Parasite’s Bong Joon-Ho, American Factory’s Julia Eichert, J-Lo, Laura Dern, Nicolas Cage and More Celebrate Indies & Diversity

 The Film Independent Spirit Awards star-studded ceremony, held under a prefab big top on Santa Monica Beach, is one of the annual highlights of L.A.'s cinema scene, celebrating indies, photos by Ed Rampell

Indies, Inclusivity, Equality

While addressing the press after winning the Best Supporting Male accolade for The Lighthouse Willem Dafoe epitomized the philosophy of the Film Independent Spirit Awards vis-à-vis big budget Hollywood studio productions. In the ceremony’s media tent, when a British reporter seized on the opportunity to ask the quirky actor about superhero flicks - because Lighthouse co-star Robert Pattinson is playing The Batman in the 2021 epic and Dafoe had portrayed the Green Goblin in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 and Vulko in 2018’s Aquaman - the thespian shut the brash Brit down.

While it’s true that Dafoe has earned his fair share of paychecks performing in commercial spectacles, the actor - who traces his artistic roots back to Manhattan’s Wooster Group experimental theatre collective - has also appeared in more personal, artistic low budge works, such as painter Julian Schnabel’s 2018 At Eternity’s Gate, depicting tormented Dutch dauber Vincent Van Gogh. So Our Man Dafoe defied the journalistic hack, declaring that the presser should put the limelight on The Lighthouse, not on blockbusters about Caped Crusaders, which will get heaps of media attention and presumably boffo box office in due time. To his credit Dafoe insisted on focusing on The Lighthouse and in doing so, stayed true to the mission of the Spirit Awards, empowering indie films to have their place in the sun.

The 35th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards’ star-studded ceremony took place under the big top on the beach at Santa Monica. Smaller tents outside the huge white structure specially constructed for the occasion offered plenty of bourbon and other booze, while servers brought appetizers on silver platters to the invited guests. Among this who’s who of independent cinema I separately spied two actors with Joe Pesci connections - My Cousin Vinny’s Marisa Tomei and Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta. The latter shared the prestigious Robert Altman Award for Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story as part of the Ensemble Cast, which included Laura Dern.

Outside the tents, perhaps keeping to himself, I noticed Spike Lee. After telling him how much I loved his movies, especially BlacKkKlansman, I asked the great director what he was currently up to. Spike replied that he was working on an adaptation of Broadway’s American Utopia, presumably for the screen. Spike attended the Spirit Awards in particular because a film he produced, See You Yesterday, was competing for (and won) the Best First Screenplay award for its screenwriters, Fredrica Bailey and Stefon Bristol. In addition to zooming in on indies, another way the Spirit Awards differ from mainstream Hollywood and the Oscars is that Film Independent also emphasizes gender and ethnic equity and inclusiveness in its crusade to provide platforms for female and minority filmmakers.

On the Red Carpet and In the Media Tent

At the red carpet it was a star-palooza and I photographed the arrivals of: Actress Olivia Wilde, director of her feature film debut Booksmart; Alfre Woodard, nommed for Best Female Lead for playing a prison warden in the anti-capital punishment film Clemency; Jennifer Lopez, who was nominated for Best Supporting Female for her pole dancing role in Hustlers; Laura Dern, co-winner of the Altman Award as part of the Ensemble Cast of Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach (who won the Best Screenplay prize); et al. Before entering the ceremony’s grounds Nicolas Cage, an award presenter, delighted fans on Santa Monica Beach as the un-caged superstar ran amok signing autographs for the hoi polloi, oh boy!

Once the program - which was aired live on the IFC channel and humorously hosted by Aubrey Plaza - began at 2:00 p.m. PST, inside the media tent the ceremony was seen on two flat screen TVs mounted on high on stands, flanking a stage where winners took questions from a throng of assembled reporters.

Many of the talents hailed the Film Independent Spirit Awards for supporting indies and diversity, in terms of not only gender and ethnicity, but for the disabled, including the cast and crew of Give Me Liberty, which scored the John Cassavetes Award and includes African American co-star Lauren ‘Lolo’ Spencer, who uses a wheelchair on- and offscreen. Clutching two Spirit Awards, The Farewell’s writer/director Lulu Wang expressed gratitude for winning in the Best Feature and Best Supporting Female (Wang also accepted on behalf of Zhao Shuzhen, who was in China) for a film shot mainly on location in the People’s Republic. Newcomers Fredrica Bailey and Stefon Bristol, who won Best First Screenplay for See You Tomorrow, thanked its producer Spike Lee for his mentorship.

When Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, co-directors of American Factory, won Best Documentary, I asked Reichert if socialism was the solution to the wealth inequality, which she’d mentioned in her acceptance speech. To read what she said see:

Bong Joon-Ho

Another highlight of the press opportunity came when, only one day before his movie Parasite won four Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director, South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-Ho took the stage in the press tent after winning the Spirit Award for Best International Film. Clutching his winged trophy and in high spirits, the amiable Bong addressed the media.

I asked the creator of the thriller/dark comedy that pits blithe privileged nitwits against underclass connivers: “What do you want to say about the state of class struggle in the world today?” Bong laughed, and speaking in Korean his interpreter translated his response:

“So I think if there were people living in Mars in a movie theater there this film would still resonate with people there. I think that’s how serious our current issues are. If we don’t overcome the issues we face then, you know, these problems will just continue on. Although it’s not easy to overcome current issues.

