As the second week of the 2021 Film Independent Directors Close-Up series wound down to its jovial conclusion on Wednesday, panelist Sir Steve McQueen—acclaimed director of 12 Years a Slave, for which he won a 2021 Film Independent Spirit Award—took a moment to marvel at the common thematic DNA shared between his project, Amazon anthology series Small Axe, and the other episodic series being discussed as part of the Week Two session.
“They’re all quite connected, aren’t they?” observed the passionate British-born, Amsterdam-based filmmaker, who was having so much fun with chatting with his fellow Best New Scripted Series Spirit Award nominees—Lee Eisenberg, Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani (all repping their Apple TV+ original Little America) and Anna Winger, co-creator of the Netflix drama Unorthodox—that he elected to stay well past his supposed hard out.
The March 10 panel was the second of nine weekly sessions leading up to the 36th Film Independent Spirit Awards ceremony on April 22, featuring shoptalk and Hollywood war stories from the creators behind 2020’s most arresting and innovative movies and TV shows (highlights from Week One here.) And as part of the inaugural class of Spirit Award TV/streaming nominees, the panelists were eager to advocate for their medium’s breadth of opportunity.
“We’re dangerous when we can reach people,” said McQueen, whose Small Axe is a series of five feature-length films about the Black and West Indian immigrant experience in Britain, with stories ranging from the 1960s to present.
“The reason for the ambition was that I wanted to fill the hole in the cannon of British cinema,” said McQueen. “These stories should have been made when they [the historical events the films are based on] happened. TV was an attractive platform, he said. “That was the reason for the presentation. I wanted to go straight into the homes and the bloodstream of Britain,” adding, “We’re dangerous when we can communicate with people.”
Immigration, it turned out, is a primary theme at the heart of all three shows, and the panel itself represented a range experiences with the subject—Eisenberg’s father immigrated to America from Israel; Nanjiani is originally from Pakistan; Gordon is married to an immigrant (Nanjiani); McQueen is a British national, based out of The Netherlands; and Winger is an American expat living in Berlin.
Winger’s Unorthodox is the story of Esty (played Spirit Award Best Female Performance nominee Shira Haas), a woman from an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in New York, who runs away to Germany to discover what life is like outside the strict customs of her cloistered religious sect. Winger—whose previous projects include the cult-hit espionage thriller Deutschland ’83—sees TV as a combination her two previous occupations: photography and novel writing. “I took to television very naturally,” she said.
Unorthodox is loosely based on the memoirs of Deborah Friedman, who Winger met through a Berlin school where both of their children were classmates. “We wanted not just to explore the [Orthodox] community, but the doubling-back of history, as a Jew coming back to live in Germany,” she said. “We had an amazing dialogue about Jewishness with everyone on both sides of the camera”—a dialogue that resulted in the casting of Jewish roles with exclusively Jewish performers, as well as not dubbing over the show’s Yiddish dialogue for foreign-language distribution, typically a common practice for international distribution.
Little America’s canvas is even more expansive, tackling in its first season eight different immigrant stories with radically different tones and perspectives. “The reason you don’t do this as an [ongoing] series is because immigrant stories are not a monolith,” said Gordon. “There was a breadth of experiences we wanted to showcase.”
Nanjiani (a former Spirit Awards host as well as winner) said he believes in the idea, “If you make something you want to see yourself, other people will want to see it, too,” saying that in Little America, “You’re getting to these primal things: love, fear, death—things that everyone, regardless of background, can connect with.”
Asked for any final thoughts about the craft and business of television, the newly shredded (thanks, Marvel!) Nanjiani humorously called out the American TV industry’s calorically dense catering traditions. “They should outlaw the donut container!” he yelled, “Why does every set have a giant donut box?!?” McQueen agreed, laughing in mock horror: “American craft services—noooooo!!!”
Session moderator Wendy Calhousn—herself an accomplished and TV producer and writer (Prodigal Son, Empire)—asked what unique production challenges each of the shows faces. “If Americans understood how we do things over here [in Europe] they would just die,” laughed Winger, hinting at Unorthodox’s tight budget. McQueen agreed, saying: “This is England, this is [co-producer] the BBC. You have to make a pound three pounds—three-point-five, actually.”
For the Little America team, complications (to say the least!) arose when production had to move to Montreal for one episode. The reason? To circumvent the Trump Administration’s Muslim Travel Ban in order to get two key collaborators to set. “And here we are, trying to make a series about how welcoming and great America is,” noted Gordon with bitter irony. “Presidents gonna President,” Nanjiani sighed, recalling the ordeal.
In addition to reading some of her favorite quotes from each series, Calhoun made the observation that all three shows all use music to illustrate their characters’ experiences.
In Little America, it’s the colorful palette of native and adopted musical genres thrown into the American melting pot. Eisenberg, Gordon and Nanjiani specifically cited the use of country music in their episode “The Cowboy,” starring Best Male Performance nominee Conphidence. In Unorthodox, it was the contracts between the traditional Jewish canticles sung by Esty—an act of defiance given rules that only men should be allowed to sing in prayer—and the contemporary club music of modern Berlin. For McQueen, music is most notably forefront in the Small Axe entry “Lovers Rock,” which takes as its name the genre of music created by the intermingling of Caribbean dub and American soul music.
It was a fitting “note” to end on. With TV, the song is anything but remaining the same.
Next Week: A Double-Dose of Nonfiction Storytelling…
A Different Type of Narrative, Part One: Feature Documentaries. Featuring filmmakers Maite Alberdi (The Mole Agent), Garrett Bradley (Time), Kirsten Johnson (Dick Johnson is Dead), James LeBrecht (Crip Camp), Alexander Nanau (Collective) and Nicole Newnham. Moderated by Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?). To watch trailers for our the panelists’ projects, click here. Single session tickets also available.
A Different Type of Narrative, Part Two: TV Docuseries. Featuring creators Christine Clusiau (Immigration Nation), Heidi Ewing (Love Fraud), Rachel Grady (Love Fraud), Steve James (City So Real), Peter LoGreco (We’re Here) and Shaul Schwarz (Immigration Nation.) To watch trailers for the panelists’ projects, click here. Single session tickets also 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.