By Marshall V. King
NEW YORK -- Jim Strouse couldn't script it much better.
After graduating from Bethany Christian High School in 1995 and Goshen College in 1999, the Goshen native moved to New York.
He worked as an office temp, in a bakery and in a used bookstore. He became a student in Columbia University's fiction-writing program and fell in love with Galt Niederhoffer, a movie producer. They've been together eight years, he said in a phone interview last week.
When he wrote a movie script called "Lonesome Jim," she helped turn the project, their dream, into a movie.
Actor Steve Buscemi took on the project as the director. The filming in Goshen in 2004 caused a buzz because of Buscemi and stars Liv Tyler and Casey Affleck.
The Sundance Film Festival, the country's most prominent festival, selected the movie in 2005 and IFC Films picked it up for a small release.
While "Lonesome Jim" was in production, Strouse worked on another script about a man raising two daughters. His wife is killed serving in Iraq and he takes them on a road trip to an amusement park while he tries to figure out how to tell them.
Niederhoffer lined up several million dollars of financing for "Grace Is Gone" from three or four investors, he said.
"There's a lot of luck and timing involved in the business," Strouse said in a phone interview. "I am completely lucky and beholden to my wife, who has supported me and sort of championed me from the very beginning."
Strouse hoped for John Cusack to star as Stanley, the veteran and father. Cusack, who has a production company, was looking for a movie about the war, according to media reports.
"Sometimes the universe works to meet you halfway," Cusack said in a December story in the New York Times.
A few weeks after Cusack agreed to star in the movie, filming started in Chicago and Tampa. Strouse, who had never directed a movie before, took on that role.
He used what he learned on the set of "Lonesome Jim," but it couldn't entirely prepare him for the pressure, for that first day with a crew of 50 or more.
"I was kind of just figuring it out as I was going along," he said.
The two girls, played by Gracie Bednarczyk and Shélan O'Keefe, were acting in their first movie.
"We really bonded and figured out how to do it together," he said.
Sundance accepted this movie, too, and scheduled seven screenings at the late-January event.
"It's a really unique experience as a filmmaker to go to Sundance," he said.
Great audiences gather to see films and talk about them in question and answer sessions.
Strouse's Sundance experience started as well has he could have scripted.
The movie sold to The Weinstein Co. for more than $4 million the night of the first screening. A spokeswoman for the company said this week that "Grace Is Gone" is slated for release by the end of the year.
After selling the movie, Strouse tried to enjoy the Sundance experience, he said. It wasn't hard, and as the festival ended, got even better.
Audiences picked the movie as the top U.S. dramatic film at the festival.
"It's voted on by the people. It's a great thing to get," he said.
Strouse also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for the screenplay.
His first movie goes to Sundance. The second, and the first he directs, wins awards. What's next?
Another child. Strouse and Niederhoffer are expecting a son in several months, joining their 2-year-old girl.
Aside from that, he has plans for another movie.
"After doing 'Grace Is Gone,' which is kind of a heavy drama, I want to do something that makes people laugh," he said.
He plans to keep writing and directing.
"Writing's fun, but it's so lonely," he said, adding that he likes the solitude, but also the experience of working with people as a director.
And later this year, critics and larger audiences will get their chance to see "Grace Is Gone." Early reviews are mostly positive, but mixed.
But he's doing just fine, thanks. He believes in what he's doing and others believe in him.
Like executives at The Weinstein Co.
Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the company, said in a press release, "'Grace Is Gone' moved me beyond words by giving the audience a glimpse into the devastating reality that families are facing every day. John Cusack's poignant performance blew me away -- James has crafted a touching film that will tug at the heartstrings of all moviegoers."
Strouse said, "They believed in it enough to pay over $4 million for it."
Contact Marshall V. King at firstname.lastname@example.org.