Inside the
15th Annual Independent Spirit Awards

"This thing just gets bigger and bigger every year," observed a member of the press contingent during the hectic hours leading up to the 15th annual celebration of American independent film. While this was only my second year of covering the event in an official capacity, I could definitely detect some growth between last year's event and this year's, and by all indications, the Spirits wonít be reverting to its more modest ways anytime soon.

The press check-in began at 10:00AM, and, like a fool, I arrived at the tent on Santa Monica Beach at that time. As early as I had arrived, it wasnít as early as some people, and thanks to a wait in a fairly long and even slower line, I wasnít all checked in and cleared to enter the event site until about 10:30AM. This yearís press pass was far more elaborate than the simple green plastic wrist band given last year: it was a nice laminated card attached to a thick red cloth band--bearing the Sprint logo--that was worn around the neck.

Even though the stay in line ate a good amount of time, it still left a lot of dead time before the celebrity arrivals, which were to set begin around noon. Luckily, there was plenty to take in before that started. backstage press area was considerably more streamlined, not to mention considerably larger, than the previous year. The presentersí and winnersí first stop on the press tour, the print/online room (where I would spend the duration of the show) was situated much closer to the main event tent; going down the line, next came the still photographersí room; then the space set aside for the Independent Film Channelís live webcast crew; then a block of cubicles, each devoted to a different television entertainment outlet: E!, CNN, et al. Next to this final stop in the press line was the "cantina," where the press would get their food and drink. Immediately next door to the cantina was the Susan Shacter Photo Studio for In Style magazine. While everything seemed much bigger, one ubiquitous presence last year was curiously absent: Evian, which had been everywhere and readily available in chilled dispensers spread throughout the event site.

The Spirit Awards are held through the funding from a number of sponsors, who this year went out their way to make their presence known. Movado and Motorola had big merchandise displays in the green room, which, of course, was off-limits to all press. As with last year, Sprint PCS had a little booth displaying their cellular phones, as well as a drawing for a free phone. Stealing Sprintís thunder, however, was the elaborate production put on immediately next to them by the online investment company DLJ Direct. Theirs was not a booth but a full-fledged lounge, with walls and sofas in gaudy day-glo shades of red and orange, a number of computers set up to pull up instant stock quotes, bowls of jellybeans, chips, and salsa. There was also a full-service drink bar, and, in the dayís runaway sensation, an oxygen bar. I was too intrigued to not give this so very L.A. thing a try. After telling the "bartender" that I was a bit on the tired side, he hooked me up to an O2 tank featuring the enticing "flavors" of "Revitalize" ("Uplifting, strengthening, warming"), "Nirvana" ("Sensual, euphoric, exotic"), "Tangerine Dream" ("Cheering, calming, relaxing"), and "Lemon Grass" ("Vitalizing, cleansing"). Breathing in those aromas was certainly pleasant, but Iím not so sure if I ever felt the desired aftereffects.

Before long, the parade of stars got under way with the arrival of Jason Lee. Following behind: host Jennifer Tilly; John Waters and his Cecil B. Demented star Stephen Dorff; Eric Stoltz; Forest Whitaker; token American Beauty reps Mena Suvari, Wes Bentley, and Chris Cooper; Denise Richards; Patrick Muldoon; Diane Lane; Robert Forster; Lori Petty; Leonard Maltin; Roger Ebert; Clint Howard; Debi Mazar; Harvey Keitel; Elizabeth PeŮa; Lynn Redgrave; Bill Pullman; Jeff Bridges; Teri Garr; reunited Fargo stars Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi; Tim Reid; Blair Underwood; Alfre Woodard; Three Kings director David O. Russell; Don Cheadle; Natasha Lyonne; Lesley Ann Warren; Gina Gershon; Ron Perlman; p director Darren Aronofsky; Julianne Moore; and Farrah Fawcett, who once again caused the biggest feeding frenzy with photogs. Then, of course, were those representing nominated films: Sugar Town co-stars Rosanna Arquette, Jade Gordon, and Michael Des Barres; The Limeyís Terence Stamp, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, and Peter Fonda, as well as director Steven Soderbergh; Go director Doug Liman; Tumbleweedsí director/co-star Gavin OíConnor and stars Janet McTeer and Kimberly J.Brown; Three Seasons director Tony Bui; The Blair Witch Project directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and star Joshua Leonard; Cookie's Fortune director Robert Altman and co-star Charles S. Dutton; Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze (with wife Sofia Coppola), producer Michael Stipe, writer Charlie Kaufman, and stars John Cusack and Cameron Diaz (who was roundly booed by photographers for shunning the red carpet); My Son the Fanatic star Om Puri; Topsy-Turvy writer-director Mike Leigh; Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl director Joan Chen; Guinevere co-star Jean Smart; the Boys Don't Cry crew of director/co-writer Kimberly Peirce and stars Hilary Swank (with hubby Chad Lowe) and ChloŽ Sevigny (with boyfriend Harmony Korine, representing his own julien donkey-boy); The Straight Story director David Lynch and stars Richard Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton; Run Lola Run writer-director Tom Tykwer; All About My Mother helmer Pedro Almodůvar and co-star Penelope Cruz; and the Election team of stars Reese Witherspoon (sans spouse Ryan Phillippe--maybe he was at home watching the baby?) and Jessica Campbell, co-writer Jim Taylor, and director/co-writer Alexander Payne. It must be noted that Payneís arrival was marked with little enthusiasm outside of my own (and he generously and quite warmly reciprocated my regards); the photographers and other press didnít appear all too interested. Iím sure that all changed after the ceremony, where he and his film turned out to the big winners.