“So I do not wish to be pessimistic, but for this film I just wanted to be honest. I didn’t want to paint a false rosy picture and that’s what I tried to do with the ending of this film,” which closes with an eruption of violence between rich and poor characters. Bong’s 2013 English language post-apocalyptic feature Snowpiercer also dramatized class conflict; the dystopian film has been adapted as a television series reportedly premiering in May on the TNT network, starring Jennifer Connelly.

During the Spirit Awards press conference, Bong spoke about other topics, including his creative process, saying: “It’s my job to come up with ideas so I just accumulated the various ones I’ve gathered over my years. The first idea [for Parasite] came to me in 2013 - I let it percolate and I spent four months actually writing the script. It was a very long process.”

Asked if he’d filmed extra footage for Parasite Bong replied: “There aren’t that many deleted scenes or shots from this film. We pretty much used all the footage we shot. There is a scene earlier on in the film where the family is in a hair salon talking about the rich family. Deleting that scene made the film feel more speedy. And it was better… so we left it out. But it wasn’t as if there was an alternative ending to this film or there’s a shocking scene deleted later on.”

The independent moviemaker ruminated on the significance of attending and winning at the Spirit Awards, which has a tradition of being far more diverse and inclusive than - and to the left of - the Academy Awards. “I came to this awards ceremony 10 years ago with Mother. I didn’t receive it then. To be here - what matters tonight is the indie Spirit Awards. To be congratulated by Spike Lee, the Safdie Brothers and all the great indie filmmakers who came before. That’s truly meaningful.”

Bong discussed what Parasite had accomplished for international cinema and was asked if his movie, which performed well at the U.S. box office, would prompt American audiences to start reading subtitles? “I didn’t create this film to make a grand contribution to international cinema,” Bong modestly confessed. “I just wanted to create an honest portrayal of our current times. And something I realized is that the deeper you delve into what surrounds you, what is new to you, the more universal and broader the story can become. Of course, that’s not a message I wish to push upon anyone else, but that’s something I realized.”

During the presser the jovial Bong revealed himself to have a sense of humor - regarding Sunday’s big Oscar show, the South Korean quipped: “After tomorrow I can finally go home. That’s what makes me happiest.”

But not even winning a Spirit Award, Golden Globe and the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme D’Or could prepare Bong and the Parasite cast for the Academy Awards, where Bong picked up two of those coveted golden statuettes, for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (shared with Jin Won Han) and the movie became the first foreign language film in the Academy’s 92 year history to win not only in the Best International Feature Film category, but also the top prize: Best Motion Picture.

Since the 1920s, only about 11 films - including Costa-Gavras’ 1969 masterpiece Z about the colonels’ coup in Greece and Alfonso Cuaron’s 2018 Roma, about an indigenous female servant in Mexico - have been nominated in both Oscar categories. Z and Roma did win for what had been called “Best Foreign Language Film” but Bong Joon-Ho, writer/director of movies about class struggle, is now in a class of his own. And in doing so, with his depiction of 21st century class warfare and inequality, the South Korean helmer created a significant contribution to the art of cinema around the world.

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No - It’s Operaman!

Almost at the end of the ceremony and press opportunities, Benny and Josh Safdie, the brothers who made Uncut Gems, and that movie’s star, Adam Sandler, made knee-slapping, hilarious acceptance speeches on live TV inside the big top. The Safdies had won for Best Director, while Sandler, who’d previously been known since his Saturday Night Live days primarily for comedies, won Best Male Lead for the comic’s rare dramatic departure. Then they entered the press tent where much to his credit, despite urgings from publicists, Sandler rather generously allowed the Safdies to enjoy their moment in the spotlight, instead of hogging the limelight by joining them onstage. It was evident that after decades of playing mostly buffoonish parts, Sandler was in fine fettle, relishing being taken seriously and appreciated for his artistry in a tragic role.

After the brothers completed their presser, an ebullient Sandler went up to the microphone to face the media on his own. I managed to ask Adam the last question, which he kindly made sure I got a chance to ask. Referencing the recurring aria-spewing silly character Sandler had played in many SNL skits I asked: “Adam, if ‘Operaman’ were to sing an opera to express Uncut Gems, which opera would he choose from?” Sandler cracked up, said, “I don’t know,” then proceeded to sing an ersatz aria from the podium, before triumphantly bidding the press and Spirit Awards a fond adieu.

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and author of “Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”



The great Spike Lee, who produced the Spirit Award-winning See You Yesterday; Ray Liotta co-won the Robert Altman Award as part of the Ensemble Cast of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story; On the red carpet actress Olivia Wilde discusses her directorial debut, Booksmart, which won for Best First Feature; Actress Alfre Woodard, star of the death penalty film Clemency, is interviewed on the red carpet with Olivia Wilde on the right; "Jenny from the Block" is on the red carpet as Jennifer Lopez was nominated for Best Supporting Female for her pole dancing role in Hustlers; Marriage Story's Laura Dern shares a moment with Hustlers' J-Lo; Superstar Nicolas Cage (in white), one of the award presenters, is mobbed as he signs autographs for fans on Santa Monica Beach; Superstar Nicolas Cage (in white), one of the award presenters, is mobbed as he signs autographs for fans on Santa Monica Beach; Olivia Wilde talks about women and filmmaking plus her directorial debut, the largely female Booksmart, which won for Best First Feature. Photo credit: Ed Rampell