The five nominees for the John Cassavetes Award at this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards are a diverse lot representing five very different films: Chris Eska‘s “August Evening,” Stephane Gauger‘s “Owl and the Sparrow,” Aaron Katz‘s “Quiet City,” Jeff Nichols‘ “Shotgun Stories” and Chris Smith‘s “The Pool.” indieWIRE spoke with each of the nominees about their acclaimed films, their backgrounds, and their future plans. The prize honors the best of the low-budget films produced each year, singling out five films each made for under $500,000.
Chris Eska (“August Evening“)
“August Evening,” a tale about the father-daughter relationship between an undocumented farm worker and his young, widowed daughter-in-law, has its roots in Eska’s own upbringing in a small Texas town.
“I worked on a chicken farm there, and met some people there who were somewhat like the characters in this film,” Eska says. “I decided this was what I wanted to do as my first feature.” The underlying theme of the film is about family and the sense of duty between generations. Eska was pleasantly surprised with the film’s dual nominations for the Spirit Awards (in addition to the Cassavetes, actor Pedro Castaneda is also nominated for Best Male Lead). “I knew I was short- listed, but I didn’t think we’d ever get nominated for the big awards,” Eska says. “A Spirit Award is the very top thing that an indie filmmaker can hope for. “
Eska has had his hands full finishing up getting “August Evening” ready for its theatrical distribution, and hasn’t yet started work on his next project, but he does have some idea of what he’d like to do next. “August Evening is sort of a film about surrogate families, a surrogate father- and-daughter relationship,” he says. “My next film will probably be a surrogate father-son film centered around the Mexican mafia.” Don’t expect a shoot-’em-up story from Eska, though. As with “August Evening,” his next effort will focus on relationships. “I try to make universal stories that have a clear sense of place but the intent is to show the universality of the human experience,” he says. “I like the flexibility of setting the same story in Texas, or even in India.”
Stephane Gauger (“Owl and the Sparrow“)
When he set out to make “Owl and the Sparrow,” Gauger wanted to do a “fast and loose” film in the vein of French New Wave, and he because he was born in Vietnam, he wanted to set it there. He wrote the script in a couple of months and went into shooting with the second draft, shooting in just three weeks. Casting the role of the young orphaned “flower girl” was pivotal.
Pham Thi Han, the young girl eventually chosen for the part, did not have acting experience, but she had dancing experience. “She knew how to take direction, but she was very natural in her acting,” Gauger says. “The tone of the film was very naturalistic, I didn’t want to have a child that was too cute, I wanted a child who would be natural.”
Gauger had originally envisioned the film as being about the stories of three different characters, but over the course of shooting, the character of the young girl evolved into the protagonist, and the film became more about her journey. “It really changed in the editing room,” Gauger says. “As we were putting the film together, it felt like the girl had the biggest journey to take, so we started and ended with the girl.”
Gauger has several things on his plate at the moment: a 60-minute documentary shot in Vietnam, another narrative feature also set in Vietnam, and theatrical release of “Owl and the Sparrow.” “I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into just doing Vietnamese films” Gauger says, “but I still have stories to tell.”
Aaron Katz (“Quiet City“)
After his first film, “Dance Party, USA” premiered, Katz got right to work on his next project. “I was writing a film set in Pittsburgh, but it wasn’t really coming together.” Katz says. “I decided to buy a blank notebook, start over, and make some rules for myself about how I was going to write it, to avoid the problems I was having with that script. Somewhere in the root of it, it wasn’t truthful, it never felt right.”
Katz wrote the script for “Quiet City” longhand in the notebook in about a week and then input it into a screenwriting program. “I showed it to (producers) Brendan (McFadden) and Ben (Standler); we made some changes but what we ended up shooting is pretty close to that draft.” He shot the film in October 2006, and with a very fast turnaround, the film premiered at SXSW in 2007. “I’m still proud of ‘Dance Party,” and I think we did a good job with it,” Katz reflects. “But with ‘Quiet City,’ I really tried to foster an organic environment in the writing, the performing, even the editing. The one question I always ask myself is, ‘Does it feel truthful?'”
Katz is keeping busy with his next project, a period film called “Lay of the Land.” This film is set in the early 1970s on the outskirts of Sacramento, and revolves around “a black guy who’s a jazz drummer and a white guy who’s a country musician.” Katz notes that he was holding off a little bit on that script because of the writer’s strike. “Even though I’m not a WGA member, it was kind of a respect thing,” he says. “Now that it’s over, I can work on that.”
Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories“)
When working on the script for “Shotgun Stories,” Nichols looked back to his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas. “I always knew that my first feature would take place in southeast Arkansas. I wanted to share this landscape, the people from this area.” The film is about three brothers coming to terms with their relationship with their abusive father who’s just died; the father, who later in life stopped drinking and found Jesus, started a new life with a new family, but never reconciled his abusive past with the sons from his first family.
The idea for “Shotgun Stories” popped into Nichols’ head one day. “I had this idea for a funeral scene where someone would spit on a casket – I felt that would be a really tough scene,” he says. “So why would someone do that, and how would it play out?”
Nichols built up a lot of back story in writing the script. “That was part storytelling style and part the way I just like movies,” Nichols says. “It affects the dialog, the way scenes play out; the violent fight scenes take place off-screen. They’re short, fast, awkward and clunky. You don’t get any pleasure out of watching the fights; it’s just kind of awkward. “
Where typically in a revenge film, you’d want the audience feeling, “go get the gun and kick some ass,” Nichols says, he wanted his audience thinking “No, I don’t want it to play out this way, I want them to stop.” It was a bit of a risky move, Nichols admits. “I wanted to debunk that structure of the revenge film and still make a film that would hold the audience’s attention.”
Chris Smith (“The Pool“)
“The Pool” had its roots in India. While helping a friend shoot a short film there, Smith met a room boy, “a young kid who worked 6.5 days a week, but his attitude was positive, so different from the US where everyone seems to find a reason to complain,” Smith says.
Smith adapted his script from a short story called “The Pool,” which is about “a guy who becomes obsessed with a pool and tries to meet the owners so he can swim in the pool.” But the story, Smith notes, becomes more about the relationships that develop, and the idea of the pool becomes secondary. “What people think they want in life and in the journey to get there, that can change. In looking at trying to adapt that story to a film I kept thinking back to that place where we shot the short film, and that kid that I met there, and decided to adapt the story to that place and that boy.”
The film shot in India for five months, and then spent about a year-and-a-half in post. “The Pool,” Smith’s fifth film to play at Sundance, will finally get a theatrical release in September.”I was trying to make something that would have an emotional resonance for people. I’m always looking for stories that intrigue me, and I hope that if it’s something I like, that an audience will also find it intriguing.”