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Inside Indiewood | The Nation

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Inside Indiewood

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Q:

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

About the Author

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

Also by the Author

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.

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!

Peirce:

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?

Peirce:

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.

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