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 Peirce (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.
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 the studio system. What’s going on here?
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.
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 filmand getting Warners to pay for it, that’s great.
So now it’s OK for independents to work for studios?
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.
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.