Several Princeton alumni have made films that recently have been released or are slated to open later this year. Following is a sampling:
Director and writer: SEAN MEWSHAW ’97 Producer and writer: DESI VAN TIL ’99 (The two are married.)
Theatrical release: February 2016
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Jason Sudeikis, Blythe Danner, Griffin Dunne
Synopsis: In a quirky small town in Maine, the widow of a well-known folk musician begins to overcome her grief by joining a brash New York writer in an effort to explain the real story of her husband’s death.
The couple’s inspiration: “Desi wrote a story set in her hometown, so we thought we’d move to Maine and embark on the adventure of making a feature film that is very personal for us both,” Mewshaw said.
Highlights of the filming: “The story is set in the dead of a very snowy winter, and that year there were four feet of snow on the ground,” Mewshaw said. “But by the time we’d finally gotten the production underway, spring was rapidly blossoming all around us, so about two weeks before we started shooting, we had to perform a lightning-fast rewrite of the very seasonal screenplay in order to reset all the action to ‘mud season,’ as it’s called in Maine.”
What they hope people take from it: “It’s a hopeful story about how one person finds the courage to feel joy again when it seems all but buried in grief,” Mewshaw said.
Producer: ALICIA DWYER ’92
Theatrical Release: April 15, 2016
Cast: Veronica Sixtos, Julio Cedillo, Roberto Urbina
Synopsis: A dark, slow-burning thriller that follows a young woman who is deported from the United States for credit-card fraud and then must choose between reuniting with her estranged father on his cattle ranch in Mexico or partnering with a dangerous smuggler.
Dwyer’s inspiration: “My family has been living part time in Mexico for many years, and my brother Michael and I have always wanted to make a film there. We honed our skills of listening to people on various sides of a situation and found that we are drawn to the places where people are living in between — in between languages, cultures, identities.”
Highlights of filming: Shooting involved “explosions, vistas with herds of cattle, and stunts with horses, trucks, and flamethrowers. It took 55 days to shoot, mostly in Mexico, often at night and on dirt roads on remote ranchland, and we had to coordinate with the military. I was pregnant when we shot the film.”
What she hopes people take from it: Dwyer wants the film to prompt the audience “to think about the costs of our American dreams, about the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, and about what it means to be in between the two.”
Writer and executive producer: A. SCOTT BERG ’71
Theatrical release: June 10
Cast: Colin Firth, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Guy Pearce, Dominic West
Synopsis: Based on Berg’s biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (which began as his senior thesis), the movie focuses on Perkins, a literary editor who discovered and developed the talents of F. Scott Fitzgerald 1917, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and many others.
Berg’s inspiration: “One of the reasons I attended Princeton was my passion for Fitzgerald. I began going through his papers in Firestone Library on my second day on campus. Behind all those [literary] careers loomed Perkins, the quiet man in the background. I thought it would be interesting to shine light on this most important but little-known figure who literally changed the course of American literature.”
What he hopes people take from it: “I hope people will realize the price artists pay to produce their work. During the 10 years in which Perkins and Wolfe worked together, Perkins’ marriage suffered, Wolfe’s love affair with a brilliant theater designer fell apart, and a number of other people all made sacrifices in their personal lives, just so a book could get published. I hope people will realize how rare true friendship is.”
Hummus! The Movie
Executive producer: MITCH JULIS ’77
Release: Seattle International Film Festival in May; Berlin Potsdam Jewish Film Festival in June; San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July-August
Synopsis: A documentary about Abu Gosh, an Arab Israeli town where the culinary specialty, hummus, serves as the tie that binds together Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The movie features the town’s quest to gain Guinness World Records recognition for the largest-ever plate of hummus.
Julis’ inspiration: “Four years ago I was in the hills of Jerusalem,” Julis said. “From a conference room on a beautiful day in April, I looked out and saw this town on a hill. I was told it was Abu Gosh, an Arab-Israeli town that had been at peace with Israel since day one. The family that essentially runs the town takes pride in their restaurateurship, and especially in their hummus. Non-religious Jews go there on Shabbat, and there’s a monastery in town. I thought that kind of diversity should be told in some sort of story.”
What he hopes people take from it: “Israel is not without its warts. There are things that obviously can be improved upon. But when I look at Abu Gosh, they made a commitment to be at peace and to make their business model about hospitality. I look and say, ‘That makes you feel good.’”
God Knows Where I Am
Directors: JEDD WIDER ’89, TODD WIDER ’86 (Brothers)
Theatrical release: Fall 2016
Synopsis: A documentary about Linda Bishop, a well-educated New Hampshire woman who became severely mentally ill in her 40s. She was in and out of the legal system and hospitals for years; despite entreaties by her family to take guardianship, she was allowed to live on her own. Delusional, yet able to write a detailed journal, Bishop starved to death in 2008 in an unoccupied farmhouse that her sister regularly drove by, unaware Bishop was inside.
The Widers’ inspiration: A number of years ago, a mentally ill homeless man took up residence in Todd Wider’s building, but the police were unable to help the man because he refused assistance. “We wanted to make a film that could shine a light on a severely inhumane and deficient approach to the mentally ill homeless,” Jed Wider said.
Highlights of filming: Along with cinematographer Gerardo Puglia, the Widers spent the better part of two years working in the farmhouse where Bishop died, interviewing people she knew and recreating what Bishop would have seen in her final months. “If she mentioned seeing a bluebird in her journal, we waited until a bluebird came by to film it,” Todd Wider said. “In a way, the house and Linda were dying together.”
What they hope people take from it: “We’re a great, giant, powerful nation. Why is it that we can’t all get together and find a solution?” Todd Wider said. “We hope in some small way we can contribute to a dialogue. To effect social change, the way in is through the heart.”
Writer and executive producer: JON SPAIHTS ’91
Theatrical release: Christmas 2016
Cast: Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence
Synopsis: An epic science-fiction romance set on a luxury starship making a 120-year journey from Earth to a colony world. The passengers are meant to sleep the whole way, but one of them wakes up far too soon.
Spaihts’ inspiration: “I’m a romantic,” he said. “I’m also nostalgic for the feelings of awe and wonder that science fiction gave me when I was a boy. There’s been a trend toward bleakness and dystopia in sci-fi film, and I want to push back. I wrote the first draft almost a decade ago. ... Being an unusual story, and expensive, it took a long time to get made.”
What he hopes people take from it: “I hope people will relate to characters caught in an utterly unfamiliar dilemma.”