Husband and wife Ed Harris and Amy Madigan will star in School for the Blind, a $4.5 million budgeted indie that will be produced by Picturehouse, John Boccardo’s Blind Faith Productions and Neil Koenigsberg. Lou Howe is directing from his adaptation of Dennis McFarland’s critically acclaimed 1995 novel.
Harris and Madigan have previously starred together in several features including Gone Baby Gone, Places in the Heart, Alamo Bay, The Last Full Measure, The Rules Don’t Apply, Sweetwater, Riders of the Purple Saga to name a few including the Harris-directed Oscar winning Pollock. Harris earned an Oscar nom for playing artist Jackson Pollock and Madigan co-starred as Peggy Guggenheim. The two are also starring in Harris’ The Ploughman which he’s also directing and in pre-production on. Both Harris and Madigan have co-starred in theatre productions such as the world premiere of Beth Henley’s The Jacksonian in Los Angeles and New York; in the revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer winner Buried Child in New York and London; and most recently, in the world premiere of David Rabe’s newest play Good for Otto in New York.
In School for the Blind, Harris and Madigan play siblings with a dark past riddled with unresolved family issues. Harris is a world-weary war correspondent who returns to the small town of his youth to reunite with his sister, a librarian at the local school for blind children. Together they confront these issues as they strive to solve the cold case murder of a blind student who disappeared years before.
“It will be wonderful to see the magic Amy and Ed will bring to School for the Blind,” Bob Berney, CEO of Picturehouse tells Deadline. “It’s a terrific gift for Lou to have these two actors portraying an estranged brother and sister in this exciting new drama.”
Come December, Harris will be seen co-starring in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, which is winning rave reviews from its Venice and Telluride premieres. He is currently filming the fourth season of HBO’s Westworld in addition to prep on The Ploughmen, which also stars Robert Duvall. Madigan will next be seen in Scott Cooper’s thriller Antlers.
School for the Blind will be Howe’s second feature film. The Harvard and AFI graduate wrote and directed the well-received Gabriel, which earned its star Rory Culkin a Gotham Award nomination, as well as an Annenberg Fellowship from the Sundance Institute for Howe.
Koenigsberg, a founder of PMK PR and also a talent manager, was a producer on films A Walk on the Moon, American Heart, The Giver and Tab Hunter Confidential. He originally optioned the novel and brought it to the attention of Berney and Boccardo.
Boccardo produced the recent documentary The Fabulous Allan Carr and was executive producer of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.
CAA Media Finance will arrange for the film’s financing and will rep the pic’s distribution rights.
Picturehouse is a Los Angeles based film marketing and distribution company led by CEO Bob Berney and COO Jeanne R. Berney. The company acquires, markets and distributes global content across all platforms. Originally formed in 2005 as a joint venture between Time Warner’s HBO Films and New Line Cinema, the Picturehouse brand has a long history of storied excellence.
In the opening minutes of Liz Garbus’ new documentary, famed explorer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau is shown talking to a group of young children. As he patiently answers their questions about his work and life under the ocean, they gaze at him in rapt wonder. Filmgoers, especially those of a certain age who grew up devouring his iconic television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, will feel exactly the same way while watching Becoming Cousteau, receiving its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.
Although his reputation has somewhat faded with time, it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary Cousteau’s film and television work was. Nowadays, you can’t channel surf for more than two minutes without encountering a beautifully photographed nature documentary. In 1956, however, when his Oscar- and Palme d’Or-winning feature doc The Silent World (co-directed by Louis Malle) became an unlikely commercial hit, there were very few films utilizing underwater photography.
Garbus’ documentary takes a deep dive (apologies for the pun) into Cousteau’s life and career, using copious amounts of archival video and audio footage, as well as excerpts from diary entries read by actor Vincent Cassel, to deliver an immersive, intimate biographical portrait. While clearly laudatory in detailing its subject’s impressive achievements, the film doesn’t shy away from addressing some problematic professional and personal aspects, including his early neglect of his parental responsibilities.
As a young man, Cousteau aspired to becoming a French Navy pilot, but his life changed when he was involved in a serious car accident at age 26 that left him with severe injuries. When he began swimming to help himself recuperate, he became fascinated by free diving and spearfishing. “It seemed like the act of a mythical demigod,” he says of the latter.
“I became an inventor by necessity,” Cousteau says. He created a waterproof housing for movie cameras so he could film underwater and co-invented a revolutionary breathing apparatus, the Aqua-Lung, in order to dive deeper and longer. In 1951, he converted a former British minesweeping boat into a research vessel dubbed Calypso, which became iconic via his films and television series, and inspired John Denver’s 1975 hit song.
Along the way he married Simone Melchior, who loved the sea as much as he did. Nicknamed “The Shepherdess,” she oversaw operations aboard the Calypso even while avoiding the media spotlight.
