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Stars Align at 2014 Gotham Independent Film Awards

If there was one indelible image etched into the minds of attendees at the 2014 Gotham Independent Film Awards, held December 1st at New York’s Cipriani Wall Street, it was surely Tilda Swinton, the statuesque screen goddess of formidable range and awe-inspiring brilliance, waiting at a baggage claim. That is precisely how the exuberantly inventive comedian, Amy Schumer, randomly encountered the actress at an airport. When Schumer penned the Judd Apatow-directed comedy, “Trainwreck,” due for release next year, she dreamed up the role of a “fiercely powerful and elegant boss” that she dubbed in the official character description as, “a goddess, like Tilda Swinton waiting at a baggage claim.” Guess who ended up signing on for the role.

Yes, Swinton will be joining an A-list ensemble in next year’s star vehicle for Schumer, who celebrated the beloved actress in a show-stopping speech prior to the Oscar-winner’s acceptance of a Gotham Tribute award. Schumer and Swinton were among the numerous stars at the ceremony that gave exclusive interviews to on the red carpet and in the green room. Schumer was especially gracious when asked about working with fellow female trailblazers crafting similarly uncompromising visions. 

“Just hearing you say that made me really excited,” Schumer said. “I think we are all drawn to each other. When you grow up and people make you feel like there’s something wrong with you—whether you’re a girl who wants to fight for justice or make people laugh—it’s really powerful to connect with people who have had that same struggle. I love the people that I work with [on the Comedy Central series ‘Inside Amy Schumer’]. We tried to make something that we thought was funny and never diverted from that. There just happens to be some heavy social commentary, but I think that’s just laced in our comedy. In the third season, it feels like there’s nothing holding us back. We made the show we wanted to make without worrying about pandering to anybody.”

Swinton cited Schumer’s uproarious “Compliments sketch” as a favorite example of the comedian’s genius. She also reflected on the conga line she led at Ebertfest in 2013 to honor the late film critic, Roger Ebert, a longtime champion of her work.

“Roger was such a supporter of the film festivals that I run with my friend Mark Cousins in Scotland,” Swinton said. “We always dance before every screening. I remember telling Roger about this and he thought it was great. I was at Ebertfest soon after he died, and [his wife] Chaz asked, ‘Why don’t you do it here?’ So I did and it was great. […] Dancing in my house is pretty important. We tend to dance a lot and dancing when cooking is always a good idea.”

In her acceptance speech, Swinton cited the false teeth created by Chris Lyons of Fangs FX as the unsung hero behind her various transformations this year into such characters as the vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” and the scheming villain in Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” a role originally written for a man.

“I have no idea what that character is, it’s probably still male,” Swinton quipped to “When you live on a train for 17 years, all bets are off. Who knows what’s underneath all that fur and fake hair?”

One of the more surprising guests at the ceremony was F. Murray Abraham, who had a small but crucial role in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a nominee in the Best Feature category. Abraham reflected on that film as well as his equally fleeting yet marvelous appearance in Joel & Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as a character based on Albert Grossman, the influential entrepreneur and manager in the American folk music scene.

“He made a real business out of what was—at that time—peanuts,” Abraham said. “Nobody was making any money until he stepped in. He was an extraordinary man, but what he didn’t do was remain a mensch. He became a greedy pig. I played him as the man who had accomplished what no one else had done before. I had great respect for him. I played him the way he was before he became a jerk. Both that film and ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ were directed by people who really like to make movies and really like actors. They also write very well. There weren’t many changes in the scripts. They were pretty much what we shot, they were that good. If I could only work for those guys forever, I would. And everybody who’s worked for them will tell you the same thing.”

Swinton echoed Abraham’s sentiments, revealing that she will start filming the Coens’ latest feature, “Hail Caesar!”, next week. 

“It’s got an exclamation point in the title—it’s gotta be great!” she laughed.

Foxcatcher” received a great deal attention during the ceremony, earning a Special Jury Award for Ensemble Performance—Steve Carell was on hand to accept the accolade—while the film’s director, Bennett Miller, was given a Tribute Award and a lengthy but heartfelt speech from Catherine Keener. The night’s Industry Tribute went to Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix, who spoke about how online platforms are reshaping the very nature of an episodic series.

