Reviews: "Rebels on the Backlot"

March 11, 2008

Reader reactions

Dear Sharon,

We have never spoken but I just finished you book Rebels on the Backlot and felt compelled to write you. I am a producer who has wanted to be one since 5th grade. Six years ago I partnered with Michael Bay to form Platinum Dunes, which specializes in under 20 million dollar horror films. 2007 wasn't a great year for our company... Then I picked up your book. It was like talking to a friend who understood.  I wasn't the only one suffering. What's more, the directors, producers, writers of the movies that made me want to stick it out when all I had was hope, all went through the same thing. Only worse.  I couldn't put your book down. What's more, despite my own experiences, I gleaned so much insight from your description of the experiences the directors endured that I have a further appreciation for their struggle and dare I say better understanding of my own partner.

Your book should be required reading for anyone who wants get into the movie business and everyone who forgot why they did.


Brad Fuller

Over the holidays, I apparently won the Alan Furst sweepstakes as my brother sent me an Amazon package of everything written by him. Included was a copy of "Rebels On The Backlot" ... I made the wonderful error of peeking into your book. The upshot is I wanted to thank you for an well written book about an interesting subject and all the hard facts, the interviews and followups that you must have done in order to write it. Certain times, you see, hear or read something and marvel at what went into it to make it. Just wanted to say that I appreciated all your hard work. Waiting for your next book.

Ron Kehr

Hi Sharon,

I graduate from undergrad in exactly two days with a degree in Political Science.  I have always been passionate about movies, but have never wanted to stray from my path of eventually becoming a lawyer.  I am not done with it, but what I have read of your book has already inspired in me a personal revelation: I must make movies.  Tarantino inspired me when I did a ninth grade project on him.  Your words, especially on Tarantino, have spoken to me and they tell me: I must emulate the great and make a movie. I don't think my dad will be too happy, so don't worry I won't tell him your name, even though you are the main reason I have decided to changed my career goal from lawyer to producer.  I don't know where and how to start, but this does not concern me.

Thank you so much for writing Rebels,

James Knox Waller

January 26, 2006

Salon.com - The revolution that failed

Quentin Tarantino and the indie rebels who followed him changed Hollywood in the '90s -- but in the end, Hollywood also changed them.

BY ANDREW O'HEHIR | Talent isn't democratic and doesn't play fair. That's one of the things we already know about human existence -- after all, van Gogh was an insufferable pill and Picasso an egomaniacal womanizer -- but we keep trying to convince ourselves it isn't true. Certainly the lesson is driven home again and again in "Rebels on the Backlot," Sharon Waxman's admirably reported chronicle of the 1990s' indie-film wars that changed the culture of Hollywood, at least temporarily.

The more talented the young (or youngish) directors Waxman profiles are, it seems, the more obnoxious they are. Quentin Tarantino comes off as a ruthless social climber who has dropped all the friends who helped him when he was a struggling nobody, and won't take calls from his own mother. David O. Russell has infamously poor social skills, picks meaningless fights and is gratuitously mean to crew members on his shoots. Paul Thomas Anderson is a fathead control freak who treats any suggestion or criticism as an insult to his masterly creative vision.

Spike Jonze, while not as cantankerous as those three, comes off as an immature, insecure skate-punk prankster with little intellectual curiosity and a blissful ignorance of pre-"Star Wars" culture. This may be why his movies, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," seem so original -- he isn't imitating classic films of the past because he's never even seen them. Waxman reports that one day on the set of the former film Jonze took Malkovich aside to tell him he was overacting a scene. "I was getting a little Blanche there, wasn't I?" the star agreed. Jonze looked puzzled. "Blanche Dubois," responded Malkovich. "Tennessee Williams? 'A Streetcar Named Desire'? Blanche Dubois?" Jonze could only shrug; he had no idea what Malkovich was talking about. "What did you get me into?" Malkovich moaned to producer Steve Golin, who could only respond, "At least it won't be derivative."

The only filmmaker in Waxman's book who seems to be a truly smart and likable guy (and yes, they're all guys) is Steven Soderbergh. Is it an accident that Soderbergh (to my way of thinking) never had half the raw visionary talent of those other three, and looks more and more, at this point in his career, like an amiable, slightly eccentric Hollywood craftsman in the vein of Sydney Pollack or John Schlesinger? Soderbergh's unlikely rise-and-fall-and-rise saga -- from the early indie hit "sex, lies, and videotape" in 1989 to the total obscurity of "Kafka" and "Schizopolis" to his resurrection with "Out of Sight" and "Erin Brockovich" -- is a heartwarming tale set in a realm of ruthlessness, and he's stayed commendably loyal to his old film-student pals from Baton Rouge, La., several of whom still work for him. Furthermore, he's used his success to help produce breakthrough films by others, especially Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" and George Clooney's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."

