Copyright © Steven E. Alford
If you want to know why Michael Moore made it to Fox television, why Spike Lee can afford those basketball tickets at the Garden, or why Austin's Richard Linklater is permitted to make a movie in Vienna, Austria, of all places, look no further than John Pierson's score-settling account of independent cinema's glorious, scruffy decade of 1984-1994. Independent filmmaking reached its zenith then, owing in no small part to the machinations of Mr. Pierson himself. Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes is this season's wittiest and most educational tale about the American independent film business.
Following graduation from NYU Film School in 1976, Pierson began his career as a film exhibitor at the Bleeker St. Cinema. His role as exhibitor led to contacts with New York independent filmmakers. With his own ten thousand dollars, Pierson decided to help a then-unknown Black kid from Brooklyn finish his movie, making Pierson the largest equity investor in She's Gotta Have It, Spike Lee's first commercially released film.
Rather than following on the coattails of Lee's career, Pierson carved out a special niche for himself in the independent film community as a producer's representative, helping secure completion financing and distribution for low, low budget films. He has been involved in most of the trend-setting films of the recent past, including Roger and Me, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, Austin's own Slacker, the lesbian hit Go Fish, the monument to the Stop and Go, Clerks, and the remarkable, and painful-to-watch Crumb.
Spike ..., in Pierson's words, "is not a how to, it's a how come." Yet the book is filled with helpful photostats of deals, memos, and angry letters. He includes a numbered set of "low-budget guidelines" that would help insure the solvency, if not the success (which Pierson calculates at one hundred to one) of a limited budget feature.
With his hyperactive drollery, Pierson dispenses wonderful stories. He relates that, during the screening of Roger & Me, "one person walked out of the Friday debut during the rabbit skinning: Goldwyn's V.P. of Acquisitions Anne Templeton, who was wearing a fur coat in the chilly mountain air." We learn that the filmmakers of the lesbian film Go Fish suggested retitling it with the name of a famous television show starring Jerry Mathers. While Pierson can charm you with his storytelling, it's clear that anything getting in the way of the best deal for his client will be wearing the tire tracks of Pierson's drivenness.
Pierson also manages to put his decade into historical perspective, suggesting that "as Scorsese looked to John Cassavetes, nineties filmmakers like Quentin, Nick Gomez, Rob Weiss, and Michael Corrente looked to Scorsese." He divides his young charges into movie-brats, art-film brats, and multi-brats, with only one filmmaker transcending all categories: Quentin Tarantino.
The shocking tale behind Hoop Dreams' Academy Award nomination shut out it also chronicled here, in biting detail. The MacArthur Foundation refused to pay $70,000 to transfer Hoop Dreams from video to film for festival showing. "I had the wrong idea about how quickly the wheels might turn. Just because the foundation had $3 billion didn't mean they'd whip out a roll of hundreds."
Like other low-budget film fans, Pierson is perplexed by the lack of support of these twenty-something filmmakers by their twenty-something (non-)audience. "Millions of consumers under twenty are turned on by a wide array of fairly obscure music on independent record labels. Yet few ever go to a review-driven, non-studio movie-almost none without television advertising."
With the success of films such as El Mariachi and Pulp Fiction, the independent film movement indeed received a boost. However, both Hollywood distributors and American audiences still seem to have a limited appetite for low-budget films, and even when one succeeds (such as Hoop Dreams, with its 7.5 million gross) it's usually at the expense not of Arnold or Sly, but of another low-budget film. "Since 1988, the number of annual [low-budget] theatrical releases has remained amazingly constant-between twenty-eight and thirty one."
Most recently, Pierson sees the problem as one of the emerging filmmakers as much as anyone: "filmmakers start their careers not by aspiring to greatness, but by despising all the crap that's out and concluding that it would be easy to do better."
If you adore the films of Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, Whit Stillman, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, Allison Anders, Michael Moore, and Alexandre Rockwell, Spike will not only give you the background of their production, but an education in what it takes outside the Dream Factory to bring a film to the screen. If these names are foreign to you, you'll be provided with a long and entertaining list of videos to rent. Angel to the young and talented, or relentless and unforgiving deal-meister, Pierson's self-portrait through his stories is complex and interesting. But it's even more entertaining learning why, for example, such unmerciful fun is made of Brad Pitt in Living in Oblivion.
Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes: now appearing in a bookstore nearest you. I give it three and a half stars.