NEW YORK — Jacob Aaron Estes’s 2004 feature debut “Mean Creek,” a tense, disturbing story about teen bullying, received considerable acclaim from Sundance, Cannes and the Spirit Awards that year. But the filmmaker, whose sophomore effort “The Details” belatedly opens in theaters Nov. 2 nearly two years after its Park City premiere, hasn’t exactly broken into the big-time — though that’s finally starting to change.
After “Mean Creek,” the AFI grad worked steadily as a screenwriter and polisher — he wrote Summit’s “The Dark Endeavor,” and did a rewrite on “Source Code,” among other projects — but his directing hopes have suffered from “a bunch of bizarre false-starts,” he admits.
One big project, Plan B’s “The Gift,” starring Ralph Fiennes, nearly went into production in 2007, but was halted when one of the real-life individuals depicted in the story threatened to sue. A couple years later, Estes also had to pull the plug on “The Details,” his jet-black comedy about responsibility, retribution and redemption, now starring Toby Maguire, when one of the financiers “stopped writing the checks,” he says.
After “The Details” was finally financed by Mickey Lidell and launched at Sundance 2011, the Weinstein Co paid a reported $7 million-$8 million for rights. But reaction on the film was mixed, with critics heralding the film as “courageous” but hard to market. Estes then went back to the drawing board with the support of TWC, shot some pick-up scenes, revamped the opening, and sharpened the spiritual stakes for the protagonist. “Obviously, it took some time,” he admits. “But the good news is that I had all this time to contemplate how to make the best version of the film.”
Estes isn’t too precious about his work. “I approach the material with as much as humility as I possibly can,” he says. “One of my core beliefs in directing a movie, or a scene, is that I’m not always going to know the answer right away.”
Mark Gordon, the veteran producer of “The Details,” praises Estes for these open-minded instincts. “As a writer-director, he has the rare ability to be as tough on his scripts as anyone,” he says.
Estes hasn’t let his setbacks upset him, either. “It hasn’t been frustrating,” he says. “Life is a lot harder than a career in film. Dealing with parents dying, or your cat getting eaten by a coyote and consoling your daughter — that’s more trying than a movie that starts and stops.”
Estes’s levelheaded optimism looks to be paying off. In addition to working on a far rosier film than “The Details,” a father/daughter drama that he likens to “The Pursuit of Happyness,” he’s prepping Media Rights Capital’s “I.O.U.” a thriller about a man in debt who loses control of his life, produced by David Fincher.