No experience required

The filmmakers vying for best feature and first feature have plenty in common -- namely, their ability to craft compelling stories that offer a fresh perspective.

Guillermo del Toro is only 42, but judging from the list of nominees vying for attention at Film Independent's Spirit Awards, he's the old man of American indie cinema. Never mind that he's a native of Mexico and that most of his films have been in Spanish, including his latest, Picturehouse's 1940s fantasy "Pan's Labyrinth" -- del Toro remains the most experienced of the directors whose films are in contention for the best feature prize.

But experience, he says, doesn't matter all that much anyway: "Every time I make a new film, it's like starting all over again."

The vagaries of just starting out in their chosen craft are still fresh for many of this year's Spirit Award nominees, the majority of whom are first- and second-time directors who, unlike del Toro, haven't had the benefit of working both independently and inside the studio system. The emphasis on emerging talent has been widely hailed by industry insiders, some of whom previously had complained that the Spirit Awards were veering too far from their mandate to honor not just the best in indie cinema but movies that would most likely not receive attention in any other forum.

The issue came to a head last year, when the best picture Spirit nominees were nearly identical to those competing at the Oscar ceremony. Purists argued that the ceremony should focus most of its attention on films well under the Spirits' $20 million budget cap rather than the higher-profile studio subsidiary fare that had the advantage of splashier marketing campaigns and, typically, big-name talent.

The controversy hasn't been entirely resolved -- Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" is up for best film at both the Spirit Awards and the Oscars, while "Labyrinth" received six Oscar nominations last month -- but the five best feature contenders actually have more in common with the films in the first feature category than they do the Academy Award nominees.

All of the nominated filmmakers labored for years on scripts before struggling to secure financing, hire the right actors and get their projects in front of cameras, and the Sundance Film Festival played a role in the page-to-screen progression of several of the nominated pictures -- particularly "Sunshine," which Searchlight acquired in 2006 for upward of $10 million.

While the movie is the first feature from husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Dayton says he doesn't necessarily feel like a first-time director after already having had a long career in music videos and commercials. He does, however, feel that his $8 million film is, by every definition, independent. "For us, it was as much a pure filmmaking experience as anything we've done," Dayton says.

"We had just the right amount of time and stuff that we needed," Faris adds.

Although the budget for writer-director Karen Moncrieff's First Look Pictures drama "The Dead Girl" reportedly was closer to the $4 million range, it, too, boasts an indie aesthetic. A gritty saga that explores the way in which a murder impacts the lives of five different sets of people, the film, which stars Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden and Brittany Murphy, among others, and opened theatrically Dec. 29, was born out of Moncrieff's experiences serving as a juror in a criminal trial.

But finding the right inspiration for a compelling story was only half the battle. A former soap opera actress, Moncrieff says that she benefited greatly from having previously directed a feature, 2003's "Blue Car," which received a Spirit Award nomination in 2004. She understood what problems might arise during a shoot, and she was more secure in her ability to solve them. "With the first one, you're afraid," she says. "This time around, I got over that hump. I was confident that I could trust my instincts."

Harden stars in another of the five best feature nominees, IFC Films' "American Gun," an exploration of gun violence in modern-day America, and she also played a prominent role in getting the project from film-school buddies Ted Kroeber and Aric Avelino made.

Kroeber, who served as producer, and Avelino, who directed (and co-wrote the film with Steven Bagatourian), sent the actress a copy of the screenplay, and she agreed to sign on right away. "We were beneficiaries of her interest," Kroeber says. "She's an actress who has a big impact on a lot of other actors."

With Harden attached, Forest Whitaker, too, accepted a starring role in the film, and Kroeber and Avelino then went to Sundance to try to secure financing. In the course of a single day, IFC executives expressed interest in producing the project, and Jeff Skoll's Participant Prods. offered to back the $2 million production.

Even with that kind of a charmed experience, the producing and directing team didn't expect the film to receive three Spirit Award noms. Whitaker was nominated for best male lead for his work as a high school principal in the film, while Harden will compete in the supporting female category for her portrayal of a depressed single mother. "Three nominations -- that was like Christmas Day," Kroeber says.

Similarly, Ryan Fleck, the first-time feature director of ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson," is thrilled by the attention his film has received. The film was nominated for best feature and first screenplay, and its star, 26-year-old Ryan Gosling, is competing in the best actor category at both the Spirit Awards and the Oscars for his portrayal of a middle school teacher struggling with drug addiction. "I interpret it as being a good thing as being (nominated for) best feature, even though it's still a first film," Fleck says.

Fleck and his writing partner Anna Boden now are working on co-writing and co-directing their "Half Nelson" follow-up, which will either be a Spanish-language film with nonactors or a studio movie. "Doors are open," Fleck says. "I don't know if it will be easier the second time around. You'll have to ask me this time next year."

