When you can’t see past the gloss of studio prestige pics or are blinded by the dazzle of comic book movies, remember cinema’s saving grace: the raw spirit of independent film.
This weekend at AFI Fest in Los Angeles, the stars of eight of this season’s biggest indies took the stage in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Ballroom — the same room where the very first Oscars ceremony was held 90 years ago — to celebrate independence. The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg moderated the roundtable, which featured Willem Dafoe (At Eternity’s Gate), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Kathryn Hahn (Private Life), Felicity Jones (On the Basis of Sex), Joanna Kulig (Cold War), Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace), Rosamund Pike (A Private War), and John C. Reilly (The Sisters Brothers and Stan & Ollie), all of whom spoke passionately about their new films and candidly about their past ones.
“It’s so crazy to stare across at you, John,” Hahn said to Reilly before referring to a certain scene they shared in Step Brothers. The actress cited 2013’s Afternoon Delight as a turning point for her career, creatively speaking. “It was every single thing. It was all of it. It was like those dreams where you ache to get back to work,” she said of Jill Soloway’s Sundance film. “They saw me for the first time in this medium as someone wholly, if that makes sense.… I always [previously] felt like the work that I could do and the work that I was being asked to do were two different things.”
“Thanks a lot!” Reilly cried from across the stage. “You mean having sex in a steakhouse bathroom wasn’t what you were meant to do?”
“No,” Hahn assured him. “That was everything for me, John. I apologize.”
Pike also struggled with feeling misunderstood in the early days of her career. The Gone Girl actress got her first big-screen credit as Bond girl Miranda Frost in 2002’s Die Another Day, and spent the years following trying to redirect her career. “Bond is a wonderful franchise, but you get an awful lot of exposure but very little respect when you start out, and that’s a tough place to be,” she said. “It’s so indelible, being a Bond girl, that people do assume, in a way they don’t with any other film, that that’s what you’re like. And I realized very quickly there was nothing I could do about it.”
She began to set herself free from that mold with indies, most notably Lone Scherfig’s 2009 drama An Education, in which she played the glamorous ditz Helen. “When An Education came around, it wasn’t a very big part, but I thought, ‘I think I could do something funny with this,’” the actress recalled. “And I remember my agent saying, ‘It’s really not very many lines,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I think they’re good ones.’”
Kulig was ready to give up on acting altogether when she first met Cold War director Pawel Pawlikowski 10 years ago, when he was looking for an actress to play the title character in Ida (which would later be named Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Oscars). “I had such a huge crisis about acting, and I decided to quit this, but we went [to the audition],” she said at the panel. The director said she wasn’t right for the role, and Kulig decided to quit acting again. “Four months later Pawel wrote me an email and said, ‘Joanna, I will shoot The Woman in the Fifth in France, would you like to shoot with Kristin Scott Thomas?’” she recalled. “I said, ’Why not?’” After that, the filmmaker wrote a small role in Ida — and then the leading role in Cold War — specifically for her.
Dafoe, too, has a close relationship with the filmmaker on his current project, in which he plays Vincent Van Gogh in the final years of his troubled life. Dafoe and director Julian Schnabel (who is a painter himself) have been friends for years, and his filmmaking style appealed to the star immensely. “I’m very attracted to strong directors,” Dafoe said. “Basically, they aren’t people that want to convey or illustrate something they know; they have a feeling, and a process of filmmaking is how they arrive at the film. And I love that process. I love, yes, preparing — but not knowing exactly where you’re going to go.”
For At Eternity’s Gate, Schabel “had a very precise idea about what he was pursuing, and he had a very precise relationship to Van Gogh and to the material. It’s possible to have great flexibility but also have an overriding vision that’s very strong,” Dafoe clarified. “He’s a painter, he’s been a painter for many years, and he makes movies like he paints.”
Speaking of particularly artful filmmakers, Reilly “could take up the rest of the afternoon telling Terry Malick stories,” but stuck to just a handful. “Filming with him, I got the feeling like, this guy’s not really a filmmaker, he’s more like a philosopher. He’s someone who’s just looking every day to find the truth, right? And so the truth could be in your leading actor, or the truth could be in the dew on a petal on a flower, or in a bird flying by. He really didn’t care — and he didn’t care what the script said,” the actor said of making The Thin Red Line.
Malick famously didn’t care that the script called for a lot more scenes with a lot more actors than ended up on screen, for instance, and once he’d edited the film, he gave Reilly a call. “He said, ‘John, I just wanted you to know that some of your scenes are no longer in the picture,’” Reilly recalled. “’You see, John, some parts of the picture were like ice floes that separated from the main.’ I thought, ‘Fair enough, at least I got that warning.’”
New Zealander McKenzie shares Malick’s celebrated taste for the outdoors, and submitted herself for Leave No Trace by sending director Debra Granik an unconventional statement of self in addition to a self-tape. “I sent over a video that I filmed with a GoPro of the native New Zealand bush,” the 18-year-old actress said. “I just went on a run on the track right by my house, with my dog following behind me. I was holding the GoPro in my mouth and was running through the bush. It was a weird self-portrait of myself, but of just what was around me.”
Grant has his own spectacular tale for how he got one of his greatest indie parts: At the premiere of the 1991 big-budget mess Hudson Hawk, he sat directly in front of Robert Altman and Tim Robbins. “[Altman] tapped me on the shoulder and he said, ‘So, E. Grant, what’s this movie like?’ And I said, ‘Bob, I will never work again if you watch this movie.’ And he said, ‘I have a movie called The Player and I have the part of a screenwriter who sells out in the story. Will you do it?’ I said yes.” By the time the credits rolled on Hudson Hawk, “It was like magic,” the actor remembered. “The entire cinema had been vacuumed of people. They had all f—ed off.” Those two films came out a year apart, and “the contrast between being in a big-budget dog and then later The Player — the extremity of that was so palpable,” Grant said.
But then sometimes the space between indie and studio doesn’t feel quite so vast. “You take everything that you do in independent cinema, and you take that wherever you go. That’s your foundation,” Jones said of her experience switching between indies such as Like Crazy and franchise blockbusters like Rogue One, though the finish line looks different for them. “You’re not making those [smaller] movies for the money or the fame, you’re making them because you’re searching for the truth,” she said. “That’s the only objective, to get closer to the truth. There’s no formula. Throw out the rulebook.”
But who’s to say that you can’t have it both ways? Can’t you throw out the rulebook when you’ve got budget to burn? Pike cited her experience on Gone Girl, with David Fincher, as evidence that you can. “David has a tiny crew, comparatively, and all the money goes on time. We shot for 106 days,” she said. “Obviously the number of takes he does is infamous, but that’s where the money goes. I think he has got a totally independent spirit, but he requires money.”
“I’ve worked on small-budget films where those poor directors are being bashed around by producers left and right, and I’ve worked on $100 million movies where that guy’s doing exactly what he wants every day,” Reilly agreed. “To me, an independent film is any film where the director gets to do exactly what they want.”