Placing the first stop in the press tour so close to the main event tent made things remarkably more efficient; winners and presenters made their appearance within a minute of leaving the stage. As a result, while everyone in the press tent could see the entire show on the monitors, no one heard much of it since there was generally someone onstage fielding questions. Tillyís crashing bomb of an opening monologue--a chunk of which she skipped over, which led to a tedious holdup when she asked that the TelePrompTer be rewound--provided one of the only two moments of downtime in the interview tent. The other was James Schamusí dry keynote address, which sent many people (1) to the restroom, (2) to the cantina for a drink, or (3) to sleep.

While Iím sure the show going on the main tent was a bit more entertaining, there were some amusements to be had in the press room-such as the asking of less-than-intelligent and -appropriate questions. The first person to take the ministage, Best Debut Performance winner Kimberly J. Brown of Tumbleweeds, was presented with such useless queries as "What do you think of Marilyn Manson?" Being John Malkovich scribe Charlie Kaufmanís congratulations for winning Best First Screenplay was a most impassioned scolding from one reporter, who had been deeply offended by a pivotal act against a woman in his film. He wisely shrugged it off.

One would think that the makers of and performers in independent film would enjoy attention, but two major winners exhibited surprising bashfulness. When taking the stage with his Malkovich producers in the wake of the filmís victory as Best First Feature, director Spike Jonze hid behind one of them--offering a meek wave and accompanying "Hi"--before spending most of the Q&A standing offstage. Only after a few reporters asked him a few questions--and complaints from people in the back that they couldnít hear, as well as nudging from his crew--did Jonze take to the podium. A radiant ChloŽ Sevigny, Best Female Supporting winner for Boys Don't Cry admitted to having "major stage fright," and she was hesitant to use the microphone. Her nonstop giggling during her session just added to her girlish charm and endeared her further to the press crowd.

The real fun doesnít happen until all the awards are handed out, and press and guests are allowed to freely mingle in any area of the event site. This time around, I had somewhat of a real mission beyond just talking to cool people: I wanted to notify winners and nominees of the year-end awards from the Online Film Critics Society, of which I am a member. While I was unable to reach the one in-attendance OFCS winner I had wanted to talk to the most, Best Actress winner Reese Witherspoon (who was nowhere to be found in the crowd after the show--perhaps she was among those who bailed early?), those I did get to notify were very happy to hear of their honors. Most open for a chat was Tom Tykwer, whose Run Lola Run won the OFCS prizes for Foreign Language Film and Film Editing; in fact, he had actually heard about his filmís OFCS wins, but only fairly recently. He certainly appeared up to talking for longer than we did, but we both had to attend to other matters. As she was literally being dragged out by companion Bart Freundlich, a cordial Julianne Moore was delighted to hear that her Magnolia work had been nominated for our Supporting Actress honor. Also caught on his way out was David Lynch, director of the #7 film on the OFCS 1999 Top Ten, The Straight Story. The famously bizarre auteur was nice enough to stop his outbound course and stand aside for a conversation-which, contrary to oneís expectations, was as normal and down-to-earth as one could have with another person. Wes Bentley was amused by the fact he lost our Supporting Actor award yet sort of won it by default since American Beauty won our Ensemble Performance prize. He is a very nice guy, but I could not help but be somewhat unsettled as he spoke to me. The noise level was remarkably high, so he had to talk fairly close, which meant that he intensely fixed those rather evil-looking eyes onto me. It was enough to make me feel as if my heart was about to burst.

My favorite moments of my OFCS campaign came with Hilary Swank, who lost our Best Actress award to Witherspoon. When I told her that she had been nominated for our award, a sincerely gushing Swank thanked me and the organization. It made me wonder how she wouldíve reacted had she won. What her reaction didnít leave me to wonder about, though, is how grounded she is; even though sheís not only been nominated for but actually won more important awards (even going on to winning the biggest award of them all the next night), she was still clearly touched and flattered by this relatively minor bit of praise. Swank was being rushed off by her handlers as I spoke with her, for she had to show up at an in-progress party celebrating the success of Boys Don't Cry. There was a minor snag in getting her to that event right away: she had lost track of the whereabouts of her husband, Chad Lowe. I was making my own exit in a direction different than that of Swank when I spotted Lowe talking to a guy near the restrooms. Not wanting to play an indirect role in holding up the happy coupleís plans for the evening, I summoned his attention and told him Swank was waiting for him. Lowe thanked me, told the guy he had to go, then rushed off to join his patient wife.

I guess I must be getting better at covering this event, for not once did I have a foot-in-mouth moment or similarly embarrassing situation as I did last year. Or maybe my natural ineptitude operates in an every-other-year pattern, meaning Iím due for a big screw-up at next yearís Spirits. We shall see then...

15th Annual Independent Spirit Award Winners

Inside the 15th Annual Independent Spirit Awards/© Michael Dequina
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