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Inside the
14th Annual Independent Spirit Awards

Those who have read The Movie Report for the past four years (has it really been that long?) know that every year I venture off to Santa Monica Beach the Saturday before the Academy Awards to stop by the Independent Spirit Awards. This year was no exception, but there was a difference: for the first time (and hopefully not the last), I was able to forego the fanboy lookyloo thing and actually attend the event as a member of the press for this, my fifth consecutive visit to the annual celebration of American independent film.

So instead of showing up at the tent site three hours prior to the 1:15PM event as I had in previous years, I was able to relax a bit and show up at the tent at only quarter past noon, bypassing the crowded fan barricades in favor of the press check-in tent, which was planted smack-dab in the middle of all the celebrity arrival madness (OK, not quite "smack-dab"--it was off to the side of the red carpet, but in the thick of the hubbub nonetheless). After checking in with the ever-friendly publicists from the ever-cooperative firm of mPRm, I was handed an envelope enclosing my press credential--a green plastic wristband. Once I put that on, I and a few other press members were escorted from the arrivals area to the designated press tent toward the rear of the event area.

The Spirit Awards is sometimes referred to as the "indie Oscars," but, of course, it is infinitely more relaxed of than that more "upscale" event; everyone is in casual to semi-formal dress (I was dressed rather simply in black slacks and matching turtleneck), and the whole set-up more conducive to interaction (after all, it was simply made up of a few tents on a beachside parking lot). Once at the press tent, I was pretty much free to go and do whatever I liked--just as long as I steered clear of the main event tent. And before the ceremonies got underway, a number of the stars freely roamed around the backstage area among the press and others who happened to be there. At various points, I stood right next to either Female Supporting nominee Lisa Kudrow, Keynote Speaker John Waters, or presenter Randy Quaid, with the likes of presenters Alec Baldwin, Don Cheadle, Willem Dafoe, Illeana Douglas, Minnie Driver, Gina Gershon, Jason Lee, Andie MacDowell, and Geoffrey Rush not-so-quickly passing by. After an initial bout of timidity, I made myself exchange pleasantries with Mr. Waters (an extremely nice guy, I might add), and the statuesque and sweet Miss Driver. I must note, however, that all the celeb loitering had less to do with the magnetism of the general press tent than that of the tent set up across the walkway by In Style magazine, which was conducting a photo shoot of all the attendees; and the nearby booth wear Movado gave guests free watches. Alas, there were no watches for the media, but there was one indulgence we were able to share with the luminaries--free, unlimited bottles of Evian water, which seems to be the common thread between the Oscars and the Spirits.

Before long, the now 1:30PM start time had arrived, and the press started to take their places in the tent. I took a seat on the far left of the front row, which was situated about four to five feet away from the speakers' podium. Since there isn't anything special going on in the press tent in these early stages before any awards have been won--all there is to do is watch the events in the main tent on a monitor--a lot of media members went to food tent for the complimentary culinary concoctions. On the menu were breadsticks and rolls; salads; a nondescript pasta dish; some fried chicken that didn't appear especially tasty; and for dessert, cookies and cake. As far as free, all-you-can-eat food goes, it wasn't bad, but I sincerely hope that those in the main event tent were treated to something a bit more savory.

After some opening remarks about the definition of independent film from hostess Queen Latifah (where was Samuel L. Jackson this year?), the first award, presented by Eric Stoltz and Heather Matarazzo (co-stars of the forthcoming Our Guys), was given to Evan Adams of Smoke Signals for Best Debut Performance. Unlike at that other awards show, the onstage-win-to-backstage-press turnaround is considerably quicker, for there are no elevators to deal with and the press contingent is not as large (only one division is made--photographers and everyone else). Once winners do arrive, it's a veritable free-for-all, with reporters on the floor randomly yelling out questions. This made for an often-frustrating fragmentation of the attention span, trying to pay attention to both the press conference and the in-progress festivities on the monitor. Unlike at the Oscars, the Spirits weren't equipped with headsets offering a continuous audio feed from the stage, so we could not listen to the show once the sound was muted for the press conference interviews. Among the Spirit highlights we largely missed were Waters's keynote address (which was hilarious--what we were able to hear of it, at least) and Ally Sheedy's long Best Female Lead acceptance speech--termed as "a nervous breakdown" by Male Lead winner Ian McKellen during his press conference.

