The low-budget independent film was directed by Greg Harrison, written by Benjamin Brand and Harrison, and produced by Danielle Renfrew and Gary Winick. Sony Pictures Classics released it to theaters in the United States on July 22, 2005 (see 2005 in film), and while its award-winning digital video photography was praised, many reviews criticised the film's story for being too ambiguous and derivative of other pictures. Critics have compared it to the work of film-makers such as David Lynch and M. Night Shyamalan.
On the evening of November 7, photographer Sophie Jacobs (Courteney Cox) and her attorney boyfriend Hugh (James LeGros) go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. As they travel home afterwards, Sophie develops a craving for "something sweet" and stops their car at a convenience store. While Hugh is in the store buying some chocolate for Sophie, an armed man (Matthew Carey) arrives and holds up the store, shooting the store clerk, his son, and Hugh dead. He runs away as Sophie arrives.
Saddened by the death of Hugh, Sophie cannot bring herself to erase his voice from their apartment's answering machine. She consults her psychiatrist, Dr. Fayn (Nora Dunn), about persistent headaches that she has been suffering from since his death. She tells Dr. Fayn that the headaches started to occur before the incident at the convenience store, and that she had been having an affair with a co-worker, Jesse (Michael Ealy). After Hugh's death Sophie has dinner with her mother, Carol Jacobs (Anne Archer), who accidentally knocks a glass over.
During a college photography class that she teaches, Sophie sets up a slide projector for the students to showcase their best photographs. One slide in the slide show depicts the exterior of the convenience store on the evening of November 7. Sophie contacts Officer Roberts (Nick Offerman), the head of the investigation into the shootings at the convenience store, who is as puzzled as she is as to who is responsible for the photos. Sophie's headaches continue, and she begins to hear strange noises coming from within her apartment building and mysterious voices on the phone. Later, Officer Roberts discovers that the photo of the convenience store was paid for with Sophie's credit card.
The film presents two more different versions of these events, and Sophie must figure out which is real before she loses grip on her sanity, and her life. The second version suggests that Sophie was present at the shootings and was only spared because the shooter ran out of bullets, and the third suggests both Sophie and Hugh were killed. In the words of Cox, her character "goes through three phases. First there's denial. Then she feels guilty and sad about the situation. Then she has to learn to accept it". According to Greg Harrison, the events in the film were Sophie's memories as she and Hugh laid dying on the floor of the convenience store: "Each movement of this memory was her process of coming to terms with the terrible trauma, which was that she was killed for absolutely no reason, and it was some random act of violence she couldn’t confront". He added he felt November was "open-ended" enough that he hoped viewers would "come up with the most beautiful stories themselves that are very different from how I saw it".
Brand and Harrison worked through several drafts of the script over the following six months. Harrison, who cited the "terrible, terrible" experience of coping with the death of a close friend as one of his personal inspirations for the film, focused their efforts on inserting a more profound element of emotion into the script; in his words they were "trying to express the subjective experience of trauma". Once they and Renfrew were satisfied with their work, the group began pitching the project to various production companies. Renfrew consciously chose to avoid taking the project to major Hollywood studios such as 20th Century Fox or Warner Brothers; instead, she opted for "smaller companies who were interested in doing something off of center". A breakthrough was achieved after a meeting with director Gary Winick, who had established a company in New York City called InDigEnt. The company specialised in backing low-budget films shot on digital video such as Personal Velocity (2002), Tadpole (2002) and Pieces of April (2003). Greg Harrison's debut film Groove had impressed executives at the company, and John Sloss of Cinetic Media said, "November is exactly the kind of sharp and invigorating material that has made InDigEnt what it is".
Before the development of the film, Harrison had cast actress Courteney Cox in a Garry Trudeau-scripted ensemble film being developed at Fox Searchlight. Cox was a comic actress widely known for her role on the television sitcom Friends and had participated in only a handful of more serious productions. While the Garry Trudeau project was intended as a comedy, Harrison said he felt Cox was "very capable of drama and was very willing and wanted to transcend her comedic persona" when they had first met. The project did not enter production, but when Harrison began casting for November, Cox became a prime candidate for the lead role. He offered her the part without an audition: "Courteney's biggest challenge is redefining herself ... I knew I could bring something out of her that people haven't seen before", he said. Cox, who said she is more similar to her character in November than her Friends character, Monica Geller, said, "I wanted to make November because it's fascinating, confusing, ambiguous, eerie and makes you think. There aren't that many movies where you leave the theater and want to talk about them". She added, "it was trying to take you through a woman's experience of tragedy and through all the stages. I loved that".
Production finally began on May 19, 2003, and took place on Cox's days off from her Friends shooting schedule. Renfrew's home in Los Angeles stood in for the apartment of Cox's character in the film. The budget did not allow the luxury of trailers, but with some persuading, neighbouring apartments were converted into staging areas. For her role Cox donned glasses with thick frames, and had her hair cut by seven inches and a grey streak dyed into it. Harrison said, "She's seen in the fashion world as glamorous, a pop icon from Friends, so how to dress her down, and also make her body feel different. I had her wear those clothes around the house to feel like a different person".
The film's cinematographer was Nancy Schreiber, who had never before shot a film on Mini-DV. Harrison intended the shifts between chapters of the film — and Sophie's emotions — to be signalled visually, and he instructed Schreiber to employ different colour casts accordingly. For the opening robbery scenes (which recur throughout the film), Schreiber purchased two Panasonic AG-DVX100 cameras with white balance and color temperature controls. She used them with lighting gels and sodium street lamps that surrounded the real-life convenience store where the crew was shooting to make the image appear green. A similar process was used in the second movement of the narrative, which was bathed in orange to represent Sophie's despair, while white expressed "acceptance" in the film's third and final act. To help achieve a blue colour cast for the first phase of the film ("denial"), Schreiber surrounded the shooting locations with machines that pumped smoke across the set. Cinematographer and Sundance Film Festival judge Frederick Elmes commented of Schreiber's work, "She lit it and used colors in a way that the camera responded. And I don't think that's the kind of thing you do by accident. That's completely designed".
