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, à 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.