Indie Filmmakers Debate Post-Sundance: ‘Where Is Harvey?’ (Video)

Change continues to buffet the independent film industry, and about 100 writers, directors and producers got together on Thursday to talk about it, courtesy of Rick Rosenthal’s Whitewater Films. Over Mexican food and under Rosenthal’s white...

Indie Filmmakers Reveal Biggest Beef: Show Me the Money

Getting paid is the top concern for indie filmmakers who responded to the 2015 Independent Film Survey, released Tuesday by the Writers Guild of America East. More than 60 of the 100 respondents said they have had problems receiving initial compensatio...

‘Boyhood’ Tops Gotham Award Nominations

Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood” led all films in nominations for the 24th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards, the Independent Feature Project announced Thursday. The film received four nominations in the Gothams’ six categories...

Sundance Selects Picks Up Alexandre Moors’ ‘Blue Caprice’

Sundance Selects has acquired the North American and Latin American rights to Alexandre Moors’ "Blue Caprice," the company announced on Tuesday.

Moors' directorial debut investigates the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks from the point of view of the two killers, John Allen Muhammad and 17-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo.

Isaiah Washington stars as Muhammad; Tequan Richmond plays Malvo.

Also read: Beltway Sniper Film ‘Blue Caprice’ at Sundance: ‘Killers Aren’t Born, They’re Made’

The drama, set to open Film Society of Lincoln Center and MOMA’s 2013 New Directors/New Films Festival later this month, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

April Yvette Thompson, who has a brief part as Malvo’s mother, summarized the film's hypothesis by telling the audience at Sundance that "killers aren’t born, they’re made."

R.F.I. Porto wrote the screenplay for the film; it was produced by Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof, Ron Simons, Stephen Tedeschi, Brian O’Carroll, Kim Jackson and Will Rowbotham.

"Alexandre Moors has made one of the most distinct and haunting American independent films of the year featuring unforgettable performances by Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond," Jonathan Sehring, president of Sundance Selects/IFC Films, said in a statement. "We're thrilled to be able to release this and look forward to working with the producers and Cinetic to make this a big success.”

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'Una Noche' U.S. Rights Acquired by Sundance Selects

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Tilda Swinton and Bennett Miller to Be Honored at Gotham Awards

Tilda Swinton and director Bennett Miller will be honored at the 24th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards on Dec. 1 in New York City, the Independent Feature Project announced on Thursday. The Gotham Awards are the primary East Coast award for indepe...

How Oscar-Nominee ‘War Witch’ Improvised the Gut-Wrenching Tale of Child Soldiers

“Amour” was always the clear favorite in the Oscar foreign-language category, and its win on Sunday was one of the least surprising parts of a generally unsurprising ceremony.

But if Michael Haneke’s drama hadn’t been in the mix, there’s a good chance that Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” would have emerged as a serious contender for the prize.

The film is the wrenching story of a teenage girl who becomes a child soldier in an unnamed African country – and then, because she can see the dead, the “witch” of the gang of rebels.

Also read: 10 Moments to Remember From a Long, Strange Awards Season

Starring the remarkable Rachel Mwanza, who won the best-actress award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it will receive a post-Oscar release from Tribeca Film on Friday in New York and March 8 in Los Angeles.

Born in Montreal to a Vietnamese father and a French-Canadian mother, Nguyen has made four features. He was able to secure a visa for Mwanza and bring her to the Oscars.

How did you hit upon the story?
I was hunting for good stories, and I just found this amazing story about Johnny Htu, who was a Burmese child soldier. Johnny was nine years old, and he woke up one day and said he was the reincarnation of God. He became a kind of half God. He was forbidden to walk on the soil, because they were afraid it would soil his visions, so he was carried around all day. And he would smoke cigars every day.

Also read: Somali Refugees From 'Asad,' Congolese Actress From 'War Witch' to Attend Oscars 

As a storyteller I thought his story had power and humanity and all the elements that make a good film. And slowly I got pulled into the child-soldier element.

Did you meet with child soldiers while writing the script?
I went to Burundi to meet ex-child soldiers. What I saw in Africa was this complete superimposition of these heavy, intense, war-ridden countries where the love stories are the same as here. You still have boyfriends and girlfriends, and the girlfriends that are jealous because the boyfriend came home late last night. It's very simple. I find that odd and beautiful at the same time, and I wanted to try and convey that.

