Toronto International Film Festival: ‘Imogene’ makers hope for redemption

Filmmakers Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

NEW YORK — Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s debut feature, the offbeat comic book adaptation “American Splendor,” was greeted with so much success when it came out in 2003 that the filmmaking duo couldn’t imagine things going any other way.

“We had this level of delusion that a lot of first-time filmmakers have but maybe multiplied because of the reception,” Pulcini said of the Paul Giamatti movie, which HBO’s film division allowed them to make with little interference and which went on to become an Oscar nominee and art house hit. “We thought, ‘It’s always going to be this easy.’”

It wasn’t. They battled with Harvey Weinstein over tone and scenes in their 2007 adaptation of the bestseller “The Nanny Diaries.” Then they had to contend with viewer and critical skepticism on their 2010 cross-dressing quirkfest “The Extra Man.” They became mired in rights issues on their based-on-a-true-story HBO film “Cinema Verite” in 2011. And those were the movies that the husband-wife team got made.

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But at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, Pulcini and Springer Berman will get a shot at redemption when they unveil “Imogene,” a comedy about a thirtysomething playwright (Kristen Wiig) trying to hold her life together and deal with the dysfunctional people around her, including her gambling-addict mother (Annette Bening) and her mother’s boyfriend (Matt Dillon). The hook is that Wiig’s character stages a suicide to attract the attention of an ex but fakes it so convincingly she ends up attracting the attention of psychiatrists.

The setting adds an extra dollop of color — “Imogene” takes place partly at the Jersey Shore.

The movie is the first Wiig shot after “Bridesmaids” was released in spring 2011. (She was cast before “Bridesmaids” came out, and Pulcini and Springer Berman watched with excitement as that movie grew into a phenomenon.) Given the other appealing stars in “Imogene” — “Glee” up-and-comer Darren Criss is also featured — and a relatively relatable premise, Pulcini and Springer Berman hope the movie will return them to the film world’s good graces.

“We knew coming in that ‘Extra Man’ was going to be a challenge. This has always seemed to us like a more accessible story,” Springer Berman said, sipping drinks with Pulcini at a downtown cafe this week.

The movie, seeking a U.S. distribution deal at Toronto, was shot last summer during Wiig’s short hiatus from “Saturday Night Live.” It was produced by Trudie Styler (wife of Sting), Celine Rattray and Anonymous Content. The first draft was written by a rookie, Michelle Morgan, who based some of the story on her own experiences.

Though the subject matter and structure of “Imogene” are rather different from “Splendor” — the earlier movie had a more complex story line based on the life and graphic memoir of the late comics artist Harvey Pekar — the films do have things in common.

“I think both movies are about characters who are likable but not in the obvious ways,” Springer Berman said. “What we appreciated about both Paul and Kristen is that they don’t try to make you like them in every scene.”

The New York-based filmmakers, both 48, began collaborating at Columbia University film school. They cut their teeth making documentaries and found that “Splendor” benefited from their nonfiction background.

The pair take turns writing, sometimes taking weeks before swapping pages. On set, they divide labor such that Pulcini spends more time behind the camera while Springer Berman interacts more with the actors.

The pair don’t expect a “Splendor"-like reaction at Toronto. (The initial screening of that film, at the Sundance Film Festival, generated a huge response and had Al Gore in the audience to boot.) But they do believe that viewers will go for something different, and even difficult, if it comes wrapped in a certain humanity.

“There are ways to put our stamp on a film and also attract mainstream interest,” Pulcini said. “I think we learned that on this film.”