JAMES MOTTERN - TRUCKER WORLD NARRATIVE FEATURE COMPETITION
A chance encounter at a truck-stop cafe inspired James Mottern's debut feature Trucker, the story of a California woman (Michelle Monaghan) whose freewheeling career screeches to a halt when she has to care for her 11-year-old son.
Living in Riverside, California, in 2001, Mottern was having a meal when he saw a woman "about 40 with bleachy blond hair, who might have been strung out at one point. She was that faded beauty who was even grander for having gone through the ringer. I got to thinking about her, and that I was raised by a single mother. The whole experience spoke to me at a deep level."
While Mottern had a full-time job making documentaries for cable television channels such as the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, he used the next few years - as well as his honed documentary-research talents - to craft his script about a female trucker.
His hard work paid off in 2003 when he received the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Cathy Schulman and Bob Yari picked up the project, looking for top-level directors.
But, as Mottern relates: "Directors would come back (saying), 'I really like it but it feels like somebody else's movie.'" He realised they were right - it was his movie. HartSharp Entertainment stepped in next, with Mottern set to direct.
By autumn 2006, money was in place and Mottern's first choice, Michelle Monaghan, was on board. But the day before Thanksgiving, Mottern received a call that would ruin his holiday. Robert Kessel gave him advance warning about HartSharp's upcoming split.
Mottern asked Kessel to keep things quiet until he could connect with a new producer, which he did with Plum Pictures. At the time, it had just secured Cherish and Grace Is Gone screenings at Sundance.
Plum's Celine Rattray promised Mottern they would be in production within a few months, and true to her word, Trucker started shooting in spring 2007 for 19 days in and around Riverside.
Mottern rewrote the script to fit Monaghan's cadence, and the actress, to assist her in playing the role, secured a truckers' licence. "Any time you see her driving the truck in the film, it's really her driving," says Mottern.
To play opposite her, Mottern remembered Nathan Fillion who he had spotted in comedy horror Slither. "He was a good-looking guy who could have been the captain of the football team but maybe smoked too much pot, something of a fallen idol. That's the vibe in Riverside as well."
Mottern worked with cinematographer Lawrence Sher to capture that area's contradictory beauty. "First you think it's ugly," says Mottern. "But if you let yourself go, you find a strange, particularly American, beauty. We wanted to show that."
The film will be repped by Cinetic Media's Sarah Lash at Tribeca.
PERRY MOORE AND HUNTER HILL - LAKE CITY ENCOUNTERS
As a gay couple who have shared each other's lives for 14 years, it makes sense that Hunter Hill and Perry Moore's first feature, Lake City, should marry aspects of their respective childhoods.
In this tale about a young man (played by Troy Garity) hiding from a drug dealer (rocker Dave Matthews) at the farm of his estranged mother (Sissy Spacek), the childhood trauma that caused the estrangement comes from Hill and the stories of drug dealers come from Moore. The Southern flavour, meanwhile, is down to both of them.
While they live and work in Manhattan - Hill is executive director of Paper Magazine and Moore executive produced The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And the Wardrobe and also penned the gay-teen novel Hero - they wanted their debut feature to be, as Moore proudly exclaims, "in the great tradition of classic Southern film-making". Moore hails from Virginia, while Hunter was raised in Memphis.
The pair finished their script in 2002, after letting the idea stew for several years. But rather than shop it around, they carefully cultivated financing, keeping as much control over the project as possible.
In 2005, Spacek - whose photograph the couple had taped above their writing desk - signed on as the mother, enabling them to secure their indie budget from several private investors (also from the South).
As they put together the cast, the project became personal for all involved. For Spacek, the family death at the heart of the film's story recalled, as Moore relates, "that her older brother died of leukaemia when she was in high school". She further personalised the production by filling the farmhouse with furniture from her own childhood.
Garity, according to Moore, "drew on a lot of personal experience with his own mother (Jane Fonda)" for the role. Rebecca Romijn (who plays a local sheriff) is a close friend of the directors. And while Tatum O'Neal could not take the part they wrote for her, O'Neal's friend Drea de Matteo stepped in to play Garity's junkie girlfriend.
Above all, Moore and Hill wanted the film to be true to the South. To keep the actors' accents consistent, they sent everyone a recording of Spacek reading To Kill A Mockingbird as the cast standard.
For the film's look, Hunter says: "We didn't want this to be a Steel Magnolias, mint-julep version of the South. In the winter it is ugly, so we kept it as real as we could. In Southern films, the land is a character, and so is the sky."
The film will premiere at Tribeca, which Moore firmly believes is the right place for it. "This is not a movie about lesbian, wheelchair-bound, haemophiliac baseball players. It's not quirky or weird enough for Sundance. This a classic Southern story."
The directors have several other films in the offing, including an adaptation of Moore's novel. Andrew Herwitz & The Film Sales Company will rep Lake City at Tribeca.
