SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD
For the 11th year the Spirit Awards will give a special prize to “a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition.” The Turning Leaf Someone to Watch Award comes with a $20,000 unrestricted grant, and in previous years has gone to Christopher Munch and Marc Forster.
This year’s finalists were nominated by a committee that included Wellspring’s Ryan Werner (chair), filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, critic Scott Foundas, Chicago fest programmer Helen Gramates and HBO Films’ Maud Nadler.
It’s a fiercely independent mixture of veteran avant-garde directors and a UT Austin grad:
“Most of my films come out of the world as I see it around me,” says 42-year-old Jem Cohen, whose film “Chain” grew out of a series of shorter works. “My sense of film is as a way to get closer to the world we live in, rather than to create a fantasy world.”
Using footage Cohen shot around the world, the trance-like mixture of non-fiction and narrative elements examines the overwhelming corporatization of city architecture — malls, business complexes, hotels and amusement parks — and connects the lives of a Japanese businesswoman and young female drifter to an increasingly homogenized cityscape.
“It’s not a documentary, but it pleases me that people in an audience might think of it as one,” says Cohen, who has been making films for more than 20 years. “The most important thing to me was to get people to see geography clearly.” The Brooklyn-based filmmaker is currently working on a short for PBS and another narrative/documentary collision, this time using archival footage of 42nd Street and Times Square.
For 29-year-old writer-director and UT Austin graduate Bryan Poyser, adolescent sexuality was a topic that hadn’t been dealt with very thoughtfully in movies. “Dear Pillow,” a brutally honest portrait of teen boredom and sexual awakening, is Poyser’s take on the subject. “We made a film that was about sex, but had no sex or nudity in it, just characters discussing it in exhausting detail.”
Poyser declined a few prestigious graduate school acceptances to finish the pic, which was filmed on 24-frame digital with a $4,000 Texas Filmmakers Production Fund grant. But with festival acclaim from Boston to Edinburgh — and now a Spirit Awards nom — he hasn’t regretted it. “I would have had to borrow $40,000 to go to any of those schools,” he says, “I got my education in one year and it only cost me $10,000 in credit card debt.”
Next Poyser will write and produce “The Cassidy Kids,” a dramatic mystery to be directed by his “Dear Pillow” cinematographer-producer, Jacob Vaughn.
Jennifer Todd Reeves
An excursion to New Zealand planted the seeds for Reeves’ first feature-length film after making mostly shorts. “I felt this new awareness of different ways of living, and different ways of being an individual in the world.”
That footage became part of the nostalgic fabric of “The Time We Killed,” which incorporates Super 8, 16mm and DV footage to dramatize the apartment-bound story of a New York agorophobe (Lisa Jarnot) dealing with amnesia, neighbors, world politics, ex-lovers and her own fragmented mind. Reeves won festival awards at Berlin and Los Angeles’s Outfest with the pic, but has yet to find a distributor.
“It is hard to pin down exactly what (‘The Time We Killed’) is because it weaves so many concerns. There must be a simple catchphrase for it, but I haven’t thought of it yet,” says Reeves, 33, who teaches filmmaking at her alma mater, Bart College, and recently debuted a new live film performance project, “When It Was Blue,” at the Museum of Modern Art.
— Robert Abele
The Bravo/American Express Producers Award, which includes a $20,000 unrestricted grant, “honors emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films.” To be nominated, an individual must have produced at least two features with two different directors and be a U.S. citizen.
This year’s nominating committee comprises producers Scott Macaulay (chair), Anthony Bregman, Kathryn Galan and Janet Yang, and Sundance Institute’s Michelle Satter.
Prior winners include Mary Jane Skalski (“The Station Agent”) in 2004 and Effie T. Brown (“Real Women Have Curves”) in 2003. The 2005 finalists are:
In the late ’90s, Renfrew was well on her way to a successful career working on social-issue docs in San Francisco when she decided to help out on a friend’s indie feature. Renfrew formed Map Point Pictures with director Greg Harrison and produced his first feature, “Groove,” a story about the San Francisco Bay Area rave scene. The film premiered at Sundance in 2000, where it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.
Renfrew and Harrison’s next film, psychological thriller “November,” took home the cinematography prize at Sundance 2004. Other projects include Amanda Micheli’s stuntwomen docu “Double Dare” and Katrina Holden Bronson’s feature directorial debut, “Daltry Calhoun,” for Quentin Tarantino’s L. Driver Prods. and Miramax.
“I’ve been fortunate to have very close relationships with the directors I’ve worked with,” says the 32-year-old Renfrew. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no point in looking at the director-producer relationship as being strictly about business. These people put their heart and soul into their work.”
Sean C. Covel & Chris “Doc” Wyatt
In Park City in 2003, Covel and Wyatt were struggling to find financing for their first feature. Their luck began to change after they attended a Slamdance screening for “Peluca,” a comedy short about a high school loser directed by Wyatt’s Brigham Young U. classmate Jared Hess.