None of that, sadly, makes me want to rush out and see the earnest, turgid "Traffic" again. Soderbergh's movies, with rare exceptions (I was one of the six people who actually liked his remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris"), are exactly what they appear to be on the surface; they're the late-night TV wallpaper of the future. Whereas I feel confident that the next time I see "Jackie Brown" or "Magnolia" or "Three Kings," I'll notice something I didn't see before, and my sense of the movie and its meaning and exactly where it sits in my head will shift at least a little.

These ruminations are outside the scope of Waxman's book, and I suspect she wouldn't agree with me anyway. Her blow-by-blow account of the making of "Traffic" suggests that she sees that movie, as many Hollywood people did at the time, as a worthy attempt to bring the indie-film aesthetic into the mainstream and to engage thorny social issues in a pop-culture context. (To which I'd say, sure, but HBO's "The Wire" has engaged the drug war in a vastly more interesting way.) But while Waxman never conceals her own tastes and sympathies, she's a reporter to the core, and like all good reporting "Rebels on the Backlot" ultimately opens up its subject for debate and leaves the final verdict to the reader.

In addition to the six directors she focuses on -- the one I haven't mentioned, half-deliberately, is David Fincher -- Waxman has interviewed dozens of friends, family members, actors, crew members, production executives and so on. Her goal is an almost archaeological reconstruction of the independent film boom of 1994 to 2000, beginning with Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" and culminating, more or less, with Fincher's "Fight Club" and Soderbergh's "Traffic."

It's an era that, for better or worse, is now in the past: The once-rebellious indie spirit seems almost as remote from the mainstream movie biz today as it did 15 years ago. (Consider the two "independent" films up for Oscars this year, "Sideways" and "Finding Neverland"; whatever their merits may be, they're about as threatening and confrontational as a glass of milk before bedtime.) Despite her book's subtitle (which to any indie-film fan sounds suspiciously like a post-production decision by the marketing department), "Rebels on the Backlot" is less the story of how Tarantino and those who followed him conquered Hollywood than of how Hollywood conquered them, or, perhaps more accurately, how the two forces fought each other to a stalemate.

Waxman isn't a film critic or a film scholar; she's an exceptionally well-connected Hollywood reporter for the New York Times (and, earlier, for the Washington Post). So some hardcore movie geeks may be driven mad by her perceived oversights. She gives only the briefest of nods to the first-wave indie filmmakers of the '80s, most notably Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch, without whom (as Tarantino, et al., would gratefully acknowledge) none of this would have been possible. She has a tendency to pile up forensic detail in her eagerness to reconstruct the precise dimensions of a movie deal; one tense negotiation over a star's reduced salary in the backroom of a Melrose Avenue bistro tends to blend into the next. Many readers may object to the presence of Fincher, who's something of a special case -- a master showman and provocateur working within the studio system, a la Paul Verhoeven, rather than an independent filmmaker. Others will of course want to argue that the true genius of the era is missing; I suppose Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz might be candidates. It's certainly telling that the six leading "maverick" directors of the '90s, according to Waxman, were white hetero males, but she didn't invent Hollywood sexism and racism, and beyond Coppola and Haynes, whom would you nominate for the sake of diversity? Nicole Holofcener ("Lovely & Amazing")? Lisa Cholodenko ("Laurel Canyon")? Robert Rodriguez ("Once Upon a Time in Mexico")? Those are interesting directors, at least to a modest constellations of film buffs, but none dramatizes the collision of art and money in Hollywood the way Waxman's six do.

What's striking about Waxman's sextet of directors, in fact, isn't just that they're all straight white guys, but that they so closely fit a pattern: They're loners, social misfits driven by private obsessions, educational underachievers with unresolved mommy issues and a record of failed romances and abandoned friendships. They essentially all grew up discontented in middle-class suburbia; Waxman has a good time puncturing the various media mythologies that have sprung up around these guys. Despite numerous accounts to the contrary, Quentin Tarantino never lived in a squalid Tennessee trailer park, and Spike Jonze is not the heir to the Spiegel catalog-merchandising fortune (his real name is Adam Spiegel, but he is only distantly related to that family).