Also unlike the Oscars, a few presenters make their way to the backstage press to field questions. Sad to say, not too many people seemed to notice, for presenters were generally met with indifference; the only presenter who drummed up any genuine interest was pro-wrestler/actor-turned-Minnesota-governor Jesse Ventura, who was on hand to present the Truer Than Fiction documentary award. Ventura upstaged the winner of the award he presented, Regret to Inform director Barbara Sonneborn, which brings me to a rather unsurprising yet still somewhat unfortunate observation I made at both the Spirits and the Oscars--the less, for lack of a better term, "popular" winners were given short shrift. The likes of Adams, Producer Award winner Susan Stover, and Someone to Watch winner David Williams were only asked a handful of questions before making their way to the next stop, which was the Independent Film Channel's live webcast, held in a little cubicle behind the interview stage. I was actually the only member of the media who appeared to have an interest in Darren Aronofsky, who won the First Screenplay Award for what I thought to be one of the more imaginative and entertaining films of last year, π; as he walked intot he tent, he took note that I was the only person who applauded, and stony silence that met him once he set foot on the interview stage was only broken when I offered my congratulations.

On the whole, I feel I did not fare too badly in my first go-round as a designated media guy at the event. I performed another "rescue" mission during presenter Michael Rapaport's session, which had actually been postponed; he first arrived in the tent during Waters's hilarious address and was not-so-gently forced by the press crowd to wait until Waters was finished. (Rapaport was a good sport: "I come in here while they're watching, and they're all, 'Fuck 'em!'" he was heard saying to the talent escort, all in good humor.) Once he finally did get his chance, the ball didn't get rolling until I asked him about his current recurring stint as Lisa Kudrow's love interest on Friends. That said, I won the "Open Mouth--Insert Foot" Award of the day during McKellen's session, ill-advisedly asking him about his rumored involvement in the forthcoming Mission: Impossible sequel as if it were fact. Needless to say, it wasn't, but Sir Ian's gentlemanly manner made me feel less like an idiot. Make that slightly less. Even so, I didn't feel quite so foolish as the one media member who insisted on asking every one who took the podium about the Elia Kazan controversy. He even tried some heavyhanded verbiage to ease his way into the question; to Wes Anderson, Director winner for Rushmore: "Your films are known for their ballsy humor. What is your ballsy opinion on the Kazan debate?"

Aside from granting me the opportunity to make an ass of myself in front of celebrities and established news media, the inside access made me privy to some interesting, priceless moments that I would not otherwise have glimpsed. When McKellen's award was announced, Gods and Monsters co-star and Female Supporting winner Lynn Redgrave could be heard screaming from the IFC Web station. Jeff Goldblum, who presented the Someone to Watch Award, assumed the role of on-stage interviewer when he took the podium with the award's winner, David Williams. (Perhaps Goldblum's auditioning for a space in the press tent next year.)

The Spirit-ed fun did not end once the producers of Best Feature winner Gods left the press stage. Then began the post-ceremony schmooze session, with luminaries heading every which way in the crowd (mostly toward their cars or limousines). The big photo-op seemed to be the meeting between Ventura and Male Lead nominee Nick Nolte. In the midst of the chaos, I was able to spot a few random faces in a variety of situations: Vondie Curtis-Hall and Kasi Lemmons, actors and married writers-directors of Gridlock'd and Eve's Bayou, respectively, conversing with a third person; one-time Shine co-stars Redgrave and Rush exchanging kisses on the cheek; Roger Ebert chatting it up with indie stalwart Seymour Cassel, then Sheedy; Leonard Maltin offering advice to fledgling critics and writers; Matarazzo graciously posing for a pic while waiting for her transportation; High Art co-star Radha Mitchell browsing the photos in the In Style tent; Aronofsky rushing to his vehicle before I could get a word to him; and Goldblum deciding to stand right beside me and carrying a conversation with someone unrecognizable to these eyes.

The frenzied yet remarkably cordial situation was overwhelming in and of itself, but one quieter moment of quasi-redemption that made the most striking impression. As McKellen and his companion made their escape from the mob, I offered my apologies to Sir Ian for the misinformed question in the press tent. In his refined way (he's not a British knight for nothing) he reassured me not to worry about it, and leading to a conversation during which he gave his thanks to the Online Film Critics Society (of which I told him I am a member) for giving him our Best Actor award.

Not too long after we parted company, the crowd thinned out, and I made my exit. Coming away from the grand tent, I felt somewhat humbled, quite contented, but overall enlightened and eager to take part in the festivities again next year.

14th Annual Independent Spirit Award Winners
14th Annual Independent Spirit Awards in Pictures

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Inside the 14th Annual Independent Spirit Awards/© Michael Dequina

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