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Big Apple producers tackle Vietnam film

NEW YORK — Next month, Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente — the husband-and-wife team who founded Open City Films four years ago — will travel to Vietnam to produce Tony Bui’s “Three Seasons.” The trip itself will last 22 hours, but it took more than a year to obtain financing and government approval for the first American feature to lens in Vietnam in nearly three decades.

“Three Seasons” marks the feature debut of 24-year-old Bui, a Vietnam native who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 2. After several visits to his homeland, Bui wrote and directed the award-winning 1994 short “Yellow Lotus.”

Kliot and Vicente fell in love with Bui’s script when it emerged from the Sundance Filmmakers Lab in 1996. But they realized they needed a major star to attract investors to a film with two-thirds of the dialogue in Vietnamese.

As they searched for the crucial talent element, Kliot and Vicente used money from producing musicvideos and commercials through Open City’s Blow Up Pictures division to fund development for “Three Seasons.”

After countless phone calls and the intercession of October Films, Kliot and Vicente were able to persuade Harvey Keitel to take the role of an ex-G.I. searching for his half-Vietnamese daughter. October has since agreed to finance and distribute the film on a worldwide basis.

“We would never be making ‘Three Seasons’ if we had taken no for an answer,” Kliot says during a recent interview in Open City’s downtown Manhattan offices. “Everyone was making phone calls on our behalf,” Vicente chimes in.

People were willing to pick up the phone for the duo because of their track record in identifying independent films with commercial potential. Although Open City was not successful in its quest to raise money for Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and Maria Maggenti’s “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love,” investors and distribs remembered that Kliot and Vicente were the first to show them these projects.

For their fundraising efforts and assorted producing duties, the couple received associate producer credit on “Dollhouse,” the Sundance grand jury prize winner that was released by Sony Pictures Classics, and on “Two Girls,” which was distributed theatrically by Fine Line. “Even though we failed to get money, these experiences helped us,” Kliot says. “They demonstrated that our talent is to bring worthwhile films to major companies and equity investors.”

Not all of Open City’s projects have been near-misses. The company hit with Amir Naderi’s “A, B, C … Manhattan,” which screened at Cannes this year and whose international rights were acquired by Overseas Filmgroup. Kliot and Vicente also co-produced Brandon Cole’s feature directorial debut, “OK Garage,” starring John Turturro and Lili Taylor, for which J&M is handling international sales.

After they return from Vietnam, Kliot and Vicente will produce “Down to You,” the feature debut of writer-director Kris Isacsson, whose “Man About Town” won this year’s short film prize at Sundance. Isacsson bills his feature as a “New York anti-romantic comedy” about first love.

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