Cinema – Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, with distributor NatGeo picking up the title. The company found the environmental doc, which has elements of a thriller, as a perfect fit.
“It felt so obviously NatGeo in that it dealt with big issues in a character-driven way. It plays like a narrative thriller,” said NatGeo exec Ryan Harrington. “It’s an urgent issue. There are [very few] of these animals left in the Sea of Cortez. In the next fishing season, there may be none left. We had to act and get this film out there immediately.”
The animal is the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale, near extinction as its habitat is destroyed by Mexican cartels and Chinese mafia, who harvest the swim bladder of the totoaba fish, the “cocaine of the sea.” Environmental activists, Mexican navy and undercover investigators are fighting back against this illegal multi-million-dollar business.
NatGeo screened the doc at the U.N. in New York and Switzerland in addition to the U.S. State Department and the Mexican Senate following its Sundance debut. “It’s a global story, but it’s immediately in Mexico where the change needs to happen,” said Harrington. “We’re hoping to sway change. NatGeo supports artists that tell great stories, but we’re also committed to impact.”
NatGeo has screened Sea Of Shadows to influencers and government reps ahead of the release. “We’re hoping we can burst beyond the audiences who already care about [environmental] issues,” added Harrington. “The release will bleed into our awards campaign and our impact campaign will continue throughout.”
Sea Of Shadows will open in one theater each in New York and L.A. this weekend before jumping to about 40 locations across the country later this month.
NatGeo had a big success with the Oscar-winning Free Solo, which opened last fall (with Greenwich Entertainment), racking up $17.5M at the box office. Harrington said that Sea Of Shadows will be one of about several releases this year for the company. “Our goal is to do a few films per year and give them a lot of attention, releasing them cinematically, on television and streaming platforms… It’s exciting to embrace the 131-year-old brand and be a part of pushing it into the future.”
Director-writer: Frederick Cipoletti
Writer: Jonathan Rosenthal
Cast: Will Brittain, Callan Mulvey, Tyson Ritter
Distributor: Uncork’d Entertainment
Producer and writer Jonathan Rosenthal co-wrote drama Desolate with director Frederick Cipoletti. The story was formed, in part, by the former’s fascination with characters who “walk the line of villainy” because of their surrounding environment.
“I have always been in love with the idea of a circumstantial biker gang rather than guys that just want to go fast and look cool,” explained Rosenthal. “In a world where gas is scarce and you need to be able to get in and out of remote locations, quick bikes make sense and are already stoic without leather vests and patches.”
While trying to survive the worst drought in history, a family of farmers force the youngest brother down a path of crime and violence in order to survive. Betrayed by his brother after a robbery gone wrong, Billy is left for dead in an unfamiliar land. He must do whatever it takes to survive, endure and seek the revenge he deserves.
Financing for the project came via private equity, while the producing team worked with CAA for casting. “Tyson Ritter and I have been good friends for quite some time so when it came to casting ‘Ned’ it was really more just a matter of scheduling for Tyson,” noted Rosenthal. “It was a pretty wild experience being a producer on this film and part of the principle cast myself. As ‘brothers’ we all met just two days before principle photography began and all silently agreed to jump right into a sense of brotherhood and just lived in the characters together both on and off set to make the most of not having months of rehearsals and chemistry prep.”
Desolate shot in Gilroy, California mid-April through early June 2016. Locals in the community served as extras. “Onset [there was] a constant game of who could be more covered in dust and smell the worst,” explained Rosenthal. “We played this unofficial game where we tried to see who could freak out our dad played by James Russo the most…The one who got him to walk away head shaking was the king of that moment.”
Rosenthal said budget constraints prolonged post-production. Uncork’d boarded for the title’s release in May. Noted Rosenthal: “For us having spent so much time on the film we really wanted to find the right match as far as a distributor. They were looking to partner up with a company with a fresh and useful approach to distribution having had so many bad experiences in the past with outdated but still established distribution companies.”
Uncork’d Entertainment will release the action film in a multi-city theatrical release with markets including L.A., Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Phoenix and San Francisco today. The film will also be made available day and date on digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, Fandango Now, Dish Network and through local cable providers beginning this weekend.