The story has its supernatural elements – but did you feel pressure to accurately convey a world of child soldiers in which truly horrifying things have happened?
Absolutely. And for me, the way to get it right was not to try to make the characters symbols for any political point of view. In fact, for many drafts we were so worried that we wouldn’t give the right message that we weren’t telling a good story. In the end, that was the greatest gift that this film has given me: to accept brutal honesty and truth. 

In what way?
The best example is the rebels forcing children to kill their own parents. It’s not a generalized way of indoctrination, but it’s quite frequent. We kept trying to make it so maybe the [lead character] didn’t really kill her parents. Maybe she got slapped and lost consciousness, and the general put his finger on her finger, and we keep thinking that she did kill them but she didn’t. And it didn‘t work. In the end, we just had to say, “No, this is how it is.”

Where did you find your lead actress, Rachel Mwanza?
Well, I was really fearful that we weren’t going to find the right actress, because in this case I wouldn’t have a movie. One of the reasons we chose to shot in the Congo is because there was great amazing natural talent there. I guess it‘s from the heritage of verbal storytelling, you know?

And so we did an open call for actors. We already had the intuition that kids from the street could be pretty amazing, because of their rawness and their fearlessness. And it turned out to be pretty true. In the cases where these people could project their own personal lives onto the screen, it was just amazing. And Rachel was the best of them. She had this nonchalance. I guess when you live in the streets and you sleep on the side of the road, you don't care anymore about what people think. You're just there. And that's an amazing tool for an actor.

Was she living on the streets?
She was living on the streets. But as soon as we cast her we established a reinsertion program. She has a caretaker and she has a place to live, and she's back in school. But at the time she was still living on and off the streets.

Does she want to act more now?
She does. I'll have to be honest, there's a long way before she can work. She doesn’t know how to read yet. She’s learning, and she’s getting better. And she has her Facebook page so we can contact her. But she’s still a long way from understanding the subtleties of dialogue. I thinking there’s at least five to 10 years of work.

So Uncle Kim, which is what I am, tells her that she should learn another trade. But she hates me for doing that. She’s a teenager. [laughs] We bought Rachel a phone, and she said, “Kim, I can't put music on this.” There wasn't an MP3 reader and she couldn't take pictures, so she wanted a better phone.

How could she act in your film if she couldn’t read?
Because we work in such a different way. The actors never read the script, and we filmed in continuity. Every day it was like directed improvisations. All of the script and the dialogue was written, but the idea was to direct the improvisation in such a way that the dialogue would appear even though they never read it. And what's strange is that it did. Maybe 85 percent of what is on the page is there on the screen, and the rest is better.

How did you hit upon that process?
I had seen “Fish Tank,” and Andrea Arnold's work method was a huge inspiration. It blew me away in regards to performances. For me, that's my mantra: everything for authentic performances. You don't have a film, for me, if you don't have those performances.

I think Andrea Arnold is really influenced by Cassavetes, and their approach really echoes what I want to do from now on: organize everything so the actors are projecting their own selves on the screen. It makes it really real and raw.

It it hard to get financing when the process is that unconventional?
It was for a while. But Canada has a funding system that is quite organized and specific, and we were fortunate that the script had the strength to convince script analysts that it should be done.

The hardest part was convincing people that there shouldn‘t be Caucasian actors in the film. I’ve seen a lot of films where Africa gets saved, symbolically, by North America. And I wanted to give a voice to the real heroes in the stories.

You’ve made several other films, but “War Witch” was your first to get an Oscar nomination and receive this kind of attention. What was different this time around?
I do feel that “War Witch” was a breakthrough for me, where I was rediscovering my initial impulses to do film. The first three films, they’re my babies and I love all of them. But I did feel that when I did the one before this, “City of Shadows,” I had reached a kind of wall where the pressures of funding institutions, producers, co-production deals and all of that put a kind of varnish over the film that. It wasn’t raw and I didn’t feel that my hand was at the heart of the actors, in a way. I let down the actors because I didn’t push them to where they should have gone.

But in a way, I guess you have to do these films and scrape your knees and stand up.

So what did you do differently?
The big thing was not overpreparing, oddly enough. You prepare in a different way. You prepare in the way of understanding the characters, understanding the people, getting drunk with people in Kinsasha and understanding their lives. It’s not storyboarded anymore. It’s more like, we look at what’s happening and where the actors want to go and we bend our method to what they’re doing on the set. Very different from the previous films.