Do you have to be a high school loser to become an important independent filmmaker, or are we drawn to that narrative because it embodies so many of our ingrained ideas about art and artists? There can be no definitive answer to that question, but it's striking that all six of these directors are essentially self-taught, or in any case got their education outside the increasingly formulaic film-school factories of USC, UCLA and NYU. Anderson went to film school at NYU for a couple of weeks but promptly dropped out; Fincher, Jonze and Soderbergh never attended college at all. (Soderbergh hung around the Louisiana State film program but was never enrolled.)

Tarantino's film school (in one famous legend that turns out to be true) was the movie-geek subculture of a video store in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where he and his friends spent endless stoned hours watching obscure exploitation and martial-arts flicks and dissecting them, constructing a film-centric worldview several degrees of separation away from reality. As Waxman astutely observes, he became the ultimate homage artist of our time; as much as he may want to present himself as an originator, his best ideas are all borrowed and synthesized from other movies. One hears the echoes of those THC-fueled conversations, surely, in Tarantino's legendary dialogue: the pop-culture arguments among gangsters in "Reservoir Dogs," or the immortal "Royale with cheese" discussion in "Pulp Fiction."

It was the smashing success of "Pulp Fiction" in 1994, of course, that launched the indie-film craze, for good and for ill. Tarantino's dizzying chronicle of urban misadventure, the product of a long collaboration with his friend Roger Avary -- the two, predictably, would become estranged over Tarantino's unwillingness to share credit -- became the sensation of the Cannes Film Festival and broke down the walls of the art-movie ghetto, grossing more than $200 million worldwide. That year's biggest hits included such immortal films as "The Santa Clause," "Dumb and Dumber" and "The Flintstones," but it was Tarantino's wisecracking hitmen, violent black humor, retro musical score and explosive lyricism that shook Hollywood to its foundations.

As Waxman recognizes, the phrase "independent film" itself rapidly became a sort of zeitgeist indicator or attitude; it didn't mean anything specific about the way a movie was financed or produced. (By the time "Pulp Fiction" was released, Miramax already belonged to Disney.) Agents and studios were barraged with scripts featuring snarky gunmen in hip sunglasses, and more than a few of them actually got made into movies. Consider, if you must, the entire career of Guy Ritchie (if the phrase "entire career" isn't essentially hilarious when applied to the guy who will be remembered longest as the source of Madonna's circa-2001 phony English accent). Every Big Ten frat boy, it seemed, was planning on moving to L.A. to produce or write or direct "independent" films, except for the ones who were moving to San Francisco to get in on something called the Internet.

Tarantino himself, as Waxman only incompletely realizes, seemed strikingly ambivalent about his own revolutionary role. He seized the opportunity to become the hippest media celebrity of the moment, and the avatar of a new film aesthetic -- and then disappeared for most of the next decade, releasing only the underappreciated "Jackie Brown" and one segment of the omnibus film "Four Rooms" between 1994 and 2003 (when he finally completed "Kill Bill"). Waxman suggests that he spent much of that time with his true loves, marijuana and television, which lends a special poignancy to Bridget Fonda's memorable stoner-philosophy line in "Jackie Brown." Scolded by Samuel L. Jackson's character that all that fine herb will rob her of ambition, she responds, "Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV." But beyond such blatant Tarantino rip-offs as "2 Days in the Valley" and "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," the success of "Pulp Fiction" opened the door for a new wave of talented directors who might otherwise have been stuck maxing out their parents' credit cards and making $10,000 movies for the film festival circuit indefinitely. As Waxman knows well, it's almost always a fluke when a good movie gets made in Hollywood, and most of "Rebels on the Backlot" tells the story of six such flukes: Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia"; Russell's "Three Kings"; Jonze's "Being John Malkovich"; Fincher's "Fight Club"; and Soderbergh's "Traffic."

Each of these movies had at least one near-death experience in production, and Waxman unearths juicy anecdotes that'll keep film fans cackling and turning the pages. Production and marketing executives were generally befuddled by these films; but these were the same geniuses, Waxman points out, who had been convinced that Fincher's "Seven" and Andy and Larry Wachowski's "The Matrix" would be bombs. When he was pitched Charlie Kaufman's now-legendary screenplay, for example, New Line Cinema honcho Bob Shaye said, "'Being John Malkovich'? Why can't it be 'Being Tom Cruise'?"

