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.
Q: What happens to independents when they end up in the belly of the beast? David, how did you land at Warner Brothers, traditionally one of the most conservative studios, known for mega-budget Kevin Costner vehicles, the
series and so on?
David O. Russell:
When I made my first two films, which could be considered classically independent, the studios would all meet with me and say, Come make a movie here. It was interesting to me to take them up on that hunger with a very subversive large film. To answer, Will you really? And keep saying "really" until they said no. But they never said no.
They showed me this straight-ahead action script about the Gulf War. I started doing some research and thought: Boy, this could be interesting. Take an action picture and put all these politics in it and a subversive attitude. I told them that, and they said, OK. I said, I don't want to do this and bring it back and have you freak out. They said, No, no, we've made these films with Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese. The week I handed in my script there was an article in the New York Times lambasting Warner Brothers, saying it had bombed with dumb picture after dumb picture with very generic formulas and they need to work with more exciting filmmakers. I think that gave a lot of the young executives in the company hope. You know, they wanted to shake it up. Lorenzo di Bonaventura [of Warner Brothers] said to me at one point that if he couldn't take risks like this, he didn't want his job anymore.
There was one person at the studio who tried to stop me. He thought, This movie is not a studio movie, and it should not be made. And he appealed to George Clooney, saying, The politics of this film are going to make your life dangerous and you're going to come under a lot of heat. From both patriotic Americans and patriotic Muslims. But George stood up for the film, said to the executive, I don't believe you.
Q: So what's happened? Are we seeing the greening of the studios?
I think it's the Miramaxization of the studio system. Like five years ago, would a studio have made American Beauty? Never! Would a studio have made something like Three Kings? Not nearly as quirky as David made it. It would have been a pretty much straight-down-the-middle war movie.
I think something has changed. I think the Sundance culture has definitely had an impact on the audiences of the United States--they've become more sophisticated--and also the studios. Ten years ago Three Kings--a war/action movie--or Election--a high school movie--would have been Heartbreak Ridge with Clint Eastwood, or--name a high school movie from ten years ago. Look at The Talented Mr. Ripley. On the face of it, it's a straight thriller, but at another level it's so dark and homosexual, you know, for a movie of that scale. But there are executives who yearn to work with independent-minded filmmakers and make the film that is different from the run-of-the-mill "product." Maybe I have a somewhat warped view, but I see plenty of that. My feeling is that many of them would be very happy to work with any of the directors in this forum, happy to make films like Election or Boys Don't Cry. Studios want to find that Good Will Hunting audience.
Well, it's an astonishing development. I think they'll do more. With caution. But let's not get carried away.
We certainly had the experience with studios that have been anxious to work with us and then have looked at how we actually make our movies and have basically said, You're crazy, we can't make a movie like that. It's not like we're such insane guerrilla filmmakers who are out there on the seat of our pants. It's just like with Boys Don't Cry, you're banking on a director that has virtually no experience. You're putting in as your star a kid who has only been on a television series. What studio in the world would have allowed that to happen? None of them!