The mainstream U.S. indie movie is an amorphous kind-of-sort-of genre that’s hard to define properly. Known by many simply as “indies” – though chances are they’re not independently funded at all – they are the playground of young and pretty actors, loveable older character players and up-and-coming directors. Here then, is an attempt to nail down what it is that makes a studio-funded “indie” so “indie” and how you could go about making the perfect one yourself...
Key characteristic**: **Awkwardness.
Optional characteristics**:** Mild depression; soulfulness; a love of obscure pop culture; clumsiness; moodiness; a fear of taking his hands out of his pockets; cynicism; a belief that no-one (good looking) will ever really understand him.
Perfect picks here include Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid And The Whale, Adventureland, Zombieland, From Rome With Love) or Michael Cera (Paper Heart, Juno, Youth In Revolt, Arrested Development), whose particular set of antisocial skills are the best in the mainstream indie business.
If you'd like a more conventionally handsome gawky male lead, consider Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days Of Summer), Orlando Bloom (Elizabethtown), Andrew Garfield (see Marc Webb’s (500) follow-up, The Amazing Spider-Man for details) and fresh-faced up-and-comer Logan Lehman, whose turn in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower has cemented his position on the gawky male lead hotlist.
Then there's John Krasinski, whose turns in The American Office, Sam Mendes' Away We Go and more make him the perfect slightly-older-but-not-too-typically-attractive gawky male lead, as well as How I Met Your Mother's (and Liberal Arts') Josh Radnor, who also fills a similar role.
Wardrobe**:** Cardigans, ill-fitting clothes, jumpers his mother bought him, t-shirts referencing arcane pop culture, a perma-grimace in any social context.
Key characteristic: Exuberance.
Optional characteristics: Any number of loveable quirks (e.g. particularly loud hiccoughs, the inability to pronounce certain words properly, being too pretty); a willingness to bend the rules; a shared passion with the gawky male lead for their favourite band/film/breed of dog; the ability to see something in the gawky male lead he himself can’t see; childlike playfulness; a love of eye make-up, outlandish hair colouring and old-fashioned bicycles.
As her character in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown inspired The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin (My Year Of Flops, The Big Rewind) to come up with the term “Manic pixie dream girl” in the first place, consider Kirsten Dunst, if only for her excellent pretending-to-take-photographs-with-her-fingers and roadtrip mixtape-making skills.
With Hollywood being Hollywood, you’re going to want to aim young with your dream girl casting here. A tip of the rather daring wide-brimmed hat, then, to Katherine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Meg Ryan (Joe Versus The Volcano), Ruth Gordon (Harold And Maude) and Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast At Tiffany’s) and a sycophantic email to the agents of Zooey Deschanel (Yes Man, Our Idiot Brother, Gigantic, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, (500) Days Of Summer) Natalie Portman (Garden State), Ellen Page (Juno), Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau), Jennifer Aniston (Along Came Polly), Amy Adams (The Muppets), Kate Hudson (Almost Famous), Emma Stone (Easy A), Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) and Ellie from Up. Okay, maybe not Ellie from Up, but you get the idea.
Also cast your critical eye over Jane Levy (TV’s Suburgatory), whose upcoming roles in Fun Size and Nobody Walks (alongside Olivia Thirlby) are bound to launch her into the manic pixie stratosphere.
Wardrobe: Cardigans, floral dresses, ribbons in her hair, ribbons generally, tomboyish clothing (sometimes), MASSIVE HEADPHONES, the gawky male lead on her arm as they run off to do something utterly charming utterly unexpectedly.
Key characteristic: Awesomeness
Optional *characteristics**: *Wisdom; optimism; fairness; cuddliness; eccentricity; a willingness to banter about anything and everything; a love of bickering, family in-jokes and adorable pets.
Though it's tempting to just recast Juno’s Mr. and Mrs. MacGuff (J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney) and Easy A’s Mr. and Mrs. Penderghast (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) in your indier-than-indie movie, you can't just copy the pairings outright. Try mixing them up, perhaps - J. K. Simmons and Patricia Clarkson!, Stanley Tucci and Allison Janney! - and hope their rat-a-tat familial banter and general chilled-ness will carry across.
You needn't create a super couple, however. Eccentric, bickering ensemble families can also work, so check out the cast list of the Burnses in Dan In Real Life, the Hoovers in Little Miss Sunshine, the Foxes in Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Royal Tenenbaums in, um, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Allgoods from The Kids Are All Right.
Whoever you cast, what’s key is that they represent the audience member's own family at both their best and their worst (but in the best possible way): their occasional witty repartee at its funniest, their arguments at their most dramatic. Bare in mind that super couples / endearingly dysfunctional families also serve as the endgame for the ongoing romance between the gawky male lead and the manic pixie dream girl – if they work out, they’re going to be as awesome as these two, so it really is worth all this hair-twisting and teeth-gnashing.
Wardrobe: Wooly jumpers, wooly jumpers they themselves made, beanie hats, the appropriate outerwear for their eccentric hobby of their choice (e.g. steamtrain driving, all-body painting, topless jogging), something kooky to amuse the younger member of the family.*
Key characteristic: Acoustic guitarfulness
Optional characteristics: Jangliness; soul; a decent amount of sing-along-ability; a lack of production; whistling; hand-clapping; French lyrics.
In the perfect mainstream indie movie, the gawky male lead is going to get together with the manic pixie dream girl. This requires a montage. This montage requires some inoffensive alt.rock to accompany it, and it must be catchy, guitar-based and almost too twee.