That film would surely never have been completed or released if the studio producing it hadn't been sold partway through production, leaving Jonze, Kaufman and their crew virtually unsupervised. "Fight Club" would surely have been killed without the presence of superstar actor Brad Pitt, and the fact that Art Linson, the production executive assigned to keep Fincher under control, turned out to share his desire to shock the bigwigs at Fox. Similarly, the fact that Tom Cruise wanted to appear in Anderson's "Magnolia" meant that Anderson could make a deal demanding final cut (and he refused to edit his meandering masterpiece below 198 minutes) and control over the marketing campaign, to the producers' eventual chagrin.

Even Russell's "Three Kings," a relatively successful film and critics' darling that has acquired a special resonance in the wake of George W. Bush's Gulf War sequel, was plagued by a bitter feud between the director and his neophyte star, George Clooney (then known primarily as a TV actor). The two disliked each other from the start; Russell apparently thought he'd gotten stuck with a pretty boy who couldn't act, while Clooney found the director arrogant, disorganized and mean-spirited. They nearly came to blows on the set; Waxman has actual copies of the letters Clooney wrote to Russell, first to get the part, and then to offer a rather reluctant "olive branch" as their disagreements worsened. Waxman thinks that the feud poisoned Russell's reputation in Hollywood, and cost the film any chance of winning Oscars.

Of these six movies, only "Traffic" -- which, as I've said, I see as the weakest of the bunch -- made a significant profit. Most either made or lost small sums of money; "Magnolia" and "Fight Club" were box-office disasters (at least until "Fight Club" became a huge cult hit on DVD). But all became occasions for widespread discussion and critical debate, on a scale American film hadn't seen since the rise of Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg and the other major directors of the mid-'70s. Was "Magnolia" an overcooked, symbolist mishmash or a haunting, poetic allegory of American existence? (Probably both.) Was "Fight Club" -- which was derided by critics but embraced by college-age male moviegoers -- a blistering critique of consumerism or a hypocritical horror show? (Again, both).

In 1999, the indie wave crashed onto the beach of American culture with tremendous force; we couldn't have realized at the time that we'd probably never see anything like it again. That year not only saw the release of "Magnolia," "Three Kings," "Being John Malkovich" and "Fight Club," but also "The Matrix," Sam Mendes' Oscar-sweeping "American Beauty," Alexander Payne's "Election," Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides" and Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry." (True confessions: Waxman quotes me prominently near the beginning of her 1999 chapter, which is certainly flattering. She also misspells my name and attributes my Salon review of "Fight Club" to the Vancouver Sun. Sic transit gloria mundi.)

It's hard to explain what happens when the zeitgeist shifts subtly; maybe what has happened to independent film since 2000 is the result of a 9/11 hangover, or the massive success of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or the sluggish economy of the last few years. It's not like good young American filmmakers aren't still making movies; Coppola's "Lost in Translation," Cholodenko's "Laurel Canyon" and Haynes' "Far From Heaven" suggest that geeky white boys don't possess all the mojo. But the indie-film balloon has gradually but distinctly deflated. It's basically another business niche now; a label for productions that won't top the weekend grosses but might provide a tidy return on a modest investment. (Payne's "Sideways" being this year's case in point.)

Most of the six filmmakers Waxman profiles have, at least arguably, retreated from their artistic peak in the years since 2000. Fincher and Soderbergh have become Hollywood directors who take on mildly intriguing projects, as was always their destiny. Anderson and Russell have turned out lower-key, introspective works ("Punch-Drunk Love" and "I Heart Huckabees," respectively) that failed to find much of an audience or generate much buzz. Jonze and Kaufman's 2002 "Adaptation" was giddily enjoyable, a self-referential shtick classic, but also something of a dead end: How much further can the Kaufman meta-movie gambit go? (Jonze is reportedly making another film with Kaufman, but he's also supposed to be working on an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are.")

Film directors' careers are full of second and third acts. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of any of these guys, and I'm grateful we'll have Sharon Waxman on hand to fill us in. By basically sitting out the second half of the '90s -- deliberately allowing himself to go from white-hot hepcat to late-night talk-show weirdo -- and then returning with a two-part martial-arts pastiche classic that owed little to the so-called indie sensibility, Quentin Tarantino may once again have lit the way forward for the stranded mavericks of the '90s. He now looks less like a rebel firebrand or a flavor of the month than like a permanent outsider, a Scorsese or Altman or Kubrick figure who resurfaces every few years with a spiny and unexpected work, the kind of thing that challenges movie-biz insiders to remember that some small and unpredictable part of their manufacturing business is actually the half-accidental creation of art.

