The Film Independent Spirit Awards pride themselves on doing things a little bit different, happily throwing one heck of a party the afternoon before Oscar Sunday (on the beach in Santa Monica, lubricated by a pre-show cocktail “hour” that clocks in closer to three) to honor the best in indie film. This year’s outing was no different, aided by characteristically amusing hosts Nick Kroll and John Mulaney and featuring a batch of impressive winners.
The nominees list was heavy on the “Moonlight” and “American Honey” nods, and the final awards tally leaned firmly to the “Moonlight” camp (filmmaker Barry Jenkins, quite charmingly, used his Best Director acceptance speech to call out other directors he loved from the category, including “American Honey” filmmaker Andrea Arnold), with the film picking up a stunning six awards.
Each winner happily shuffled backstage to chat with press after their wins, often serving up some of the most notable, amusing and just plain smart quotes of the entire day. Here are some of the best.
Smart Advice and Kind Words
“Moonlight” co-editor Joi McMillon made history with her win for Best Editing (alongside Nat Sanders), as the first African-American woman to earn the honor. Even more impressive? The lauded Barry Jenkins feature was her first credited turn as editor.
“I think one of the main things I learned when I was doing [an editing internship] was not to be scared to trust your instincts,” McMillon said when asked about her earlier experiences in the industry. “You are a storyteller and you owe that to the director, to have opinions and to have your voice be heard.”
She added, “My biggest thing I’ve learned is to be your biggest fan and not your biggest critic.”
Challenges and Changes
Filmmaker Robert Eggers has never been shy about the challenges that came with the creation of his period horror drama, “The Witch,” which won both Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.
“It took a long time to find anyone who wanted to invest in this film. My producers really got it,” Eggers said with a little laugh when asked about the issues he faced in making the film. “That said, shooting with children and animals on 25 days in the middle of nowhere is not easy. So, that was hard.”
Other winners had to go to deeply emotional places, like “Other People” star Molly Shannon, who won Best Supporting Female for her portrayal of a mother dying of cancer. The film was directly inspired by the experiences of filmmaker Chris Kelly.
“I really did think so much about Chris’ mom,” Shannon explained. “I did think about my own mother and my father. If anything, it made me think about parents and families. It felt cathartic, in all honesty. It made me cry a lot. I really related to it as a mother.”
Best Documentary winner Ezra Edelman used his time backstage to reaffirm his perspective on his “O.J.: Made in America” as a single film. “I think the film itself, thankfully, works as a whole, as it was conceived,” the filmmaker said. “I also think there is so much in it, if people watch it in parts, that’s great too.”
“We knew from the start we weren’t going to make a feature-length film,” Edelman said. “To properly put the events of 1994 and 1995 in the proper context, you needed to go back decades. We were allowed, frankly, the independence to tell the story we deemed fit.”
When asked what he would do with an additional two hours for the project, Edelman was succinct: “I’m good,” he said to laughs. Still, when pressed for his thoughts on any continuing drama in regards to subject O.J. Simpson, Edelman conceded, “My gut feeling is that the story is not completely over.”
The Work (And the Importance of the Work)
Best Supporting Male winner Ben Foster picked up a Spirit for his work in “Hell or High Water” — awards season favorite Mahershala Ali was not eligible in the category, as “Moonlight” was nominated for an ensemble award — and used his acceptance speech to applaud the important emotional reach of indie film.
Backstage, Foster echoed some similar sentiments in relation to David Mackenzie’s Western revenge picture. “It was one of the lucky ones,” he said of the experience making the film. “They’re not always lucky. You hope, but it’s not always like this. This was not what we were expecting – we were making a little genre picture.”
When asked what appealed to her about her “Elle” character, Huppert was clear on why the part spoke to her, and why the work seemed so valuable. “She’s fiercely, ferociously independent,” she said.
“It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, professionally and creatively,” Best Male Lead Casey Affleck said of his work on “Manchester by the Sea.”
Despite the often dark tone of the film, Affleck embraced the drama of Kenneth Lonergan’s feature and fed off of it to deliver his lauded performance.
“Every project sort of has a lingering effect on you to varying degrees, unless you don’t care about it at all,” he explained. “If you’re connected to it, you put everything into it and it puts a little bit back into you and it stays there.”
He added, “The reason that I act is because you get to bring all the things from your life that most people just sort of carry around and they don’t get to share at the office. I get to go to my office and explore those things and share them with everyone. It is a privilege, no matter how difficult it is.”
When asked about how he feels about the current state of the country, Jenkins didn’t mince words: “Terrible!”
But he sees hope in the success of his film, and the world that has embraced it.
“I think ‘Moonlight’ exists as this beacon of inclusivity,” Jenkins said. “As this version of America that’s as valid as any red state, meat-eating version of America…I’m empowered by that. I got to tell more stories and speak truth to power.”
A Team Effort
A common theme at this year’s ceremony — and one often on display at the Spirits — was the importance of community and collaboration. Many winners made it their business to use their speeches to bolster other members of their respective teams.
Backstage, “Hell or High Water” winner Foster heaped praise on the film’s screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan. “In most jobs, it’s about simplifying an overwritten script,” he said. “You cut out about 25 percent that doesn’t need to be said. This script, nothing needed to be cut out. It was bare bones, it had sinew, it has muscularity…We built it together.”
The “Moonlight” crew is a particularly close-knit one, as many of its principal players, including director Barry Jenkins, producer Adele Romanski and cinematographer James Laxton all first met at film school. Laxton hasn’t forgotten that, and credits it with making the magic of “Moonlight” possible.
“We all had this long history together. We go back to film school days,” Laxton said. “We learned how to make movies together. We trusted one another.” Later, Jenkins added, “I think it just speaks to the idea that it takes a village to raise a child.”
Shannon called out the “Other People” hair and makeup team during her acceptance speech, but she also made the time to again laud their work once backstage.
“They were amazing,” Shannon said. “They transformed me every day, having to go through various stages of ‘cancer looks.’ They were unbelievable. I could not have done it without them. It really helped me to get into the character.”
Best Female Lead Huppert has long championed her bond with “Elle” director Paul Verhoeven, a sentiment she carried into her backstage remarks. “I am especially so happy for Paul Verhoeven,” Huppert said. “I feel like I share that all the way, and he’s deserves it. He’s such an amazing director.”
The Future (And Beyond)
After picking up her win for Best International Film, “Toni Erdmann” filmmaker Maren Ade was inundated with questions about the recently announced Hollywood remake, set to star Jack Nicholson (who she billed as “one of the best actors who has ever been alive”) and Kristen Wiig.
“Actually with the remake, it’s bit funny because I always had the feeling [that] it’s a movie that can be remade,” Ade said. “When we were shooting, it was one of my favorite jokes to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect, it will be done better in the remake.'”
She added, “I had to get used to the idea. Actually, I like it. The film is alive through that, it’s a universal story, so it can be remade, I think it’s funny.”
Ade did, however, reiterate that she will not be a part of the new remake. “I will definitely not be part of it,” she said. “I am having a divorce with ‘Toni Erdmann’ now.”
Huppert, though seemingly never lacking for roles, when asked, took the opportunity to reel off a list of talented filmmakers she was eager to work with, many of whom were in attendance. Her picks? “Barry Jenkins, Kelly Reichardt and Andrea Arnold.”
“We are just going to keep trying to grow ourselves, let the stories grow,” Jenkins said.
This year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards took place Saturday, February 25, in Santa Monica, CA.