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  • Aug08
    “A Strikingly Warm Exploration of Friendship”

    A riff on the 1983 classic The Big Chill, this ensemble drama’s reunion of old friends differs because Alex’s suicide fails this time. It’s also, of course, filtered through a very different cultural landscape, with characters born at about the time the earlier film was released. This is a strikingly warm exploration of friendship, with light comedy and very dark emotions along the way. And even if it sometimes feels a little sloppy about its big themes, it has a lot to say.

    After Alex (Jason Ritter) attempts suicide, his best pal Ben (Nate Parker) calls the old gang and asks them to come to Upstate New York and offer some support. Ben brings his girlfriend Siri (Maggie Grace), who’s also part of the group. But they’re grappling with some big issues in their relationship, since he’s a blocked writer and she has just had a job offer in Los Angeles. The cynical Josh (Max Greenfield) arrives at the same time as the charmer Sarah (Aubrey Plaza), and they can barely conceal the waves of loathing and lust between them. Finally, Isaac (Max Minghella) brings his younger girlfriend Kate (Jane Levy). As these people reconnect, the awkwardness is made even more intense by the question of how they can help Alex.

    It’s intriguing to see a movie made about 30-ish characters by 28-year-old Jesse Zwick, son of filmmaker Edward, who made the seminal TV series Thirtysomething. The film refreshingly avoids stereotypes, populating scenes with realistic people who are still hung up on the same issues they faced while in university, including quite a lot of soapy “he likes her but she likes him” melodrama. But as the weekend progresses, the thoughtful conversations lead to revelations and confessions, spurred on by some pot-smoking, game-playing, dancing and noisy sex. All of which gives the actors plenty to play with.

    Plaza is the standout, as usual, with her bracingly complex performance as a young woman who can’t help but seduce every man she meets. Also notable are Greenfield’s abrasive grump and Levy’s outspoken outsider, while Ritter has the most emotionally resonant role as a guy who knows the depths of his own disappointment. Even so, the script never quite addresses the whole suicide issue, apart from a general air of guilt and discomfort. So the connections between the characters are packed with other pungent themes, including lingering feelings, regrets and rivalries. While the revived camaraderie and running jokes keep us thoroughly entertained, the film is more of a gentle portrait than a provocative exploration. And in its ultimate observation (“What happened to us?” “We got serious”) the film reveals its own immaturity. Because these people are a long way from arriving at any real understanding about their lives.

  • Aug07
    “The Secret of Success”

    CEO of Footprint Features Adam Saunders is living proof of the Napoleon Hill adage, “Do not wait: the time will never be ‘just right.’”

    Like a modern take on those filmmakers of old who had only a dream, Saunders originally moved from NYC to Hollywood in 2007 to act – only to face the long, ongoing writer’s strike.

    Undeterred and not “wanting to wait tables until I was 80,” Saunders immediately started up an independent production company called Footprint Features with a few buddies. Now he is the sole producer of the film “About Alex.” Executive produced by Oscar-winning producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, the film was written and directed by Jesse Zwick. It stars Maggie Grace, Jason Ritter and Max Minghella – not bad for the company’s second feature.

    Luckily, Saunders’ background prepared him well for both the Hollywood move and setting up the company – he was the co-founder and artistic director of the critically acclaimed theater company, Footprint on the Sun (1999-2005) and also an accomplished actor in plays, television shows and films.

    Moviehole sat down with Saunders to see what the secret of his success is – and how others might find the secret too.

    Moviehole: How did you get started in the entertainment business?
    Adam Saunders: I started as an actor, I went to grad school (Yale School of Drama) for acting and I did things in New York City. When I moved out here to L.A. to act in 2007, the writers (Writers Guild) went on strike; I had run a theater company before, called Footprint on the Sun and it was the impetus for me in 2007. I got a few guys together and started a company called Footprints Features – they say that “all you need to be successful is ignorance and confidence.”
    We (Footprint) wanted to create opportunities for Ben (founding member Benjamin Epps) to direct and for me to act, and it opened up a whole world of producing – I found I loved it and I felt doors were really opening. I also got connected to Ed Zwick and got Jesse’s (Zwick) script of “About Alex.”