“Normally when a new show starts, the writers are writing for their life almost every week,” Sarandos said. “When we do a show, we’re going straight to a full season. When you write the first hour, you know for sure that there’s going to be—in the case of ‘House of Cards’—a 26th hour. You can make sure that the story lines connect, not only just episode to episode but even year to year. ‘House of Cards’ was the first show that was built to be watched On Demand: no acting breaks, no exposition, no catch up, no previously on/next on, and the result is a super-rich world full of rich characters and complex story lines that you can get lost in. Some nights when you read a book, you read two pages before you fall asleep. Other nights, you can’t fall asleep and you read the whole thing. That’s what you can do on Netflix with a series.” 

Among the nominees for the Breakthrough Actor Award was Riz Ahmed, so funny and tragic as the desperate homeless man in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler,” who teams up with a sociopathic news photographer (Jake Gyllenhaal) to capture graphic footage of crime scenes. Though the film has been compared to timely parables such as “Network,” Gilroy explained that his intentions for the film transcended a mere critique of the media.

“It’s an indictment of capitalism,” Gilroy said. “It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when somebody like Jake’s character sets their humanity aside and just decides that they want to win at any cost. I feel that people like his character are increasingly succeeding and not being caught or punished.”

Also nominated was Macon Blair for “Blue Ruin,” Jeremy Saulnier’s visceral crime thriller that captures the squirm-inducing tension and morbid satire of the Coens’ debut film, “Blood Simple.” On the red carpet, Saulnier said that he spoke the Coens’ language in how “they tell their stories visually and ride the line between humor and brutal violence,” while Blair said that Saulnier pitched the project to investors as “‘No Country For Old Men’ with a dips—t in the lead.” For his role, Blair grew a monstrous beard long before the film’s financing had been secured in a dramatic attempt to “bend the universe to our will.” As for the film’s startling violence, it benefited considerably from Saulnier’s expertise with practical effects.

“I used to do special makeup effects when I was in college, so I know a lot about makeup applications and prosthetics,” Saulnier said. “I’ve been having a ball learning how to do this newly affordable compositing work that wasn’t around when I was making films in the ’90s. For ‘Blue Ruin,’ we utilized a lot of practical makeup and effects and enhanced it with digital compositing. We did as much as we could onset.”

Fans of classic TV are guaranteed to appreciate the cameo by Eve Plumb (a.k.a. Jan Brady on “The Brady Bunch”), who brandishes a machine gun during the film’s explosive climax.

“The idea to have Jan Brady with a TEC-9 was an afterthought,” Blair said. “We cast her because her audition was so great. It was only later on that we realized that we were going to blow peoples’ minds.”

Yet the winner of the Breakthrough Actor Award was Tessa Thompson from Justin Simien’s immensely provocative ensemble comedy, “Dear White People.” The film interweaves the stories of various students at an Ivy League college, including Thompson’s character, the biracial Samantha White.

“There’s an assumption about who this movie is for and what the demographic is, and it’s not exactly true,” Thompson said. “There have been people who are different from who we’d expect that really love the movie and it has sold so well internationally, which sort of breaks down this myth that movies about people of color don’t travel and they do. The movie exposes a real hunger for this kind of film.”

“I was making a story about identity,” Simien said. “There were many conflicting things that I was piling onto the characters that caused them to be confused about what box to fit themselves in. That’s the truth of the human experience. None of us fit soundly or neatly in any one of the boxes. You have race and gender and sexual orientation and class and all those things on top of what you are already and it’s a really awkward fit. It was important for the characters to be fully fleshed-out human beings. I wanted to mix it up and allow every character to have [opposing] characteristics.”

Laura Poitras’ electrifying portrait of Edward Snowden and the modern age of government surveillance, “Citizenfour,” took home the Best Documentary award. Two key journalists featured in the film are Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill (last year’s Oscar nominee for “Dirty Wars” and—full disclosure—my cousin), who both founded the audacious site, The Intercept, along with Poitras. The site serves as a platform for both cutting-edge news and information culled from the documents provided by Snowden.

“At the end of the film, you see that another source comes forward, and Jeremy is working closely with that person,” Poitras said. “We wanted to talk about the threats to investigative journalists now. The people that are doing this kind of work are being targeted and sources are also being targeted as well. It’s not just a story about me, Glenn and Snowden, it’s about journalism in general. What we’re trying to do with The Intercept is reignite adversarial investigative journalism, take risks and ask tough questions.”

The film’s immersive, vérité-style editing was by Mathilde Bonnefoy, who began her career cutting the mind-bending sequences illustrating multiple butterfly effects in Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run.”

“The editing of ‘Citizenfour’ lasted two years in total,” Bonnefoy said. “It was an extraordinary process because most of what was happening around us became part of the film. The editing paralleled the historic events as they unfolded. We were continually ingesting new footage and making sense of what was actually going on in the world through the editing process. In a way, we were regurgitating reality through an artistic means just to understand it. The Snowden part of the film in the hotel room was like a juggernaut of emotion, both in the film and in the process of making it.”

