'Away From Her,' 'Savages' among choice films

After decades of slim pickings when it comes to decent films made by women, there’s now a batch of femme-friendly movies in theaters.

Several pics directed by women, including Sarah Polley’s drama “Away From Her” and Tamara Jenkins’ upcoming black comedy “The Savages,” are high-profile entries in the awards season.

Among femme-helmed pics making the fall rounds are Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical “Across the Universe,” a hit with teen girls (gross to date, $16.7 million), Robin Swicord’s “The Jane Austen Book Club” and Danish director Susanne Bier’s first English-language effort, relationship drama “Things We Lost in the Fire,” which despite strong notices for thesps Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, stumbled in initial engagements.

Trying to make an awards play via its DVD release is Mira Nair’s immigrant family drama “The Namesake,” which played across generations and grossed $13.5 million during its spring release. Thesp Irfan Khan (“Darjeeling Limited”) and screenwriter and frequent Nair collaborator Sooni Taraporevala, who adapted Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, look to have kudos potential.

Julie Christie is gaining attention for her turn in actress-turned-writer/director Polley’s well-reviewed adaptation of Alice Munro’s novel “Away From Her.” And Marjane Satrapi’s animated “Persepolis,” which opens Dec. 25, is France’s submission in the foreign-language category.

For Jenkins, the lure to write studio scripts was one reason it’s been eight years since her first feature, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” which she workshopped at Sundance’s writers and directors labs after finishing the NYU graduate film program.

Her second film, “The Savages,” debuted at Sundance in January and finally opens Nov. 30. What happened during those gap years?

After her autobiographical first film, which starred Natasha Lyonne as a poor Beverly Hills high-schooler, Jenkins was deluged with offers for teen-girl comedies. Writing uninteresting, generic scripts was “a disaster,” she admits. “It was a horrible three years that I wish had never happened. Now I can’t imagine writing a script and giving it to someone else.”

Another dead end was writing a movie about photographer Diane Arbus that could never get made because producer Edward R. Pressman hadn’t obtained the rights from the Arbus estate to use her photos. (Steve Shainberg eventually cobbled together the fanciful “Fur,” starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus.)

Jenkins first wrote the five-page nucleus for “The Savages” some 10 years ago. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney star as two siblings who are still in competition even in adulthood, and have to work together to deal with their aging dad.

“I knew I wanted to do something about adult siblings,” Jenkins says.

After Focus Features’ James Schamus backed Jenkins with a blind deal to write anything she wanted as long as it was contemporary and had humor, she got down to business. Jenkins spent six intense weeks at the Yaddo writers’ retreat in upstate New York, where she fleshed out her five-page scene about a brother and sister who have to contend with their neglectful father at the end of his life.

As a kid, Jenkins shuttled between one divorced single parent and another, an experience which informed the bittersweet “Slums of Beverly Hills.” “I didn’t know I was funny,” she says. “My big brother was the first person who told me I was funny.”

When Jenkins was 16, her 26-year-old Harvard grad-student brother rescued her and brought her to Cambridge. Her little brother joined them a few years later.

“The Savages” is about two siblings who fought over what limited resources they had growing up. “The heart of it is that survival thing,” she explains, “that desperate scrappy uncivilized grabbing anything you can to stay alive.”

But when she finally delivered “The Savages,” Focus, with foreign sales to consider, wanted more commercial actors, objecting to her insistence on casting the pre-“Capote” Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings who regress to their childhood roles, and Philip Bosco as their ailing, angry, diminished father. Schamus let her take the project back. “The subject matter was not a sexy sell,” she admits.

“The Savages” got made only after CAA found equity investor Lone Star, which put up half of the budget if an American distributor would match it, and after Hoffman won the Golden Globe for “Capote.” That’s when Fox Searchlight came in with $4 million. Jenkins shot her dense 120-page script in 30 days. After waiting 10 years, she didn’t find it difficult to wait the 10 months after the pic’s January preem at Sundance for her movie to be released.

Producer and foreign sales agent Andrea Kreuzhage, on the other hand, took a DIY approach when she decided to direct her first documentary.

On Dec. 7, 2003, Kreuzhage came across her first glimpse of the 1000 Journals project online. Three years before, a San Francisco artist named Someguy had started to create 1,000 blank journals with different covers and mail them out all over the world with instructions to fill in personal pages and pass them on. He launched a website to track the journals. By 2003, only one journal, No. 526, had been returned to him, after visiting 13 states, Ireland and Brazil.

German-born Kreuzhage, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1986, was fascinated. She asked herself, “What happened to the other 999?”

Ever since, Kreuzhage has been on a quest to track down the journals and the stories behind them. She sold her house and invested all her resources in directing her first documentary, “1000 Journals,” which will have its world premiere at the AFI fest Nov. 4.

Kreuzhage was attracted to the tangible aspect of tracking these journals, which were passed from person to person, each writing, drawing, pasting and ranting in them in their own way. Chronicle Books’ first printing of 15,000 copies of Someguy’s “The 1000 Journals Project” has sold out; a second printing is in the works. Kreuzhage and Someguy managed to get their hands on 80 of the journals so far. They hope that the movie and the book will inspire some of those hanging on to the remaining journals to let them go.

Doc rookie Kreuzhage shot the docu with a Sony mini-DV cam and a microphone from RadioShack. She had never interviewed people on camera before. “I knew what questions I had,” she says. “So I just did it.”

Someguy recreated 50 of the journals for the purposes of the doc, showing how he made them. Kreuzhage became a detective to track down the journals, emailing those who signed up for them and taking ads in local newspapers.

Traveling through America and to Australia, Europe and Asia, she discovered how obsessed and possessive some folks were of the journals. Danelle Hayes of Phoenix had lost her husband. After Kreuzhage interviewed her, the woman realized that “letting go of the journal was symbolic of letting go of her husband,” Kreuzhage says. “It’s about possessing, sharing, creating, consuming. And (about) who’s a voyeur. Many of the journals have diary entries.”

Many of the journals are personalized by their owners: In No. 526, one woman inserted a sexy leather pouch. One journal has an artichoke leaf. In most of the journals, says Kreuzhage, there is some reference to 9/11. When Sean Clinton of Vero Beach, Fla., was living in the city when it got pounded by hurricanes, it was more important to get his journal than to pack up his house.

Kreuzhage found a publicist and lawyer to help her submit the film to Withoutabox.com and to the AFI Fest, which accepted it. Project creator Someguy, along with a journal contributor from Singapore, who is screening a short at the fest, will be on hand. The fest will leave four new journals around for cinemagoers to fill in.

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