It's hard to imagine an awards show location more footloose and fancy-free than one situated alongside the Santa Monica Pier on a fog-socked California beach, but the annual Film Independent Spirit Awards have never liked to play things in a typical manner. As is tradition, this year's show — the 31st on record — was held on the Saturday afternoon before the Academy Awards, drawing a host of some of indie film's hottest names and beloved nominees.
The Indie Spirits shared some of their starriest nominees with the Sunday ceremony, including best female lead winner Brie Larson (who is expected to pick up the best actress Oscar tomorrow evening) and the night's biggest winner "Spotlight" (which walked away with best feature, best screenplay, best director and the Robert Altman Award), but there were plenty of truly independent winners and nominees for the show to call out, like "Tangerine" star Mya Taylor, the Oscars-overlooked Netflix feature "Beasts of No Nation" and SXSW winner "Krisha."
Indiewire was on hand for the show, including occupying a prime spot backstage, where every winner happily marched back to chat about their newest honor to a busy press tent filled with keyboard-crushing journalists and fans alike. Below is a collection of some of the best quips, lines and insights from this year's big indie winners.
Idris Elba, Best Supporting Male, "Beasts of No Nation"
Although Cary Fukunaga’s "Beasts of No Nation" was overlooked by the Academy, the original Netflix feature cleaned up big time at the Indie Spirits, and the show led off with a best supporting male win for Idris Elba. Backstage, Elba still seemed to be wrestling with the nature of his very complicated Commandant, and emphasized the necessity of finding the humanity in the character.
"It was a challenge, for sure," Elba shared. "The challenges were not to demonize him, not to put the audience through something that was a bit unrealistic. These are people, and shit happens. It was really important that we brought that across in his character. It was hard...It became a challenge that I really had to embrace."
Emma Donoghue, Best First Screenplay, "Room"
For "Room" author Emma Donoghue, the success of the Lenny Abrahamson film based on her bestselling novel has been a very special journey, and her contributions as screenwriter have felt immensely personal. Her work was honored by the Spirits with a best first screenplay award, which only emphasized the unique nature of her path with the film. Donogue shared some of her feelings on bringing the book to the big screen, and she noted that "a camera completely expanded the story."
The happy new winner also shared some of her experiences breaking into screenwriting. "When I drafted my screenplay for 'Room,' I was just trying to put my foot in the door before somebody slammed it," she said. "I knew that it’s a hard world to break into, but I thought I might as well try my hand at this. To win an award for writing, it’s just so moving."
Joshua Oppenheimer, Best Documentary, "The Look of Silence"
Even winning an award doesn't guarantee solid screen time, and best documentary winner Joshua Oppenheimer arrived backstage eager to share his cut-off thoughts. You can read them in full right here.
Marielle Heller, Best First Feature, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
Sundance favorite "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" earned writer and director Marielle Heller the coveted best first feature award, which the blossoming filmmaker happily accepted. For Heller, it was all about making "a movie that I was proud of, that I connected to, that I wanted to see for myself or a movie that I wish was around when I was a teenage girl."
"I feel like there’s not a lot of honest representations of teenage girls in the media, so for me, it was just about being true to that voice and trying to honor that girl and tell that story," she added.
Next up for Heller? Although she’s still figuring out her next feature, she joked that "it’s a tough thing to top, having a project you care about as much as this, working with so many wonderful people and feeling like you’re so proud of something. I really got to make the movie that I wanted to make. I don’t know how I’m ever going to top it. I think just it’s downhill from here!"
Tom McCarthy, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Robert Altman Award, "Spotlight"
The "Spotlight" team spent plenty of time backstage, thanks to a number of huge wins for the Open Road Films feature. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy always seemed happy to see the crowd — after all, why wouldn’t he be? — and frequently emerged as the de facto spokesperson for the group, which included, in various incarnations as the night wore on, his co-writer Josh Singer, his cast and the real-life journalists and victims that their parts were based on.
For McCarthy, the film was all about using the medium to tell an important story. "Our first job as filmmakers is to entertain, but when you have material like this, we had an opportunity here…that we could give this story a whole new platform, a far-reaching platform and hopefully an enduring platform," he said.
