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Spirit Awards Tue 5.4.2021

Directors Close-Up: Stretching Budgets and Ambitions with the 2021 John Cassavetes Noms

Of all the various Film Independent Spirit Award categories, the John Cassavetes Award is one of the most special, shining a bright light on creative teams making their films truly within an economy of means–specifically, with production budgets under $500,000.

The award is given to the lead creative roles of the awarded film: writer, director and key producers to recognize the work it takes by a core team of dedicated storytellers to deliver an artfully crafted piece of microbudget cinema, very often catching soon-to-be important filmmakers on the early side of their careers; for example, Miguel Arteta and Mike White (Chuck & Buck, 2000), Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, 2003) and Andrew Ahn (Spa Night, 2017).

Fittingly, Ahn–a Film Independent Project Involve, Screenwriting Lab and Directing Lab Fellow–served as moderator for the final Film Independent Directors Close-Up session of 2021, The Spirit of Cassavetes: Making a Low Budget Movie.

Ahn opened the day encouraging a roundtable discussion between all the filmmakers, sharing his enthusiasm for their work by saying, “We’re all here today because you made beautiful, meaningful films for under $500,000–truly the ‘independent’ part of the Independent Spirit Awards. You all found creative solutions to having limited resources.” This led him to his first question for the group, “When you’re conceptualizing, when you’re writing your screenplay how much were you considering your budget?”

Ahn called first upon Isabel Sandoval–writer/director of Lingua Franca, a film that grapples with the issues of identity, civil rights and immigration. She replied, “The budget confines force me to really think from scene to scene what purpose does each serves dramatically and narratively in the project, which makes me more creative.” 

For Merawi Gerima, writer/director of Residue (the category’s eventual winner)–which focuses on a Washington D.C. neighborhood dealing with unchecked gentrification and the cultural devastation of its local Black community–he wanted to see what he could do with what they had on hand in terms of money, equipment and people-power. He was seeing the systematic destruction of his community, so there was no time to waste in telling this story, refusing to allow his project to fall into a limbo waiting for money. “Waiting for funding wasn’t an option,” he said.

Gerima’s idea of “people-power” prompted Ahn to ask these filmmakers about how they went about building their teams. Knowing it was unlikely that any of them could cut a large check for their crew, he asked: “How did you convince folks to work on your movie?”

The director of Saint Frances, Alex Thompson saw the key to building the team in the strength of their script. “Kelly’s [screenwriter and star Kelly O’Sullivan] script was so vibrant that it was easy to take it to the community making films on my side. Kelly has this really robust relationship with the theater community in Chicago. It grew from the script. Ultimately people were really excited about it.”

After 2020, with the pandemic and thousands of people literally taking to the streets in protests for various social issues, Ahn wanted to explore the role of artists as agents for political change. More directly, he wanted to know how these filmmakers defined success or a successful journey for themselves and their films.

Writer/Director Patricia Vidal Delgado, of the film La Leyenda Negra, defined success in the responses she received from audiences. “For me just the fact that people are coming up after a screening and saying, ‘I didn’t know that these kids from El Salvador were going to lose their TPS [Temporary Protected Status] and then be deported back to a country that they don’t even remember and might not even have any family there anymore.’ Just having that discussion was enough for me.”

O’Sullivan was looking for success for Saint Frances by delivering a message to women. “I wanted women to feel less shame and less alone when it came to reproductive choices and all these things we’ve been encouraged to keep hidden. They don’t have to define you and you don’t have to be traumatic, either. We can feel a connection in sharing our stories with each other and we can also laugh about it because there’s so much feeling and power in laughter.”

“With Killing of Two Lovers,” filmmaker Robert Machoian offered, “at one of the screenings, [I had] a 16-year-old girl come up to me and say, ‘I’m so glad you understood me. I’m in the middle of both my parents who are considering separation.’ And that little comment was for me the validity that I’d been successful, that she knows that she’s not alone in this kind of struggle.” Such experiences have inspired him to forge ahead, he said. “It’s filmmakers like Cassavetes who make a film with no money, that makes me go, ‘Are you kidding me I can make a movie with no money?’”

To close out the session, Ahn asked all the filmmakers: “What was your one budget item where money was no object, where you splurged?” Well… as much as you can when operating on a microbudget, at least.

Both Saint Francis and The Killing of Two Lovers dropped major portions of their budgets on the sound designs and mixes for their films. For director Isabel Sandoval it was all about a key location in New Yorka $10,000/day slaughterhouse. And Delgado had to have the song, Eres Mia, by singer, songwriter Romeo Santos. And for Merawi Gerima his big splurge was food. “We didn’t have nothing else, but my sisters and my aunts were cooking for us and we ate really good.”

Catch up with the rest of the 2021 Directors Close-Up below:


Directors Roundtable

Read the blog recap here.


TV Creators

Read the blog recap here.


Documentary Features

Read the blog recap here.



Read the blog recap here.


Best First Feature Nominees

Read the blog recap here.


Best International Feature

Read the blog recap here.


Writing and Directing

Read the blog recap here.


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.

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