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."

January 31, 2005


BY WENDY SMITH | Want to know which hot young director prefers which recreational drug? Which one bathes and changes his clothes so infrequently that he smells bad? Which one hates his mother? New York Times Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman zestfully provides the answers in her enjoyably dishy book, obviously modeled on Peter Biskind's bestselling "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." Waxman boasts the same journalistic chops and slightly nasty tone as Biskind, but she's working much closer in time to her subject; a bunch of not necessarily likable rebels and the industry they defied, then redefined in the 1990s.

She focuses on six directors, also paying due attention to the handful of studio executives who made it possible for them to play in the big leagues. Quentin Tarantino storms onto the scene first, which is only fair. The huge commercial success of "Pulp Fiction" --- 10th-highest grossing movie of 1994, most profitable independent film ever --- announced that the mainstream was ready for the fractured narrative structure, stinging satirical humor, casual violence and obsessive immersion in pop culture that characterized the work of many young directors.

Steven Soderbergh enters more quietly, although it was his "sex, lies, and videotape" that put the indie world on Hollywood's corporate radar way back in 1989. Soderbergh may be "a control maniac among control maniacs," but he's also the cool, cerebral one who mostly gets along with the suits and occasionally deigns to make more conventional films, such as "Out of Sight"' and "Erin Brockovich."

David O. Russell, who swaggers in next with the incest comedy "Spanking the Monkey," has a more typical psychological profile. "Infuriatingly unpredictable, " with "antisocial tendencies," "has many former friends," Waxman avers. (At least his pals seem to have been jettisoned for neurotic personal reasons; the author relates many incidents that bolster longstanding rumors that Tarantino makes professional use of his buddies, then drops them.)

Russell's dysfunctional relationship with Warner Bros. was more understandable --- the studio foisted both its hidebound crew and a TV star on him for "Three Kings" --- though a less confrontational director might have tried a little harder not to alienate George Clooney.

Few people get to make movies for being nice, especially if they're trying to smash genre restraints and capture the messiness of modern life, and Waxman characterizes all of these directors as possessing a firm artistic self-confidence that's often viewed as arrogance by their corporate paymasters. But none of the others has quite the sublime hubris as Paul Thomas Anderson. At 25, he turned his 92-page script for "Hard Eight" into a 21/2-hour film and refused to change a frame. After "Boogie Nights" put him and New Line on the map, he got final cut on "Magnolia" at age 28, telling the executives, "You hired me to be cool. You didn't hire me to make money." It must be hard to be humble when Brad Pitt phones your agent and says, "Tell Paul I'll sweep the floors in his next movie."

Pitt didn't have to sweep floors for David Fincher on "Fight Club," but having a bankable star did little to soothe Fox's anxiety over a brutally violent movie that blisteringly satirized America's consumer culture. Fincher, an exacting perfectionist who did things his way or not at all, wasn't about to compromise. "The budget is what it is," he said to producer Arnon Milchan when told he had to cut $ 5 million from it. Waxman seems to admire such intransigence, although her depiction of Fincher as bitter and demanding, "with a little bit of a mean streak," has the same edge as the rest of her portraits.

The only one she seems to really like is Spike Jonze, who got off-the-wall films like "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" made by charming collaborators with his "We Can Do This vibe" and the relaxed atmosphere he created on the set. Mind you, the author suggests this sweetness is a ploy, via a quote from Steve Golin, then of Propaganda Films: "Spike has a very childlike manner. But he's clever as a fox. Some of it may be an act."

Tracing her subjects' occasionally intertwined odysseys through the 1990s, Waxman finds some interesting similarities. None of them went to film school, and few attended college; Tarantino dropped out of high school. Jonze, "ignorant of all history before Generation X, and proud of it," is only the most openly unintellectual of a group too driven and self-motivated to waste time on formal education. In marked contrast with the visionary directors of the 1970s they self-consciously emulated, they tried to keep their bad habits, if not their raging egos, out of the newspapers. They had absolutely no interest in tailoring their work to suit the demands of an industry that had only grown more rigid and bottom-line focused since Coppola, Scorsese, et al., butted heads with it in the '70s.

