photo by Randy Shropshire
by Chris Gardner
Jeff Vespa — the co-founder of WireImage and one of the best-known photographers in Hollywood — is making his feature directorial debut on the indie film Amre.
The film, now shooting in locations including Latvia and Kazakhstan with a budget in the mid-seven-figures, is being produced by Cary Granat and Ed Jones along with Alidar Utemuratov through his Moviq production banner from a script by Benjamin A. van der Veen (Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part Two).
Amre, a period piece set in Paris in 1925, stars Kazakh actor Sanjar Madi in the title role opposite Abbie Cornish and Ben Aldridge in the story of a small-town Kazakh singer named Amre Kashaubaev who journeys from Russia to Paris to compete in an international singing competition. While in the City of Lights, he forms an unlikely friendship with George Gershwin (Aldridge) and gets close to a woman (Cornish). Miha Rodman, Christian Hillborg and Philip Brodie round out the international cast.
It’s based on a true story and the facts are what drew Vespa to the story, he tells The Hollywood Reporter during a telephone interview while on a break from filming in Riga, Latvia. “It’s a story that deals with somebody making a great sacrifice, and these are the kinds of stories I’m interested in telling,” says Vespa. “Extraordinary characters doing extraordinary things.”
He says he’s been on the hunt to direct a film for years, with various projects in varying states of development. While meeting with Granat on other scripts, the producer brought up Amre. “It’s been tough to find a story that I really want to tell, and through our discussions, Cary realized this was right for me. That’s the crazy thing — it picked me. I read the script and was blown away, and that’s a real stroke of luck.”
The film will be heavy on music, a fact that also surprised Vespa. “I never thought I would do a movie that has so much music in it. It feels like an old Hollywood musical,” he says. But Granat counters that Vespa can handle any subject matter.
“Having seen what he’s doing and watching him on set — Jeff is going to have a very long career. He’s the real deal in every way,” says Granat, who had been approached by Kazakhstan’s prime minister and minister of culture on bringing Kashaubaev’s powerful story to the big screen. “He has quite the vision and instantly made everyone comfortable with his enthusiasm and understanding of this era. Jeff is extremely educated about the geopolitics and the significance of what was going on at that time — the big chess moves happening around Europe. He understood that from the get-go and elevated the material very quickly. My feeling — and Alidair’s feeling — is that Jeff has been ready to make this movie for 10 years. The synchronicity was perfect to make this happen now.”
And both Vespa and Granat tipped their hats to the timing of landing star Madi, as he’s on the verge of becoming a bigger star in Russia with the February 2017 release of Zaschitniki (Guardians) directed by Sarik Andreasyan. It’s described as Russia’s first major superhero film, which happens to be a co-production with China and is set during the Cold War, telling the story of an underground group of heroes.
“He brings a soulfulness to this material that is quite rare,” Granat says of Madi. “It’s special to find someone who could embody this role because it’s a unique human interest story about an exemplary person, someone with a sense of character that you don’t see a lot in today’s cinema.”
Sanjar Madi appears as Amre Kashaubaev in this still from Jeff Vespa’s ‘Amre.’ (Photo credit: Randy Shropshire)
The directorial outing is just the latest résumé builder for Vespa, who has developed a diverse roster of skills during his impressive career. After co-founding the entertainment photo agency service WireImage, he went on to create Verge, a digital magazine that focuses on new and emerging talent. At the end of 2014, he co-founded the beauty and styling agency Forward Artists Agency, and published the coffee table book “The Art of Discovery.”
Amre isn’t his first film credit. In 2008, he directed the short film Nosebleed starring David Arquette, a film which screened as part of Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Vespa is married to publicist Emily Yomtobian, who is currently overseas with their daughter, Genevieve, while he makes Amre, making this trip quite the family affair.
He’s repped by attorney Bob Wallerstein.
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