    Moviehole: What are you hoping the company will accomplish, project-wise?
    AS: I want the company to really grow like Scott Rudin’s or Castle Rock with great character-driving films that reach a wide audience – we are increasing budgets with our films. I grew up on “When Harry Met Sally” and “A Few Good Men” type of films – these films may not be made in that way today as the studios are making superhero films. The audience still wants these kinds of films, as seen with the success of “The Fault in Our Stars,” or like “The Way, Way Back” or “The Spectacular Now.”

    Moviehole: Who are your idols and why?
    AS: From a character standpoint, it would be Phillip Seymour Hoffman for actor projects – as to producers, it would be Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin and Brian Grazer – they have a great ability to get films out there and to reach people with them. I watched Joe Roth (producer) do a talk, which was really inspiring – I look to them. Then working with Ed and Marshall, those guys are legends and they created great films which are incredible.

    Moviehole: What have been some of your toughest challenges in the industry and how did you overcome them?
    AS: Well, I think for independent producers, the challenges would be in acquiring material and money, and getting good actors to be in films – with all three of those things, you can have a good career. In terms of raising money, it gets easier as you go and now we have a track record of doing that. The agents are also wonderful gatekeepers of good materials – we are getting great relationships with agents and managers and getting great material.
    The last thing is getting the cast, so now we are off and running. I also think there is a benefit to knowing screenplay structure – it’s harder to find good scripts from random submissions, we do read scripts sent to us but it’s harder to find diamonds in the rough.
    Because I started out as an actor, I’m always reading for dialogue and character in the movies (scripts) we are sent – we don’t do genre or big explosion movies, we do movies with a lot of heart. Jerry Bruckheimer once said “you should make the films you love to see.”

    Moviehole: What sets your production company apart from others?
    AS: When we first started and created a fancy website which we showed to a book publisher, he said it’s great, now you have to do it. If we option something, we make it – we do what we say we’re going to do and don’t overextend. It’s also about relationships and when I sit down with a writer/director and say we are going to make your movie, I feel I have to honor it.
    We also have the ability to finance, if you don’t finance the film it doesn’t go – and we partially or fully finance a film. I was talking to Jesse about a cast member who had dropped out of “About Alex,” and I said we are going to make this movie no matter what. We can’t afford to be in development for five years and not have the movie go, and it does set us apart from a big company who says we’ll option this and that and see how it goes. I do think in general, people (other companies) option a lot of things, while we want to make two or three films a year.

    Moviehole: What’s the most important thing to remember when producing a film?
    AS: Every problem has a solution – the one thing about producing is “to leap and the net will appear” – I think that’s something a lot of people are afraid to do. If you wait for everything to be on the exact timeline for everything to go, you’ll be waiting forever. The last two films, things came together at the last moment.
    What happened was, we had picked a house and tried to talk ourselves into liking it and the DP (director of photography) was worried about not enough space and feeling really cramped. We talked to Steve Eddy, our production adviser from Summit pictures about it too – by searching for a whole new house it would set us back, but I just felt like we had to leap and the net would appear.
    We hired a location scout and told him we had two days to find a house, and we found it out of several others and signed the deal the next day. That willingness to just jump out of the airplane is so critical, that you have to trust that you will land on your feet.

    Moviehole: You’ve taught at UCLA – what kinds of things do you teach in your course and what do you wish for in a great student?
    AS: They do a series of guest lectures, and every term they bring in amazing guests – I taught a class about independent film, where I walked them (students) through steps on how to get a movie off the ground, acquiring the movie and getting the cast.
    I think the people who do well in the class are the people who take initiative and ask to take me to lunch and have questions. There’s a saying, “If you ask Hollywood for something, Hollywood will tell you no – but if you tell Hollywood you’re doing something, Hollywood will say ‘how can I join?’” The same goes for producers, you just have to create something and if you create something that’s good, people will take notice.
    The people who have done well like Harvey Weinstein – he is a movie guy and has extraordinary taste, like Brian Grazer – they know movies. Mike Medavoy wrote a book (“You’re Only as Good as Your Next One”) where he says if I had one talent, it’s knowing who is talented. Also being able to identify what is a good performance, there’s a baseline of being able to recognize great talent and having the ability to convince them to work with you.

