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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times


The Nation asked seven prominent members of the independent film community, including several filmmakers who released major films this year, to take the temperature of the movement at this moment of flux. Participating are Allison Anders (Sugar Town); Alexander Payne (Election); Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don't Cry); John Pierson, former filmmakers' rep and author of the bible on independents, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes; David O. Russell (Three Kings); Kevin Smith (Dogma); and Christine Vachon, a producer of Boys Don't Cry, Happiness, Velvet Goldmine and many other films. The interviews were conducted and edited by Peter Biskind.

Q: Historically, independents have defined themselves against Hollywood, but last year the studios made several movies that displayed many of the characteristics of independent films. Meanwhile, more and more independent directors are working within.

Allison Anders: American Beauty is not my idea of an independent movie. What was the budget on that? Like $30 million or something? And you've got these huge stars, Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. Come on. That's the same scale as The Graduate was back in 1967. It's a studio movie for thinking adults, you know? It's a screenwriter's vision, not a director's vision. This guy [director Sam Mendes] is from England, doesn't know American culture. It's not like the Coen brothers where they're sitting there writing the script and cracking each other up and putting in fucking crazy-ass music and stuff. [Mendes] was a director-for-hire.

My film Sugar Town opened the same weekend as American Beauty. If you have a choice between seeing an independent with [actors] you don't know and seeing American Beauty with stars in it, then you're like, Well, maybe I'll go see that. Which is what happened to Sugar Town.

John Pierson: Hey, look, David O. Russell is like my hero right now because here's a guy who made a no-budget film, Spanking the Monkey, and then made a midlevel Miramax screwball comedy, Flirting With Disaster, that seemed to me to be still very personal and really hilarious, and then Three Kings, making probably the most political film of the year--inside the studio system, like a termite. Putting George Clooney in the film and getting Warners to pay for it, that's great.

Q: So now it's OK for independents to work for studios?

Kevin Smith: Independent cinema is a myth. It was always kind of weird when people went, Yeah, you're an "indie." With the exception of Clerks, I've always made studio films--Mallrats for Universal, Chasing Amy and Dogma for Miramax, which is now a studio.

Christine Vachon: I'm wondering if "independent" ever really did mean anything, you know? When I started producing ten or twelve years ago, an independent film was essentially a movie that you managed to finance by conning your friends and relatives into giving you money for [it], and all the so-called independent films I worked on were some kind of permutation of that, like Parting Glances or the first film I produced, Poison. I guess independence was supposed to mean free from any kind of creative control. But it's very rare these days that any money is "free." Whether it's the studio telling you that you have to put a star in or an equity financier telling you that you have to put a star in, they're still both saying it. So what difference does it make if that money is coming from New Line or if it's coming from Paramount or if it's coming from Joe Blow? Somebody wants to get their money back.

Q: What happens to independents when they end up in the belly of the beast? David, how did you land at Warner Brothers, traditionally one of the most conservative studios, known for mega-budget Kevin Costner vehicles, the Lethal Weapon series and so on?

David O. Russell: When I made my first two films, which could be considered classically independent, the studios would all meet with me and say, Come make a movie here. It was interesting to me to take them up on that hunger with a very subversive large film. To answer, Will you really? And keep saying "really" until they said no. But they never said no.

They showed me this straight-ahead action script about the Gulf War. I started doing some research and thought: Boy, this could be interesting. Take an action picture and put all these politics in it and a subversive attitude. I told them that, and they said, OK. I said, I don't want to do this and bring it back and have you freak out. They said, No, no, we've made these films with Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese. The week I handed in my script there was an article in the New York Times lambasting Warner Brothers, saying it had bombed with dumb picture after dumb picture with very generic formulas and they need to work with more exciting filmmakers. I think that gave a lot of the young executives in the company hope. You know, they wanted to shake it up. Lorenzo di Bonaventura [of Warner Brothers] said to me at one point that if he couldn't take risks like this, he didn't want his job anymore. There was one person at the studio who tried to stop me. He thought, This movie is not a studio movie, and it should not be made. And he appealed to George Clooney, saying, The politics of this film are going to make your life dangerous and you're going to come under a lot of heat. From both patriotic Americans and patriotic Muslims. But George stood up for the film, said to the executive, I don't believe you.

Q: So what's happened? Are we seeing the greening of the studios?

Smith: I think it's the Miramaxization of the studio system. Like five years ago, would a studio have made American Beauty? Never! Would a studio have made something like Three Kings? Not nearly as quirky as David made it. It would have been a pretty much straight-down-the-middle war movie.