PETER TOLAN - FINDING AMANDA SPOTLIGHT
The inspiration for Peter Tolan's addiction comedy Finding Amanda occurred when a friend asked him for help with a gambling problem. The problem was, as Tolan explains: "I have had a history of gambling, so sending me to Las Vegas to help someone wasn't the best idea."
But it proved a good idea for a film plot and Tolan quickly penned a black comedy about a sad-sack television writer (Matthew Broderick) with a serious gambling habit - as well as problems with alcohol and drugs - who goes to Las Vegas to save his 20-year-old niece (Brittany Snow) from prostitution, not realising the real person at risk is himself.
While Tolan made his name writing comedies (Just Like Heaven, Analyze This), he was eager to direct this project, especially after having directed many episodes of the FX series he also helped to create, Rescue Me. Tolan admits: "You feel very empowered when you can get your vision on the screen without a lot of roadblocks."
To ease past many of those obstacles, Tolan met with Richard Heller and Wayne Rice in autumn 2006 and, except for a few notes, the two were happy to produce, with Heller bankrolling the production.
Tolan had originally approached his friend and Rescue Me star Denis Leary, who declined because of scheduling conflicts. Broderick, who Logan met years ago on a television project, stepped in. And while, as Tolan points out, "there is no end to talented 20-year-old actresses in LA", he needed the niece to "still have a bit of girl in her", the very thing he saw in Snow.
His big casting coup, however, was Steve Coogan. "Around this time, I was having an e-mail correspondence with him," remembers Tolan. "But I had too much comedy-hero worship" to ask him to play the sleazy casino head. However, when his casting director pushed him to ask, Coogan jumped on board.
Tolan shot for 21 days around Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a tight schedule for which he was well prepared. "If I can shoot 18 pages a day for Rescue Me," says Tolan, "I could handle six or seven a day for a film."
The real challenge was trying to locate a Las Vegas casino that would let them use it for the shoot. After weeks of pleading and begging, the film production returned to California, outfitting the Card Club at Inglewood's Hollywood Park Race Track with slot machines. "We just moved them around to create the sense of expanse," says Tolan.
For the most part Tolan did not use actors or crew he had worked with previously, but he did want his Rescue Me director of photography Tom Houghton by his side. "I needed a comfort level so that I could deal with actors and trust everything else was OK," Tolan explains.
His wife Leslie Tolan handled post, bringing a Stephane Grappelli-like jazz violin sound to the score.
Magnolia acquired Finding Amanda last autumn but Tolan wanted to premiere it at Tribeca because of his past relationship with Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro on the films Analyze This and Analyze That.
PHEDON PAPAMICHAEL - FROM WITHIN MIDNIGHT
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael was not actively looking for a project to direct, but when he was sent the script for From Within while on holiday in Greece, the story struck a chord. Not only did it speak to his own experiences, but for him it also captured a certain reality of the US. The mysterious horror film focuses on a small town beset by a rash of suicides that no one can explain.
While Papamichael came to the US as a child - his father was John Cassavetes' art director - he was mostly raised in Europe. And although he has perfected his cinematography skills on US films such as Sideways, Walk The Line and most recently 3:10 To Yuma, he retains a sense of being an outsider. But, as Papamichael says, foreigners often make "the most interesting portrayals of America, like Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas".
He adds: "I'm not usually drawn to horror and genre films, but I was intrigued by the middle-American setting and by these characters who seemed like real teenage kids."
He signed on to the film in 2007 after he had satisfied himself the producers, Chris Gibbins and Adrian Butchart, were on the same page creatively. He worked with them to give Brad Keene's original script - which, Papamichael felt "was very goth" - a more contemporary and realistic slant.
Having never done a horror film Papamichael turned for advice to directors with whom he had worked, such as The Ring's Gore Verbinski. "I didn't want to make a conventional horror film," he says. "I wanted to blend something that was surreal with something symbolic." But as he points out, "making a horror film is a lot like making a comedy; you can't tell if it works until an audience reacts."
Papamichael intended to shoot the film hand-held in Super 16, in the manner of gritty teen dramas such as Bully. But he found the location, Havre de Grace in Maryland, demanded a more gentle, lyrical approach. He moved towards incorporating elements of J-horror, Gregory Crewdson's photography and Roman Polanski's hard realism to create the town's look. The film shot for more than 23 days and Papamichael found he needed every bit of footage. "Since I didn't have the luxury of cutting things, I found a way to make all the film I shot work."
He is now gearing up to work on Oliver Stone's George Bush drama W, and will soon begin directing his next feature, Picture Garden.
While he hopes for a sale at Tribeca, Papamichael is particularly keen to see how audiences will react. "I think there's a young, hip crowd who'll get this," he says.
Cinetic Media is representing the film at Tribeca.