    Moviehole: I know some millennials who are struggling to get their foot in the door. What would you advise them?
    AS: I would say, just try to surround yourself with the best people that you can, to do the work you want to do – even if you have to start as an assistant or intern, to build relationships with people who are doing the work you want to do. Also be clear on what work you want to do, like an actor, producer or writer – be clear in your head as to what you want to do, then go do it.

    Moviehole: What are your future projects with names of stars? What is your ten year goal?
    AS: I’m working on a film called “When We First Met,” and another project I can’t name – we’re trying to do two films a year for a few years, then three after that.

    Moviehole: What advice do you have for Moviehole readers?
    AS: Keep reading and staying in the know.

  • Aug07
    Jesse Zwick’s Feature Debut, ‘About Alex,’ Is a Bold Start to a Promising Career

    Borrowing shamelessly from Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 hit The Big Chill, writer-director Jesse Zwick’s debut feature, About Alex, gathers an ensemble of talented unknowns (some second-generation offspring of famous fathers) in a reunion necessitated this time not by a suicide and a funeral, but by an old chum (Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter, in the title role) who survives a suicide attempt and needs some tea and sympathy—or, as this group of 30-something cynics might put it, vodka and vitriol. Despite the efforts of a uniformly charismatic cast, the lack of originality dampens the good intentions considerably. I liked it anyway, and the intelligence and unhackneyed humor of the believable, unself-conscious screenplay by fledgling director Mr. Zwick (son of veteran director Edward Zwick) deserves special praise. It never hits a false note.

    The film opens with smart, still youthful-looking, all-American Alex trying to end his own life in the bathtub and dropping his mobile phone into the bloody water. Who was he trying to call? Out of the woodwork come his estranged friends to find out. The dysfunctional gang of characters assembled here are seven old chums who entered the adult world after college as idealistic non-conformists and found disillusion everywhere. Suddenly and unexpectedly, they are drawn together by the only member of their coterie with the courage to admit failure and throw in the towel on his disappointing life. The discussions that result during the weekend, spiced by the intriguing sexual tensions from earlier days that linger in the form of unfulfilled longings, are familiar but charged with humor and insight. Once they’ve made their way to Alex’s remote house in the country, they eventually unravel with the aid of modest kitchen skills, amateurish crisis counseling, clumsy efforts to bolster their host’s embarrassment and misery, and a seemingly never-ending supply of liquor.

    Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) insists the mentally compromised Alex cannot be left alone. Longtime couple Ben and Siri (Nate Parker and Maggie Grace) come close to breaking up. Good-looking academic Josh (Max Greenfield) thinks tough love is the only way to get to the bottom of Alex’s depression. Isaac (Max Minghella, son of the great director Anthony Minghella) brings along his 22-year-old girlfriend (Jane Levy) whose candor pries them all violently from their comfortable masquerades. Wine, risotto and marijuana take effect as jealousy, unrequited love, political differences and the disparate detours their lives have taken conspire to rupture relationships and bring out the worst in everybody. Some of the issues that plague them may never be resolved, but in the end seven people come to know each other better than they thought they did in the past. About Alex welcomes a new director worth keeping an eye on. I, for one, am anxious to see what he does next.

  • Aug05
    “Origin of Footprint and Beyond”

    How did Footprint Features come about?