“Jared’s vision was so complete and so thorough,” recalls Wyatt, who met Covell at USC’s Peter Stark graduate producing program. “You saw the whole world. We knew we had to work with him.”
Less than a year later, the duo had wrapped their first feature, Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite.” “We used the relationships we had built after grad school to make ‘Napoleon’ for only $400,000,” says Covell. It was picked up by Fox Searchlight at Sundance 2004 and went on to earn more than $44 million theatrically.
The duo have since completed Brian Peterson’s “Think Tank” and are prepping Dagen Merrill’s thriller “Crawlspace.”
“We’ve been fortunate enough to see our first real risk really pay off,” says Covel, “but we have no illusion about how risky this business is.”
In 1997, Kwon was working in film distribution and producing shorts on the side when she got her first break, as production manager on Miguel Arteta’s debut, “Star Maps.” Since then, Kwon has worked on every one of Arteta and producer Matthew Greenfield’s projects.
“We all share the same sensibility,” says Kwon. “It definitely started out with them being my mentors, but we’ve grown to become partners.”
Last year, Kwon won the Mark Silberson/Sundance Fellowship for New Producers. Her last two films, Michael Kang’s “The Motel” (produced with Arteta) and Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” screened at Sundance 2005.
“I love working with first-time directors,” says Kwon. “Plus, I enjoy the challenge of finding an audience for difficult work.”
— Matt Ross
TRUER THAN FICTION AWARD
“The thrust of the Truer Than Fiction Award is to encourage filmmakers of great talent who have not yet received significant recognition,” says nominating committee chair Mike Maggiore, a programmer at Gotham’s Film Forum.
Joining Maggiore on the nominating panel were film journalists Nathan Lee and Chuleenan Svetvilas; Sundance Documentary Fund’s Diane Weyermann; and helmer Megan Mylan, co-director of “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” last year’s winner.
Other past recipients include David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro (2001’s “Keep the River on Your Right”), Monteith McCollum (2002’s “Hybrid”) and Jennifer Dworkin (2003’s “Love & Diane”).
Vying for the ninth annual kudo — this year sponsored by DirecTV and IFC — and an unrestricted $20,000 cash prize are:
Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman
Oscar nominee “Born Into Brothels” records photojournalist Briski’s work teaching photography to the stigmatized children of Calcutta’s red-light district. Briski describes it as “a heart-opening experience.”
Adds co-helmer Kauffman: “I was blown away by the joy kids had, that they communicated by their photography and actions. It’s the kids’ hope and resilience that sets it apart.”
“Brothels,” debuted at Sundance 2004, where it took home the Audience Award. It has won more than 27 festival kudos and is in limited theatrical release via ThinkFilm.
With “Chisholm ’72 — Unbought & Unbossed,” first-time helmer Lynch chronicles the 1972 grass-roots presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman and the first femme to run for America’s top political job. Lynch points out that the campaign was “unbelievable, in a way” and being nommed in two Independent Spirit Award categories (best doc, too) is much like Chisholm’s own long shot.
Shot with a ’70s visual flair and funded by ITVS and grants — plus contributions from the celeb foundations of Oprah Winfrey, Halle Berry, and Bill and Camille Cosby — “Chisholm” aired on PBS in February and will be released on DVD by 20th Century Fox in March.
“Chisholm transcended her place and created a space for herself,” Lynch says. “She created opportunity and didn’t demand her right to be there, she asserted her right to be there.”
A window into how news is crafted through the lens of its creators, Noujaim’s “Control Room” examines the U.S. involvement in Iraq through Al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s most- watched news org.
Among most critics’ top 10 films of the year, the doc was ineligible for the Oscar race, as it was broadcast internationally before the required TV blackout period of nine months. Pic scored Intl. Documentary Assn. and Directors Guild of America noms, and won prizes from the Boston and Seattle critics associations. Magnolia released “Control Room” in May, grossing $2.6 million domestically.
“Control Room” is Noujaim’s first solo directing effort. She co-directed IDA and DGA honoree “Startup.com” (2001) with Chris Hegedus.
Carlos Sandoval & Catherine Tambini
“Farmingville” looks at America’s controversial Latino immigration policies through a Long Island town’s reaction to the attempted murder of two Mexican day laborers. Project began in 2002 at the IFP Market, where it attracted the attention of programmers from PBS’ “P.O.V.” strand.
“Farmingville” opened “P.O.V.’s” season June 22 and prompted a wave of postings on the pubcaster’s Web site. “I didn’t realize what a chord we were going to hit with the movie,” says co-director Sandoval. “It’s a story that resonates throughout the country because it deals with the new face of immigration and making it in America. Even Burlington, Vt., has Mexicans on its dairy farms.”
Doc had its premiered at Sundance 2004, winning a special jury prize, and traveled to more than 30 other festivals.
— Kathy A. McDonald