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Spirit Awards Wed 2.28.2024

Behind the Scenes at the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards

Note: Watch the full rebroadcast of the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Award livestream on our YouTube channelHighlights below.

Thanks to the weather gods for pushing the expected rain back by a day, the 39th Film Independent Spirit Awards returned to Santa Monica this Sunday under hot and somewhat muggy conditions, giving way to a gorgeous sunset which began to touch down just as the ceremony was ending. Which is to say, for the first time in years it was not freezing cold in the press tent (yay!).

As in past years, Official Partner Bulleit Frontier Whiskey was back at the pre-ceremony outdoor reception with multiple stations serving custom cocktails, alongside the official beer of these Spirit Awards, Stella Artois. For guests tackling two or three awards shows within 24 hours this weekend (the SAG Awards and the PGA Awards both fell on the same weekend) and dying for a caffeine boost, multiple stations of premiere Spirit Awards partner Lavazza coffee were on hand to deliver cappuccinos and iced lattes.  

Host Aidy Byrant kicked off the ceremony by calling the Spirit Awards “the bisexual Oscars,” possibly referring to the gender-neutral acting categories that started last year. Poking fun at how much even “low-budget” indie films cost these days, she was quick to point out that Hollywood is “the only place where $20 million is like no money at all.” What does it mean to be in an “indie film,” she wondered? “If you’re an actress and are wearing your own shoes in the movie, that’s indie, baby.” Later in the broadcast, she also rattled off several new award categories that “I made up and no one approved,” such as: Most Rushed CGI, Best Sexy Woman, Best Woman with a Certain Sad Sexiness and Best Dog Actor in a French Legal Thriller.

The first award of the afternoon went to The Holdover’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph for Best Supporting Performance. “Independent films are the beating heart of this industry, and they are worth fighting for,” she said. Backstage, when asked what she is expecting from the upcoming Oscars, she admitted that this “has been a surreal and powerful time for me to see dreams manifest into reality one by one. I’m just here, present, and take nothing for granted. Truthfully, I’m just happy to be invited, and for me, I’ve already won because I’ve gained the respect of you guys. So that’s what matters to me the most.”

A co-production between France, Tunisia, Germany and Saudi Arabia, Arabic-language Four Daughters (Les Filles d’Olfa) scored the Best Documentary prize. Tunisian-born writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania sent her love to Natalie Portman and encouraged the actress to watch her doc, as many have told her that Four Daughters is basically the nonfiction, North African version of May December. She was thankful that “Arab women filmmakers have a voice, they are present, we should listen to them.” Backstage, she reiterated her love for cinema and the importance of diverse voices in storytelling. “Coming from Africa, from Arab country, we need to be heard. And for me, making movies for me is a political act even if the movie is not political. Because having a point of view, being subjective is very political.” 

The Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series went to Amazon Freevee’s breakout hit Jury Duty, which actor James Marsden calls “a moonshot of a concept.” Accepting on behalf of the cast, lawyer-turned-TV-Judge Alan Barinholtz paid special tribute to casting director Susie Farris because “One comment I keep hearing about our show is what a fantastic cast.” Marsden added, “It was such a group effort. The spirit and the minds that went into it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”

In this year’s sole new category, the Best Breakthrough Performance in a New Scripted Series went to 11-year-old Keivonn Montreal Woodard, for his role as an artistic deaf boy hiding with his brother in HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us. Delivering his speech in ASL backstage, he admits that he is shocked to be “The first black, deaf person to win this award in history. It’s crazy.” As for any advice that he can share with other black, deaf actors? “First of, be yourself. Do your best. Make sure to use all of your abilities and skills at the auditions.”

A drama about an Afghan refugee who used to work as a translator for the U.S. Army during the war, Fremont was awarded this year’s John Cassavetes Award, which recognizes the best feature made for under $1 million. When speaking to the press backstage, writer-director Babak-Jalali commented on the “otherness” that those who speak English as a second language often encounter. Since English is his second language—as well as for several others on the production team—he emphasized the need to humanize those who speak other languages. “There are people who speak other languages who are also human beings, that was the main theme of the film, to humanize someone who happens to be new as opposed to creating distance. Instead of focusing on differences, it was more about connection.” 

Previously announced as part of the Emerging Filmmaker Awards at the Nominee Brunch on January 6, the Producers Award went to Monique Walton. “It was really great to be honored as a producer and not for a particular project. So it’s really important for me to acknowledge the work that goes into it [producing],” she said backstage. Director of Mountains, Monica Sorelle, was given the Someone to Watch Award, and Set Hernandez won the Truer Than Fiction Award for his debut documentary Unseen.

After May December walked away with the Best First Screenplay prize, co-writers Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik gave a special shoutout to lead actress Natalie Portman for changing their lives once she signed onto the project. Backstage, Burch also paid special tribute to her casting director Laura Rosenthal and touted the crucial role that casting plays in any production. “I’m so happy that the Academy is recognizing the casting directors branch and they’ll have their own category. It was one of my favorite moments of the year. I just can’t say enough about what Laura Rosenthal has done for our movie.” 

The social satire dramedy American Fiction took home two prizes, including Best Screenplay for first time writer-director Cord Jefferson. “Our film is so independent that one morning I woke up at our hotel to find out that there had been a triple stabbing the night before in the lobby,” revealed Jefferson. “A Russian man had stabbed three of his friends and fled into the woods. They were cleaning up the blood. And I would not have it any other way.” Since he had included so much about his own life into the film, it felt vulnerable and raw, but it was also “the first year that I think I’ve finally been happy. One of the reasons is because I’ve been accepted and welcomed into this creative community.”  

American Fiction scored its second trophy when Jeffrey Wright won the Best Lead Performance for playing the frustrated novelist Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. After thanking their “smart and scrappy crew,” he shared that attending the Spirit Awards held special meaning to him. “The first time that I was here, the Spirit Awards, I had the opportunity to meet Muhammad Ali for the first time, who was here with his film When We Were Kings and who was an absolute hero of mine, and remains so to this day.” He then thanked his family: “The sun around which I orbit. I am nowhere without you.”

Netflix’s Asian-led dark comedy Beef won two prizes: Best Lead Performance for Ali Wong and Best New Scripted Series. When asked backstage to comment on the emergence of more authentic Asian-themed stories in recent years, Executive Producer and co-lead Steven Yeun said, “Sometimes I feel like it’s the framing of that question. I think that if anything, with Beef we were just trying to demonstrate that humans are humans are humans. Maybe the things that separate us—that we should celebrate—are not there to remind us that we’re absolutely different. We’re actually so incredibly alike. We’re just trying to do human shit.”

After winning the Best International Film trophy for the bilingual French-English psychological thriller Anatomy of a Fall, writer-director Justine Triet paid special tribute to the City of Angels. “Los Angeles has a special place in my heart. It’s the home of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. Without discovering them and their films at 20 years old, I wouldn’t have had the desire to make my own films and I wouldn’t be here today.”

Writer-director Celine Song’s feature directorial debut–the bilingual Korean-English romantic drama about second chances at love and self-discovery—took home the two most coveted prizes of the afternoon. After winning Best Director and Best Feature, Song thanked her crew, cast and family, but most importantly. “Thank you so much for letting me share what it feels like to be human, to love and be loved. Thank you for loving our film.”

For more on this year’s Spirit Awards, take a look at the complete list of winners and revisit your favorite #SpiritAwards moments on YouTube.

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(Header: Jeffrey Wright receives Best Lead Performance from Presenter Coleman Domingo)

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