When Biskind profiled that earlier generation of mavericks, 20 years' distance gave a book no better written or reported than this one greater historical resonance and a stronger impact on the general public. Waxman's work seems more tentative: despite her subtitle, she comes to no final conclusions about whether any artist can survive the studio system's interfering embrace. But against the widget-makers, she counterposes the rebel directors' sense of belonging to the decades-long saga of "the struggle for auteur filmmaking within the American cine-culture," as Soderbergh puts it.

The irony of this comment, coming from someone whose most recent movie was "Ocean's Twelve," is only appropriate.

New York Observer: Miramax’s Big Morning; Waxman’s War Zone

BY JAKE BROOKS | "I like being in war zones. And Hollywood is a kind of war zone," joked Sharon Waxman, the boisterous reporter covering the film beat for The New York Times. A former Middle East correspondent, Ms. Waxman has some basis for comparison. "They’re both very challenging, but Hollywood is much more treacherous for a reporter. Certainly, if you’re a human being trying to stay alive in the Middle East, that’s a more treacherous place. But as a reporter, [the Middle East is] much more straightforward."

Currently embedded in a Park City hotel, Ms. Waxman is covering the Sundance Film Festival for the sixth time in her career. "It kind of gets bigger and crazier—and more stupid—as the years go by," she said. This time, however, Ms. Waxman will be adding to the hullabaloo with a little noise of her own. The release of her first book, Rebels on the Backlot, about the Gen-X directors who defined 90’s cinema—David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, to name a few—was timed to hit the bookstores on Tuesday, Jan. 25, at the height of this year’s festival.

"I wanted to know about who they were," she said. "We spend a lot of time delving into the personal lives of all the movie stars. But really, when you are talking about films that are so personal in their vision, you can’t help but wonder from what mind or personality that piece of work sprang."

  And of course, Ms. Waxman has peppered her ode to the "Wild Ones" behind Pulp Fiction (Mr. Tarantino), Magnolia (Mr. Anderson), Traffic (Steven Soderbergh), ThreeKings (Mr. Russell), BeingJohnMalkovich (Spike Jonze) and Fight Club (David Fincher) with some choice anecdotes and quasi-Freudian observations.

  For example, there’s this on Mr. Anderson: "Once Anderson went on to make Boogie Nights he tended toward the hard-partying, woman-hopping life led by Quentin Tarantino, his mentor," she writes. "Cocaine became his drug of choice because it was better suited to his hard-charging, larger-than-thou ego and the maw of his artistic need. Russell was strictly a marijuana man, which was more suited to his neurotic, internal nature."

  Ms. Waxman also delves deep into the psyche of Mr. Fincher, the distorted mind behind Seven and Fight Club, and discovers that his favorite movie is All That Jazz.

"I saw All That Jazz a hundred times," he told Ms. Waxman. "Bob Fosse was one of my favorite filmmakers."

  Given the recent tiff between Ms. Waxman and Mr. Russell over an unflattering Sunday Times article about the making of I § Huckabees, she no longer knows what to expect from her subjects. And in this case, she was dealing with six oversized egos.

"I’ve long since given up trying to predict people’s reactions to something that’s written about them," she said. "I would be happy to see any of the directors [at Sundance]. Of course, I would be a little apprehensive."

  But she does feel sorry about what happened with the Times piece—sorry that Mr. Russell didn’t understand her intentions, that he assumed all of her material would be used exclusively in the book.

"I suspect that David, at the end of the process, after having given me lots and lots of time for the book, may have panicked and thought that maybe I wasn’t coming from a place of good faith, which of course is not the case," she said. "Even after I was hurt by him saying some things in the wake of my writing the Huckabees story, I didn’t change a word in the book—even though I never would, obviously. I was disappointed that even in his own mind, after having spent so much time with me, that he felt that I would have done anything but give a fair rendering of who he was. He’s an artist …. He’s a complicated person."

In the end, Ms. Waxman hopes not to eat her own words. "The truth is that most Hollywood books are unrepentantly lame," she wrote in a review of Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures. The book was released several weeks before last year’s festival, and the tome about the concurrent rise of Sundance and Miramax Pictures created quite a stir. She explained that most Hollywood books have "a few racy anecdotes strung together about strategically mentioned movie stars, along with an explanation of how-I-ended-up-here-from-my-humble-beginnings."

  Watch out, Ms. Waxman—it’s a battlefield out there. In Hollywood, everyone’s a critic.


You may reach Jake Brooks via email at: jbrooks@observer.com.