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Cuban Women Filmmakers to Make Groundbreaking U.S. Trip

Four prominent Cuban female filmmakers will screen their films in the United States as part of a tri-city program to promote the work of Cuban women and empower women in the film industry. A bevy of organizations, including the Women In Film Internatio...

Steven Spielberg to Head Cannes Film Festival Jury

Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director, will head the jury of the Cannes FIlm Festival, the festival announced on Thursday.

The 66th Cannes Film Festival will take place from May 15-26 of this year.

The Oscar-winning director, fresh off the success of his epic "Lincoln," said in a prepared statement: “My admiration for the steadfast mission of the Festival to champion the international language of movies is second to none. The most prestigious of its kind, the festival has always established the motion picture as a cross cultural and generational medium.”

Spielberg has been a regular presence at the international film festival over the decades. His first film, "Sugarland Express," was selected for the festival in 1974 and won Best Screenplay.

Gilles Jacob, the president of the festival said in a news release: "I’ve often asked Steven to be Jury President, but he’s always been shooting a film. So when this year I was told 'E.T., phone home,' I understood and immediately replied: 'At last!'"

Here is the official news release:

Steven Spielberg, Jury President of the 66th Festival de Cannes

“My admiration for the steadfast mission of the Festival to champion the international language of movies is second to none. The most prestigious of its kind, the festival has always established the motion picture as a cross cultural and generational medium.”

Taking over the reins from the Italian Nanni Moretti, American director and producer Steven Spielberg agrees to head up the jury of the 66th Cannes Film Festival taking place May 15-26 this year.

“As they say across the Atlantic”, said Gilles Jacob, President of the Festival de Cannes, “Steven Spielberg is a Cannes ‘regular’: Sugarland Express, Color Purple. But it was with E.T. that I screened as a world premiere in ‘82 that ties were made of the type you never forget. Ever since, I’ve often asked Steven to be Jury President, but he’s always been shooting a film. So when this year I was told “E.T., phone home”, I understood and immediately replied: “At last!”

“Steven Spielberg accepted in principle two years ago”, declared Thierry Frémaux, General Delegate of the Festival. “He was able to make himself available this year to be the new Jury President and when meeting him these last few weeks it has been obvious he’s excited about the job. Because of his films, and the many causes he holds dear, he’s year-in year-out the equal of the very greatest Hollywood filmmakers. We are very proud to count him among us.”

“The memory of my first Cannes Film Festival, nearly 31 years ago with the debut of E.T., is still one of the most vibrant memories of my career, Spielberg goes on. For over six decades, Cannes has served as a platform for extraordinary films to be discovered and introduced to the world for the first time. It is an honor and a privilege to preside over the jury of a festival that proves, again and again, that cinema is the language of the world."

Steven Spielberg was born in Ohio in 1946. A film enthusiast from a very young age, one of his first shorts, Amblin – got him through the doors of Universal Television which produced his first films. Success came very quickly: Duel (1971), originally made for television, was so well received that a feature length version was released in theatres.

The first film he made for cinema, Sugarland Express, was selected for the Festival de Cannes in 1974 and won Best Screenplay.

Following these promising auteur debuts, he had a series of international successes: Jaws (1975); Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. (1982) which was presented as the closing film of the Festival de Cannes and was the very last Festival screening shown in the former Palais Croisette theatre.

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, like many of his films, beat all records for box-office takings in the United States: his big budget entertainment movies, of great and varied inspiration, brought about a renewal of the Hollywood entertainment genre, creating new ties with the themes of adventure and sci-fi, and are hugely popular with an extremely wide audience of all ages.

The abundant imagination that characterises Steven Spielberg and has him say of himself “I dream for a living”, is combined with boundless curiosity, a delight in innovation and a virtuoso talent for directing.

Famous for his commercial successes, he also astonishes with his more intimate and socially engaged works which confront audiences head-on: The Color Purple (1986), Empire of the Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List (1993), which brought him the highest accolades as well as a clutch of Oscars, including Best Director.

His filmography is a constant to and fro between dream and reality, switching from entertainment films to serious reflections on history, racism or the human condition, testimony to his hope for a peaceful, reconciled world.

In his 40-year career, he has made 27 films, most of which are important moments in the history of world cinema: everyone has seen, or will one day see Saving Private Ryan (1998), Minority Report (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), or the recent The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011), his first film in 3D.

