AFI Fest: Kristen Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal and 6 Other Oscar Hopefuls on Making Indies

It's not often that one gets to spend 75 minutes talking about the good, bad and ugly sides of indie filmmaking with eight distinguished filmmakers, but that's precisely what I had the pleasure of doing last Sunday when I moderated the AFI Fest's Indie Contenders Roundtable, which was presented by The Hollywood Reporter.

Each of the eight panelists were associated with top-notch 2014 indies: writer-director J.C. Chandor (AFI Fest opener A Most Violent Year); writer-director Damien Chazelle (Sundance grand jury and audience award winner Whiplash); Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard (Belgian Oscar submission Two Days, One Night, as well as 2013 Cannes selection The Immigrant); Oscar-nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal (Toronto selections Nightcrawler and, from 2013, Enemy); actor Bill Hader (a best actor Gotham Award nominee for Sundance selection The Skeleton Twins); actress Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss); actress Kristen Stewart (Toronto selection Still Alice, as well as Sundance selection Camp X-Ray and Cannes selection The Clouds of Sils Maria); and Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer, as well as 2013 Cannes selection Only Lovers Left Alive and Berlin selection The Grand Budapest Hotel).

As you can see for yourself by watching the video at the top of this post or reading highlights of the conversation below, the gathering served as a master class for those in the audience and a cathartic experience for the panelists, who also rarely enjoy the opportunity to discuss these matters in-depth with a wide cross-section of fellow filmmakers.

How and why they came to their 2014 indies...

Chandor had the image of his main character come to him; Swinton wanted to work with Bong Joon-ho; Chazelle wanted to write something personal; Stewart could imagine Julianne Moore as her mother; Cotillard had long dreamed of working with the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne; Monaghan felt that it was important to tell a story from a female soldier's perspective; Gyllenhaal felt it was one of the best scripts he had ever read; and Hader was actively looking for a meaty dramatic role.

The importance of a film's budget, rehearsal time, etc. in terms of deciding whether or not to take on a role...

Swinton said it has always been central to her decision-making process. She suggested, "The great difference is that in the independent filmmaking world, you make friends with chaos, and in the studio world you don't need to because if you wrote a scene for sunshine and hey, it rains, you wait for two weeks. If you write a scene for sun in an independent film, you've got the location until six o'clock and you're never gonna be able to get back and you just make your mind up that rain is the best possible outcome."

The model that George Clooney set of doing "one for them [studios], one for me [indies]...

Gyllenhaal suggested that he doesn't approach his career with any sort of conscious calculation: "Whenever I commit to something, it feels like it's the biggest thing ever, it feels like everything to me." He did note, however, "When a budget is a particular size, it forces everybody to prepare in a different way... There's something about knowing we have limited resources, limited time, locations we'll lose... There's a sort of desperation there, and in that desperation everybody's vulnerable and in that vulnerability there's a real sense of intimacy that happens."

The studios' move away from telling stories other than remakes, sequels or adaptations of pre-existing properties...

Chandor candidly described the predicament that it has put him in as a filmmaker: "I don't want to make the movies that [studios] making right now, for the most part, as horrible as that sounds... The simple, simple terrible problem is it's hard to make a living making [indie] movies... You have to make sacrifices in your own life to do it, to gain that creative freedom that comes with those choices. The hope is you get to tell stories for a longer period of time because you're telling good ones."

The virtual disappearance of movies with mid-range budgets and the dwindling number of indie operations...

Chazelle insisted that he remains "naively optimistic" that these are only temporary changes: "I like to naively think that we're on a 20-year cycle — like the studio entrenchment of the '60s kind of led to the '70s golden age, and what happened in the '80s kind of led to the '90s explosion of independent cinema, the 2000s and early 2000-teens will lead to [better things]... I like to think that it ebbs and flows and that every time it seems like there's a door closing there's another door opening. The key thing is that people are still out there who want to see these kinds of movies."

The increasing number of "film actors and actresses" who are finding better opportunities in the world of television...

Monaghan, who this year stepped away to star in HBO's acclaimed series True Detective, said, "Studios aren't making great dramatic films and aren't really necessarily making bold, exciting choices for creative people. Personally, for me, if the material is great, I don't really care what medium it's in. If it's exciting and something I can connect to, I don't care if it's big or small or cable. It's nice to have options.""

The degree to which variety television prepares an actor for the time and budget limitations of indie filmmaking...

Hader, who recently left SNL after nine years and two Emmy nominations, said, "Yeah, no, Skeleton Twins was a million dollars [budget] and done in 20 days... You don't do a movie in a week — SNL we did in a week, and that sucked — but yeah."

The importance of Sundance for indies...

Stewart, who has had six films debut at the fest in Park City, Utah — Speak (2004), The Yellow Handkerchief (2008), Adventureland (2009), Welcome to the Rileys (2010), The Runaways (2010), Camp X-Ray (2014) — explained, "There is something that feels cool about the us versus them factor of, you know, 'Not everyone loves what we're doing, but the few that do are like our brothers.' It feels great to go to Sundance. It's not about the attention, it's just about the experience of it and looking at something together. That's fun. That's why we make movies. It's a fun place to be." Swinton added, "That whole festival culture is incredibly important for filmmaking."