    Footprint Features, originally started out as a theater company, Footprint on the Sun, I started with a bunch of friends of mine from college. We had run a theater company in college and then we came out to L.A. after college. The idea was accomplishing the impossible, that’s what the logo Footprint on the Sun means. But anyways, in 2007, I had just graduated from graduate school as an actor and came out here and the writers immediately went on strike and I thought, “oh my gosh I’m going to be waiting tables till I’m 100 years old.” In the same way we created the theater company, because I knew I wanted to work in film, so it was that whole, it was Mark Twain that said, “All you need to be successful is ignorance and confidence.” We had a lot of ignorance and we had a lot of confidence. I got a job at Spyglass and took producing school at night at UCLA in their producing program, where I now teach. We kind of by hook and by crook, we kind of just started putting it together. We went about asking a lot of questions. We were able to acquire our first script and then we started the long process of raising money, which took several years for that first movie. Then we hired a casting director and had to cast the film. It took a long time, but eventually we made that movie, “Family Weekend” and it came out last year. Then from there a lot of things happened, we made About Alex and now we’re going into production of our new one and another one, and now things are really starting to pick up, but that first stage was a long one.

    What was producing school like, because you had also gone to graduate school at Yale?

    They’re totally different. Yale was an immersive three-year program. It’s funny because I had a friend who went to Wharton School of Business, got out of school and then had massively successful job and they’re only in school for 2 years. And you go to Yale, which is a three-year program, 6 days a week, you’re basically working on Saturdays, you only have one day off and then you don’t have a job. The UCLA program was basically the exact opposite. It was at night, so you could hold a job during the day, which I did, I was working at Spyglass [Entertainment]. It was totally focused toward getting you practical knowledge on how to get a job, how to work as a producer. And, honestly, the best thing I learned, I learned a ton in that program, but really I was introduced to so many amazing, I mean they had the most amazing people come in there, incredible people talk to you. I met a guy, Todd Williams, a producer who became incredibly helpful to me. It was just a lot of people that I met through that program, our lawyer to this day, Lisa Callif. I just met a ton of people there that really helped me get started. So it was really the relationships that made it valuable.

    How did you receive the first script for Family Weekend, the first film you produced?

    It came to us, we did an exhaustive search. But what you find, when you’re first starting a film company and you don’t have any credits is that you can call all the agencies, which we did, but because they don’t know you, if they send you anything, sometimes they don’t, but if they do, they send you the scripts that have sort of been sitting on their desk for years, that nobody wants to make. So you don’t get any of the really good stuff until you have a proven track record. At that stage of the process before anybody knew us, it was a lot about personal relationships, we were asking writers that we knew, and sort of through a friend of a friend, actually somebody that had been in our theater company, we got hold of a script, which at that time was called Kidnapped. And, ultimately, through many, many rewrites became Family Weekend. But it was through a relationship, we just had personal relationship that we then were able to develop it. Oh and this brings back to UCLA, one of the people there who had taught a class on development helped us with developing that script. It was all kind of it takes a village at that stage. Everybody we knew, tv writers, anybody that we knew helped us get that script ready. Ultimately I met Ed Zwick, who helped a lot as well. A lot of things that got us to the starting line with that script.

    So after Family Weekend, with that new reputation, did it help you get About Alex?

    So Ed Zwick, he is obviously an incredibly well known and respected filmmaker, and his company, Bedford Falls, helped us produce Family Weekend. I met him just through personal contacts and he was incredibly helpful and generous, both with his time, his experience, and expertise helped us get that film off the ground. And I think we developed a really great relationship, personally. About Alex was written by his son. So Ed sent me the script and asked me what I thought of it and I said I love it, you have to let me produce it and he said, “Whoa, whoa let me first of all its Jesse’s and Jesse needs to do his due diligence.” So Jesse went onto a lot of producers, many of whom made offers on the script but. I was really fortunate that the Zwicks believed in me, both Ed and Jesse and took a shot on me. Because I said to them listen we’re a small company and if I option your movie, I’m going to make your movie. I don’t have a ton of things in development, if I option it, I’m going to make it. They took me up on that and we optioned it and we made it.

    What did you see in those scripts that made you want to produce them?

