The Independent Spirit Awards are largely known as the ceremony that takes place the day before the Oscars, and sometimes it looks a little too similar. At their worst, the Spirits play like a series of rehearsal speeches for Sunday. The 2017 edition was mercifully different — with the budget of “La La Land” exceeding the $20 million cap for Spirits nominees, it was mostly an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments “Moonlight” over and over again. More than a socially relevant portrait of alienation, the movie also permeated the cultural landscape. Judging by the conversations swirling around the tent in Santa Monica, it also represented a tipping point for a community of artists on the verge of fresh inspiration.
No matter who won or how quickly the show moves along, the Spirits serve as an opportunity for a meeting of the minds. For the first time in the months following the election, hundreds of filmmakers, actors, programmers, distributors, and other influential figures gathered together in a swarm of well-wishes and inquiries about next steps. Connecting the dots between one conversation and another, it was clear that the current climate — civil liberties at risk, a combative government averse to First Amendment rights — had inspired the seeds of radical change.
Heading into the cocktail hour before the ceremony, I spotted key figures such as Sundance Institute’s Keri Putman and The Blacklist founder Franklin Leonard, who were among a group of organizers behind the new initiative ReFrame to address gender inequality in the film industry. It didn’t take long to find filmmakers eager to discuss how their work would evolve. Near a crowded bar, I saw Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the co-directors of last year’s surreal comedy “Swiss Army Man.” While giddy about their nomination for Best First Feature, they also looked a little baffled by their association with the movie a year after its Sundance premiere. Times had changed, and so had their priorities.
“It doesn’t define me anymore,” Scheinert said, and Kwan added that the current climate had impacted their plans for a new project. “It’s still going to be weird,” he said, “but we don’t need to mess with people the same way anymore. The government’s doing a fine job of that. We need to do … build bridges, or something.” He apologized sheepishly for the cliché, but didn’t know any other way to put it.
Once the ceremony started, the sense of new priorities continued. Co-hosts Nick Kroll and John Mulaney gleefully poked fun at the likes of Steve Bannon and his boss, playing to an appreciative crowd. “We’re fringe artists on a California beach,” Kroll said. “If we leaned any further to the left, we’d topple into the ocean.” When Film Independent executive Josh Welsh greeted the crowd, he celebrated the media and union members in attendance, then struck a note of solidarity with filmmakers around the world.
Gone were bland and hokey remarks about the spirit of independence, along with the clunky salutes to sponsors. This year, the Spirits was a ceremony about the film community’s resilience, and a call to arms. Accepting the last prize of the night for Best Feature, “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski expressed a commitment to making “stories that are bold. People want more than that. We hear you.” Romanski, who also produced last year’s “Morris From America” and “Kicks,” sounded like she meant it. Backstage, Jenkins added that their movie “exists as a beacon of inclusivity.”
Here was genuine purpose for the Spirit Awards: advocacy for filmmaking that encompassed a range of American identities and mindsets otherwise deemed out of step. Its organizers would be wise to capitalize on that call to action for future editions, rather than letting the tent become a bubble.
At my table, “Captain Fantastic” director Matt Ross huddled with actor Viggo Mortensen. The pair looked somewhat mystified by all the clamor. Ross, taking a break from his acting work on “Silicon Valley,” had already made his anti-Trump film. “Captain Fantastic” follows Mortensen as an anarchic family man who attempts to raise his family outside the boundaries of civilization, and dealing with the fallout when that plan crumbles. The movie at once expresses the desire to abandon a restrictive society and the nagging responsibility to engage with it. Mortensen looked a little bewildered by all the activity around him, routinely popping out of the tent to chain smoke in the minutes leading up to his presentation. “I don’t think he likes public speaking,” Ross said. “It’s nerve wracking. He’s an actor, not a performer.”
He was also a nominee, and watched quietly as he lost the best actor prize to Casey Affleck for “Manchester By the Sea.” When Affleck pushed back on his muted tendencies to take a stance, calling the policies of the Trump Administration “abhorrent,” Mortensen nodded in agreement. He was a Jill Stein supporter, but now had common ground with the rest of the room. “I was going to say something about immigrants,” he told me later, trailing off as he tends to do. “Well,” I said, to fill the silence, “there’s always next time.” He shrugged. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”
After the ceremony, I ducked into a party where winners and nominees huddled around a milkshake bar and took turns riding the Santa Monica Pier’s bright carousel. I spotted executives from Netflix and Roadside Attractions alongside curators and programmers. As we watched in amusement, I started to contemplate the never-ending cycle of creativity that transcends the specific challenges of the moment. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was “Swiss Army Man” co-director Kwan, brandishing a bottle of whiskey and gesturing toward the ride. “Come on, let’s do it!” he cried. I followed him onboard with a few others, including several actors from “Moonlight,” and the carousel began to spin in a whirr of light and colors. Suddenly, the world seemed just fine.