Independent Spirits

Located a safe 20 miles from that gaudy, dirty strip known as Hollywood Boulevard (where the Oscars took place the following day), the Independent Spirit Awards kicked off early on a beautiful, albeit chilly Saturday morning. Filmmakers, presenters, and stars hit the red carpet at 10:30 am, and sponsor Jameson was on hand before noon with liquid refreshment. The awards, housed in an enormous white tent, began at 1:30pm, but the party started early, with Champagne in the press cantina, and Jameson flowing everywhere. The big winner of the day was Silver Linings Playbook, which took some heat about its actual indie cred: the Best Feature winner’s $21 million budget was a stark contrast to the $750,000 Best First Feature nominee Safety Not Guaranteed.

With that in mind, we asked some of the nominees what the term “independent spirit” meant to them-starting with Jason Schwartzman, whose entire career embodies the concept. “You couldn’t meet a more dependent person,” said the actor with a grin. “Ultimately, I think it’s probably being unafraid to do something when a bunch of people are telling you it’s a mistake. It’s about having a gut feeling about something and telling those people, ‘I know what you’re saying. I hear that you disagree with what I want to do, but I’m gonna do it.’ You have to follow your heart, and that’s it. A lot of times it backfires, so it’s very risky to do something that way.”

Speaking of risky, one of the most challenging films of the year was Compliance, a “loosely based” true story about a fast food worker emotionally and physically violated by an anonymous caller pretending to be a cop. Speaking with Best Supporting Female nominee Ann Dowd and director Craig Zobel, we asked what the mood on set was like shooting such an uncompromising film. “There were certainly times where we were shooting things that were so crazy that everyone was really quiet and just doing the work,” said Zobel. “But in general, in order to do a film like Compliance, it’s about stress and it’s so stressful that everyone tended to make jokes and be lighter on set.”

Ann Dowd added, “We knew what we were doing; we were telling a story. Actors and directors go to the dark. That’s our terrain, so we’re not thrown by the gravity of the material. You’re just prepared to do it, and you make sure you have each other’s backs. It’s about support, and that’s what the point is at the end of the day.”

In a year of great documentaries, Kirby Dick won Best Documentary Feature for The Invisible War, an unflinching look at sexual assault in the US military, and we asked how he arrives on a documentary subject. It’s a long process looking for a subject,” said Dick. “We’re always looking for subjects that will impact things right now. I don’t want to make films about subjects that happened 10 or 20 years ago. I want to make something that will immediately get into the debate and change things. Also, I want to cover things that haven’t been covered before, and make a powerful film. So it takes a lot of work to find it, but then when we come across it, like with The Invisible War, we knew within a day or two this is it. We’re gonna make it.”

Actor David Oyelowo (Best Supporting Male nominee for Middle of Nowhere) had a great response to our independent spirit question. “I think the word independent sums it up beautifully,” said Oyelowo. “One of the most frustrating things about being an artist or an actor is needing permission from other people to do what you love to do. The studio system very much represents that. You have to go through several hoops in order to be a part of that ride. With independent film, especially now with what’s happening with cameras and distribution models, it’s becoming easier and easier to just say, ‘Let’s get the best script possible the best people possible, go out and make our film, and trust that there’s an audience for it.’ That’s what we did with Middle of Nowhere. There was no studio attached. I think that’s what independent film is about, and I think more and more people are realizing that it’s doable.”

As the red carpet drew to a close, and publicists rushed their clients to the big white tent, Chris Tucker lingered, holding court and clearly enjoying speaking to the media. As he approached, we asked him, in terms of sheer fun, how the Independent Spirit Awards compared to other award shows. “I think it’s one of the funnest,” Tucker said with a huge smile. “Look at the beach! There’s a guy over there with a snake, and he’s naked! It’s incredible, man. You don’t see stuff like that anywhere.” –Drew Fortune