    I started as an actor so I read these things from a character point of view, from an actor’s point of view. I read them to see are they great roles for actors, is the dialogue great, does the character have an emotional arc, does it feel like something actors want to seek their teeth into? Because that is the bread and butter of what we do. We started as a theater company, our mandate is character driven, accessible to the mainstream. So everything we do has to fit those two sort of qualifications. In About Alex, the characters were amazing, the dialogue was so crisp and real, Jesse has such a gift, such an ear for dialogue. Every word he writes just feels real, he doesn’t have a false note in his body. So the characters struck me, the dialogue struck me, but I think thematically what really appealed to me About Alex, was I never read anything that sort of captured this moment in our social media. It’s talking about how we think we know each other, but we don’t. We follow each other on Facebook, we follow each other on Twitter, and Instagram, and we think oh yeah I know everything that’s going on in my friend’s life but you really actually don’t have any clue. And just by following social media, people can still feel incredibly alone even if they’re connected every day on these social mediums. I thought that really captured this moment of what it’s like to be a friend in today’s society when we’re trying to stay connected but we’re not actually seeing each other in person.

    I know there have been folks that refer it to The Big Chill, but this is for our generation now where social media is such a big presence in our lives.

    The Big Chill is very much of its time, had such a great soundtrack, very much of its time. I think that while thematically this does resonate and obviously there’s many similarities, with the construct of the story, I definitely feel this is very timely and very specific to now.

    Production companies tend to stick to specific genres. About Alex deals with a dramatic premise, but it has its lighter moments. And I know you mentioned character driven material, but is comedy something your production company leans toward?

    Yeah, I think you’re right. The genres we generally look for is comedy for sure. When We First Met, the movie we’re doing next, is a romantic comedy. Family Weekend was a family comedy. About Alex is a drama with comedic elements, it definitely has its very funny moments. I think comedy for sure. We’re also interested in character driven dramas if we think we can get a good cast. Dramas can sometimes be very difficult to sell but I think with the right cast you can definitely bridge that gap. And then thrillers, we’re interested in a project that’s a thriller, and we look at sort of psychological thrillers and things that are about people, but I think those are three genres are where we focus. Comedy, dramas, and thrillers, we’re not so interested in genre movies or action, those kinds of things, sci-fi, that’s what not what we really do. But comedies, dramas, and thrillers I think right in that centerpiece, that’s what we look for.

    Speaking of cast, with About Alex you have a lot of recognizable names in that ensemble. Did you approach them or did they read this script, like how you connected with it, and think, “I have to do this”?

    I think it’s a little bit of both. It was sort of a three-part attack with how we got that great cast. First of all, we had a great script, Jesse just wrote a great a script. People read it, they fell in love with it. We got a lot of buzz at the agencies, you got a lot of buzz around town. People loved his script. That’s a testament to Jesse and to the great writing. Second, we had great casting director, Linda Lowy and Will Stewart Emmy Award winning amazing casting directors. And they brought in extraordinary cast to come and read for the parts or just to talk about meeting with us or meeting on the project, so that was great. And then finally, we had Ed and Marshall [Herskovitz], who were great executive producers, who were able to lend their credibility to the project and say this is going to be a top, first class production. And obviously they endorsed me, endorsed Footprint, and endorsed everything by just having their involvement and their company attached, so I think those three things allowed the cast to take a shot on us and to be excited about us. And take on a shot on Jesse, who was a first time director, who absolutely crushed it and did an incredible job.

    Even though you’re still a new production company, you’re certainly building a great reputation.

    I feel like I have a responsibility to this cast because when you get somebody like an Aubrey Plaza who’s so well known from Parks and Rec, Max Greenfield, Maggie Grace, or Nate Parker. You have all these great actors. They’re coming up to the middle of nowhere, middle of New York, where their cell phones don’t work, and it’s raining everyday. I have a responsibility to those people. They’re taking a huge chance on me and our company, on Jesse, on this script, and you want to do right by these people and it always felt like it was very important to create a first class environment for them, that we create an incredibly professional environment, and even though it’s a small movie it felt to them hopefully like they were totally taken care of. I think the fact that they’re all willing to do press for us now and get out there and push the film I think is a testament to that relationship. And I take that very seriously.

    How do you approach producing as an actor or vice versa?

