The 35th Film Independent Spirit Awards took place on the Santa Monica beach this Saturday, and the spirit of the show’s independence from the Academy Awards — and the Hollywood studio system at large — was on ready and, at times, anxious display in the press room backstage.
“The Farewell” — totally shut out at the Oscars — won the best feature and best supporting female award for star Zhao Shuzhen, and backstage writer-director Lulu Wang talked about how hard it was to secure financing, and the struggle she had to convince herself she deserved it.
“I have to constantly have this battle in my head of, ‘Why do I deserve any money from people who don’t necessarily know me,” Wang said. “There’s a sense that why should anybody just give me money? Why should anybody be entitled to that? I guess I want to encourage women to be entitled, because men have been entitled for a long time. People make money off of our stories, and also audiences want to see our stories.”
The first winner of the ceremony, Willem Dafoe (“The Lighthouse”) for best supporting male, was asked repeatedly to comment on his costar Robert Pattinson’s impending debut as the Caped Crusader in 2021’s “The Batman.” At first, he tried to laugh off the question.
“How will he do as Batman?” Dafoe said with a playful growl. “How the hell am I supposed to know that?!” He went on to praise the craft behind the production that transformed him into a grizzled, ancient-seeming lighthouse keeper, until he was asked again about Pattinson’s turn as Batman.
“Let’s talk about ‘The Lighthouse,’ OK?” Dafoe said, with an air of exasperation. “Sorry, but there’s plenty of time to talk about that. We’re here at the Independent Film Awards, and it’s nice to talk about the movie that I’m here for, and a film that I’m happy for people to see.” Dafoe then left the press room as the assembled journalists applauded him.
Best male lead winner Adam Sandler (“Uncut Gems”) entered the press room to resounding applause, but the comedy star was largely low key and contemplative, reflecting on how gratifying it’s been for him “to do something new with the Safdie boys,” referring to writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie, who won the best director prize.
Asked how he’s changed since his time on “Saturday Night Live,” Sandler winced. “Oh man, I’m a little heavier,” he said. “I used to wear a size 32 waist, and I don’t know, it’s way up there now.” One member of the press couldn’t resist the chance to ask Sandler how what opera his classic “SNL” character Opera Man would have performed in “Uncut Gems.”
Sandler broke into a brief aria, and then started to laugh. “I don’t know!”
For their part, the Safdie’s spent most of their time backstage singing Sandler’s praises — even though the actor’s representatives repeatedly turned them down for “Uncut Gems” over the last 10 years.
“The dream was always Sandler,” said Benny Safdie.
Bong Joon Ho, winner for best international film for “Parasite,” said he believed his film’s themes of class struggle were universal — quite literally. “I think if there were people living on Mars and there were a movie theater there, this film would still resonate with the people there,” he said through a translator. “That’s how serious our current issues are.”
Mostly though, Bong seemed relieved to be near the end of his American awards season odyssey. “After tomorrow, I can finally go home,” he said with a weary smile. “That’s what makes me happiest.”
Best first feature winner Olivia Wilde singled out Annapurna Pictures for taking the chance on allowing “Booksmart” to be her debut as a director. “We need to see more producers to say I dare you to go for it, I encourage you, and I empower you,” she said. “This year’s been so amazing for female directors, and I’m so proud to be in this movement. There are so many of us. There are so many women who are ready to tell their stories.”
Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, the directors for best documentary winner “American Factory,” praised the support that president Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama gave their film when they choose it to be the inaugural release for their production company Higher Ground. Reichert mentioned income inequality in her acceptance speech, and she was asked backstage whether she supported socialism.
“I go back a long ways as a socialist, well before Bernie Sanders,” said Reichert, who said she identified as a “democratic socialist feminist.” “We should go in that direction. We should share the wealth. We should tax rich people more than we are.”
But Reichert also praised one of the subjects of her film, the Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang — who opens a Chinese glass factory in an old Ohio car plant and then clashes with union organizers — for never cutting off the filmmakers’ access while shooting. Reichert said that Chairman Cao would have attended the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, but was prevented from traveling due to the ongoing travel restrictions from China due to the coronavirus.
The John Cassavettes award — given to a film made for under $500,000 — went to “Give Me Liberty,” and director Kirill Mikhanovsky and producer Alice Austen talked about the pressures they faced while trying to finance their film.
“We refused when we were pressured to cast an actress who pretended to have a disability,” said Austen. One of the film’s stars, best supporting female nominee Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, has ALS and was cast as a social with the same disease. “There were people who were really nervous about having people with disabilities just play people … having nothing to do with their disability.”
It’s one of the most enduring legacies of the Spirit Awards, shining a major spotlight on films and filmmakers who may have otherwise flown way under the radar, but worked just as hard, and under even greater pressure, as the biggest names in Hollywood to get their films made.
Case in point, when best first screenplay winners Fredrica Bailey and Stefon Bristol, for the time travel sci-fi film “See You Yesterday,” were asked about how their film’s producer, Spike Lee, helped to guide their film, Bristol, who also directed, just smiled.
“The best piece of advice Spike Lee gave me about filmmaking,” he said, “is ‘Don’t f–k up.'”