February 2005

February 27, 2005

Washington Post: Reeling them in

BY ROBERT SKLAR | For a few golden years, a generation ago, Hollywood film directors preened as artists (also known as auteurs, the French word for authors). Then the movie moguls figured out how to make big bucks producing and marketing comic-book blockbusters, and the pretense was over. Most studio directors became faceless functionaries who shouted at actors, "Scream as loud as you can at the blue screen, and the computer guys will put in the monsters later."

Most, but not all, says Sharon Waxman in Rebels on the Backlot. A former entertainment reporter for The Washington Post, now with the New York Times, Waxman profiles half-a-dozen young male directors (yes, that gender thing again) who have kept the preening auteur alive even in the corporate kingdoms of contemporary Hollywood, where accountants ride with royalty and artists usually carry the brooms and pans. This Magnificent Six -- Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze (Adam Spiegel) -- indeed gave us some of the most thrilling and heartening American works of cinema art during the otherwise generally sour Hollywood movie decade of the '90s.

Waxman's approach is about halfway divided between her directors' private lives and professional demeanors, on the one hand, and the intricate bluffs and betrayals of movie deal-making, on the other. No one comes out looking good, as is usual in the Hollywood-behind-the-scenes genre. The directors, no matter how much we may admire their work, generally turn out to be raving egomaniacs or social misfits or both, perfectly willing to jettison any friend, wife, lover or family member to climb out of the primordial ooze of the American indie world and make it in the big time. What's sociologically (or perhaps psychoanalytically) interesting about this group is that several of them seem permanently to have ditched their mothers long before they had a foot up on the ladder of success.

That said, Waxman tells a fast-paced and always absorbing story of how some of the most significant American movies of the era -- "Boogie Nights," "Three Kings" and "Being John Malkovich," to name several -- got written, financed and made. Her book is a triumph of journeywoman legwork. In addition to cadging interviews with her sometimes recalcitrant principals, she has spoken with scores of exes: agents, managers, producers, studio heads, co-workers, all of the aforementioned relations, including the ex-mothers, to craft a rich and detailed if ultimately bleak portrait of the lives of young talent on the make and the games they play. A lot of publicity myths get shattered along the way, such as the oft-repeated story that Spike Jonze is heir to the Spiegel catalog fortune.

One of Waxman's most compelling accounts details the production of "Three Kings" (1999), a unique major studio film concerning Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, which took on added significance after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Moving from TV to film, George Clooney badly wanted the lead role, and Warner Brothers, which, she writes, "had signed a huge development deal with the actor," badly wanted him in it. But Russell, the director, "hated Clooney's style of acting, which he considered a lot of head-bobbing and mugging for the camera." Although Clooney got the part, the director and star denigrated each other throughout the shoot, and once, Waxman reports, came to physical blows.

A quarter-century ago Michael Pye and Lynda Myles published a book called The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood, and Waxman might have considered calling her book, in Hollywood sequel fashion, "The Movie Brats II." Some commentators have blamed sex, drugs and rock-and-roll for the fall from grace of the '70s auteurs, rather than changes in movie distribution and marketing. Readers may be relieved (or appalled, or not care either way) to learn from Waxman that sex, drugs and rock-and-roll still play a prominent role in the lives of the '90s auteurs, not necessarily in that order. But the differences between the two generations are instructive.

The "film generation" of the '70s -- Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese and the rest -- went to film school and became steeped in film history watching Hollywood classics of the '30s and '40s in class and on late-night TV. The new generation of Tarantino and company not only didn't go to film school, they hardly set foot in secondary school. Their classics were '70s films like "Star Wars," which they watched over and over again, hundreds of times, on their VCRs. They made movies less out of some relation to a heritage (leaving aside Tarantino's kung fu legacy) than out of their private demons, which may be one reason, Waxman suggests, why they persevered for months and years in making the movies they wanted to make, rather than capitulating to the crushing weight of the system that she so extensively documents.