Juno’s ‘Anyone Else But You’ (as sung by stars Michael Cera and Ellen Page) practically defines this, but for other examples, look no further than any artists appearing on those O.C. compilation CDs from a few years back: The Shins (‘New Slang’, Garden State), Elliott Smith (‘Miss Misery’, Good Will Hunting), Leonard Cohen (‘Hallelujah’, too many films to mention), Spoon (‘The Way We Get By’, Stranger Than Fiction), Modest Mouse (‘Little Hotel’, Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist), Bright Eyes (‘We Are Nowhere And It’s Now’, Knocked Up) and The Eels (who scores almost all of Yes Man).
Then there's Death Cab For Cutie, whose delightful blend of sombre introspection and jangly hooks have seen their work ubiquitous in indie or wannabe indie movies (Easy A, Shop Girl, Mean Creek, Wedding Crashers) over the years.
Remember: these songs are the definitive sign that you’re watching a ‘Hollywood’ indie movie, so don't scimp on 'em. After all, true indie films – films made for the price of a packet of Hobnobs and a hug – could never afford the rights. Famously, the biggest expense on Kevin Smith’s Clerks was use of an Alice In Chains B-side (‘Got Me Wrong’) on the soundtrack.
Key characteristic: Having directed music videos
Optional characteristics: A lightness of tone; a love of sun-filled montages, indie music (hopefully a given) and dialogue-heavy characters.
Of course, plenty of mainstream indie movies aren’t directed by men and/or women who’ve previously made rock-‘n’-rollers look pretty for those MTV kids, but you'd be doing yourself a favour getting your eminently loveable dramedy helmed by a clapperboard-wielding muso.
Spike Jonze is the crown prince of this, having worked with The Beastie Boys, Daft Punk, Weezer, Sonic Youth and many more before bringing the world Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where The Wild Things Are. Then there’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (The Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, R.E.M., Travis – Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), Michel Gondry (Beck, Radiohead, Massive Attack – Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, The Science Of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind), Marc Webb (Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Snow Patrol – (500) Days Of Summer), Mike Mills (Air, Moby, Pulp – Thumbsucker), and many more.
On the other side of the coin, plenty of music video directors have gone on to do entirely non-mainstream indie features – Simon West created the video for Rick Astley’s ‘Never Going To Give You Up’ as well as Con Air, The Mechanic and The Expendables 2, for example – and it’s not that likely David Fincher is going to make Juno 2 anytime soon, despite creating the videos for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘Oh Father’.
Key characteristic: Out of towniness.
Additional, optional characteristics: Majestic woodlands, deserts, savannah-like plains, highways, byways, suburban areas of relatively obscure cities – anything that isn't too conventional.
Though of course you’re welcome to set your story in major cities like New York or LA, bonus points will be awarded for taking middle America out of its cinematic comfort zones and into somewhere even more comfortable – like, say, suburban Minnesota (Juno), Rhode Island (Dan In Real Life), Baton Rouge (Jeff, Who Lives At Home) and the San Juan Islands (Your Sister’s Sister) – to keep the film both grounded and a little quirky, location-wise.
Road trips work for this too as Away We Go, Little Miss Sunshine, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Looking For A Friend For The End Of The World and Rubin And Ed prove, although you may need unusual modes of transport for this. Think beat-up yellow VW vans to start with and allow your quirky mind to extrapolate further. Three-wheeled tandems, inflatable canoes... the choice is yours.
ps If the area you pick could include inhabitants that speak in quaint and occasionally indecipherable local accents – better yet, quaint and occasionally indecipherable local patoi – then this will result in fish out of water funtimes and hopefully extra hilarity will ensue.
Key characteristic: Being Catherine Keener.
Optional characteristics: Nothing else required - all Catherine Keener needs to do is be Catherine Keener.
With her indier-than-indie back catalogue (Being John Malkovich, Lovely & Amazing, Death To Smoochy, The Ballad Of Jack And Rose, Friends With Money, Into The Wild, Cyrus, Please Give, The Oranges, Synecdoche, New York), you are actively doing your movie a disservice if you don't get her involved in some capacity. She could sing the theme tune, appear as a credits cameo, even help out with the craft services - though of course this would be a huge waste of her talents.
Somewhat glib attempts at humour aside, Ms. Keener is a fantastic actress, with her work with indie directorial darlings Spike Jonze and Nicole Holofcener more than enough to make her worthy of your consideration. That said, don't confuse her with Mary Steenburgen or she'll straight up murder your ass. Possibly.
Wardrobe:* *Whatever the costume department have picked out for her; her hair reasonably long.
Why it's important:
Sundance, and for the mountain-averse, Toronto, are the best places to get your particular slice of quirky American indie pie in front of exactly the kind of journalists who’ll enjoy it most. Without a decent groundswell of respected film lovers nattering about your well-observed observations and inspired casting choices, there's a good chance your uber-indie love story will fade into the unknown.
While you and your life's work are there, look out for Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage executives to share hobnobs with, as they'll be utterly invaluable throughout your mainstream indie career, and generally schooze about the place - watch the competition, nick a few ideas, share mixtapes and generally try to find the next big indie thing.
Just to give a couple of examples of indiesque features getting the attention they deserve thanks to Sundance, think of Junebug, Thumbsucker, Me You And Everybody We Know, Hump Day, Paper Heart, happythankyoumoreplease, Like Crazy, and, as they say, much, much more.