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.

This is maybe where the struggle comes in, and it can be especially hard with comedy. I would call Clerks a comedy, and Go Fish on a certain level, and American Job--although that's a painful, deadpan comedy. You just need to try to get things started on the right foot, in the right festival setting. And sometimes it works out great, as with Clerks or She's Gotta Have It. Sometimes you wind up with a low-grossing My Life's In Turnaround. And sometimes you wind up with something that you can't get anyone to bite on at all; for me, that was the Keith McNally film End of the Night.

CP: Part of what you're saying is that genre is as important in the indie milieu as it is in Hollywood: a way to distinguish the film and make it known to people as a type. Hence the shoot-'em-up buddy movie and now, it seems to me, the medium-budget women's picture.

JP: Or call it niche, yeah. That's key. Go Fish is a really interesting case to use on a number of levels. It's a lesbian romantic comedy, basically, but it's a movie whose stylistic predecessors feel like some portion of Slacker crossed with some portion of She's Gotta Have It. And yet it's for a lesbian audience and it has some really daring, experimental film techniques and it has a sex scene and it's shot in black and white and it is, we proudly say, grainy. So you've got a bunch of different forces and you don't know if they'll cancel each other out. And then you go through the whole thing and you wind up grossing $2.5 million and feeling great about that, and then you realize there's other problems here: For instance, most critics dealt with this film by saying, "Oh, it's a cute movie, it's this cute lesbian romantic comedy." They didn't cite its direction or writing or any of the other wonderful qualities that it had; they just kind of ghettoized it.

CP: Is Sundance still an important gatekeeper for indie films?

JP: I think Sundance works on a film-by-film basis. I'm very big on a lot of the films this year, so I won't complain. I think a lot of the movies here this year will comprise the majority of significant American indie releases over the next year. And yes, a number of the people who made them will also have the opportunity to go on and make other films. But that to me is secondary. I'm always looking at the work at hand, the first film. That's just the nature of my business. As far as Spike and Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith and Steve James of Hoop Dreams, those are four of my favorite people in the world; I'll be their friend forever. But I'm not an ongoing business part of their life--I'll leave that to others.

CP: You sound like Broadway Danny Rose: "They get famous and then they leave me." But seriously, why put the emphasis on the first-timer?

JP: I went to film school and I didn't become a filmmaker, so it's like this surrogate experience of being a first-time filmmaker over and over again.

CP: You also give filmmakers a leg up at the point when they need it most.

JP: Sure. But you could argue that there should be somebody to counsel the second-timer as well. There's countless examples of first-timers who fell on their faces with the second film, either from making bad choices or whatever.  

CP: Maybe someone will create that position for themselves. Have you noticed whether there's another hot-shot producer's rep, a Next John Pierson, waiting in the wings?

JP: There are people who represent films, there have always been. I wasn't the first. But I don't know if anybody does it like I do it. Not to sound completely arrogant, but I don't think anybody has as relaxed a professional life as I do. When I rep a film without investing in it, I don't charge a fee anymore. I try to make sure that I'm paid fairly when I make an investment, because money is money is money. But I'm in a privileged position, because I've had backing--first from Island World and now from Miramax. I can afford to indulge myself on the movies I care about. Someone said to me recently, "All these years you haven't made the money you could have by involving yourself as an executive producer or whatever--but I guess you got back what you wanted by writing about them all in the book." And I think that's true. I do feel like I've just lived through this very interesting period, keeping my eyes open, seeing how it works. CP

John Pierson will read from and sign copies of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes at Hungry Mind in St. Paul Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 8 p.m.

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