7 Indie Contenders on Tight Budgets, Outside-the-Box Opportunities, Keeping Studios Out of Fests (Video)

AFI Indie Contenders Panel

"It's like battle of the budgets up here," cracked Grandma's lead actress Lily Tomlin as we sat down at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — along with 99 Homes co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani, I'll See You in My Dreams lead actress Blythe Danner, Brooklyn lead actress Saoirse Ronan, The End of the Tour supporting actor Jason Segel, I Smile Back lead actress Sarah Silverman and Meadowland lead actress/producer Olivia Wilde — to talk about indie cinema as part of the second annual AFI Fest Indie Contenders Panel, presented by THR.

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(You can watch video of our hour-long conversation at the top of this post, and video of last year's conversation — with J.C. Chandor, Damien Chazelle, Marion Cotillard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Hader, Michelle Monaghan, Kristen Stewart and Tilda Swinton — by clicking here.)

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Grandma, which cost less than $600,000 and was made in just 19 days, reunited Tomlin with her Admission director Paul Weitz and provided the comedy legend with her first leading role in a film in 27 years. "He said he'd written it with me in mind," Tomlin, 76, says of the part of a hip grandma whose personal life is in a shambles when her granddaughter comes to her door seeking urgent help. "I loved making the movie — maybe loved it more than any other movie I've ever made," she says.

Segel, whose background also is in comedy, grants, "I wasn't the obvious choice to play David Foster Wallace" in The End of the Tour, a $3 million drama, shot in just 20 days, about Wallace's interactions with a Rolling Stone interviewer shortly after the release of the novel that made him a literary superstar. But writer/director James Ponsoldt told Segel he wanted him for the part because he had always seen "something sad" behind Segel's eyes, not unlike Wallace's. And the 35-year-old actor says the collaboration ended up being "the best experience I've ever had."

In her eight years of making films, 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan, who was Oscar-nominated at 13 for her supporting turn in 2007's Atonement, has made few films that weren't indies. The Irish-American actress says John Crowley's Brooklyn, which was made in eight weeks for $11 million, was "the first Irish project that really spoke to me." She'd read the novel that inspired it years ago and, like her parents, had experienced/was experiencing things similar to her character while making the film. That made it "one of the most difficult things I've ever done," she says, "but I've never gotten so much gratification out of something before."

Danner, meanwhile, marked her 50th year in the acting profession with her first lead role in a film, Brett Haley's I'll See You in My Dreams, which was made for just $500,000 over 18 days. "I really considered not doing it because I didn't think I'd have the stamina," says the 72-year-old stage and screen vet. "But I'm really glad I did [because] it was certainly the happiest experience of my filmic life."

For Wilde, Reed Morano's directorial debut Meadowland was not only an acting challenge, but also a producing one. She prevailed over a "very competitive" field of interested thesps to land the part of a mother grieving over the disappearance of her young child, and also signed on as a producer when it became clear that raising financing for the film would not be easy. In the end, they came up with $2.3 million to make it over 22 days, providing the 31-year-old with "the most challenging but the most gratifying experience by far" of her career.

Bahrani, the sole writer/director on the panel, made his name on micro-budget indies that featured real people instead of movie stars, such as Man Push Cart and Goodbye Solo, so for him the $5 million budget and 30 day shooting schedule for 99 Homes — which stars Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon as an evictee and evictor during America's recent home foreclosure crisis — felt like a lot of movie. "I was just curious about the financial crisis and how it started," says the 40-year-old, who gave up points and fees in order to cover overages on the project. Although the scale of this film was bigger than his others, he employed some of his tested techniques: "Every other person he [Garfield] is evicting is an actor, [and] every other person is a real person in their real home."

Nobody's project, however, had as shoestring of a budget as the one starring Silverman, Adam Salky's I Smile Back, which had a budget of just $400,000 and a shooting schedule of just 20 days. The raunchy comedienne became attached to the bleak drama after the author of the novel that inspired its script heard her "talking about my own relationship with depression" on Howard Stern's radio show and asked her to become attached to the film. "I thought, 'Good luck getting funding with me attached to this," says Silverman, not because she didn't want to do it — she'd previously played a supporting role in Sarah Polley's dramedy Take This Waltz — but because she has found that "it's oddly really rare when somebody in this business can imagine you in a way in which they have not already seen you be, so I was so grateful."

The group agreed this sort of outside-the-box thinking, when it comes to casting decisions, is far more prevalent among indie filmmakers than people who make big studio films. "There's not so much on the line and they're more creative, more interesting and they take on subjects that big studios might not take on," says Tomlin who, like Danner, finds much better opportunities for women over 40 in the former than the latter. (Incidentally, the two shared a costar in Sam Elliot.)

This does not, however, mean that indie financiers aren't prone to some of the same biases as studios, emphasizes Wilde, who, as a producer on Meadowland, got "a real education in indie film financing," she says. "It was shockingly difficult to get financing," she explains. "And it was hard not to assume it had something to do with gender because we were a female directed, female produced story about a female, and a lot of the time the response we were getting was, 'Wait 'til you get the guy. When you get the guy it'll be real.' Somehow the male involvement made it a 'real' project." And, she sighs, "I have to say, once we had him [Luke Wilson], everything came together."

Bahrani half-jokingly asserts, "A good independent filmmaker should lie and cheat and steal and find ways to make the damn thing work," particularly at a time when it is getting harder to tell original stories on film. The big studios are now all small pieces of giant conglomerates that answer to shareholders and therefore are extremely risk-averse, and financing for indies are harder than ever to come by as television gets stronger and stronger and luring many people from the big screen to the small screen, a move that once was regarded as a step in the wrong direction.

Tomlin started in TV before making films with the likes of Robert Altman, and now has returned to it on Netflix's Grace and Frankie, for which she received an Emmy nom this year. Wilde made her name on TV's The OC and House, and now is returning to it on HBO's upcoming Vinyl, directed by Martin Scorsese. And Danner, a creature of the theater, will soon be seen playing Ruth Madoff in an ABC mini-series. "I think there are tremendous opportunities [in TV]," says Danner, who won an Emmy for Huff. "There is so much more three-dimensionality for women on TV."

But as smaller films get crowded out of theaters and TV screens get bigger, perhaps the future for indie cinema is on TV. Wilde, whose indie projects Drinking Buddies and Meadowland both were mostly seen via video-on-demand, says, "The stigma attached to VOD is changing much in the way the stigma attached to television is changing." She continues, "Your film can reach people who don't have access to independent cinemas." And Segel, who made his name on TV's Freaks and Geeks, adds, "It's gotten really nice to watch things at home. The screen has gotten big and beautiful, and you can talk, and you can push 'pause' and run to the restroom."

Regardless of how indie films are consumed, they always will require greater promotion than films from major studios or shows from big networks, which have built-in apparatuses to generate interest in their products. All of the panelists' 2015 indies, for instance, premiered at one of the two premier film fests for indies: all but Wilde's at Sundance in Park City, Utah, and Wilde's at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Several voiced concern, though, that studio films and even TV shows now are increasingly encroaching on those gatherings.

"In those festivals, and especially in places like Toronto, you are now competing with larger studio productions that are there to market their films and release them, and I don't know if this is good or bad," Bahrani says diplomatically. Wilde follows more forcefully, "I do think that it's a problem that studios bring their films to festivals. Festivals are supposed to be for independent film and I think it crowds the roster and I think it stops filmmakers from bringing their films there and I think studios should just get out of the way. They have distribution; they don't need to be there, they don't need those audiences. So I think they should just beat it!" She then adds with a laugh, "I'm never gonna work again!"