Russell: I think something has changed. I think the Sundance culture has definitely had an impact on the audiences of the United States--they've become more sophisticated--and also the studios. Ten years ago Three Kings--a war/action movie--or Election--a high school movie--would have been Heartbreak Ridge with Clint Eastwood, or--name a high school movie from ten years ago. Look at The Talented Mr. Ripley. On the face of it, it's a straight thriller, but at another level it's so dark and homosexual, you know, for a movie of that scale. But there are executives who yearn to work with independent-minded filmmakers and make the film that is different from the run-of-the-mill "product." Maybe I have a somewhat warped view, but I see plenty of that. My feeling is that many of them would be very happy to work with any of the directors in this forum, happy to make films like Election or Boys Don't Cry. Studios want to find that Good Will Hunting audience.

Pierson: Well, it's an astonishing development. I think they'll do more. With caution. But let's not get carried away.

Vachon: We certainly had the experience with studios that have been anxious to work with us and then have looked at how we actually make our movies and have basically said, You're crazy, we can't make a movie like that. It's not like we're such insane guerrilla filmmakers who are out there on the seat of our pants. It's just like with Boys Don't Cry, you're banking on a director that has virtually no experience. You're putting in as your star a kid who has only been on a television series. What studio in the world would have allowed that to happen? None of them!

Q: Kimberly, you got blown off by MGM, didn't you?

Kimberly Pierce: I showed Boys Don't Cry to MGM, and they got totally excited. They said, We're green-lighting it. And I'm like, Are you sure? Because if you green-light this picture I'm gonna quit my job. So I gave notice, flew out to LA, bought all these new clothes because you have to for the meeting, go in there, seems fine, but they just kind of dick around. It's no skin off their back because I'm nobody, right? Christine Vachon, who was my producer, she followed up, and it was like, It's green-lit, well, maybe it's not green-lit, and then I'm like, Well what color is it? Red? Is it off, is it on? Meanwhile I'm back in New York and my bills are piling up. I did get my job back.

Q: Traditionally studios have been interested in skimming off the cream of the independent crop, but what often happens is that once they get them, they hamstring them. Did that happen to you, David?

Russell: They were most comfortable with the more traditional elements of Three Kings, the action elements. But we were always in a money fight, because they knew the film was dark and so they tried to keep the budget down, which was around $47 million. The first thing they went after was, Well, you don't need to go inside the body and you don't know if it's going to work anyway. That's the kind of thing you're hanging on to by your fingernails and running off to the side with the cinematographer to do. They said, If this body-cavity thing doesn't test well, we're going to try to get you to take it out. Fortunately, audiences liked it. I do want to credit Warner Brothers. I think it is the Steve Ross tradition over there. They're very loving to filmmakers.

Q: So, is your next film up going to be a studio film? Russell: Having been through this hybrid experience, I'm not in a hurry to repeat it. I found it stressful, combining the Hollywood genre pressures and budgets with independent-minded ideas, which you do have to fight for. I guess in this case it was just the sheer undertaking of it that wore me out. I just hated the size of the crew, it was so big and unwieldy. I looked at the set and I said to myself, What am I doing here? In the future, I'd be happy to work on smaller-scale, character-based pictures. At least for a few movies. I suspect I would be left alone more on a smaller film because the investment is smaller.

Q: Anybody else?

Pierce: I'm doing my next film with a mini-major. You're with a studio whatever you do. If I don't accept any money and I write this script and then sell it to Hollywood, it's the same difference. The real question is, What are the terms? My deal gives me final cut. I write the script, and they look at it and give me notes. I don't have to take them, [but] if they're good notes I will.

Q: What's the downside?

Vachon: The kind of movies we make will never really "test well." And having to go through that process is always frustrating. Todd Haynes is always going to make movies that are extraordinary and unlike anything else you've ever seen, whether you like them or not. So try and fit his kind of round peg into a square hole, and it makes me feel horrible. We test-screened Velvet Goldmine at Miramax's insistence, and it was difficult. I mean, the two movies aren't comparable, but if you'd test-screened 2001, it would have bombed.

Russell: I don't think the majors have figured out yet how to market these pictures. I don't think they knew how to market Alexander's movie [Election] or Rushmore, which is a film that I liked a lot. Or my movie even. There's no greater heartbreak for a filmmaker than to find yourself in the hands of a big marketing machine that has been doing Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson or that sort of thing. It's frightening.

