As anyone sitting in the packed house at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City could tell you, the 25th IFP Gotham Independent Film Awards was a resounding success. Oscar frontrunner "Spotlight" walked home with the most awards of the night — Best Screenplay, Ensemble Jury Prize and Best Feature — and its ensemble cast was gracious as ever. "To get to do a selfless, ego-subjugated performance is rare, but to get a group of actors to do it together is a frickin’ miracle," said Mark Ruffalo. "This reflects back to the people we’re playing, really. They’re the great ensemble."
As IFP executive director Joana Vicente told Indiewire yesterday, "The mission of the Gotham Awards has always been to celebrate independent films and the creative community behind them," and her statements were certainly echoed by the eclectic selection. Making their way backstage into the press room following their victories, the winners took some time to talk to Indiewire about the roles, performances, screenplays and directing gigs that thrust them into the 2015-16 awards season spotlight. Below are all of the must-read highlights from the Gotham Awards winners’ room.
Sean Baker ("Tangerine"): Breakthrough Actor award on behalf of Mya Taylor
It was a big night for "Tangerine." The microbudget indie shot on an iPhone 5s walked away with two big prizes: The Audience Award and the Breakthrough Actress prize for Mya Taylor. Unfortunately, Taylor missed her flight and was unable to accept her award, but director Sean Baker took the podium instead to thank both of his lead actresses. "They prove that there is trans talent out there; it’s just up to us to look," he said to warm applause.
Backstage, Baker confessed he knew the minute he saw Taylor that she was destined for a breakthrough. "I saw her one morning from literally 35 feet away. We were doing the tour of the LGBT community and saw her standing there in the courtyard and I just knew instantly," he told Indiewire. "I knew right off the bat there was something about this woman. Mya has this aura about her that just radiates. She was commanding the conversation, and standing there she had this physicality about her that was striking and perfect. The minute I saw her I knew I had to talk with her. It was a little bit — you know, I wasn’t sure at first when we approached her [if she’d do it], but she wanted to tackle the challenge. That was the spirit we needed on set."
Nadia Manzoor and Radhka Vaz: Breakthrough Series (Short Form)
"Our main goal with ‘Shugs and Fats’ was just to make people laugh," said Manzoor about her web series, which follows two Hijabis on a quest to reconcile their long-held cultural beliefs with a new life in Brooklyn. "We wanted people to walk away happier than when they came in, and I think laughter is the best way to do that. There was also a cultural thing at play, of course, and humor was a way to transcend whatever was particular with our lives into something more universal. There are people who are obviously not necessarily from our culture, but they recognize certain things through the humor; it lets them see that they have had the same experiences as us even though they don’t wear the same clothes or practice the same religion. It’s a relatability thing with comedy."
"We wanted to show characters that don’t you typically see. We are human beings like you and everybody in this room," added Vaz. "We’re just like everybody else and we feel the same and act the same."
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer ("Spotlight"): Best Screenplay
"Spotlight" confirmed its power-player status on the awards circuit by winning the Best Screenplay, Best Feature and Ensemble awards. Director Tom McCarthy was clearly relishing the moment, and he and co-writer Josh Singer spoke to Indiewire after their Best Screenplay win about the challenges of writing such a dense investigative story.
"It wasn’t so much accumulating the information that was hard — because there were obviously a lot of interviews to be done and reading, which was actually interesting — but it was digesting all of that information and then trying to make some sort of coherent shape out of it," McCarthy said. "The challenge was deciding how we were going to break down everything we had researched. A lot of it was just staying true to the investigation and staying true to how each person contributed. We kept leaning into reality for this movie — that was our guiding principle. It was about trusting the reality, and not feeling like we had to manipulate it to make it work and be a movie. We gambled and put everything on black that if we trusted the reality of this investigation, it would pay off."
"Very early on, Tom was committed to authenticity and trying to make sure we had all the characters represented," added Singer. "In my head, I thought we’d narrow the story down to one or two protagonists because we were making a movie and that just seemed to make sense from a storytelling perspective, but he was very committed to making this an ensemble piece. We had six protagonists, and at first I was pretty nervous about that, but I think that’s one of the strengths of the movie. To get it right we did different passes on the script focusing on each character. Each time we would do it from a different perspective — so, reading it through one time and going, ‘Okay, what are we going to do to make sure Ben lands? Or Michael lands?’"
When asked what "Spotlight" could do to change the national conversation around serious journalism, McCarthy said, "We recognize how dire the industry is now and what position it’s currently in, and hopefully this will inspire people not just to become great journalists but to figure out a new model, a model in which high-level investigative journalism can exist, not just in the big cities but in the local communities and towns. That’s where we need good reporters to be, out there breaking what seem like small stories but then have massive effects."
Added Singer: "Marty Baron likes to say that the two biggest stories of the last 50 years — this one and Watergate — started as local stories. Watergate was two local reporters looking into a local break-in. That’s where the real stories happen on a local level. Look at what happened at Penn State — that was a local reporter at a small paper."
