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Spirit Awards Fri 3.5.2021

Best Director Nominees Talk Shop: Lee Isaac Chung, Emerald Fennell, Eliza Hittman, Kelly Reichardt, Chloé Zhao

We’ve all heard the old saying, “When life gives you COVID, make lemonade.” At least we’re pretty sure that’s how it goes. And nowhere were the limitations of our ongoing pandemic quarantine transmuted—Eucharist like—into a cineaste’s tart lemonade more demonstrably than at noon this Wednesday, when Film Independent kicked off its annual Directors Close-Up series with a panel featuring all five of this year’s Best Director nominees at the upcoming Film Independent Spirit Awards: Lee Isaac Chung (Minari), Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always), Kelly Reichardt (First Cow) and Chloé Zhao (Nomadland.)

The March 3 session began the 20th overall edition of Film Independent’s signature panel series, and while part of us misses the IRL experience of DCUs past, an even greater part of us (the part that likes lemonade) was thrilled to be able to see our incisive, candid and occasionally off-the-rails filmmaker conversations accessible to a brand new global audience of film lovers.

DCU passholders have the ability to access all of this year’s panels On Demand at any time. And there are still seven whole weeks (!) to go. So really, there’s no better time to hop on board than right now. Week One highlights below:

This year’s “Directors Roundtable: The Spirit of Independence” panelists also hailed from around the world—with Fennell dialing in from the UK, Hittman from Brooklyn and Reichardt from Oregon. Meanwhile, Zhao and Chung joined from their own respective corners of LA, as did Film Independent President Josh Welsh, on hand to serve as moderator for the not-quite-evening.

To start, Welsh asked the directors—who all either wrote or co-wrote their movies—about their respective writing processes. First Cow is Reichardt’s first feature based on adapted material, based on collaborator Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel, The Half Life. For her characteristically sparse feature, Reichardt took the more sprawling book’s themes and characters and “built it into a smaller universe, on that takes place over just a few week.”

Chung said he had had the story—largely autobiographical—of an immigrant Korean-American agricultural family in his head for years, but wanted to wait to mature as a filmmaker before taking on such personal material. It wasn’t until he found himself at a crossroads, considering giving up filmmaking to teach full-time, that he felt he had to get the story out of his system. To do so, he adopted a highly structured “10 x 10” writing plan laid out by his friend, filmmaker So Yong Kim, who in turn borrowed it from Steven Soderbergh. “Others say [a process like this] is too systematic, but I needed it,” he said.

Fennell’s process of conceiving Promising Young Woman was completely different. She said her story ideas usually come from a single image that other ideas begin to attach themselves to. In this case it was, “A girl on a bed being drunkenly undressed then sitting up completely lucid, saying, ‘What are you doing?’” Fennell also said that she doesn’t ever begin physically writing until the entire script—including tweaks and revisions—is already worked out in her head. “Then when it all makes sense, I’ll just get it down in a week,” she said, laughing, “It’s not at all practical!”

Welsh continued by asking about the casting process for each film. For Hittman, settling on newcomer Sidney Flanigan for the crucial lead role of Never Rarely’s Autumn was a “long, very challenging process.” She had considered Flanigan for the role ever since scouting her as a possible subject for a prior documentary project. When that didn’t pan out, Hittman continued to keep up with the teenage Flanigan through social media. “I’m sure she thought I was very creepy,” Hittman laughed. When Hittman failed to find a lead actress through more conventional casting (“I didn’t see what I was looking for”) she tapped Flanigan.

In discussing her film’s lead—two time Spirit Award (and Oscar) winner Frances McDormand—Zhao joked, “It took her a lot of auditions, she almost didn’t get the part.” In reality, Zhao relied heavily on McDormand’s contributions to animate Nomadland’s Fern. She also praised McDormand’s ability to moderate her performance style to match the energies of a variety of professional and nonprofessional actors, a must for her improvisatory, naturalistic style.

For Chung, the challenge was in finding the right child actors to play the Yi family’s young mischief-makers. “There’s a lot of stress that goes into that, not knowing if it’s going to work,” he said. Eventually, though, he was able to settle on two preternaturally gifted young performers: Noel Kate Cho and Alan Kim—and the fact that his wife absolutely loved Kim helped to seal the deal.

Before opening the video chat up to audience Q&A, Welsh asked about each film’s unique visual approach. For Promising Young Woman, Fennell wanted to create a “sickly feminine world” and cited the 2014 horror hit It Follows as the project that made her want to work with Production Designer Michael Perry. Chung complimented Fennell by comparing the highly structured visual language of her film to Stanley Kubrick. “It needed to feel like a doll house,” said Fennell.

Reichardt explained why she favors the 4:3 frame—previously used in her sparse 2010 pioneer drama Meek’s Cutoff. “Everything is super-horizontal in the forest, so it was an easy choice,” she said, also noting that the squared 4:3 frame is also an excellent format for portraiture. Shooting in the woods outside urban Portland was more of an issue for sound, rather than cinematography, she said.

In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Hittman said she liked the idea of mirroring her teen protagonists’ “secret, transgressive journey”—shooting her native New York unsentimentally and not shying away from the liminal dread felt in precarious locations such as Port Authority. The only place she wanted to feel safe, she said, was the abortion clinic that serves as the pregnant Autumn’s ultimate destination. But even those locations were “a logistical nightmare,” according to Hittman.

Zhao’s strategy for filming the majestic outdoor scenery traversed my McDormand’s Fern was informed by classic Western painting. She made sure to place human figures against cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ stunning landscape photography in order to provide a consistent sense of scale. “Otherwise it could get a little postcard-y,” she said.

Ultimately, Zhao summed up the independent filmmaking experience by saying, “You say it’s luck, but really it’s the culmination of the entire [crew] and their contributions—that’s what allows you to do it.


Closed captioning will be available for the Directors Close-Up series, and the sessions will be available on demand, exclusively to passholders, after the series concludes on April 21.

Next week…

Small Screen, Big Picture: TV Creators. Featuring TV creators Lee Eisenberg (Little America), Emily V. Gordon (Little America), Steve McQueen (Small Axe), Kumail Nanjiani (Little America) and Anna Winger (Unorthodox) and moderated by Wendy Calhoun (producer/writer; Prodigal Son, Empire.) Future and aspiring showrunners, this is the session for you! Watch the trailers for March 10’s panelists’ projects here. Single night tickets available.


The 2021 Directors Close-Up is sponsored by Premier Sponsors Directors Guild of America (DGA) and SAGindie, Supporting Sponsor Sony Cinema Line and Film Independent Spirit Awards Premier Sponsors Genesis and IFC. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey is the Official Spirit. FIJI Water is the Official Water. Getty Images is the Official Photographer.

We’re also honored to be partnering with the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) SeeHer, the leading global movement for gender equality in media, advertising, marketing and entertainment and AMC Networks to further celebrate and act as a catalyst for accurate and meaningful representation in storytelling.

More Film Independent…

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