How different are the directors in the first feature category? Not very. Minnesota native Ali Selim, a commercial director, spent nearly 15 years struggling to make his period romance "Sweet Land," based on Will Weaver's "A Gravestone Made of Wheat." Selim fell in love with the simple, poetic tale about an immigrant couple and phoned the author out of the blue to buy the rights to the short story. But the project foundered for years until Selim's chance meeting with October Films co-founder Jeff Lipsky at Portugal's Troia International Film Festival in June 2006. The executive-turned-filmmaker became so taken with Selim's screenplay that he decided to briefly return to the world of distribution to help Selim market his movie.

To date, "Sweet Land" has played on more than 300 screens and has earned roughly $1.3 million in domestic release. "We keep rolling the profits into the next print, and we're well on the way to recouping our investment," Selim says. "There's promise of a DVD and good foreign sales. We're negotiating right now for late spring."

NYU film school graduate Julia Loktev also spent a while mulling over her feature debut, "Day Night Day Night," the story of a would-be female suicide bomber in New York set for distribution through IFC Films' First Take program. She had made one well-regarded personal documentary, the 1998 production "Moment of Impact," which won a directing award at Sundance, and she realized that if she hoped to find financial backing for her script, she would need to go outside the U.S.

"It took me much longer than I thought to make a fictional feature," says Loktev, who lives in Brooklyn. "When I wrote the script, I didn't spend a lot of time shopping it around to American producers. It was important for me to make it very independently. I did it for a very small amount of money, and we didn't have to make compromises that came from outside the film."

She ended up getting some German film-fund money after presenting her script at the International Film Festival Rotterdam's CineMart -- "like speed dating for producing," she says -- and winning a $75,000 production award for alumni from NYU.

By contrast, New York-based filmmaker Michael Kang was able to make his debut feature, Palm Pictures' "The Motel," fairly quickly. It took him three years to write the first draft of the story of a young boy growing up in a pay-by-the-hour motel, but after a friend recommended him for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, the project came together with relative ease. "I didn't even know what the labs were," he says. "If I did know, I would have flubbed it."

At the lab, Kang met director Miguel Arteta (2000's "Chuck & Buck," 2002's "The Good Girl") who signed on to become a producer on "Motel" after serving as a mentor. He says what surprised him was that a filmmaker like Arteta was interested in his work for the story rather than the cultural specificity of the Korean milieu. "As long as there are universal themes, it doesn't make a difference," he says.

Now, Kang already is starting on his second film, a Korean gangster story tentatively titled "West 32nd" and slated for release in 2008. The financing came together though friends who introduced him to the South Korean company CJ Entertainment. "It happened quickly, just by luck," he says.

Goran Dukic also had a connection recommend him to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and got in with his script for "Wristcutters: A Love Story," a dark comedy about suicide cases in the afterlife that stars Patrick Fugit and Tom Waits. It took him three years from the script stage to the Spirit Awards, with the longest stretch spent trying to secure financing. Like Selim, he also fell in love with a short story and contacted the writer to buy the rights. "I went to a reading, bought a book, and that's how it all started," he says.

The process could have been made more complicated by the fact that Dukic actually had no money to offer author Etgar Keret for the rights. But as it turned out, the writer already had received a deluge of offers from filmmakers, so he asked all of them to write a screenplay for his story, with the rights going to the script he preferred. Fortunately for Dukic, not too many of them agreed to that stipulation. "Nobody was so crazy to write a script," Croatia native Dukic says, "but I was that crazy."

Ramin Bahrani, writer-director of Films-Philos' "Man Push Cart," doesn't understand this kind of happy-go-lucky attitude -- that things just sort of coalesce and the film happens -- when it comes to making an independent film. "I think the whole thing is hard," he says. "I'm baffled by people who think it's not."

To make his first film, about a Pakistani street-cart vendor in Manhattan who is trying to dig himself out of hard times, he had to spend time raising money and doing research on street-cart vendors to create an authentic look and feel for the story. That process took roughly 18 months, compared to the 30 days it took to shoot the film in October 2004.

Since then, the film has traveled around the world on the festival circuit, playing at dozens of major events across the globe, including the Venice Film Festival in September 2005 and Sundance in January 2006. It was at the Park City confab that Bahrani met with executives from Big Beach, the company that bankrolled "Sunshine." "One of their producers saw ('Man Push Cart') at Sundance, and she invited me to brunch," Bahrani says. "I was excited to have a free meal."

Arguably more exciting was that Big Beach agreed to back the filmmaker's next project, the less-than-$1 million "Chop Shop," another piece of social realism, this time about a young boy working in a car-repair shop near Shea Stadium in Queens.

"I like this one even more than 'Man Push Cart,'" he says.

It's that kind of enthusiasm that could keep a filmmaker like Bahrani in the game for years to come. As del Toro says, "You have to hold on and never think it's going to get any better. It's always going to be tough, but if you give up, things won't ever happen."

Prize possessions: Spirit Award coveted by veterans and newcomers
No experience required: Nominees offer fresh perspective
Show time: Bleachers enhance red-carpet experience
Dialogue: Film Independent's Dawn Hudson
2007 Spirit Award Nominations
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