Interview: Steve Coogan – Mighty Defender of Indie Film

Steve Coogan Hosts the Independent Spirit Awards Saturday

Last year was a tumultuous one for independent filmmaking. Coming off back-to-back years of major Oscar nominations, the strength of the new movement, and the growing awareness of non-studio projects, it was obviously not long before critics were predicting the death of indie film. Apparently, it was too healthy to live. In fact, I admit myself a certain fascination with the topic and the prospect of indie film going under only to rise again. I wrote so last June.

Depending on who you talk to, indie film is either thriving or on life-support in our cultural I.C.U.

It seems, to me, that indie film is alive and well (in as much as it can be without multi-million-dollar ad campaigns), but if it did need a champion, Steve Coogan would make a great man to nominate. The often-three-inch-tall comedian is hosting the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, and his passion makes him a clear choice to emcee the proceedings.

I got a chance to talk with Coogan about the status of indie film, and the conversation almost immediately turned to the death of the indie house arms of major studios. He didn’t seem mournful to see them go.

“It’s like a studio. It’s just a studio film with less money. It’s good that they’re supporting the industry – but the studios corrupt things of spontaneity,” Coogan says. “It’s like when a punk song is used in a commercial.”

So why need indie film?

“Otherwise we’d be left with bland, cookie-cutter entertainment.”

Coogan goes on to say that one goal of indie filmmaking was “to operate outside the formula. Movies like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine – they wouldn’t fall under the studio formula, and there needs to be an environment for films like that to thrive.”

At this point, I derail the conversation, asking about Coogan’s role in 24 Hour Party People and his involvement with a 24-hour long dialog discussing the ideals, ideas and memory of Tony Wilson. The act of a forming group that Coogan deems an “anti-establishment establishment.” We talk about the industrial Northern England musical heritage. The Smiths. Joy Division. We talk about the difference between the suburban, middle class punk of The Ramones and the gritty, back alleyway birth of The Sex Pistols – two bands that he admires. We talk about hardcore, Rollins Band, Bad Brains. My respect for Sexy Jesus grows twenty-fold.

Then I remember that I write for a film website, so I ask about Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and point out that Coogan (who also appeared as a tiny fetus in Tristram Shandy and as a tiny figurine come to life in The Indian in the Cupboard) has been typecast as a miniature, anthropomorphic being.

“Yes – I’m the go-to-guy for people under six inches tall.”

True to form, he calls Night at the Museum, “a main-stream film I got directly because of my indie work.” He also tells me that the scale of the sequel is epic, featuring multiple museums coming to life, and a shooting situation that found actors navigating 50 to 60 foot high sets. They’ve decided to keep the winning formula simple – “Go do the same thing, but better.”

Coogan has firm roots in indie film, and despite his appearance in the blockbuster family franchise, he’s branching out further into the indie world with more than a few projects – the unfortunately stalled Murder in Samarkand and a feature-length film with his Alain Partridge character. He’s a strong voice for why we have to keep indie alive, and we hope for all of our sake that he keeps fighting the good fight. He hosts The Independent Spirit Awards, now in its 24th year, which airs on IFC, Saturday February 21st, 5pm EST.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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