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'Election' wins 3 Independent Spirit awards

Monday, March 27, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- So what's the difference between an independent film and a mainstream movie? Not as much as there used to be, considering that five of the winners at Saturday's Independent Spirit Awards also were nominated for Academy Awards this year.

Three of the four acting winners were Oscar nominees: Hilary Swank, named Best Female Lead for "Boys Don't Cry"; Chloe Sevigny, named Best Supporting Female for the same movie; and Richard Farnsworth, named Best Male Lead for "The Straight Story." The other award, Best Supporting Male, went to Steve Zahn for "Happy, Texas."

The two screenplay winners also were Oscar nominees: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who took Best Screenplay for "Election"; and Charlie Kaufman, winner of Best First Screenplay for "Being John Malkovich."

"Election" led the way with three Independent Spirit awards, including Best Feature and Best Director (Payne). "Malkovich" also was honored as Best First Feature (budget over $500,000), while "The Blair Witch Project" won in the under-$500,000 category.

Other winners were 15-year-old Kimberly J. Brown for Best Debut Performance in "Tumbleweeds"; the German movie "Run Lola Run" for Best Foreign Film; and the Vietnamese film "Three Seasons" for cinematography.

Swank was honored for her gender-bending portrayal of Brandon Teena, a young woman who dressed as a man and, for a while, fooled the residents of a small Nebraska town, including the woman (played by Sevigny) who fell in love with him. The movie is based on a true story that came to a tragic end.

"Brandon was a huge inspiration to me. I learned a lot from him," Swank told reporters backstage. "He was someone who lived his life the way he wanted to. He was someone who had the courage to follow his heart and be himself, follow his dream and not conform. In life, isn't that what we all want to do? He gave me the inspiration to try and remember that in my everyday life."

Sevigny, who confessed to stage fright and kept giggling as she answered questions, originally read for the part of Brandon. But when director Kimberly Pierce asked if she had ever wanted to be a boy, "I couldn't lie to her. I love being a girl," she said.

"I saw pictures of the real Brandon and sort of got a crush on him," she acknowledged. But, she continued, "Being 25, I think I'd be able to tell the difference."

At the other end of the generational spectrum is Farnsworth, 79, who won for his portrayal of another real-life protagonist, Alvin Straight, an Iowa man who rode his lawn tractor across the length of the state to visit his ailing, estranged brother.

At this point in his career, awards don't faze him much.

"Getting one of them's great," he said. But it isn't going to affect his life or his work.

"I'm a rancher in New Mexico. I get up and feed the cows in the morning and I watch TV all day. That's the way I ranch."

The Independent Spirit Awards are voted upon by the 9,000 members of the Independent Feature Project and are sponsored by IFP's West Coast branch. Eligible movies must have played in a commercial theater during 1999 or at one of six selected North American film festivals. The pictures must display original, provocative subject matter; uniqueness of vision; economy of means; and a certain percentage of independent financing.

Those last two elements are important. A major studio, Paramount, released "Election," but the movie cost only $8.5 million, less than half of what Hollywood's top actors make for one picture. "The Blair Witch Project" cost $25,000 to film and, with distribution and marketing added, came in at $300,000. It grossed more than $140 million.

The film's vaunted use of the Internet as a promotional vehicle, which built a cult following before its general release, occurred because, in the words of one of its creators, "It was cheap."

Taking chances also counts for a lot. "Being John Malkovich," about a man who finds a portal that leads into the head of actor Malkovich, was so offbeat that it triggered a memorable studio rejection letter, read at the awards ceremony by co-producer Vincent Landay. The letter questioned what planet the script came from, suggested that strong drugs were necessary to understand the story and likened it to a work of avant-garde theater likely to draw no more than 20 people at a time.

In short, co-producer Michael Stipe said, "It was not like the usual Hollywood drek."

Writer Kaufman said he always had Malkovich in mind for the movie, not knowing if he'd go for it. "We tried to put together a list of possible alternatives if John wouldn't do it, and we really couldn't come up with anybody, so we were fortunate that he did."

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