Pete Hammond

The 28th Annual Film Independent Spirit Awards, being held Saturday afternoon as usual under a huge tent at Santa Monica beach, is always one of the most loose and laid-back award shows of the season. Coming as it does a day before the far more formal Oscars, it provides a chance for stars and filmmakers to relax and get together in a much more stress-free environment. And with independent film increasingly playing a much bigger part in Oscar nominations and wins over the years there is even a certain symmetry between the two shows.

Last year for instance The Artist won the top Picture prize, Best Actor for Jean Dujardin and Director at both shows as did Christopher Plummer for Supporting Actor in Beginners.  It wasn’t always the case.  In fact there was an infamous phrase that perfectly summed up the disparity between the Oscar weekend events: “Win on Saturday, lose on Sunday”.  That hasn’t been true for a while and this year the two shows share several nominees in common including Best Film contenders Silver Linings Playbook and Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Foreign hopefuls Amour and War Witch, along with a handful of acting nominees including Jennifer Lawrence, Helen Hunt, Quvenzhane Wallis and Bradley Cooper. And it always draws an eclectic mix of presenters, nominees and industry players. One reason it has been so successful is that organizers keep the fun quotient up. “My mantra is party first. I think about people in the room first. If everyone is having a good time it translates to television,” says Executive Producer Diana Zahn-Storey who is now doing her 18th show. It will be taped and televised at 10 PM Saturday night on IFC. It used to air live in the afternoon but ratings were subpar hence the move to primetime where they have improved considerably according to the producer.

This year, just as at the Golden Globes show hosted by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, there could be a strong Saturday Night Live vibe to the show as Zahn-Storey says they are ratcheting up the comedy bits thanks to first-time host Andy Samberg. Plus Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen are among the presenters.  ”Andy is kind of the perfect person to host the show. He’s very funny. He has a huge following. People love him. And he’s a filmmaker as well”, she says pointing to one of the Indie Spirit nominees this year, Celeste And Jesse Forever, in which he starred.

Although he left SNL at the end of last season he’s also very well known for the SNL film shorts he has done over the years and they will be the centerpiece of the comedy for this year’s Indie Spirits. Zahn-Storey says they have shot three of them including one revolving around Samberg auditioning for roles via Skype, something that is a new phenomenon among directors and actors (Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence is known to have Skyped in her original audition for Silver Linings). It helps that Skype is one of the Indie Spirit sponsors this year. The shorts will include several high profile celebrity cameos as well.

In her 18 times at bat Zahn-Storey says things haven’t always run smoothly largely because of the make-shift beachside setting. “Because of our location our nightmare moments have usually been weather-related. There are all kinds of weight limits with the tent. We have to use pipe and chain for rigging which doesn’t look good on camera. If it’s raining or windy or planes flying overhead you hear or see it. Last year technically was a nightmare”, she says plus some of the nominees and participants are also involved in the Oscar show which can produce scheduling problems.

“I have  had scary moments where people had to get to Oscar rehearsals and our show was running long and they said, ‘I have to go. I have to be at my Oscar rehearsal’.  But on the other hand it is good being next to the Oscars because we can get people who are in town for them we might not get otherwise”, she said. Last year the group from The Artist, flying into L.A. from the Cesar Awards in Paris, barely made the show and had to have a police escort to get them there in time for their categories. But generally things run smoothly. In fact she says instead of begging for presenters, now she gets lots of calls to book them on the show, a marked difference from the early days.

On Saturday she will be backstage once again producing Hollywood’s biggest commercial for independent film. She wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s kind of like my baby and I love it and I love independent filmmakers. I’ve watched it grow and change and become something people really respect and are honored to be nominated, and I am a part of that”, she said.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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