AFI Fest Indie Contenders Panel: Kristen Stewart, Bill Hader Say "Follow Gut"

Kristen Stewart - P 2014
AP Images/Invision

Kristen Stewart - P 2014

Jake Gyllenhaal, Marion Cotillard, J.C. Chandor and other Oscar hopefuls spill indie secrets to THR's Scott Feinberg

Were it not for her Twilight fame, Kristen Stewart would still be celebrated as an indie film darling following hits like Still Alice. At the AFI Fest Indie Contenders Panel, Stewart said that both indies and tentpoles have their virtues. "You're always going to want a huge launching pad for what you poured your life's energy and soul and heart into, but there is also something that feels cool about the outsider factor of, not everybody loves what we're doing but the few that do are brothers, do you know what I mean? It feels great to go to Sundance. It's fun. That's why I make movies."'

Held Nov. 9 at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, the panel hosted by The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg also featured Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer), Michelle Monaghan (Fort Bliss), Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year) and Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins).

Stewart, described by Feinberg as "the Sundance queen" on the basis of her many films that have debuted there, rejected George Clooney's idea of the "one for them, one for me" approach — alternating indies and studio films. "I'm genuinely very much blown with the wind, I follow the gut. It's not a tactical approach. I can greenlight a movie now that I've done five Twilight movies, but I just think it's doing things for the right reason. There's no way to quantify it. Even if something doesn't completely equal success, if you don't go, this script and director and cast and budget [spell success], I'm fully willing to hop on something if I'm interested in one person who's involved in it, or one line that my character says that I've always been dying to say — it's like, I will make a bad movie. Because it's like, I'm like, whatever — I didn't make it myself!"

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"You go with your gut," agreed Hader, who confessed that he had trouble convincing even his agent that he should star in dramatic roles. Once convinced, his agent suggested he do a table read for casting agent Avy Kaufman. "It was Kate Winslet, Bradley Cooper, Paul Dano, Greta Gerwig … and me," Hader said, with ace comic timing. That led to The Skeleton Twins, after a two-year search for financing. "Skeleton Twins was $1 million, done in like 20 days, but the cool thing about that was the crew was young and excited and it felt like a privilege doing it. Don't make a movie in a week. SNL we did in a week, and that sucked."

"Even studio movies have never got enough money," noted Swinton. "You're always on a shoestring. The great difference is that in the independent 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 it rains, if it's a studio movie, you wait for two weeks. If it's an indie, you just make your mind up that rain is the best possible outcome. You know, that rain scene, that really sold it for me.'"

"Last year I did James Gray's movie [The Immigrant]," said Cotillard. "You know a small number of people will see it, but it's a very personal movie for him. I must feel that it's a need of almost life or death to tell the story. I was offered like, big movies, but after meeting with a director and talking with him or her about the reason to do the movie, this person avoids the question, because there was no answer. I will never be able to go in an adventure with a captain who wouldn't give up his life for his boat."

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"It's kind of like being a quarterback and pushing people and helping, and — just go do something you're really proud of," said Monaghan. Chandor, who said that after his first major film as a director fell through and the financiers demanded $400,000 back, "I was sitting on the street crying. I sat down three or four years later and wrote 82 pages, added about 12 pages more, and six months later I was shooting [Margin Call]." After its success, he spurned big offers. "I figured those offers will be there if I choose to make a movie about a man alone on a boat [All Is Lost]." Chandor said the problem with his first, failed film was his impure motive — he wanted to get a film made more than having a passion to tell a particular story. Now he's spending more than $100 million of Lionsgate's money making Deepwater Horizon. "Every movie I've made has — knock wood — made back the money of the people who backed it."

Feinberg asked each panelist what advice they would give their younger selves starting out in the business. "Just relax, dude, chill out," said Stewart. "I would love to go back then and tell my little self, 'Don't be that scared,'" said Cotillard. "Whatever happens, even the worst things, will make you who you are." Said Hader, "When I was 20 I was a PA for a long time, I drove the evil sensei in Karate Kid. I made a little movie and my friends were like, 'That sucks.'" Hader wants to tell his young self, "Just relax; it's great to fail."

Hader's story prompted Gyllenhaal to offer his young self this advice: "Be careful what you say, because Bill Hader might be driving you!"