Harrison applauded the speed of Mini-DV for allowing such a short shoot: "We could shoot with multiple cameras at times, which helped us in our schedule". He also cited the advantages Mini-DV had in post-production, estimating that 75%–80% of the visual and sound design processing had been performed on desktop computers. November was shot in fifteen days on a budget of US$150,000, and post-production costs were the same – a typical production model for films produced by InDiGent. Of the tight schedule and production costs, Harrison said, "I don't recommend shooting a movie that way and I don't want to do it again to be honest. It's really, really taxing".
Once shooting had wrapped, Harrison entered the editing room and constructed the film over the course of eighteen weeks, occasionally consulting colleagues such as Sarah Flack (editor of The Limey (1999) and Lost in Translation (2003)). Harrison, who had started out in the film industry as an editor, noted the strong involvement of key creative personnel throughout the pre-production, production and post-production stages, and called it "kind of a more holistic approach to post-production". He described the experience of editing the film alone (for the most part) as "brutal" and "exhausting", but he said he was satisfied with his work nonetheless. When asked about the film's seventy-three-minute running time, Renfrew said that Harrison "let the story and the film dictate the length as opposed to trying to force it to be any particular length".
Danielle Renfrew was nominated for the Producers Award at the 2005 Independent Spirit Awards — the ceremony for which was held in February 2005 — in part for her work on November. On April 26, 2005 the film was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, whose organisers described it as a "homage to the mindbending thrillers of David Lynch ... Inspired by the perception-versus-reality mindgames of Mulholland Drive and the eerie psychological aesthetic of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now". Audience response at its screening at the festival was generally positive, but critic Brandon Judell dismissed the film as "highly irritating and nonsensical", while Joanne Bealy said it was "a Mulholland Drive/David Lynch copycat ... even at 88 minutes, it was too long for me". The film made subsequent appearances at the Seattle International Film Festival (on May 31, 2005) and the Los Angeles Film Festival (on June 22, 2005).
Critical reviews of November upon its eventual U.S. release were lukewarm. Greg Bellavia of Film Threat described the film as "Run Lola Run meets Pi with a splash of Seven ... As a thriller it seems awfully familiar and has trouble establishing a voice all its own", but added "Harrison and company manage to create one of the strangest romantic films out there and for their attempt at the offbeat deserve to be recognized". The New York Daily News was more negative in its summary of the film, labelling it a "convoluted and unsatisfying psychological drama". Mark Holcomb, reviewing for The Village Voice, said the film was "less compelling the more apparent its solution becomes. But before the foregone conclusion surfaces about halfway through, its disparate, unnerving components are mesmerizing". F.X. Feeney of the LA Times wrote, "it never becomes a mystery, like, say, Mulholland Drive, or even The Sixth Sense (despite the gimmicky magnitude of its final reveal)", while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it "a low-watt reworking of M. Night Shyamalan and David Lynch".
Scott Tobias wrote, "with each successive trip back to the scene, things only become murkier and less compelling, lost in pretentious symbolism and obvious visual signposts"; Michael Sragow of Baltimore Sun made a similar criticism, saying, "Benjamin Brand's script is a puzzle without a satisfying solution". Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, who drew comparisons between the film's narrative and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of dying model, argued "answers would be beside the point. Any other explanation, for example a speech by the psychiatrist or the cop explaining exactly what has really happened, would be contrivance. Better to allow November to descend into confusion and despair ... [it] does not bargain and does not explain." A review in Entertainment Weekly identified the film as "an homage to the work of David Hockney: Just as Hockney assembles smaller, overlapped Polaroids that don't necessarily make sense into a big picture that does".
Marc Mohan of The Oregonian dismissed the film as "a post-Memento, mess-with-your-head thriller that thinks it's much cleverer than it is", but commented that Courteney Cox "doesn't embarrass herself" in her role, while The Hollywood Reporter felt that she was "as convincing as she could possibly be". Mark Holcomb, however, said Cox's demeanor "suggests impatience rather than depression", and F.X. Feeney thought "Cox’s performance is too muted to vitally illuminate this woman’s agony". Others such as Walter Addiego (San Francisco Chronicle) believed the film was a conscious decision on Cox's part to "establish movie credibility after the megasuccess of Friends".
Most praise in reviews was directed towards cinematographer Nancy Schreiber's work on the film. Scott Tobias said the film "makes the most of its visual limitations"; Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle commented that it was "soaked to its noirish core in some fine cinematography". Kirk Honeycutt proclaimed Schreiber "the movie's real heroine, as she dramatically meshes the real with the surreal, creating different looks and emotions for each segment through light and color", while Jack Mathews wrote, "I suspect that it was her work — perhaps alone — that changed "November's" fate from a direct-to-video release to a brief first run in theaters".
In its first weekend of release in the U.S. November grossed $21,813 at eight theatres, and it debuted at number sixty-three on the box office chart. It peaked at number fifty-nine in its second weekend (aided by its expansion into nine more theatres) and generated $192,186 in ticket sales over twelve weeks. It was originally slated to enter wide release in late summer, but Sony Pictures Classics chose to expand the film into no more than twenty-seven theatres (in its sixth week).