Brian Brooks is a Deadline contributor.

Producer Mark Johnson returned to New Mexico where he spent time with Breaking Bad for his latest, Bless Me, Ultima. The coming-of-age story is a staple in the Mexican-American community and beyond and will roll out on 263 screens. Canadian director Ruba Nadda’s latest, Inescapable with Alexander Siddig, Joshua Jackson, Marisa Tomei had to change production locations following the chaos of the Arab Spring. Actor-director Alex Karpovsky took on two productions somewhat simultaneously and distributor Tribeca Film is opting for a double-bill rollout in New York. And this weekend’s second biggest specialty release, Kai Po Che from UTV Communications will take the Indian-set story to 110 theaters this weekend.

Bless Me, Ultima
Director-writer: Carl Franklin
Writer: Rudolfo Anaya (novel)
Cast: Luke Ganalon, Joseph A. Garcia, Miriam Colon
Distributor: Arenas Entertainment

Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson first came on board Bless Me, Ultima a half-decade ago after a meeting at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Executive producer Christy Walton financed the feature, which is based on a book of the same title. “I had not heard of the book, though it is considered a cornerstone of Chicano literature and its required reading in many public schools,” noted Johnson. “I immediately read it. I’m a sucker for coming of age stories, but this is more of a coming of age spiritual story. The main character is trying to understand why people do evil things. It’s about the nature of the world.” Set in New Mexico during World War II, the story is centered on the relationship between a young man and an an elderly medicine woman who helps him contend with the battle between good and evil that rages in his village. The production headed to New Mexico, where Johnson had worked producing TV’s Breaking Bad. “Christy Walton didn’t demand [stars] in the cast. It is based on an 8-year-old boy and his grandmother,” said Johnson who added that the cast includes American and Mexican actors. “I’ve done a lot of movies with young boys including the Narnia movies. Casting a child is very difficult. They’re not actors in the way adults are actors. It’s much more about instinct and feeling something naturally rather than just thinking about what is required to do.”

Johnson has known director Carl Franklin, who adapted the story, for some time. “We talked about doing a movie together, so I gave the book to Carl and he did a take on it that we completely fell for,” said Johnson. The filmmaking team showed the feature to Arenas, which agreed they were the team to release the pic. The company suggested a test run in El Paso, Texas where it did “spectacularly” according to Johnson. Bless Me, Ultima will open on 263 screens in 22 markets this weekend, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and other markets in the Southwest. It has already grossed $500K in test runs in three cities.

Inescapable
Director-writer: Ruba Nadda
Cast: Alexander Siddig, Joshua Jackson, Marisa Tomei, Oded Fehr
Distributor: IFC Films

Producer Daniel Iron has worked with writer-director Ruba Nadda since her last film Cairo Time. She was already well into developing the script for Inescapable while filming the previous film set in Egypt’s capital. Like the previous film, Inescapable stars Sudanese-born veteran actor Alexander Siddig, who starred opposite Patricia Clarkson in Cairo Time. “Ruba wrote the main role for Alexander Siddig,” said Iron. “He was involved from early on. Then we approached Marisa Tomei through her agent at CAA who also reps Patricia Clarkson. We needed someone who could do a difficult role but also come off as Arabic. I can’t imagine any other actor in Hollywood being able to pull that off.” TeleFilm Canada and co-production money from South Africa provided funding.

Initially, the project had been slated to shoot in Jordan, but the tumult that came following the Arab Spring lead the production to seek another locale, and though the story is set in Syria’s capital, Damascus, that was not an option because of the country’s civil war. “I had done a film called The Bang Bang Club in Johannesburg, South Africa and we decided to re-locate there,” said Iron. “We had hoped to do Jordan, but we couldn’t do it.” Iron said that shooting in Jordan would have required the production buying “kidnapping and ransom insurance,” which simply covered paying for a good negotiator. Paying the ransom or any other subsequent expenses would not be covered. Inescapable, which centers on a father who confronts the past he left behind years after leaving Damascus when his daughter goes missing, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and at the Palm Springs International Film Festival last month. It is slated to open in eight cities including New York and Los Angeles this weekend and is available via VOD and other platforms.

Rubberneck
Director-writer: Alex Karpovsky
Co-writer: Garth Donovan
Cast: Alex Karpovsky, Jaime Ray Newman, Dennis Staroselsky
Distributor: Tribeca Film
Red Flag
Director-writer: Alex Karpovsky
Cast: Dustin Guy Defa, Alex Karpovsky, Keith Poulson, Jennifer Prediger
Distributor: Tribeca Film

Distributor Tribeca Film picked up both Alex Karpovsky-directed titles last year. Rubberneck premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, a sister entity of the company which is releasing Rubberneck and Red Flag (which debuted at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival) as a double-bill at the Elinor Brunin Munroe Film Center in New York. “I shot Rubberneck first, but before embarking on the edit, I went off to shoot Red Flag,” said Karpovsky. “And after I finished Red Flag, I went back to do the edit on Rubberneck. There was a re-charge doing it this way.” Shot on “very small budgets,” according to Karpovsky, the actor/director used savings and loans to finance both projects. “I didn’t have to go through an elaborate funding process,” he noted. Rubberneck follows a man who works at a research facility outside Boston. A weekend tryst with a co-worker leaves him wanting more, but when she takes interest in a new scientist at the lab, he becomes unhinged. “The crew was much bigger and storyboarded,” Karpovsky explained about Rubberneck. “It was particularly challenging because it’s a thriller. I hadn’t done anything that wasn’t a comedy. It was intimidating and a learning experience.”

A comedy, Red Flag centers on a filmmaker who takes his independent film on tour hoping to escape the pain of a recent breakup. While on the road, he stumbles into a mix of fear, sex and tortured illumination. Karpovsky met his fellow cast-mates at the Sundance Film Festival only a month before production which started in February 2011. “I like to be able to do both acting and directing,” said Karpovsky. “If I was only doing one then I’d be anxious or unfulfilled. I love doing acting. I like to step away from myself.” Red Flag‘s shoot was more of what Karpovsky called a “run and gun” shoot. “We had no lights and a small crew. We could nurture impulsivity and it was chaotic.” In addition to its double-bill at the Elinor Brunin at Lincoln Center, Rubberneck and Red Flag are available on VOD. Rubberneck will head to Boston where it was filmed the following weekend. Further rollout for both will be based on performance.

Kai Po Che
Director-writer: Abhishek Kapoor
Writers: Chetan Bhagat (novel), Pubali Chaudhuri, Supratik Sen
Distributor: UTV Communications

Adapted from a popular book by a well-known author in India, Disney-owned UTV came on board the project in the scripting stage. “The story is very original in its writing. It’s one of the best scripts we have read”, noted Lokesh Dhar, Executive Director – Distribution and Syndication (North America) at UTV. “It has a lot of challenges with respect to not having big stars. The script however is the biggest star of the film.” Dhar said the production shot in India’s Punjab region in the summer. “It was shot in very hot conditions and most of the film takes place on location in big cities in that state and some small states.” The film centers on three friends growing up in India at the turn of the millennium who set out to open a training academy to produce the country’s next cricket stars.

Like most of its Indian releases, according to Dhar, Kai Po Che is being released simultaneously in multiple regions worldwide. In North America, Kai Po Che! will bow in 110 theaters in both major and medium-size markets. “We’re appealing to the South Asian audience, but also subtitling it into English. We also plan to target some of the art house crowd,” said Dhar. “Talent from the film traveled to the U.S. for interviews across the country and we also did some related contests.” The film screened at the recent Berlin International Film Festival in the Panorama section and UTV hosted word-of-mouth screenings.

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