Josh Singer, Best Screenplay, Robert Altman Award, "Spotlight"
McCarthy ceded the stage to co-writer Josh Singer once the pair won best screenplay, a move that speaks to their tremendous partnership. In fact, when he was asked about the challenges of writing the script, Singer said, "In some ways, [it was] not challenging at all, because Tom's vision from the very beginning was 'let's be authentic, let's be as real as we possibly can,' and I think I was nervous. Although, as anyone who knows me, knows I'm always nervous."
"Working with Tom is, he's perhaps the greatest partner I've ever had as a writer, so that makes everything easier," he added.
Ed Lachman, Best Cinematography, "Carol"
"It just seems bigger," beloved cinematographer Ed Lachman joked with the crowd when asked how the Spirits had changed over the years that he’s attended them.
Despite his well-deserved win for his work on Todd Haynes' "Carol," Lachman was eager to heap praise on the rest of the nominees. "The whole idea of awards, why is mine better than the other nominees? For me, if you’re nominated, that should be the award."
Trey Edward Shults, John Cassavetes Award, "Krisha"
Nearly a year after sweeping the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, Trey Edward Shults' "Krisha" won big at the Spirits, taking home the John Cassavetes Award, a stacked category with a ton of editing up-and-coming talent.
When asked about the significance of winning the award, Shults said, "It’s huge. I mean, he’s a pioneer and he’s a genius and he’s my hero."
He continued, "The way we made this movie, we shot it in 9 days in my mom’s house, it stars my aunt, my girlfriend and her mom were the caterers. It’s truly an independent movie. My grandma is in it, she didn’t know that we were making a movie. We never dreamed we would be here. It’s incredible. It’s amazing."
Laszlo Nemes, Best International Film, "Son of Saul"
"There's an event tomorrow? Some kind of awards?" Laszlo Nemes, the director and co-writer of the lauded best international film winner, "Son of Saul," joked to the crowd when asked about his anticipation for the Oscars.
Nemes' Holocaust drama engenders heavy discussion, and his comments about the tragedy's impact on his own family was profound. "My family was more or less destroyed during the years of the Holocaust. I am carrying this wound within me," Nemes said. "There’s so much energy of that sort that went into the film. We really were on the same wavelength throughout, all of us."
Mya Taylor, Best Supporting Female, "Tangerine"
After charming the tent with her bold, personal and thoroughly original acceptance speech for best supporting female, Mya Taylor took her charms backstage, where the "Tangerine" star lit up the stage and left everyone wanting more.
"When I look at acting, I don't look at money or the fame or anything like that. I went through a very, very hard struggle and for me, I feel like, when I do stuff like this, I have to let other people know, you can do whatever you put your mind to," she said. "The struggle was real for me, and I got out of it."
Taylor also shared her thoughts on a changing cultural temperature, especially regarding her own experience as a transgender actress. "There has been a shift, I guess. I mean, I see like more people being open of like different genders and different races and stuff like that," Taylor said. "I mean, we could have avoided it like a million years ago, with all the sexism and racism. I'm just saying, people should be minding their business. Don't worry about what someone else's gender is or who they're having sex with or whatever the case may be. That's not paying any of my bills, to worry about what you guys have to do."
Abraham Attah, Best Male Lead, "Beasts of No Nation"
Abraham Attah, the first-time actor and breakout star of Cary Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" unexpectedly grabbed the best male lead award, and no one was more surprised than him. Backstage, a still starry-eyed Attah seemed to bask in the moment at hand, not caring to think ahead about "what it all means."
"I feel very good," he said when asked about his win. "I don't know what to say anymore!"
Brie Larson, Best Female Lead, "Room"
Indie darling Brie Larson is also the top pick to win the best actress Oscar tomorrow night, but it's hard to imagine an award pleasing her more than one bestowed by the Indie Spirits. During her acceptance speech, Larson made it clear how much she loves indies and how she feels she owes her career to the work she's been able to do on them.
For her work on "Room," Larson had to utilize all of the skills she's used over the course of her indie-infused life, including the decision to clearly separate herself totally from her work. "The whole process was really taxing, and that's why it was important to me to understand and have clear boundaries," she said. "Part of it was, not just knowing her, but knowing myself so that I could have a clear distinction between the two. I made very pointed choices."
"There were so many sacrifices that I had to make personally, that I wanted to make sure that at the end of the day, when I came home from a day of work to a foreign apartment in Toronto, that it smelled like home. I brought things from home. I did all sorts of things to make sure that, when I came home, I was me."
Up next for Larson? Finally finishing "Finnegan's Wake." (And maybe grabbing an Oscar.)