Alexander Payne: The unfortunate thing about the cinema today is that the presence of marketable elements is far more important to distribution divisions than the quality of the film. Even in script stage, marketing will say, If this film had such and such a star, or if it got into the story more quickly and easily, or if it were such and such a genre, or the ending were changed in such a way, or if this character were made more sympathetic, we could market it better. Have them change the content of the film. Egotistically speaking, I'm in the genre of Alexander Payne films, and I love the idea that my films are difficult to categorize. The mistake they made with them was putting a happy face on what are considered in today's market dark films. I feel that dark merely means realistic, films that don't buy into these prettified myths of how people live, and who people are, that we've been fed for the last twenty years.

Q: Aren't big studios more sensitive to pressure groups, so you get potential censorship situations where they dump controversial pictures like Happiness and Dogma?

Pierson: It's not just about the politics or the protest or the aesthetic. It's a calculation, like, what will I do for this return? Happiness is not going to be a breakout, top-grossing movie, so it's like, OK, we got this much trouble to make this much money. It's really about the money.

Q: So if the historic differences between studios and independents are increasingly blurred, does the term "independent" retain any meaning at all?

Smith: My definition of independent used to be any film that couldn't be made through a studio. So I guess at the beginning of the millennium, independent really seems to mean films that surprise people when they actually do any business!

Pierce: Am I still an independent based on this new deal I have, the same way I was when I sat in my New York apartment for years, unpaid? I don't know. I mean I'd like to think so. I'd be naïve to think that the money and the power that I'm getting doesn't at least pose a temptation of change. I'd never had need for an agent, and then suddenly my life was unmanageable without one. The gifts start coming, you're getting the champagne and you're getting the calls while you're in the shower. But the main thing is not to think about stars, not to think about Sundance, not to think about distribution, just think about who these characters are and what's going to bring them to life. Pierson: I think that you can still use budget levels as a fair criterion. Anybody who is making a film for less than $100,000 is an independent filmmaker. When it's applied to a film like Pulp Fiction, people can go back and forth. But by the time you get to Good Will Hunting, it's just not worth the breath. It's like, Oh, come on now. It's the oh-come-on-now factor.

Payne: You know what? Just because I only spent $150,000 on this film, that doesn't suddenly ennoble me with this great independent voice. The thing is, the budget of a film does not matter; who is in a film, the stars, none of it matters as long as we're allowed to exercise our authorial voice.

Anders: To me it means the director is the auteur. This is his or her personal vision. It was not a director-for-hire kind of thing, it was not made by a committee. There can be big stars in it, but an actor didn't take over and kick the director out. A studio didn't come in and take over.

Q: In this context, does "selling out" mean anything anymore?

Smith: It used to be easier to go, This is a fucking sellout. Now, it's a bit nebulous. I've heard that Chasing Amy was a sellout, and I'm like, really? I mean I don't have the checks to show for it. I've heard Dogma was a sellout because I had stars in it--[but] it would have been so much easier and so many fewer headaches had that movie never gone into production. So the selling-out thing, you don't take it very seriously. It's usually hurled at you by 17-, 18-year-olds on the Internet.

Q: Suppose Jerry Bruckheimer came to you and said, Kevin, I want you to direct Armageddon. You're my guy. Would you do it?

Smith: See, I would never do Armageddon, but not because, hey man, I wouldn't make a piece of shit like Armageddon. I just don't have the talent to pull it off or the patience. [Armageddon director] Michael Bay lives, breathes and eats that kind of filmmaking. I barely live, breathe and eat the kind of filmmaking that would get a student a B on his film thesis project at film school.

Q: Maybe it gets down to: Would you take big money to direct a film you weren't interested in?

Smith: Holy Man was offered to me to direct, with a pretty hefty price tag, too. They said, You can rewrite it and direct it for blank. And blank was more money than I've ever seen in my life. More money than I've made with directing fees on all my films combined--for making one movie. Which, you know, would be a very cushy job. But I just couldn't do it, because it's not really what I want to do, and I didn't write it. So therefore I don't know what it should look or sound like. The idea of taking a paycheck to do something that I don't really have a passion for and could easily be replaced by somebody else, that to me is selling out, because that's just being really inauthentic to yourself as a quote-unquote artist.

Q: Do any of you consider your films political?

Pierce: Yes, not because that was my intention, but because Boys Don't Cry is coming out of a cultural wound, a crime against identity, against gender. Our culture destroyed Brandon Teena. He kind of aspired to be a Montgomery Clift or a James Dean. He wanted to get the girl just as much as any of those guys, and did it in Hollywood style, you know, bar fights and car races, and now he's joining the legacy of Hollywood stars in a way. It was so moving to me when I saw Hilary Swank as a form of Brandon walk onto the Golden Globe stage to get that award. It was like, My God, Brandon's arrived. How did the culture let that slip by? Because I think people were saying, I love Brandon, and not judging him, and that was the point, to give him a kind of acceptance after his death that he couldn't get in his life.

