The independent film community gathered in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica to celebrate the year’s best artist-driven films at the 29th Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday. Produced by Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that also produces the Los Angeles Film Festival, The Spirit Awards has become the premier awards show for independent film.
The big winner of the night was 12 Years a Slave, which garnered best feature for producers Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt, and Bill Pohlad; best director for Steve McQueen; best screenplay for John Ridley; best supporting female for Lupita Nyong’o, and best cinematography for Sean Bobbitt. McQueen credited his crew on the film, acknowledging, “Every single cog in the wheel was working. They laid the foundation.” Bobbitt explained how they used the natural beauty of Louisiana as a visual counterpoint to the ugly cruelty of the story.
Continuing their sweep of top acting honors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto respectively won best male lead and best male lead best supporting male for their work in Dallas Buyers Club. On the transformative power of make-up artistry in developing his character, Leto revealed his reaction to the first time he saw himself fully made-up saying, “I looked in the mirror and saw this beautiful person, Rayon.”
Cate Blanchett continued her winning-streak by taking home best female lead honors for Blue Jasmine. Talking about her process, Blanchett shared how her relationship with costume designer Suzy Benzinger was crucial to the physical development of her character. She commented on how the wardrobe choices “chart the journey” of the character.
Shot in 21 days, for under a million dollars, Fruitvale Station won best first feature. Director Ryan Coogler gave a shout out to his editors, Claudia Castello and Michael Shawver, saying that they moved up to Oakland and “lived in a really bad neighborhood” while they “cut the movie in between a kitchen and a bedroom.” He also credited his producers Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker for giving him the opportunity to tell the story.
Bob Nelson, who garnered best first screenplay for Nebraska quipped, “This is the fulfillment of a boyhood dream to be the oldest recipient of the first-time screenwriter award.” When he saw the film for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival all the contributions by the crew in bringing his words to life really “jumped out.”
Recognizing the art of editing with a Spirit Award for the first time, Nat Sanders took home the best editing trophy for Short Term 12. He acknowledged that editing is difficult to judge, even for editors, and shared that his biggest challenge was finding the right tonal balance between the heavy material and levity.
The only craft award that recognizes the role of the casting director in the filmmaking process, The Robert Altman Award honors the director, casting director and ensemble cast of one film. The 7th annual award went to director Jeff Nichols’ Mud, along with casting director Francine Maisler and ensemble cast members Joe Don Baker, Jacob Lofland, Matthew McConaughey, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Tye Sheridan, Paul Sparks, Bonnie Sturdivant and Reese Witherspoon. In assembling his cast, Nichols had one primary rule: “They had to feel like they came from this place.” He felt the casting achieved that goal commenting, “These actors fold into their environment.”
This is Martin Bonner won the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made under $500,000. Produced by Cherie Saulter for a mere $42,000, writer/director Chad Hartigan revealed that during the production the entire crew, which consisted of 8-9 people, lived in a 2 bedroom apartment, which was also used as a location. They had to move their personal things from room to room dependent upon where the production was shooting.
20 Feet from Stardom won best documentary. Director/Producer Morgan Neville admitted, “The hardest thing was cutting stuff out. I loved every minute of it.” He recognized his editors Douglas Blush, Kevin Klauber and Jason Zeldes, who also won the ACE Eddie award for best edited feature documentary, for their help making the hard choices of what to cut out.
Director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color won best international film at the ceremony.
The 2014 Roger and Chaz Ebert Fellowship was awarded to writer/director Lulu Wang for her first feature film, Posthumous, starring Jack Huston and Brit Marling. The annual award, which includes a cash grant of $10,000, is given to a filmmaker in Project Involve, Film Independent’s diversity mentorship program.
The inaugural Bright Future Award recipient was Patrick Creadon for his film If You Build It. Sponsored by Unilever Project Sunlight, the award honors a filmmaker whose work exemplifies a commitment to telling stories of positive change in the world and includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.
Other sponsored awards were received in advance of the ceremony. The Piaget Producers Award went to Toby Halbrooks and James Johnston, emerging producers who, despite limited resources, demonstrated creativity, tenacity and vision. In its 17th year, the award included a $25,000 unrestricted grant.
The Stella Artois Truer Than Fiction Award went to Jason Osder, director of Let the Fire Burn. In its 19th year, the award is presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not received significant recognition and includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.
Shaka King, director of Newlyweeds, received the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award. The award is in its 20th year recognizes a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition and includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.