Also nominated in the documentary category was Steve James’ “Life Itself,” the profoundly moving portrait of Roger Ebert that succeeds as a towering embodiment of the iconic critic’s belief in cinema as an empathy-generating machine. James reflected on capturing the footage of the renowned writer in what turned out to be the last four months of his life, enduring painful medical proceeders and worrying diagnoses with his thumb still pointed defiantly toward the heavens.

“He wrote about these things beautifully, but to see him face it like he did in those last months and do it with the grace and sense of humor and dignity that he did was pretty remarkable,” James said. “We knew that he and Chaz were the super-couple of Chicago, but to witness that relationship up close and see the depth of their love was spectacular. Roger wanted the film to be honest and Chaz did too. She started out wanting to be as protective of him as possible, because that had been her role and would continue to be during all those troubled years of the illness. But I think as the production went along, she came to understand something that Roger knew from the beginning, which is that the more honest and candid the footage could be, the more shrewd and revealing a documentary it would make. It can be very hard to be a couple in that situation, and it can often be a test of the depth of that love. Roger and Chaz met that test.”

Another film exploring the impact of devastating illness on the bond between loved ones is Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore as a wife, mother and linguistics professor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The film explores the titular character’s decline from her own perspective. Moore won the Gotham Award for Best Actress.

“Traditionally in films, the trope is that you’re going to experience it from the caregiver’s point of view,” Moore said. “This was really, really unusual and pretty moving because you actually experience her decline. The [directors] are so amazing and they are dealing with their own issues. Richard has ALS, and that was pretty compelling for all of us in the making of the film. They have been a couple for a really long time and they’re facing their own issues of mortality.” 

Moore marveled at the Oscar buzz surrounding the film, considering that it was “made for four million dollars last March, mixed in August and got distribution in September.” She also regretted forgetting to thank New York City in her acceptance speech, since the city’s tax credit has allowed her to work in her hometown.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s crowd-pleasing show business satire, “Birdman,” was the night’s biggest winner, claiming the Best Feature prize and a Best Actor accolade for Michael Keaton. When asked about the striking percussive score by Antonio Sanchez that reverberates beneath practically every frame of the picture, Iñárritu observed, “All those beats are the beats of the heart of every actor [onscreen].” Yet it was Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” that won the Audience Award with its astonishing twelve-year journey through the lives of a boy (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). 

“‘Boyhood’ is a movie I wish Roger would’ve seen because he would’ve liked the conceit of it,” Chaz said. “He championed the work of Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette and would’ve been thrilled to see that they kept this project a secret for so many years.”

Coltrane was also a nominee in the Breakthrough Actor category for the performance he gave over the film’s twelve-year-long shoot. He said that it was interesting how his approach to the character evolved while coming of age onscreen.

“As I got older, there were more aspects of myself that I was allowed to reflect into the character, but at the same time, I also became more aware of crafting the character,” Coltrane said. “It became more of an intentional act. When you’re a child, you’re just playing and pretending. Every kid pretends. The character is both—it became more of myself and also a bit more of a separate character at the same time—but a character that I was using elements of myself to create.”

Exuding palpable excitement through her every pore was Ana Lily Amirpour, director of the widely acclaimed Iran-set vampire picture, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Amirpour won the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award, and spoke with about her invaluable collaboration with cinematographer Lyle Vincent, whose black-and-white compositions are surely among the year’s most unforgettable.

“I really love the film ‘Rumble Fish’ by Coppola, and I like the idea of making a black-and-white pop fairy tale,” Amirpour said. “It gives you this separation from the real world that allows you to do all this supernatural stuff. I saw Lyle’s work on the show ‘Bright Falls,’ and it was very Lynchian. The stuff he was doing was very ‘Twin Peaks,’ and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Then we met and he is like a soul mate collaborator. We have the same cinematic fascinations such as Lynch and Sergio Leone and shooting anamorphic and the films of Ridley Scott from back in the day. Why don’t people give Ridley Scott final cut? It’s just stupid. His cut of ‘The Counselor’ is a f—king great movie.” 

Thankfully, Amirpour received final cut on her film, and hopes to have it on her next film as well, “knock on wood.”

“There are people out there who are down to make next level s—t,” Amirpour said. “You have to show your freaky freak flag and then you’ll find people who want to see that flag sail. I have to believe that.”

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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