Jonas Carpignano ("Mediterranea"): Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director
"The initial idea for making this story was just following the person (who is now my roommate)’s life. He’s the person you see on screen. The resonance of it now is something we could’ve never expected. Even to this day, and even after winning something as amazing as this award, I still feel like all we did was make a movie about one specific microcosm of the European immigration experience, but people are reading their own situations and own life stories into it in these really profound ways. I didn’t expect there to be this universality to the story, but screening it you realize everyone has some kind of story like this — of trying to find a home, a family, a sense of belonging," the filmmaker said.
"For us, it was never about contextualizing this character in our grand schemes. It’s a very, very personal look about how immigrants see the world, but it keeps transcending the specifics of the socioeconomic situation that is presented. It’s the human element that keeps it in the conversation, I think."
Helen Mirren: Actress Tribute Honoree
Dame Helen Mirren stole the show with her feisty acceptance speech, in which she proclaimed, "I have to tell you a story about fucking the queen. When I first dressed up for this role [as Queen Elizabeth II], my husband laughed at me because I was dressed like the Queen. I asked, ‘Honey, will you ever fuck me again?’ Let me tell you a secret: He has."
Speaking to Indiewire backstage, Mirren got a little more serious while reflecting on her career. "My time in this business is really due to a huge amount of luck. I’d like to believe I’ve always been inclined to make careful choices with the movies I’ve decided to make, the roles I’ve taken on, the actors and directors I’ve allowed myself to collaborate with. I’ve always made sure to go back to the theater every four or five years to keep myself fresh, which has definitely lent itself to the longevity of my career. But let me tell you, it really is luck. It’s pure luck of the right role coming to me at the right time in my career and my age."
When asked what her favorite character has been over the years, she wasted no time finding an answer: "Queen Elizabeth I: She’s an intelligent, powerful, complicated, flawed woman. She’s fascinating. You don’t see enough characters, female or male, like her in theater or film."
Robert Redford: Actors Tribute Honoree
"When success came, I wasn’t expecting it, but I liked it, and it felt good," Redford shared with the audience while accepting his honor. "But when you have success, you want to be careful. It has two sides. If you get too close, you run the risk of losing yourself. You need to hedge against taking yourself too seriously. For me, the weapon is humility. Once, after becoming famous, I was standing on a street corner in LA. A bunch of teenagers in a car drove by and yelled, ‘Hey, Robert Redford!’ I got excited they recognized me. Then they said, ‘You’re a total asshole!’ That really put me in my place. Success is not something you embrace. It’s something you shadow box with."
Todd Haynes: Directors Tribute Honoree
While accepting the Directors Tribute award, Haynes said, "Filmmaking is always interdependent, particularly under the banner of independence… Each new film still strips me down, knocks me around, and reminds me of who I am. That’s a regimen of creative life that I will never take for granted."
Backstage, the director elaborated: "Like I said in my speech, all and any success that I’ve found in this business has to do with the producers and critics and actors. Without them, I would have never survived this business, and with them I continue to learn something new every time I make a movie. I’ve never stopped learning something on each film, and that’s important, especially when you’ve been doing this for quite awhile."
Bel Powley ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl"): Best Actress
You can’t blame Bel Powley for her nervous giggles and star-struck gaze after winning the Best Actress prize; not only did she beat the expected winners, Cate Blanchett and Brie Larson, but, as she told press, the Gothams was her first real awards experience. "I did not expect this. I mean — Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin — I mean, it feels like a real pleasure to be here," she said.
Speaking more to what she loved about her breakthrough character, she said, "Everything about this character resonated with me. It was the first real portrayal of a teenage girl I ever read, and that goes for anything I had ever read — articles, movies, plays. It was a story that needed to be told and I just wanted to be a part of that."
She went on to cite Andrew Haigh’s "45 Years" as her favorite film of the year. "’45 Years’ is an amazing love story told from a perspective that we don’t see in movies," she said. "[Like ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’] it’s a little bit controversial and not mainstream. It’s very important for me to take on these kinds of roles — not that they have to be controversial, but they have to be honest and real. That’s what ‘Diary’ is."
Paul Dano ("Love & Mercy"): Best Actor
Paul Dano may be fighting for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars, but the Gothams threw him a major bone with their lauded Best Actor prize for his riveting turn as a young Brian Wilson in "Love & Mercy." Speaking to the pressures of playing such a beloved real-life icon, Dano told Indiewire, "I think you have to relieve yourself of the fact that he is a real person in some ways. Brian is such an open and raw and honest person that the last thing I wanted to do was approach it as means of mimicry. I actually stayed away at first from a lot of video and photos and just listened to the music to get in touch with something else first, and then slowly build the character from there. It’s a very mysterious, weird thing, so a lot of times you’re just poking around in the dark trying to find what’s true."
"What really interested me about the role was this sort of seesaw of creative joy and really intense, internal struggle," he continued. "How those things coexist and how you can have such a hard time but make such beautiful music really stood out to me. There’s something about how it’s so painful to watch this character not receive the love and mercy he deserves until much later in life that just is powerful. When I was reading the script and exploring the character I remember thinking that I wish I could’ve just jumped back in time to help him."