The 2010 Film Independent Spirit Awards might have been held at L.A. Live, Los Angeles’ newest plaza of self-serving commercialism. It might have featured Ben Stiller, the actor who traded in his early career as an indie director for box office hits like Meet the Parents and Night of the Museum, as its honorary chair. And it might have continued the recent trend of presenting a majority of the night’s awards to the higher-end independent films.
But if there were ever an appropriate time to don a “Suits Suck” T-shirt, the Spirit Awards would be it.
With Jameson as a sponsor and Eddie Izzard as host, whiskey and dirty jokes were in endless supply last Friday evening as Hollywood A-listers and veteran indie talent convened in a giant tent on top of a parking garage to celebrate the 25th anniversary of independent cinema’s most zany yet important award show.
Since 1984, the Spirit Awards have served as an avenue for daring, unconventional and thought-provoking moviemakers who often find themselves stifled within the confines of the studio system. Advocating quality over production cost, as of 2010, the awards recognize movies made for less than $20 million at the time of completion.
Although the ceremony was devoid of award season darlings Avatar and The Hurt Locker, another highly praised movie quickly capitalized on the 3-D phenomenon and Iraq war drama’s absence—Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.
Precious, a hard-hitting tale that entered last year’s Sundance Film Festival hoping to secure a distributor, swept the show and left the big white tent with a total of five prizes: Best Film, Director, First Screenplay and Lead and Supporting Female performances for Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique, respectively.
Even though Precious was certainly the front-runner going into this year’s Spirit Awards, the film’s cast and helmers exuded genuine sincerity with each win.
“I’m over the moon. Tonight’s victory was unexpected, really,” said director Lee Daniels.
With its harrowing subject matter—a pregnant, illiterate 16-year-old coping with constant abuse from her atrocious mother—and straightforward, everything-but-the-kitchen sink realism, Precious is a rare find even in independent cinema. Despite the strong script by Geoffrey Fletcher, one wonders if the film would have even been made if it weren’t for the actors’ unrelenting dedication to creating an honest celluloid portrait, no matter how monstrous the characters or situations.
“My husband said, ‘Don’t judge it, just be it and leave it on the floor.’ So when Mr. Daniels said ‘Cut,’ Mary Jones was left on the floor,” Mo’Nique explained. “The moment he said ‘Cut,’ we had a good time.”
Sidibe, who was practically pulled off the streets of Brooklyn to play the title role, echoed Mo’Nique’s approach to the tough material. She claimed that seconds after an intense mother-daughter fight wrapped, Mo’Nique and she “hugged and loved each other again.”
“For me, it wasn’t clear how different and amazing this performance was until after we saw it. It really is a testament to the genius of Mr. Daniels,” Sidibe said. “He has the power to transform people with completely different personalities into a different character entirely.”
While Precious cleaned up all of its categories, the T Bone Burnett and Robert Duvall-produced Crazy Heart managed to garner two wins, including Best Male Lead for Jeff Bridges. The other victory was in the Best First Feature category, where it ousted Tom Ford’s critically acclaimed A Single Man.
“I always felt, even since the first draft, that I had the spirit—the soul—of the piece,” said Crazy Heart writer-director Scott Cooper. “I just was trying to do what Robert Duvall told me to do, which was just tell the truth.”
And the inclusion of Precious in the Best First Screenplay bracket left the door wide open for (500) Days of Summer, the much-loved romantic comedy for the hipster generation, to claim the Best Screenplay prize.
Although snubbed by Oscar, (500) Days of Summer proved to be in the right company at the Spirit Awards as screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber were immediately met with admiration for their offbeat script. The press room morphed into a mock therapy session as many shared with the pair their horrible breakup stories; luckily, the scribes were willing to divulge as well.
“I needed an outlet that wasn’t going to be an angry diary entry,” Neustadter explained. “We decided we always wanted to write this kind of movie and so we turned this [experience] about a woman who broke my heart into a screenplay. [We] never thought anyone was going to read it; never thought anyone was going to like it; and certainly thought no one was ever going to buy it and make it.”
Because of (500) Days of Summer’s a-chronological structure, not-so-happy outcome and distinct vision, Neustadter and Weber also maintain that the script was in the best hands when independently financed and removed from studio control.
“We were lucky that everyone was so passionate, wanted to make the same movie, and believed it and understood it,” Weber said. “The first time we met [the director] and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, were immediately all telling our relationship war stories—that’s how we knew they got it.”
Although Film Independent hosts numerous events and learning labs for fresh, up-and-coming voices in cinema throughout the year, the Spirit Awards have recently received backlash for solely honoring “pseudo-indie” films: Movies on the higher end of the $20 million limit that often feature star power and publicity backing from studio divisions like Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Lionsgate.
But after expected winner after expected winner, any skepticism of the event’s integrity was pushed aside when Lynn Shelton stepped up to the microphone backstage.
Shelton, who won the Acura Someone to Watch Award in 2009, turned up at the podium this year as the winner of the John Cassavetes Award for Humpday, a film she wrote and directed. Named after the godfather of independent cinema, the prize is given to a film made for less than $500,000.
“The Spirit Awards have absolutely given us a voice,” Shelton said. “We’re not going to be at the Oscars, so having a forum that is specifically meant to celebrate this particular canon that encourages you to pick up a camera and not wait for studio backing.”
Below is a full list of the 2010 Film Independent Spirit Awards winners:
Best Film: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Best Director: Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Best Female Lead: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Best Male Lead: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Supporting Female: Mo’Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Best Supporting Male: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Best Screenplay: (500) Days of Summer
Best First Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Best Foreign Film: An Education
Best Documentary: ANVIL! The Story of Anvil
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, A Serious Man
John Cassavetes Award: Lynn Shelton, Humpday
Robert Altman Award: A Serious Man
Acura Someone to Watch Award: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Easier With Practice
Piaget Producers Award: Karin Chien, The Exploding Girl, Santa Mesa
Chaz and Roger Ebert Truer than Fiction Award: Bill Ross and Turner Ross, 45365