The status of her subjects, Waxman acknowledges, is no less precarious than was that of the original Movie Brats. The fabled "green light" to make a movie is as elusive as the Great Gatsby's at the end of a Long Island dock, and often depends on the intricate game of musical chairs played by corporate bosses seeking to make a name or a statement. But one can at least come away from her book with the satisfaction of knowing that disloyalty, duplicity and bad faith are as rife in the creative precincts of young Hollywood as they are in the fat-cat executive suites.

Robert Sklar teaches Cinema Studies at New York University and is the author of "Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies."

February 06, 2005

Miami Herald: It's a wrap


BY RENE RODRIGUEZ | Most any film buff will concur that the 1970s marked the last great era of American movies, thanks to the sheer number of talented filmmakers -- Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, William Friedkin and Brian De Palma, among others -- who either began their careers or established a position of power within Hollywood at that time.

It's too early to tell whether the surge oficonoclastic filmmakers who invaded the studio system in the 1990s will go down as another golden chapter in Hollywood history. But Sharon Waxman's book Rebels on the Backlot, which focuses on six directors who rose to prominence during that decade, argues that the battle between unbridled creativity and the business end of Hollywood remains as heated today as it did when Coppola narrowly avoided getting fired by Paramount Pictures during the filming of The Godfather.

Waxman, a former entertainment reporter for The Washington Post now writing for The New York Times, is known for her tough, skeptical view of Hollywood and her thorough, scrupulously researched stories. Both qualities are abundant in this addictively readable book, which alternates between less-than-fawning profiles of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze, and the stories behind the making of their best-known films.

To varying degrees, all were battles of one sort or another, and Waxman's blow-by-blow accounts are filled with the sort of gossipy tidbits that have become a requisite of insider-Hollywood books, whether she's writing about Russell and George Clooney coming to blows on the set of Three Kings, Tarantino threatening collaborator Roger Avary to give him sole screenwriting credit on Pulp Fiction, or Anderson pitching temper tantrums when New Line Cinema executives asked him to trim his three hour-plus drama Magnolia.

Perhaps the most momentous struggle of all was Fincher's attempt to make the deeply subversive Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, at a mainstream studio for a budget of $62 million. Waxman's fascinating account of how and why the movie got made is an excellent primer on the uneasy relationship between art and commerce within the studio system.

There were times during Fight Club's production that Fincher seemed to be embodying the anarchist spirit of Tyler Durden, the character played in the film by Brad Pitt. When executives complained about the movie's violence, Fincher gave them more, not less. When his producer begged him to change a potentially offensive dialogue spoken by co-star Helena Bonham Carter, Fincher replaced it with even more disturbing lines.

And even as the shockwaves of the Columbine High School shootings forced 20th Century Fox to postpone the film's release, Fincher not only persevered in staying true to his apocalyptic vision, but also succeeded in getting a wide theatrical release for the aggressively uncommercial movie.

Rebels on the Backlot implies that Fincher's unpredictable and defiant temperament was key in getting Fight Club made (talent alone would not have cut it). The book draws loose parallels between the six filmmakers, all white male Generation Xers, and all saddled with distinct neuroses of their own. Of the Three Kings director, Waxman writes: ''Russell's antisocial tendencies seemed to worsen with age, like a kind of physical Tourette's syndrome; he poked people with a finger while talking to them at close range.'' Clearly, being a little crazy can be a great boon to an artist.

On a more personal level, Waxman takes time to deflate some myths about her subjects, such as Tarantino's legendary white-trash Tennessee upbringing, or Jonze's often-repeated reputation as an heir to the Spiegel fortune (neither is true). If her subjects don't always come off as completely likable, there is certainly no denying their passion for their craft. And whether it was intentional or not, Rebels on the Backlot winds up heartily supporting the much-debated auteur theory, which claims that despite the collaborative nature of filmmaking, the director is ultimately the ''author'' of a movie. At least as far as these six directors go, there's no mistaking their movies -- or their work methods -- for anyone else's.

Rene Rodriguez is The Herald's film critic.

February 04, 2005

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Author documents revolutionary filmmakers

BY MICHAEL MACHOSKY | There's an infamous scene in "Pulp Fiction" where an adrenaline-filled needle is plunged through Uma Thurman's heart, to resuscitate her from a drug-induced coma.