Q: Look at Election. Even though it came out almost a year ago, if you put it against the template of the primaries, it's a contemporary political satire: Tracy Flick is Gore, bred from birth to robotically run for president; George W. is Paul Metzler, the dumb but sweet jock; and McCain is the third-party dark horse, Tammy Metzler, sans lesbianism.

Payne: I have no idea. In writing it we always thought Paul Metzler was sort of Reaganish, just a nice guy who smiles a lot and everything good happens to him. But politics is not something preconceived. It's something that just emerges.

Q: What about you, Kevin? John Pierson once quoted you in his book saying, somewhat enviously, that Spike Lee could write politics and you couldn't. But Clerks is on one level full of class commentary, and Chasing Amy has a lot to say about gender issues. It's just not explicit.

Smith: Yeah, I guess it depends on what your idea of politics is. For me, when I watched Do the Right Thing many years ago, it was like, Never in a million years would this story occur to me. How could it? I don't have a black perspective. But the stuff I do know about is being a white guy. I worked in a convenience store, and I guess there are some politics attached to that. But if I had known that going in, it would have been very obvious and not nearly authentic. And probably would have corrupted the whole thing. Because I started out not knowing what the hell it was; I just wanted to write the story.

Q: Alexander, you once made a provocative statement: "Being a young American filmmaker is worse than making films under Communism, because the commercial and ideological exigencies are so strict that they suppress creativity." What did you mean by that?

Payne: I mean you always work under cultural and ideological constraints. Under Communism the workers are always good, the capitalists are always bad. How is it different here where the lead character has to be sympathetic, by page 30 such-and-such has to happen. If it's a couple who are apart, they have to come back together; if there's a crime, it must be punished. Someone recently said to me, Well in The Talented Mr. Ripley, he gets away with it. There are just assumptions about how things should be that outrage me. And that even extends to how films are lit. As a director you have to fight that. Why is that smoke there? What's that light source coming from over there? Why is this actress so pretty? Why is this actor's hair combed so nicely given the circumstances? Why are all the cars clean? What is this anal thing about everything in a movie having to be clean, pretty and beautiful?

Like the typical American family, it's upper middle class with a big open kitchen, and they all have Range Rovers. Who are these people? I'm tired of it. [Hollywood conventions] are more rigid because you could at least make art under Communism. I think if I lived in an oppressive country I might become a truly great filmmaker.

Q: Because you'd be forced to use indirection?

Payne: Of course. You saw it in so many Eastern European directors under Communism, and now you see it in films from Iran. Scorsese talks correctly about the film director as smuggler.

Q: In Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, he appears as a criminal. Director as killer.

Payne: The grenade thrower. I just hope that we are entering an age more where films do throw grenades, where they question, not support, the dominant ideology. Because that's what we used to have, films throwing grenades. I lament that we have so many movies and so many TV stations that film may have lost power to shock and challenge. I didn't get one single protest letter from Citizen Ruth, not one.

Q: There were an unusual number of women at Sundance this year. Anders: It's not making the first film that's so difficult for women; it's making the second one and building up a body of work. A lot of things have stopped women from moving forward. One is the mythology of the young male independent filmmaker, the new Orson Welles. It's like everyone is looking for this Orson Welles. You want a guy who walks off his second movie and goes to Mexico and doesn't finish it and the studio recuts it. Why is that myth so powerful? I'm to the point where I wish he had never been born.

Vachon: I have to disagree. I hate hearing--like, My movie is not getting made because I'm a lesbian, or it's not getting made because I'm a woman, or it's not getting made because I'm black, because a lot of those scripts come to me and I can tell you exactly why they're not being made, and it's not because of that person's gender or sexuality. It's because they're lousy. Or the director is insisting on an unknown. Or the budget is $10 million when it could get made for three. Or because the idea is so inherently anticommercial that it's better to do it for $200,000 on digital. I honestly believe that great work wins out in the end. And I have to believe that. Because otherwise it's just like, why bother?

Q: If it's true that women find second films so hard to finance, why is it true?

Anders: The first film, you are making it no matter what. You're just plowing ahead doing all the things that you have to do despite someone in one of the women's issues in Premiere--she should be hung--who said, I don't think any woman would make a film like Robert Rodriguez did, he really sacrificed a lot to make his first movie. I did phone sex to make my first movie. How dare she! I know a girl who's a stripper to make money to make her film. What happens with the second movie is that you think that you now are going to be courted, and you are being courted to a certain extent, but they're also courting these young white males that they have seen at the festival, and that's where their money is going to go. The support just isn't there. The fact that Kimberly Pierce hasn't been nominated for an award herself--why not? They are nominating her actresses, which is great, but why, if people loved her direction so much, is she not nominated?

