AFI Indie Contenders Panel Touts Small-Budget Stories: "When Studios Backed Out of the $20M Range, Thank God Indies Were There"

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for AFI
L-R) Florence Pugh, Alfre Woodard, Jimmie Fails, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Awkwafina, Kerry Washington, and Sterling K. Brown attend the Indie Contenders Roundtable presented by The Hollywood Reporter at AFI Fest 2019.

Held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and presented by The Hollywood Reporter, the annual panel featured eight performers in standout independent films of the past year, including Sterling K. Brown, Alfre Woodard, Florence Pugh, Kerry Washington, Awkwafina, Jimmie Fails, Cynthia Erivo and Jon Hamm.

"We're here talking about Frozen 2, the little indie that could, right? I hope it finds an audience," joked Sterling K. Brown at the start of AFI Fest's Indie Contenders panel, highlighting standout independent films and performances from the past year. 

Brown, who was representing Waves, was joined by Alfre Woodard (Clemency), Florence Pugh (Fighting With My Family/Midsommar), Kerry Washington (American Son), Awkwafina (The Farewell), Jimmie Fails (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) and Jon Hamm (The Report) at the annual event, this year presented by The Hollywood Reporter.

THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg moderated the 90-minute conversation inside the historic Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Academy Awards ceremony was held, Sunday afternoon.

Hamm, who appeared on Saturday Night Live just the night before, took a 6 a.m. flight to make it back to Los Angeles in time for the wide-ranging discussion. Looking back on when he first got Scott Z. Burns' script, called The Torture Report, the Mad Men star said it immediately made him think, "Well, this will be fun."

But the actor was "incredibly surprised that what could have been a dry and horrifying list of atrocities our government went through ended up becoming a hero story of this guy Dan Jones to compile this 7,600 page report all completely researched and coming from the CIA's own files. It's a story of accountability, and I feel like we're in a bit of an accountability gap these days."

Erivo was scouted to play Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons' biopic of the American heroine when she was in The Color Purple on Broadway, for which she won a Tony Award. "I didn't realize [producers] Debra Martin Chase and Daniela Taplin Lundberg had come to see me. A week later, Debra and I had tea at the Mandarin Oriental. She'd had that script for seven years at the time, but it was originally written 20 years ago." Erivo had learned about Tubman in school but only via a small, general paragraph. "It made me hungry to know about her, essentially the only woman of color in my history book. She was a hero of mine. I didn't know we existed in that form."

The long journey of bringing a story to the screen resonated with Fails, who shared that he and The Last Black Man's director Joe Talbot have "always been making movies together, since we were kids. He's my best friend and I've lived with him for years. I still do." They had been crafting stories without a script, and "we were literally on a walk talking about our family histories. It was a joke from when I was 17, for us to be like, 'Hey let's make a movie about your life.'"

That joke led to a concept trailer released on Vimeo with Fails narrating his original story about his grandpa and his house in San Francisco, which spurred into a Kickstarter, and then a short film that took the duo on a fateful trip to Sundance. "We were promoting Last Black Man when we were there because it was the movie we wanted to make, but we wanted to have experience shooting an actual movie," Fails said of the venture, where they met Christina Oh from Plan B. "They brought on A24 and were like, 'Are you ready to shoot in a month?' Like OK, yeah sure! I mean, we wanted to make movies. It's all we've been doing our whole lives." They shot the film in 25 days for $2.3 million, utilizing local performers and showing a side of the city "that wasn't on postcards. We didn't fly people in from L.A. to act like they were in San Francisco."

Awkwafina also felt a personal tether to Lulu Wang's The Farewell, the story of a family's endeavors to keep their grandmother's cancer diagnosis a secret. "Yeah, I was raised by my grandma. I lost my mom at 4 years old, so when I read the script, that bond felt very real to me. I've never seen a relationship between grandparents, not even just Asian grandparents, but a grandparent and granddaughter displayed in that way."

The Crazy Rich Asians actress, who received the script for The Farewell after wrapping filming on Ocean's 8, saw the predominantly dramatic tone and its heavily Chinese dialogue as a challenge, but she also related to her character Billi's feeling of being caught between two cultures. After visiting China in college, "I realized that struggle any dash-American feels of being told you're not American and then when you go to China, you feel like a stranger as well. It's hard, and it's not often talked about."

Fighting With My Family was "the second proper film" Pugh, who also stars as Amy in Greta Gerwig's Little Women this year, auditioned for after breaking out in Lady Macbeth (2016). Pugh shot Fighting years ago, and she laid her cards out on the table the first time she Skyped with writer-director Ari Aster for his nightmarish Midsommar. "I was filming in Athens, a night shoot at the Acropolis. I went home and hadn't slept in I don't know how many hours. So often when you Skype with people, you have to be so careful what you say or if you want to do a project, you can't actually tell them," Pugh said.

"But Ari was so stressed too that by the end of the Skype, I said, 'Ari, I don't want to play games. Can you tell me if you want me to do it?' And he was like, 'Oh great, me, too! They told me I couldn't tell you I wanted you, but I do.' I hung up and it was like when you finish watching an episode on Netflix, like, 'Oh shit, what have I done?' It was odd but all so wonderful."