Cousteau disdained the term “documentary” for his cinematic efforts, referring to them instead as adventure films. Television producer David Wolper recognized the potential of his work, resulting in the hit television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which ran on ABC from 1968 to 1976. When Cousteau began emphasizing environmental themes in a largely downbeat manner, the ratings suffered and the show was dropped, although he created a second series for PBS that ran for several more years.
The documentary chronicles Cousteau’s evolution from prospecting for petrochemical companies to finance his expeditions to becoming a staunch environmentalist, creating the Cousteau Society to spotlight the fragility of underwater ecosystems. He spearheaded efforts to protect Antarctica and was involved in the creation of the first Earth Summit, held in 1992. He’s shown posing for the event’s official photo, chatting and laughing alongside dozens of world leaders.
Garbus doesn’t shy away from dealing with Cousteau’s sometimes messy personal life. His obsessive dedication to his work kept him away from sons Philippe and Jean-Michel for long periods when they were young. Philippe later became instrumental in his father’s career but died in a plane crash when he was only 38. A severely depressed Cousteau declared, “I’m going to work to the bitter end. That’s my punishment.” Simone died of cancer in 1990, and six months later he married the much younger Francine Triplet, with whom he already had two children.
Becoming Cousteau succeeds beautifully in its goal of reminding viewers of Jacques Cousteau’s important legacy of underwater exploration and environmental activism. Consistently engrossing as well as informative, the film delivers a richly humanistic portrait of a complex, indefatigable figure who introduced multiple awestruck generations to the wonders beneath the sea.
The multiple generations who grew up mesmerized by the underwater cinematic adventures of Jacques-Yves Cousteau will be able to learn a good deal more about the man’s life and work in Becoming Cousteau. Among the many gifts of Liz Garbus’ filled-to-the-gills documentary is the way it positions the French explorer as an initially unwitting pioneer of the environmentalist movement, which took shape in his literal wake. This National Geographic Films production, set to bow in October after its Telluride Film Festival premiere, will add much to older audiences’ appreciation of the man’s achievements, while younger viewers will learn how he changed perceptions of the sea beneath in profound ways.
Kids who grew up watching Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt on television in the late ’50s and early ’60s had no idea that swimming with the fishes for prolonged periods unattached to long oxygen tubes was unheard of in their parents’ generation. The first of many surprises in this account of the French seafaring explorer’s life is that Cousteau himself co-invented the Aqua-Lung, a wearable air tank that allowed for prolonged deep dives unconnected to tubes from the surface. It went on the market in 1946.
It was only by accident that the young Frenchman ended up in the water in the first place. After joining the French navy in 1935, Lt. Cousteau broke 12 bones in an accident and found that frequent swimming sped his recovery. Two others then joined him in some pioneering underwater photography, and the desire to go ever-deeper led Cousteau to “become an inventor by necessity.”
The “Three Diving Musketeers” developed air tanks that allowed them to go down an unheard-of 60 meters without a suit, but then one of them died at 120 meters. Lead-souled shoes enabled the explorers to stay down on the sea floor, and for several years diving provided something of a respite from the war raging above and around them.
An amateur cinematographer from his early teens, Cousteau kept developing new ways to photograph underwater and, in 1951, with the assistance of charitable contributions and volunteers, he was able to purchase a boat, the Calypso, which for years served as his home base.
Early on he engaged Louis Malle as a camera operator, which led to a collaboration that produced Le Monde du Silence (The Silent World), the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1956. It subsequently copped an Oscar and was a big hit internationally.
There were some initial missteps about which Cousteau was ashamed, notably the killing of some sea creatures for his film and collaborations with oil companies to find deposits under the ocean floor. But by the 1960s deep underwater exploration was seen as a parallel event to the manned journeys into outer space, another new frontier. Cousteau became a household name thanks to the David Wolper’s ABC series The Undersea World, which was on ABC for 10 years beginning in 1967. Overall, Cousteau’s shows, consisting of 550 hours of archival material, scored 40 Emmy nominations and 10 wins.
Given how Cousteau himself was photographing his activities from the very beginning, Garbus had an embarrassment of riches to draw upon, and there are moments when it feels like panic is nearly creeping in as she endeavors to jam in tidbits about her subject’s personal life (two wives, long absences, the death of one of his sons, the dissolution of his TV contract) as the man became ever-more famous and busy. “I’m a bad husband and a bad father,” he confesses at one point, and it’s easy to see how the subject’s nomadic, off-the-grid life was not conducive to anything resembling a coherent family life.
It was on one of the Calypso’s journeys through the Persian Gulf that the Calypso’s crew discovered oil in Abu Dahbi, from which Cousteau and company were able to benefit. Later, he was a key figure in the first Earth Summit. Publicly, the man was a popularizer, someone who put a hitherto little-regarded aspect of global life firmly on the map. Privately, he became increasingly pessimistic about the environment, sensing the economic interests were prevailing over ecological concerns.
Becoming Cousteau will well serve as a reminder and clarifier for those who remember him from their youth, and an invigorating introduction for those meeting him for the first time. There’s a lot more to experience and learn from where this stuff came from.