GoodFella in Indieland

Park City, Utah--

JOHN PIERSON IS a rarity in the film biz on several counts: He loves movies dearly (he recently cried at a Sundance screening of the beautiful melodrama The Whole Wide World) and has written a book about loving them (the just-published Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, from Hyperion); he's programmed a legendary repertory theater (NYC's Bleecker Street Cinema); and, as a producer's rep, he's helped the film world to discover the first works of filmmakers such as Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It), Michael Moore (Roger & Me), and Kevin Smith (Clerks).

At the recent Sundance Film Festival, with cell phones going off all around us, Pierson and I met for coffee to share our love of Todd Haynes's Safe ("Well, obviously it's the best film of last year... and that's not opinion--it's fact"); discuss the merits of the Grand Jury Prize-winner Welcome to the Dollhouse; express our mutual distaste for the weak-kneed programming of the Landmark Theatres chain; and take the current pulse of indie film:

CP: Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, per the title, surveys the indie-film scene from She's Gotta Have It and Roger & Me through Slacker and Go Fish. The book ends as Pulp Fiction is being released. What's happened in the scene since then, and what's happening right now at Sundance?

John Pierson: Well, that's what we're here to figure out, isn't it? I made a point of stopping the book at the end of 1994, partly to keep a clear perspective. In terms of the meaning of Sundance circa 1996, it's just a complete, you know, jumble. Everybody wants to find a theme, or a kind of coherent explanation, and as you know from the epilogue of Spike, I have a vast, vast uncertainty about what's to come [laughs].

CP: The ending of the book is also a little melancholy. Pulp Fiction makes $100 million, wins an Oscar, and inspires a highly negligible, arguably dangerous aesthetic movement. And it's maybe taken some of the energy from, let's say, the more authentic indie cinema.

JP: Authenticity per se is tough to gauge, but "melancholy" is an interesting word--and it's apt. It's not that Pulp Fiction has limited the number of filmmakers who can make a $25,000 alternative film, not at all; it's just that those films will be analyzed according to easy economic signposts or festival-fever hoopla instead of being seen as solid aesthetic successes, or as things of importance to people who see them in the real world.

My focus in the book is on movies which have been empowering moments in the indie film movement. Stranger Than Paradise remains a film which empowers other filmmakers to say, "I'm ready now, I can do this." In '85, Spike [Lee] picked up on that and made She's Gotta Have It, and in turn empowered a lot of other black filmmakers. And it keeps happening: When Richard Linklater makes Slacker for way less money than usual, the Kevin Smiths of the world see that and feel empowered. And then people see Clerks, and on and on. But the idea of empowerment may have become a double-edged sword; initially, a young filmmaker might have had a sense of, "Wow! This was a tremendously artistic film made on a limited budget--I'm going to do that!" Nowadays, I'm sure a lot of people see Clerks and just say, "Fuck it. I can write funnier dick jokes than this Kevin Smith. He just puts his camera there and that's that."

CP: Kevin Smith factors significantly in Spike.

JP: I'm a big, big, big fan of Clerks, and I think Kevin is a terrific human being who, at the tender age of 25, can be a solid point of entry for potential younger readers of this book. I'm 41, and my peer-group--many of whom run the indie film business--isn't 25 anymore. Our '70s-era film school sense is not in any way identical to Kevin's or many of those who fall into his video- and laserdisc-educated milieu. Kevin says that indie film started with Stranger than Paradise, he doesn't know vintage noir, and he doesn't think he needs to see Kurosawa films. He represents the new New Wave--although that expression might not mean anything to him.

CP: You write that [Miramax copresidents] Harvey and Bob Weinstein, at least in the '80s, struck you as "two very insistent rug merchants." You describe yourself not as a "film brat" like Spielberg or Scorsese, but an "art-film brat." And the chapter about your grueling involvement with director Rob Weiss [Amongst Friends] is titled, aptly, "Amongst Jerks." Is your work a kind of battle between rug merchants and jerks and certain kinds of brats?

JP: I don't wanna say battle. I have too much fun to call it a battle.

CP: I guess I'm just pessimistic about the industry's ability to make great and challenging and radical films, and then make them available to people.

JP: It's true that it doesn't always work out. Here's my starting assumption: I see a film. I love it. I meet the filmmaker. I really like the way the filmmaker comes across--I don't mean just from a promotional standpoint, I mean as a person. And also from a promotional standpoint, because I have to deal with that also [laughs]. Look at the market. We have distributors all the time saying, "We don't know how to sell it. We don't know who the audience is." This is their standard answer to anyone they don't want to alienate by saying, "We don't like your movie." I never approach any film that way. If I love it, and I really like the people that made it, then I figure that there's other people out there, other viewers, who'll feel similarly.

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