Thirty-five years after it first began as the “Friends of Independents” awards in the back of a West Hollywood restaurant, the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards kicked off February 8 at its more established longtime home on the beach in Santa Monica. Inside its giant white tent at the base of the Santa Monica Pier, the Spirit Awards honored the best independent films produced for under $22.5M—but only after guests and members of the press (including yours truly) had been treated to not one, not two, but three open bars, including one stocked with Bulleit Frontier Whiskey’s incredible collection of 1980s arcade games.
Continuing from her Judy-themed pre-taped opening sketch, returning host and Spirit Award alum Aubrey Plaza (Best First Feature, Ingrid Goes West) delivered a no-holds-barred monologue via a Garland-inspired musical rendition of “Get Happy.” In a year when the Oscars have been skewered for snubbing female directors and other nominees of color, Plaza launched several jabs at the Academy—at one point wondering why there aren’t any sister directing duos à la Uncut Gems’ Safdie Brothers. “You’d think this town would love to pay two women one salary,” she joked—complete with an IRL rimshot from her onstage drummer.
The studio that brought us The Farewell, Uncut Gems and The Lighthouse—A24—had the most nominations coming into the show, with a whopping 18 nods. The first award of the afternoon went to one of its titles when Spirit Award veteran (Best Supporting Male, Shadow of the Vampire) Willem Dafoe scored the Best Supporting Male prize for his role as an unhinged “wickie” in Robert Egger’s black-and-white fantasy/horror/comedy The Lighthouse. Dafoe emphasized the collaborative nature of the craft. “It takes two to tango. He’s not here, but I share this with Rob Pattinson [a Best Male Lead for the film].”
This year’s John Cassavetes Award—which rewards the best feature made for under $500,000—went to Film Independent Fast Track alum Give Me Liberty, a comedic satire based on writer/director/editor Kirill Mikhanovsky’s own experience as a van driver for people with disabilities. Taking questions in the press tent following, Mikhanovsky shared words that all aspiring filmmakers should take to heart: “Something we don’t talk about is daring to fail. Ultimately, filmmaking is about confronting obstacles and making them your allies.”
In a refreshing take on the budgetary constraints facing most small indie films, the Russian-born filmmaker thinks the end result was actually better for it: “Maybe if we had more money, better conditions and more options to choose from, we wouldn’t have been where we needed to be.”
Veteran actor Nicolas Cage took to the stage to present the Robert Altman award to the director, casting director and ensemble cast of Marriage Story (thereby making its actors ineligible for the acting categories.) “Over the years, I’ve played my part in a number of marriage stories,” he joked, quipping, “You like that, huh?” as the audience chuckled. “Marriage Story contains the hard won wisdom and emotional truth for anyone considering a divorce.” The award was accepted by writer/director Noah Baumbach along with the film’s casting director, Francine Maisler, who used her speech to plug—at his request—her son’s Twitch channel.
After scoring the Best First Feature award for her directorial debut Booksmart, actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde responded thusly to a question from the press when asked how it feels to win in the face of this year’s female director shutout by the Oscars. “There are so many women who are ready to tell their story. We’re so lucky that [distributor] Annapurna was there to help us. That’s what we need, more producers to say: ‘I dare you. Go for it. I empower you.’”
In his first Spirit Award nomination, Jarin Blaschke—cinematographer of The Lighthouse—edged out his counterparts from Hustlers (Todd Banhazl), Honey Boy (Natasha Braier), The Third Wife (Chananun Chotrungroj) and Midsommar’s Pawel Pogorzelski to win the prize. To evoke the aesthetics of 1920s photography, said Blaschke, the Lighthouse team had to use one camera lens from 1912 and several more from the 1930s, all courtesy of Panavision. Thanking his veteran Nova Scotia crew for their support during the challenging shoot, he recalled: “They elevated everything we tried to do beyond my imagination.”
In announcing this year’s Bonnie Award—director Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, Wendy and Lucy)—actor and producer America Ferrara further emphasized the dire state of women’s advancement in Hollywood. “In 2019, women only accounted for 10.6% of the women directors working on the top grossing films. We obviously have a lot of work to do.” Presented by American Airlines, the prize is named after the first female pilot at a major US airline, Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo, and awards $50,000 to a mid-career female director.
As expected, Parasite continued its awards season sweep by nabbing the Best International Feature statuette. Even in the press tent—where 100+ reporters and crew were focused on filing reports and firing off tweets by the second—director Bong Joon-Ho’s arrival was greeted with genuine enthusiasm and elation. When asked what his biting social satire on class warfare has done for international cinema, Bong’s very earnest response served as a reminder of the way many of us automatically put Hollywood (and English-centric films) in the center of the cinematic universe: “I didn’t create this film to make a grand contribution to world cinema, I just wanted to create an honest portrayal of modern times. The deeper you delve into what surrounds you, the more universal and broad the story can become.”
The biggest applause and laughs by far—even the press tent erupted in cheers!—came when comedy-superstar-and-occasional-dramatic-thespian Adam Sandler won Best Male Lead for his portrayal of compulsive gambler Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. Delivering his five-plus minute speech entirely in the voice of his iconic Waterboy character Bobby Boucher, Sandler first gave a shout out to “my fellow nominees, who will now and forever be known as the guys who lost to fucking Adam Sandler.” A fellow nominee for Luce, Kelvin Harrison Jr. was especially amused, giggling hard and fervently applauding the quip.
“So let all of those feather-haired douchebag motherfuckers get their Oscars tomorrow night. Their handsome good looks will fade in time, while our independent personalities will shine on forever,” he said, roasting the Academy for what is widely regarded as an egregious snub for his searing role in the Safdie brothers’ gritty crime thriller.
Asian filmmakers triumphed again when Lulu Wang’s semi-autographical bi-cultural family drama The Farewell (also from A24) won Best Feature. The Chinese-born director recalls that it was only six years ago when she first attended the Spirit Awards a then-current Project Involve Fellow. “For all the filmmakers out there, you can absolutely do it.”
Doing her part in addressing the severe underrepresentation of women in the industry through all levels, she urges studio execs to finally stop making women jump through too many hoops. “There’s been a lot of conversations this year about how to encourage more women to be in film. I just want to say that you don’t have to encourage women—there are lots of women making films and who want to make films,” adding: “Really, what women need is just the job—just give them freakin’ job, give them the money.”
Echoing Olivia Wilde’s call for more support from the studios for female-driven films, Wang praised A24 for their nuanced yearlong rollout for her film, which the studio acquired for a reported $6M-$7M out of Sundance last year. The film went on to gross $22M in worldwide box office. More importantly, she’s grateful that A24 gave her the platform to promote the film: “They were invested in marketing the film as an American film, to show a different side of what an American and American family or leading lady looks like.”
Now that awards season is finally over—phew!—we can all let out a sigh of relief. As Director Bong expressed in the press tent: “After tomorrow [and the Oscars], I can finally go home. That’s what makes me happy.”
The 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards are sponsored by Premier Sponsors American Airlines, IFC and Mazda. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey is the Official Spirit. FIJI Water is the Official Water. JNSQ Wines is the Official Wine. Getty Images is the Official Photographer. Town & Country Event Rentals is the Exclusive Rental Company.
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(Header: Bong Joon-Ho accepting for Parasite; Photo by Getty Images)