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Spirit Awards Tue 2.28.2023

Directors Close-Up Recap: Ambition on a Budget with the John Cassavetes Award Nominees

Each year at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the John Cassavetes Award honors excellence in filmmaking within the confines of scarce resources–required nominees to have a budget less than $1 million dollars. Often, the films are made for far less. Such spirit of ambitiousness is vital to the Film Independent mission, driven by self-reliance and artistic ingenuity.

The directors nominated for the 2023 John Cassavetes Award include Araceli Lemos (Holy Emy), Max Walker-Silverman (A Love Song), Martine Syms (The African Desperate), Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead (Something in the Dirt) and Ricky D’Ambrose (The Cathedral). This year’s Directors’ Close-Up series allowed for a more detailed look into the production of these films and gave rise to a discussion of the great efforts involved in stretching limited capital. (Unfortunately, Ricky D’Ambrose was not able to take part in the virtual panel.)

Introduced by Film Independent’s Senior Director of Educational and International Initiatives Maria Bozzi and moderated by Nikole Beckwith, 2022 Spirit Award Nominee as writer/director of the film Together, Together, all of this year’s Cassavetes award nominees spoke to the intimacy of their creative process. The conversation ranged from dealing with disparate financiers to flippant weather conditions on set, from time allotted for shooting/post-production to the essential enlisting of friends and favors. A sense of place among a filmmaking/arts community was a common thread in making these features a reality and an emphatic point of all the directors.

Beckwith got the conversation started with a question: what compelled you to tell the specific stories that you told in your films and did the resources available inform the story you were telling or did the story inform the resources? A “chicken or egg” dilemma.

Araceli Lemos was inspired to tell the story of two sisters in Holy Emy by the relationship between her mother and her sister who raised her and an interest in the secrets that lurk beneath a lifelong bond. However, she also spoke to a necessary creative distance between her and the familial subject matter made possible by a short story about two sisters from which she drew inspiration. “I wanted to make a story about something that is personal but at the same time I need to have a huge distance [between].”

Lemos set the film in the small Filipino immigrant community in Athens, Greece as a place fit for secrets. In spite of European governmental grant funding, Lemos still had to be resource wise: “I tried to find the minimum amount we could to make this really specific story with, so I couldn’t really compromise. It wasn’t a small story. It was huge and I tried to make it with what we had.”

Colorado native Max Walker-Silverman, director of A Love Song, echoed this notion of resource maximization. “I’ve kind of only written for my hometown which as a small place, I guess is inherently a conversation with resources in every word. Writing is just a series of exercises of who you’re going to ask for a different favor or who’s going to loan you whatever thing you’re adding to the script. This particular story was something I had kicking around in my head for a while, about a widow waiting by a lake for someone she used to know and probably bubbled out of the strange experience of being in love while also caring for people who are losing it.”

He continued: “But I always sort of assumed that tiny, quiet story was ironically, un-producably small and so didn’t even write a script until the spring of 2020 when covid did genuinely present questions as to what the film industry might look like, having just graduated from film school, presented the possibility of having invested a lot of time into a grossly undoable thing. But there was that strange, encouraging voice in the back of my head that there might be a sneaky little way to do this thing that would have never been done otherwise, and [I] was also encouraged by thinking about my friends who I was missing very much at the time and wishing we had something to plan for together.”

Martine Syms spent a lot of time in 2019 and 2020 working on another script that she felt wasn’t quite clicking. Sparked by a comment about the difficulty of her grad program by a good friend Diamond Stingily who would go on to star in The African Desperate, the story was borne.

“I just wrote it very quickly given the resources I had. Thinking, okay, I have this much money, I know I can get a little bit more and I did have to do a bit more fundraising once I had it written. I really just wanted to make something and I felt like I had been writing and rewriting for a couple years on this thing that wasn’t quite coming together, and working on some other projects, but [thinking that] I really just want to make a film right now and that drove me to spend the next year and a half banging this thing out.” Syms also spoke to her producing superpower as that of enlisting favors to make her film shot in upstate New York a reality.

In discussing the necessary resources for Something In The Dirt, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead shared their approach to their fifth independent feature as one built on the basis of their experience and that unwavering resolve required to make a movie: “We’re just going to write an independent film that we can achieve if everyone else is like, ‘I hate these guys and I’m going home.’”

Acknowledging that resource availability always influences the movies they end up making, Benson and Moorehead did a significant amount of filming in their own house. They also emphasized the benefit of accumulating a decade’s worth of pitches and ideas to be used in other projects down the road, noting the importance of constant brainstorming and story development as a skill to be nurtured over time. 


To watch the full panel and check out the full conversation of the John Cassavetes Award nominees, purchase a series pass here and get access to all other 2023 DCU online and in-person sessions as well.

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