    Because I started as an actor, because I’ve acted in a lot of independent films, I know what that is like. I know being on the side of actors. I know how stressful that is, I know how much pressure is on the actors. I know that it’s their face on the movie poster, I know that it’s their job to when we say action, they have to be emotionally available and ready and do their job. Everybody says oh they’re professional, they know how to do it, and that’s true but we also have to create the environment to allow them to do their best work. And you can either do that or not do that. And I want us to be an incredibly actor friendly production company, so we try to shoot the script as close as we can to continuity order. We try to make sure they have their own private space in the dressing areas, we try to make sure the food is good, we try to make sure they have a nice place, or as nice as we can, to stay. We try to take care of them in a way that says hey listen we don’t have $100 million, nobody’s got all the amenities you’re going to have on a big studio film, but you are going to be taken care of in a way that you can do your best work, because the movie rides on you, especially in a character driven movie. The movie rides on their performances, so we take their performances seriously, and we want to protect them.

    Is there something you don’t want to see in a script?

    If it opens with volcano, or airplane crashes, or under the sea, or some sort of massive action sequence that I know we’re not going to be able to afford it. So if I immediately open it, it says they’re trudging through snow of Greenland, I’m like okay close the script. If they can limit the number of locations, limit the number of characters in the movie, those two things they make it production friendly. So if any writers out there that are thinking how do I get a movie made, limit the number of locations, limit the number of characters necessary because those things are incredibly costly, a lot of location moves are logistically difficult, and every time you have to hire an actor it’s expensive and it’s a time consuming part of the process. But you can limit those two things, I think you make it more produce-able and then for me if it’s accessible, it has commercial appeal. Footprint’s not necessarily into making things that are only relegated to the very small subsections of the festival scene market, we want these things to go wide, we want them to go mainstream, we want reach a wider audience. I’m looking for things that feel commercial, that feel like people would go and see on a Friday night, people would go and take on a date on a Saturday afternoon to the movies. That’s what we’re looking for and as I mentioned great characters and great dialogue.

    What are you working on next?

    I’m doing a movie next, When We First Met, which is going to be directed by Jamie Travis, who directed a movie For a Good Time, Call… sold to Focus. He’s a great director, he’s really done a ton of stuff. He’s got a new show on MTV, we’re really excited about him. And this is a comedy like (500) Days of Summer meets Groundhog Day. A guy tries to pick up a girl, fails miserably, figures a way to go back in time and relive the pick up over and over and over again. And we’re really putting together an exciting cast, and we’re planning to shoot this fall in Vancouver. I’m producing that with Mason Novick, who produced (500) Days of Summer and Juno and I think it’s going to be a really, really great film.

    Because you are gaining momentum and more of a reputation, are you getting a lot a more scripts submitted to you or directors?

    It’s amazing, I recognize that this is a business of you’re only good as your next one. To quote that [Mike] Medavoy book, which is a great book on producing by the way, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One. It’s true. You want to just keep churning them out, keep quality movies, keep trying to do your best work, keep working. And work begets work as they tell actors, and I think it’s very much true for producers and for production companies. If you make their movie, they’re more likely to let you to option their material because they say okay we’re not taking such a huge risk. When Matt Turner optioned Family Weekend to us, he was taking a huge risk, we had never produced a movie, now we’ve two that come out, two that we have sold worldwide, a third one we’re about to make. So now people it’s less of a leap for them. So yeah, we’re getting a lot more submissions from agencies, we’re getting a lot of submissions from our website, we’re getting a lot more and it’s great that means we’re finding even better scripts and I feel like we’ve had great scripts so far, and we’re continuing to find great scripts.

    How can someone submit to Footprint Features?

    You can do it through our website. They can go to our website Footprintfeatures.com and there’s a button that says, “I’ve got a script.” We’re happy to, they have to fill out a few submission forms just for legal reasons, but if it our fits our mandate and it feels like a log line we’d be interested in and a budget range we can produce, we’ll definitely read scripts that are unsolicited.

  • Aug05
    Adam on Bloomberg