A Pierson-al journey, from Putnam to Fiji

By KEVIN CANFIELD

They seemed settled, after 11 years living in Garrison, so why would the Pierson family up and move to Fiji? Was the chance to run a down-and-out movie theater in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that enticing? And why invite along a film crew? Straightforward questions. But spend a bit of time with the Piersons, the unlikely stars of the new documentary "Reel Paradise," and you'll learn that there is no such thing as a simple answer.

Here is John Pierson  father of Georgia, 18, and Wyatt, 15; husband of Janet; author of 1995's "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema," and former host of the IFC show "Split Screen"  trying (with an emphasis on "trying") to explain how the movie happened

"We got there in late July of '02," he begins, "and somewhere around January I started thinking about how it would be nice to document the theater."

"No way!" interjects Georgia. "Because there was filming before we left! What are you talking about? You wanted to have some type of reality TV series, some documentary. That's why 'The Sandlot' guy" Chris Zarpas, executive producer of the 1993 film by that name  "was filming us."

At this point, Janet feels compelled to defend her husband.

"Once we went there with 'Split Screen' in 2000 we just knew it was an amazing thing," she says. "We just decided to take it over and go live there. We just knew it was an amazing theater, a really special place and we knew that it might be interesting to try to document it somehow."

"You did have a meeting with MTV and all these places,"notes Wyatt.

Georgia: "You were talking to the dude who directed 'The Osbournes!' It was always like, 'The Osbournes going native.' "

"'The Osbournes' first season had just hit," concedes John, "and an old friend of mine from the film business named Chris Zarpas, aka the producer of 'The Sandlot'..."

To which Wyatt, fully aware that his father has produced several films, but never directed, replies, "Oh, just the producer? I give him no credit for that. If he was the director, but producers don't make the movie."

John is flummoxed. "Go tell Jerry Bruckheimer that."

The Osbournes they're not, but the Pierson clan is nevertheless an interesting bunch. And plucky.

John, Janet says, is the impulsive one, but he had little trouble convincing his kids  then 15 and 12  to leave behind their friends and their schools for a year in the South Pacific.

Wyatt admits he agreed to go only because he thought the trip would fall through.

"I didn't think it was going to happen because nothing ever happens that he says is going happen," he says, referring to his father.

Again, John is forced to take cover. "I never wrote a book, I never had a TV show..."

"You told me every year of my life since I've been like five that we were moving to LA the next year!" says Wyatt. "Every summer you said, 'Alright we're moving to LA, you're not going to [school in] Garrison next year.' You said that every year. I mean if we couldn't get to LA, we couldn't get to Fiji."

"That's where you totally don't know me well," says John, his laughter giving way to a look of bemusement. "That logic does not apply to way I do things."

When not defending himself from charges that his plans never pan out  in their defense, his kids are smart and articulate, and their barbs appear to be largely good-natured  Pierson has staked out a unique position in the world of indie film. He used his connections and his own money to help directors including Spike Lee and Richard Linklater find an audience, revised and reissued in 2004 the book that has been called "the bible for independents" and, through his IFC show, "helped bring films such as "The Blair Witch Project" to the screen.

It was on a "Split Screen" shoot in Fiji five years ago that John fell in love with the 180 Meridian Cinema. Situated on Tavenui, the third largest of Fiji's 300-plus islands, it opened in 1954, but by the time Pierson visited it was in need of new management.

"It was clear that John was attached to it," says Janet, who co-created "Split Screen" with her husband. "He loved it there so much. I remember one day he turned around ..."

"Ma," says Wyatt, "as you're saying this do you realize how you didn't like the intro to the movie before? But you really just repeat the intro all the time."

John: "Just relax, Wyatt."

"So," Janet continues, "the idea with John was, 'Who's coming back here with me?' "

The entire family was game, and near the end of their stay they were joined by James, the director of "Hoop Dreams," who agreed to chronicle the Piersons final month on the island.

The film captures family drama in the form of her parents concern that Georgia is "running wild." There is Wyatt's assimilation into a new school in which he is the only white student.

And there is, of course, the 288-seat theater, the site of a year's worth of free weekend movies under the Piersons' stewardship.

James captures several scenes in which children, watching The Three Stooges, or teens taking in "Jackass: The Movie" can barely contain themselves. They leap from their seats and laugh wildly.

The theater has been closed since the Piersons left in July 2003. They didn't return to Garrison; John's teaching at the University of Texas in Austin, Jane's on the board of the Austin Film Society.

Ownership issues are still being negotiated on Tavenui, but John says he'd like to return  with whatever family would like to accompany him  and run the theater during future summers.

If he does he knows he'll face challenges. The local church was not crazy about his presence the last time around, and the theater appears to be in need of some structural work.

But a bigger hurdle might be another American export. It seems that "Walker, Texas Ranger" is far and away the island's most popular program, and oftentimes Fijians will stay close to home and watch on a big screen in the center of their village.

"That was the only thing that was comp for the theater aside from Mass," John says. "Friday nights at 7:30 people would stay in the village and watch 'Walker.' "

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