The trajectory of a short film becoming a feature film, as has been the case with many of the best recent indies including Bottle Rocket (1996), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Half Nelson (2006), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and Short Term 12 (2013)...

Chazelle, whose Whiplash followed this same path, confessed, "I didn't really set out wanting to do this short — I'd written this full script and thought, 'Well, I'll just do this.' So at the time, the short seemed like a digression, borne of necessity, just some kind of last-ditch effort to convince people this was makable. But, looking back, it became the rehearsal period that we didn't have on the feature, it became a way of developing a rapport with some of the actors who carried over, figuring out things I liked about how I shot the scene [at the center of the short] and things I didn't like, things I could change about my approach to it. So it certainly was helpful in my case... In Hollywood people are more and more reticent about even reading scripts, let alone imagining the life that might be beyond them, and we're in a world now where there's so much short-form content that I think it's almost becoming more and more an expectation for filmmakers to do a sizzle reel or the entire movie already."

The decision that one faces, after a very successful movie, about whether to do big movies or small movies, American movies or international movies, etc.

Cotillard, after winning the best actress Oscar for La Vie En Rose (2007), had a lot of options, but said she didn't calculate what to do — it just happened: "I don't think I decide much, actually. I feel very lucky that I can explore... My dream was to be able to jump from one person to another and be totally different and to explore, as much as I could, human beings, and maybe answer a few of my questions that I had — and I had a lot of questions when I was a kid... I have always thought that the character and the story would choose me instead of me choosing a story."

The decision that one faces, after a big movie disappoints, about what to do next...

Gyllenhaal seems to have taken his career in a very different direction since The Prince of Persia (2010), making almost exclusively low-budget movies and/or bigger budget movies for auteurs, but he insisted that he has always considered projects the same way: "I've always had a similar mentality: 'What's over there? That looks really far away. Could I get there? I don't know. Looks kind of weird and scary. Let's try. So it wasn't any different, really."

The impact of a big movie succeeding on one's opportunities in the indie world...

Stewart, who had worked mostly in indies before the massive commercial success of the Twilight films, opined: "It's not been a tactical approach — 'I want to balance these independent movies with these bigger ones.' I am drawn to things, regardless of their size, because I really like them. A lot of people say, 'God, you must be so appreciative it [Twilight] opened so many doors, you can do whatever you want'... [But] the indie folk don't see me like that [as an indie actress] anymore; now I'm not cool enough to fit into the indie scene — I've done too many commercial projects and now [to some extent] it's like I'm 'the Twilight girl' and there it is... I think it's really important to do both."

The opportunity accorded by indie films to collaborate with some of the same people over numerous projects...

Swinton, who collaborated with the late filmmaker Derek Jarman on the first seven films of her career over a period of nine years, reflected on their special relationship: "This is where I got my habit of just working with my friends... What grew in me [through the Jarman collaboration] was this habit of real comfort. So when he very ridiculously left the building nine years later — he died of AIDS in 1994, which I can't believe is 20 years ago, but it is — I was kind of up a gum tree because I had this habit... I just wanted things to be that comfortable. And so I've continued to be lucky in finding people — or, at that point, they started to find me — who wanted to build up habits of their own... It's the way to do it."

The impact of the potential audience size for a film on one's decision about whether or not to sign up for it...

Cotillard acknowledged both sides of the argument: "Of course when you tell a story you want people to listen to it, but yeah, sometimes you know that few people are going to listen to it, but you know that it's an important story for you to tell... Last year, I did James Gray's movie [The Immigrant], which was about a very hard subject, and you knew that it was gonna be a small amount of people that were gonna see it... and it doesn't matter if it doesn't have a huge success because it's a need... I was [also] offered big movies, and you know a lot of people are gonna see those movies, but after meeting with the directors and trying to talk about the subject and trying to talk about the reason for him or her to do this movie and this person avoiding this question because there was no answer, I [didn't want to do it]."

The challenge of working with distributors that aren't able or willing to help a worthy project find a sizable audience...

Monaghan, who has done awards-caliber work on two films that then never got much of a theatrical release, Trucker (2007) and now Fort Bliss, granted, "It is frustrating. But... none of us signed on to our [2014 indie] movies to make a quick buck or feeling like there was guaranteed distribution. We signed on to these roles because we were compelled to... All you can do, at the end of the day, is just go and do something you're really, really proud of, and then just encourage other people to stand by it and to embrace it."

The occupational hazard of indie filmmaking: having a project break your heart...

Chandor said he spent eight years, prior to making Margin Call, on a project on which he had put a huge downpayment — that fell apart five days before it was to go into production: "I wrote a script in my mid-twenties... After about eight years of working on it and kind of messing with it in many different ways, finally got an investor and we had, I think, 15 or 20 percent of the budget on deposit that they gave us... Through nine different things that had nothing to do with us — it was all financial in the investor's life — he pulled out of three movies in New York at the same time, and at that point I had like 400 or 500,000 dollars against the script, which they wanted to be paid back on before we could shoot it — they basically owned the script at that time. And, you know, I was sitting on the street crying... That could have been the end of my career, frankly, and almost was... Three or four years later [though], I sat down and wrote an 82-page version of the Margin Call script in three days."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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