Saving 'Grace' at Sundance

Weinstein Co. wins bidding war

How did "Grace Is Gone," a drama made for just under $ 3 million about a sad sack Iraq War widower played by John Cusack who avoids telling his daughters about their mother's death, become the center of the hottest bidding war so far at this month's Sundance Film Festival?

First-time director James C. Strouse, who had never helmed even a short film, said he had no idea. "It might be the timeliness of the story," he said. Although he added that he included some levity to avoid a "doom and gloom" feeling for two hours, he admitted "the terror in John Cusack's face never really leaves."

Audiences nonetheless responded to the somber tale, leading to the first overnight bidding battle of the festival. Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics were in the running, but by 4:30 a.m. Sunday, the Weinstein Co. co-founder Harvey Weinstein had won over the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of producers New Crime Prods., led by Grace Loh and Cusack, and Plum Pictures with a $4 million offer.

Strouse's pregnant wife, Plum Pictures co-founder Galt Niederhoffer, was in the room phoning reports to her husband as Cinetic Media's John Sloss and William Morris Independent's Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson negotiated the deal.

"Harvey had passion and energy for it, and we knew he'd back it up 10 million percent," Loh said.

Strouse added, "Harvey just understood the importance of the story, and that the film transcends any political side."

It also helped that Cusack has a long history with the Weinstein brothers, from Miramax Films' 1990 drama "The Grifters" to Dimension Films' upcoming "1408," which will be distributed by MGM.

"We did a few films and they all did well for Harvey; he's been great," said Cusack, who as producer with an ownership stake in the film had final say in choosing a distributor. "Luckily, everyone was in agreement. When he's behind a movie, there's none better."

All three top bidders talked about the awards-season potential of performances from Cusack, Alessandro Nivola and young Shelan O'Keefe. The Weinstein Co. plans a fall awards season release in October or November.

Strouse, who was running on about two hours sleep along with Loh on Sunday afternoon, said part of his inspiration for the film came from a trip he took with his two nieces to a theme park after his brother's "ugly divorce."

"There was this weird undercurrent of sadness and unresolved issues in one of the happiest places, and I knew I had to do something with this paradox," he said. "My brother and father are both uncomfortable saying words like 'I love you.' They're similar to John's character, who has so much love but doesn't know how to communicate it."

Like the movie's lead character, Strouse's father wanted to fight for his country but couldn't because of poor eyesight.

In April 2005, Strouse began developing the script with his wife, who also produced Steve Buscemi's "Lonesome Jim," Strouse's first and only previous screenplay. After Strouse took a few general meetings with Loh, his agent gave her "Grace." Loh passed it to Cusack, one of the actors Strouse had in mind for the role.

The actor happened to be looking for a political project after photos of soldiers' coffins were banned by the Bush administration. "I said, we gotta find something that tells more of these stories about the human cost of war," Cusack said at the opening-night screening. "Just then the script came in. It was kismet."

Because he was working with a neophyte director, Cusack said, he took on a producer role. "We did it for all the right reasons. The film will have a great role in helping the national debate. I have high hopes."

Cusack's participation helped the producers find entrepreneurial investors from Kentucky to put in a large portion of the budget, along with a partner in an Arkansas amusement park. While the Arkansas investor hoped his park would be used in the shoot, the filmmakers chose to use Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., as the characters' fictional road-trip destination because of its topiary design.

After some informal, on-set training during the production of "Jim," Strouse and a friend created about 800 storyboards. The road sequences in the four-week shoot mostly were filmed around the perimeter of Chicago.

The result is a film that captures the look and feel of Middle America. According to Weinstein, "Cusack and I both think that the more mainstream we get with this, the more subversive it is."

Despite Cusack and Weinstein's strong anti-Iraq War convictions, Strouse insists that the film's strength is its nonjudgmental view of the war. "I consider it a film about a family," he said. "I didn't want any one character to feel like they had the truth. I hope everyone feels troubled and moved and connected emotionally. And hopefully that will spark conversation with their family and friends."

Anne Thompson contributed to this report.