Q: Are women better off in the independent world than in the studio world?

Anders: I think we are a bit worse off in the independent world. The independent film companies are looking for the men just as much as [the studios]. I really turn to the black filmmakers for my model because there's always something out of Spike Lee's mouth that helps me get perspective on our place in the industry. Some journalist once asked him, Are you encouraged now that so many black filmmakers are working? Of course, there were about five. And he said, No, I'll be encouraged when we're getting the same budgets. I'll be encouraged when we're getting the same opportunities. Women are too grateful when we get to make a movie. While I think gratitude is a very nice spiritual trait to have, enough already. It is time to move into action because gratitude alone never got women anything, and certainly it didn't get us the vote and everything else that we've accomplished.

Kimberly's movie is almost a metaphor for this--like, Well, I'll just pretend I'm a boy and hope no one notices I'm a girl. And you know, I just got to go look at what happened to Teena in the end. I don't want to be there. I'm a girl, and I've got a voice, and I'm going to make a movie as a girl.

Q: The other striking metaphor for female filmmakers appears in The Blair Witch Project, where the director is a woman, and she's not only killed, she's humiliated, the arrogant know-it-all who got them into it.

Anders: Right. It's almost like they got killed for supporting her vision. You followed this crazy person.

Q: How do you size up the revolution to come in digital production and distribution?

Payne: You know what? Certainly the digital thing makes the means of production accessible to everybody, which is interesting, but it doesn't solve the filmmaker's problem of what's the script, what's the story and what are you going to do. The same thing happened thirty years ago with 16 millimeter and Cassavetes starting to make films. We've seen it before. I still like 35-millimeter film in theaters. It's the only thing I think about.

Q: So, is it the best of times or the worst of times?

Pierson: I hate the idea that it's become easier for anybody with a first-time success to now parlay that into additional films. If the wrong people get those opportunities and keep churning out what's obviously a glut of films right now, that begins to clog the arteries for first-time talent trying to come in the traditional way, making a movie that goes to a festival and gets released in a theater.

By the same token, in this twenty-year cycle that we've had, I think a lot of ground has been covered, so it's increasingly hard for those people to be truly original. And now marketing is king. Anything that can begin to succeed will succeed at a far higher level than ever, and that's because audiences--even the smart audiences--enjoy being marketed to, and so they flock to the one film instead of spreading out the vote among dozens.

Vachon: When I first started making movies, if a film like Poison did $1 million worth of box office, that was seen as great success. Everybody got a little bit of money in their pockets. Then the bar rose. Some people have blamed Pulp Fiction. I don't know if that was it, but there was a feeding frenzy about these movies, suddenly a sense that they could potentially make real money. Safe was the kind of movie that should have sat in a theater and become the movie that peopletalked about at cocktail parties, but it didn't have time.It came out just as that was all shifting, where if you didn't deliver the numbers in the first week or two, you wereout. The kind of movies I was making, which could be targeted to the gay audience and not lose money because of their budgets and the low cost of distributing them, all that has gone out the window now. To do a genuine theatrical release for a film is much more expensive than it used to be. I think the p&a [prints and ads] budget on Poison in 1990 was something like $80,000. On Velvet Goldmine in 1998, it must have been somewhere between $5 million and $10 million.

Q: So it's becoming a first-weekend business, just like with studio films?

Vachon: Exactly. And on Boys Don't Cry, we were huddled by our phones that whole weekend. Are they buying tickets? Are they going? Because I knew my movie's fate rested on that.

Pierson: The key to me is that indies still think they are fighting studios, and clearly they're fighting each other. I counted 175 indie releases in New York last year, or 180. Over 175. You can't even remember 100 of them.

Q: Another way of asking this question is, If Clerks came along today, could it break through the way it did in 1994 at Sundance?

Smith: If we'd made Clerks today, I doubt it would have gotten into Sundance--Well, maybe. It wouldn't have gotten into competition, that's for sure. And Miramax would not have touched it with a ten-foot pole. Too small. Far beneath them. We were the last in a long line of small American independent films that they really pushed, that they made their name on.

Q: So, it's the worst of times?

Pierson: Not necessarily. A big plus now is that very talented people like Kevin Smith and David Russell can step inside the system but leave the door open so they can step back out. And filmmakers who made their names on first features can actually have sustained, ongoing filmmaking careers.


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