Woodard was drawn to Chinonye Chukwu's Clemency in which she plays a death row warden because she thought, "If I am in my sixth decade, am an educated woman, have been politically active since I was 14, and I didn't know about these human beings hopefully trying to give some dignity to people on their way out, we need to get this story out."

The great thing about doing independent film, Woodard expounded, "is it's just closer to the storyteller. People come there and the crew is committed. They tend to be people that love the process. That's why they're in it rather than approaching it for some big lifestyle."

Washington brought American Son from Broadway to Netflix, shooting the film in four and a half days. "But you already knew your lines," Hamm joked. "Very true, we rehearsed it for four months on Broadway" Washington said. "But we divided the play into three acts and shot an act a day. We would have these 20-minute takes, and so to watch the boom operator and steadicam operator maintain focus and devotion, to be in this dance with us with such a deep level of concentration and endurance was extraordinary."

As Woodard, Erivo and Washington came up through theater, Washington shared that she partly wanted to produce and star in American Son because "I don't think we always do a great job with diverse voices in the theater. But about 15 years ago when DVDs happened and margins crashed in filmmaking, it became of the decision that 'We cannot mess around in that $20 million range. We can't make movies there because the ROI is not productive enough,'" she said.

"The fear around finances says, 'Let's make something for the biggest common denominator, let go of the specificity and try to cater to everyone.' When studios backed out of the $20 million range, thank God indies were there to say, 'We're still gonna play there, explore and look for stories that create connection between human beings.' I love a Marvel movie like anybody else. As much as tentpoles are important, so are movies like Waves."

In Trey Edward Shults' Waves, Brown plays a father who pushes his son, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., immensely hard to see him succeed and excel — but through tough love, which does not always feel loving to his son. The tragedy halfway through the film teaches the father that sensitivity and vulnerability are just as valuable teachers as he thought his outwardly shone strength was. "I had concerns. For a young black man, this is really serious stuff, not to put another negative stereotype of a young black man where people are willing to write him off but to see him as a beautiful human being who took a wrong turn and made a devastating mistake."

Brown's fear inspired him to ultimately make the film. "I was terrified for Kelvin, like, 'Hey man, once you do the movie and people see it, it's not yours anymore and they can interpret it however they want.' He goes, 'Yeah it's tough, but it's a really good part.' He hit me with, 'Should I not do it just because I am black?' I was like, 'Oh shit, you flipped me on it.' I realized the thing I was scared about was why I should do the film. The fears my character had for his son were the same fears I had for Kelvin."

Washington echoed Brown's sentiments of realizing "the inescapable vulnerability that comes with parenting as a black woman" in her role as Kendra. As the play was one of her first roles after seven seasons of playing the impermeable Olivia Pope on ABC's Scandal, Washington saw that in a 90-minute play, "here was a woman trying to have some sense of agency and control to find her son. In hindsight, the writers decided on Scandal for Olivia to never have children. She had an abortion. Parenting requires fear, anxiety and vulnerability Olivia couldn't afford and remain Olivia Pope. I myself became a mom in those seven seasons, and this was a way to explore that."

When looking at scripts, Brown says that he actively tries to find characters that are different from the beloved father Randall he plays on This Is Us. "But when I try to do that, people hit me up on Twitter like why are you betraying Wakanda? I'm like, 'I'm not Randall!' I'm about trying to expand the box folks want to put you in hopefully until the edges sort of disappear."

Pugh has always wanted to act in a Western and have "grit in my teeth and my eyebrows," while Fails is itching to play a bad guy. "I kind of tripped and fell into this acting thing, but I do want to be taken seriously. I want to look back on everything I do and be proud of it."

Hamm is proud of everything he's done, "including Tag, which is underrated," he said to laughs but in all seriousness. "After Mad Men hit, there were like 10 scripts where everyone is wearing a hat, smoking and drinking and it's in black and white. My decision was very conscious to swing the other way, for me to look into more things that were funny and to gain credibility on both sides of the aisle."

Each of the actors on the panel praised the vitality of film festivals, which "feel like a big homecoming," as Woodard said. "It's our conduit to the people. If independent films don't have festivals, there’s no way to get everywhere we want to get the stories to."

Erivo, who went to TIFF two years in a row, felt like it came full-circle the second time around returning as the face of Harriet. "You get to be amongst peers you don't see most of the year and can audibly tell what's happening with the film through the audience's reactions. The first time I went was for my very first movie Widows, and then I was pleased just to be there to be honest."

Pugh, who praised Aster as the captain of the ship racing to capture the sunlight of Midsommar when the "sun had changed five times between one take," agreed with the magic of making "big tiny films" and then experiencing their reception on the festival circuit as both Fighting With My Family and Lady Macbeth went to Sundance. "The fact the movie got made is a massive deal. It's the first time you're allowed to feel proud of the film."

Hamm, who has been on the Sundance jury, encouraged "anybody who hasn't gone to go to festivals. You get to see cool shit early and hold it over your friends' heads. But you really see an astonishing amount of talent. It's our community."

Washington, who went to TIFF for the first time with Ray (2004), reunited with her co-star Jamie Foxx at this year's festival, as he was there for Just Mercy. "We ran into each other. There was lots of tears and hugging, just for the journey of the last 15 years. I'm indebted to film festivals. It's a real affirmation that comes to us as artists, what we do, when you guys allow us to be part of your agenda. When we can put that wreath on our poster. We get to feel like real artisans, not just artists."