BIFA winners pursue indies and blockbusters

At first glance, it’s hard to see what “Somers Town” and “The Dark Knight” have in common.

One is a semi-improvised, microbudget, black-and-white movie financed by Eurostar, with a third of the dialogue in Polish. Originally conceived as a short, it expanded into a 70-minute feature during shooting and earned a creditable $800,000 in U.K. theaters.

The other is a fantastical, $185 million superhero extravaganza that has grossed more than $900 million worldwide for Warners.

Give up? Both directors, Shane Meadows and Christopher Nolan, won prizes earlier in their careers at the British Independent Film Awards.

Since the BIFAs were launched in 1998, the kudos have regularly honored indie veterans of the old school, such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears, alongside younger filmmakers such as Kevin Macdonald, Stephen Daldry, Matthew Vaughn, Michael Winterbottom and Jonathan Glazer, who cross back and forth between the studio and indie worlds.

Meadows, nominated again this year for “Somers Town,” is a long-standing BIFA favorite. He won the best debut prize for “TwentyFourSeven” at the first ceremony in 1998 and best British independent film for “This Is England” in 2006. He was also nominated for “A Room for Romeo Brass” and “Dead Man’s Shoes.”

Nolan’s no-budget British debut, “Following,” was nominated in 1999 for best achievement in production, and “Memento” won best foreign independent film in 2001.

Since then, Nolan has pursued the kind of grander visions that only the studios can finance. He has commented that he never felt embraced by the clubby U.K. film industry but found a greater openness to new talent in Hollywood.

The contrasting careers of Meadows and Nolan sum up the richness and diversity of British talent that the BIFAs were created to celebrate. It also reflects the inverted nature of the U.K. biz that Nolan, who created the year’s biggest hit for a Hollywood studio, is seen as something of a renegade, while Meadows, the reformed skinhead from Uttoxeter who makes maverick movies on a shoestring, is the darling of the U.K. film community.

In Blighty, independent filmmakers are the establishment, which is ruled by public coin from U.K. Film Council, Channel 4 and the BBC. The BIFAs, voted on by a select group of Brit insiders and sponsored by the UKFC, are arguably closer to being the true voice of that community than the BAFTAs, whose broader trans-Atlantic membership is colored more by Hollywood tastes.

“What I like about the BIFAs is that they are totally British,” says multiple BIFA winner Macdonald. “Almost every British film is an independent film, apart from Harry Potter and some of the Working Title stuff.”

Macdonald is in Los Angeles finishing his first Hollywood movie, “State of Play,” for Working Title and Universal. Then he will return to his native Scotland to shoot an indie project, “Eagle of the Ninth.” Like many British filmmakers of the younger generation, he is keen to taste the studio experience without giving himself up totally to it.

“I don’t think the kind of filmmaker I am would suit doing a franchise, but I would certainly do another Hollywood movie,” he says. “If you want to make films that are personal and meaningful to you, they are not going to be the big blockbusters. But I have always been interested in finding an audience, even with my documentaries.”

Then there’s Anand Tucker, who between BIFA nominations for his debut “Hilary and Jackie” and last year’s “When Did You Last See Your Father?” also went the studio route with his second movie, Disney’s “Shopgirl.”

“When you grow up watching American movies, why wouldn’t you want to go and make films in Hollywood?” he asks. “When you pour your love and passion into your first heartfelt film and then hit L.A., the biggest lesson you have to learn is that it’s a business. We tend to be a bit inured from that here in Britain.”

For most British filmmakers, being independent isn’t an ideological choice but a fact of life and doesn’t rule out seizing the studio opportunity if it arises.

Even Meadows may end up making a studio movie one day, according to his producer, Mark Herbert of Warp Films. “We’re not averse to doing bigger-budget or studio films,” he says. “What I would love to aim for is to become a branded production company, where you could make any size of movie that fits the brand. ‘Hellboy’ is a great example of a studio movie that would fit the Warp brand.”

Perhaps Meadows and Nolan have more in common than meets the eye after all.

TIP SHEET
What:
11th British Independent Film Awards
When: Nov. 30
Where: Old Billingsgate
Market Host: James Nesbitt
Top nominees: “Hunger” (7), “In Bruges” (7), “Slumdog Millionaire” (6), “Shifty” (5)

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