Inside Indiewood | The Nation


Inside Indiewood

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

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Peter Biskind
Peter Biskind, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is the author of a forthcoming book on the independent film...

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THIS IS THE THIRD of what now threatens to become The Nation's annual Hollywood issue. Following in the footsteps of the catholic Mr. Soderbergh, whose Y2K output ran the gamut from Erin Brockovich to Traffic, this time around there is not even the shadow of a theme. But a little eclecticism never hurt anyone. In the forum, GENE SEYMOUR engages black filmmakers, who, as a group, appear to be enjoying unprecedented success, although he finds clouds within the silver lining. ELLEN WILLIS puts The Sopranos on her couch with a dazzling appreciation-slash-deconstruction of the East Coast's favorite soap (interestingly, the West Coast appears to be more taken with Gladiator), while MARC COOPER does the same for Hollywood's version of the labor movement, giving us an eye-opening glimpse into the internal politics of the guilds on the eve of what at this point seems to be an inevitable strike.

GEOFFREY GILMORE, who has run the Sundance Film Festival for eleven years, takes on "purists" and "ideologues" in a spirited assessment of the current state of independent film. Also in the not-so-pure department, AMY WALLACE reports that Jodie Foster is looking to make a feature out of the life of infamous filmmaker-cum-Hitler- groupie Leni Riefenstahl. The byzantine Oscar documentary process gets put under the microscope by CARL BROMLEY, who notes that the academy's snub of Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club last year was only the most recent in a long history of mind-boggling misjudgments. We've tossed some candy throughout the issue in the form of reflections--both visual and verbal, from some names you'll recognize--on the allure of certain matinee idols. Finally, there is a real treat: an excerpt of newly published letters that present RAYMOND CHANDLER in a wholly unexpected light.

*Last year, I was the guest editor of The Nation's first issue devoted exclusively to Hollywood and politics.

Kimberly Peirce:

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.


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?


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.


So, is your next film up going to be a studio film?


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.


Anybody else?


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.


What's the downside?


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.


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 prettifiedmyths of how people live, and who people are, that we've been fed for the last twenty years.


Aren't big studios more sensitive to pressure groups, so you get potential censorship situations where they dump controversial pictures like






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.

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