Archita Kashyap - 44 weeks ago
On this year’s Roundtable with directors hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, a brief discussion amongst participants Spike Lee, Ryan Coogler, Marielle Heller, Bradley Cooper, Alfonso Cuaron and Yorgos Lanthimos established the current nebulous character of independent cinema on the global landscape. Typically, a round table conversation amongst luminaries of Hollywood who have made the year’s best and most engaging cinema, the diversity visible on this round table spoke volumes by itself.
Lanthimos has cut his teeth in experimental, intriguing Greek films before making a transition to English cinema with The Lobster, The Killing of A Sacred Deer and now, The Favourite, a film with 10 Oscar nominations. His films verge on the whacky but revise a template of storytelling onscreen. With heads cut off frames, shots of actors from the back of their heads and always an ambiguous ending, Lanthimos has made a mark without giving away much in the order of commercial compromise. Cuaron has created a new template that revisits the manner in which a film can be made with Roma - a cinematic gem that will outlive a single year’s awards run. He sets a new template, by returning to his roots, leaving behind the glories of Gravity and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince that he scored in Hollywood. Marielle Heller is a theatre artiste who has made a touching film with least fuss and complete focus on her actors’ performances. Ryan Coogler has successfully made the cinematic intergalactic jump from the indie Fruitvale Station made on a shoe string budget to Black Panther and it’s multi-million dollar indulgences. And Spike Lee remains an accidental auteur, who can’t be ever be restricted by commercial influences. Bradley Cooper, despite his Hollywood star status, is an eager committed student of the art of direction. Their banter and observations shone a light on the unpredictable nature of cinema in present times.
(Alfonso Cuaron poses backstage with the Oscar for achievement in direction during the 91st Oscars (Courtesy – Matt Sayles / AMPAS)
But back to the discussion on indies. Each filmmaker around this table found the question of the difference between making an Indie film and a typical Hollywood or mainstream film confusing. As Spike Lee put a suitable conclusion, he keeps his fingers in two pots- one that could bring in funding from independent producers, and the other that could deliver studio funding and backing. He swings over to wherever he can find the money. Coogler, Cuaron and Lanthimos agreed. For Heller, independent films have been her calling with her first, Diary of a Teenage Girl becoming a popular success over time, and now, Can You Ever Forgive Me, which grows in business across the West.
In brief, in the minds of a filmmaker, there is really no distinction between an independent film and a studio film. They focus on finding adequate resources to tell a story. They go ahead with a project when they get adequate budgets; if one is short of money, one works with Spartan resources and less options in terms of number of days for filming, prep, editing and payment of cast and crew. A studio sets a film apart with marketing and publicity.
This year’s Oscars round up is witness to the subtle but definite change that has occurred in the space of indie films. A look at the costs and profits of the most nominated films make this clear. Cuaron and his producers put in $15 million together to make Roma- a story about a Mexican domestic worker made on an indulgent technical scale and shot like an epic. Netflix distributed the film worldwide. A short theatrical run in North America scored about $3.5 million and Roma continues to grow in popularity on the streaming giant. Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, but Roma has become a bonafide success. The Favourite, not standard British costume drama by any measure, was made within less that $14 million as producers from Canada, Britain and the USA joined hands to make Lanthimos’ film come together. The film’s original script by Deborah Davis had been floating around for over 9 years; replete with historical detail. Lanthimos, along with Tony McNamara and Davis, turned it around to focus on power games and affections of a Lesbian triangle. This unusual dark comedy has made over $77 million and counting! Then there’s Blackkklansman, Spike Lee’s biographical crime comic drama cost $15 million and has scored a neat $60 millions plus business.
(Director Marielle Heller explaining a scene to Mellisa McCarthy during the shooting of Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Image courtesy – MovieStillsDB)
Interestingly, most of these filmmakers have not had it easy in making their Oscar movies. Cuaron returned to Mexico, took a hiatus from his Hollywood projects and spent years prepping and casting for Roma. Getting the film in place, along with its history making seaside scene, has taken blood, sweat and toil for the filmmaker and his crew. It has also been a struggle to convince a sceptical Hollywood studio system of its value. Heller replaced another director, Nicole Holofcener to make Can You Ever Forgive Me, after the original actor, Julianne Moore quit the project. In came Mellisa McCarthy and delivered a poignant, Oscar nominated performance. Lanthimos had to work on making the script of The Favourite contemporary for over 3 years. Casting Rachel Weisz in place of Kate Winslet also took some work. Yet in the end, each of these films have become memorable, poignant stories of human behaviour that beat any pre assumed business template.
(Director Yorgos Lanthimos explaining a scene to Rachel Weisz on the sets of The Favourite (Image courtesy – MovieStillsDB)
Indies have always been considered the rule breakers of cinema. As the meta structure of typical studio backed film ruling theatres world-wide begins to thin down to event and superhero films, it is independent cinema that brings these powerful and wealthy studios credibility. The value of independent films has also grown rapidly as filmmakers that matter, like Cuaron, Lanthimos, Lee, stand by their little, indulgent stories. This year’s Oscars make independent films more mainstream and validate their popularity across the world. It also reflects the hard truth of films today- that humane stories, beyond CG spectacle and mega budget spending, will be nurtured and given life by indies in future.
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