His Lincoln, a captivating portrait of the man who abolished slavery in the United States, is currently a huge success in his own country as well as in France where it has already been seen by over a million people. The film enabled Spielberg to set Daniel Day-Lewis up for his third Oscar as Best Actor (no other actor before having accomplished this feat).

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Relativity Moves ‘Turkeys’ Up a Year; Amy Poehler Joins Voice Cast (Exclusive)

Relativity Media has moved up its animated film “Turkeys” by a year and will release it Nov. 1, multiple individuals close to the project told TheWrap. In addition, Amy Poehler has joined the voice cast for the film, which Relativity and Reel FX are co-producing and co-financing, TheWrap has learned.

The movie had been scheduled to debut Nov. 14, 2014, but Relativity and Reel FX made the aggressive scheduling move based on early footage, according to two of those individuals. Development on the project began in June 2009 and physical production began in January 2011.

Poehler, who joins Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, will voice the female lead.

Executives at the studio met about the film this week, weighing the challenges the move will pose to the filmmaking, marketing, sponsorship and merchandising teams with the opportunity to seize this Thanksgiving's family market.

DreamWorks Animation recently moved “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” from Nov. 1 to March 2014, opening the door for kid-friendly fare before the Nov. 22 opening of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." Most of the other movies scheduled for October and November will cater to more mature audiences, spanning genres like science fiction ("Gravity," "Ender's Game"), horror ("Paranormal Activity 5," "Carrie") and action ("Malavita," "Thor: The Dark World"). 

Jeffrey Katzenberg's animation house has released a movie in the fall for eight of the last nine years, but its new distribution partner, Fox, moved "Peabody" to March, a month when the studio has had prior success with the "Ice Age" franchise.

Also Read: DreamWorks Animation Braces to Lose $50M on 'Rise of the Guardians' (Exclusive)

DreamWorks Animation had a costly miss last November with “Rise of the Guardians,” which grossed $301 million at the box office — a healthy sum, but not enough to cover costs. The company is expected to take a hefty write-down as a result in its upcoming fourth quarter earnings.

Reel FX, the Dallas-based animation and visual effects studio behind “Turkeys,” actually sold “Guardians” to DWA five years ago.

“Turkeys” features the voices of Wilson and Harrelson as two spunky birds that take a time machine back to the first Thanksgiving. They want to expunge turkeys from Thanksgiving's culinary tradition. Lesley Nicol of "Downton Abbey," George Takei of "Star Trek" fame, Keith David and Colm Meaney have also been cast. Dan Fogler was already lending his voice. 

Jimmy Hayward is directing the film from a script by Craig Mazin, David I. Stern, John J. Strauss. 

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AFI Sets Nov. 7 for 2013 Film Festival

The 2013 AFI Fest will present films from new and experienced filmmakers in five locations in Hollywood between Nov. 7 and Nov. 14, the American Film Institute announced on Tuesday.

Sponsored by Audi, the public will have free access to narrative, documentary, animated, experimental and short films at the TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman's Chinese Theatre), the Chinese 6 Theatres at the Hollywood & Highland Center, the Egyptian Theatre of the American Cinematheque and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Also read: 'Eat Sleep Die' Wins AFI Fest's New Auteurs Grand Jury Prize

“AFI Fest is where the films of talented emerging filmmakers have the opportunity to screen alongside the current works of masters of the art form,“ festival director Jacqueline Lyanga said in a statement. “Last year’s festival included many extraordinary films from across the globe, from the world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s 'Lincoln' and Ang Lee’s 'Life of Pi' to first-time feature filmmaker Tosh Gitonga’s 'Nairobi Half Life,' whose film was AFI Fest’s Audience Award Breakthrough winner and Kenya’s first-ever Foreign Language Film Oscar submission.”

The festival, which launched in 1987, brought over 200 filmmakers from all over the world to Los Angeles in 2012 to present their films. Highlights included a secret screening of the newest James Bond film, "Skyfall" and the world premiere of Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock." Gala screenings included David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," Dustin Hoffman's "Quartet" and DreamWorks Animation's "Rise of the Guardians."  

Related stories from TheWrap:

AFI Fest: Oscar Hopefuls Meet Indie Auteurs in a Hollywood Free-for-All

'Silver Linings Playbook,' 'Life of Pi' Headed to AFI Fest

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