For many moviegoers, "Pulp Fiction" itself was that literal shot of adrenaline, jammed into the heart of a complacent, artistically comatose industry. It forced Hollywood to sit bolt upright and deal with the new generation of talent percolating beneath them in the independent film world -- and realize that movies, moviemakers and moviegoers were going to change, with or without them.

Of course, that scene in "Pulp Fiction" was such an intense moment that some people got sick in the aisles and stormed out of theatres. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino's brilliant, oddly tangential dialogue, serpentine structure, retro-cool soundtrack and unnerving violence exploded upon a movie business that was busy looking for the next "Dumb and Dumber."

Not everybody got it at first. But Sharon Waxman did.

"I remember almost a moment when a light bulb went off," says Waxman, Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times and author of "Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How they Conquered the Studio System." "That film was really kind of a clarion call -- 'Hey, you can make this kind of movie and be successful, and people will get you.'"

More stylish, inventive, uncategorizable new films came barreling out of the gate, like they had been waiting forever for the chance. Waxman's book makes a case for creating a new film canon of this late '90s renaissance. At its heart, she places Paul Thomas Anderson's brash ensemble piece "Boogie Nights," Steven Soderbergh's multi-layered drug-war saga "Traffic," and David Fincher's brutally original, misunderstood "Fight Club."

Also, there's David O. Russell's satirical, character-driven Gulf War bombshell, "Three Kings." And, of course, Spike Jonze's head-scratching comic cornucopia of weirdness, "Being John Malkovich."

They opened the door for films such as "American Beauty," "Lost in Translation" and "Sideways," and even challenging blockbusters such as "The Matrix."

"So much of what we cover in the industry is very formulaic and not very interesting -- basically a marketing campaign hung around a movie star," says Waxman, on the phone from her office in Hollywood. "These movies were so not like that -- very personal statements, so off-the-charts in terms of the kinds of ideas, or having the storyline all mixed up, or using really absurd kinds of humor."

"Rebels" is a quote-heavy, insider-ish account of how these movies were made, laced with lacerating portraits of these driven young directors. It wasn't easy to get them to talk at first. But once it became clear that Waxman was going to write about them anyway, the "rebels" mostly relented. They realized it usually works out better when you give your own side of the story.

Gradually, more three-dimensional portraits of these directors begin to emerge, apart from their media-generated public images.

Tarantino's carefully constructed persona as the ultimate video store clerk -- whose compulsion to make movies took him from white trash to red carpet -- begins to peel away. He emerges as a ruthlessly ambitious striver who discards old friends and family for high rollers and starlets as soon as he has the chance.

Spike Jonze is the most colorful of the lot -- a skateboard magazine and video pioneer whose own originality may be tied to his total ignorance of pre- "Star Wars" film.

David O. Russell, on the other hand, was so obnoxious and tyrannical on the set of "Three Kings" that George Clooney grabbed him by the neck at one point. If there's a list of Hollywood players who were not looking forward to the publication of this book, Russell would have to be at the top.

Like the last great wave of American filmmaking in the '70s -- the heyday of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola and the like -- these directors were dragged, with various degrees of kicking and screaming, into the Hollywood establishment.

"Most of those ('70s) directors really became hacks," Waxman says. "They became co-opted by the studio system. Everybody makes bad movies occasionally, but they were not able to hold onto the purity of their artistry. This generation is not tempted, I think, by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that marked the '70s, but the temptations are the same -- the ego-stroking of the media machine corrupts you."

What's amazing is how these directors pushed their often very unmarketable ideas through a studio system that seems designed to shoot down original ideas and sand the edges off challenging films. After multinational corporations started buying movie studios, the bottom line has become even more important.

"Generally, the aversion to risk comes from the folks up top -- the pressure on the studio to produce a profit every year ... and their panic at not knowing exactly how to do that," Waxman says. "Because it's very hard in the movie business -- which is an inherently creative business -- to do anything that guarantees an audience. You have to make something new every single time, but something familiar enough to draw an audience in to see it. That's a really hard needle to thread."