“Reloaded” Pierson Book Examines A Decade of Independent Films
by Eugene Hernandez
Long before Peter Biskind‘s “Down and Dirty Pictures,” John Pierson wrote a must-read book about independent films and filmmaking. Published in 1995, “Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes” looked at 10 years in independent cinema, from “Stranger Than Paradise” in 1984 through “Clerks” and “Pulp Fiction” in 1994. Pierson, recently back from a stint living in Fiji where he and his family ran a movie theater, is on bookshelves once again with “Spike Mike Reloaded,” a slightly revised version of his definitive indie tome.
A shepherd of the early films of Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Michael Moore, among others, Pierson offers a first-hand glimpse into the film scene that would explode with the box office performance of Tarantino‘s “Pulp Fiction” and he sets the stage for the drama that would play out in Biskind’s book. Pierson, who later championed indie films and filmmakers on his IFC show “Split Screen,” read an early draft of his friend Biskind’s book about independent film in the ’90s prior to leaving for Fiji in early 2002 and Pierson read it again after he returned last fall. Since the book’s publication in January the passionate moviegoer has had some praise and a number of criticisms for Biskind’s take on independent films, leading to the revised version of “Spike Mike” from Miramax Books.
“I think that in ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,’ [the] counterweight was how much he cared about and loved those movies, and what they meant to him,” Pierson said in a recent conversation with indieWIRE, referring to Biskind’s successful book about the 1970s.
“There is no affection for almost any of the movies, which makes you feel, ‘Well what the hell have I been doing for 10 years’,” offered Kevin Smith, who contributed to the Pierson book, during the call with Pierson. “You never get the feeling that Peter likes many of them.” Continuing he added, “Some of the movies I’ve made really affect people — for my small part the stuff I’ve done hasn’t been a waste of time.”
“Here’s what it comes down to,” writes Pierson in the revised book. “If you cannot find much of anything to treasure in the work, then any pattern of boorish, abusive behavior behind the scenes has absolutely no end that justifies the means.”
In “Down and Dirty Pictures,” Biskind wrote, “John Pierson, who has forgotten more about the indie film world than I will ever know, took an active interest from the start, and was more than generous with advice, opinions, and contacts.”
“It started to get under my skin a little bit — I felt kind of implicated in his world view by being described that way, [but] I don’t dismiss what he’s done, I think it’s great,” Pierson said. His main complaint remained that Biskind’s book was not enough about the movies. “I encouraged him all along to even out the scales,” Pierson added.
“We’ve all been in this business for at least the last 10 years, some of us longer,” Smith explained. “The stories, by way of the book, are really not stories that any of us are that unfamiliar with.”
Some of those stories detailed problems that Smith and his producer Scott Mosier have had with Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. Smith, who still works with Miramax said, “Sometimes you’re just ticked off, that’s the nature of any relationship, I’ve had fights with Scott Mosier, [but] our relationship [with Miramax] has been pretty good, Harvey seems to trust us more in some degrees.”
“I’ve been married five years, I am not happy with my wife every single day and I get to fuck my wife,” Smith added, “The lower our budgets are the more we’re left alone, the higher, the more attention is paid — the lesson is keep ’em low.
Pierson notes in the book that Weinstein has not tampered with any critical words about Miramax in “Spike Mike” and in a follow-up email after the phone conversation, the opinionated observer offered some thoughts on Miramax.
“The denial of the biggest Oscar nominations for ‘Cold Mountain’ coupled with the surprise nominations for ‘City of God’ is a total blessing in disguise for Miramax,” Pierson said, adding, “Would you rather get dumped by Miramax (paging ‘Dead Man’) or enthusiastically, even passionately released by Sony Classics like they did with say ‘Once Upon A Time In The Midlands’ (or whatever it was called) and eight of their other releases in 2003?”
“Any producer who was scared of selling a film to Miramax at this year’s Sundance because of the stories in Biskind’s book is a complete idiot,” Pierson concluded in the email message, “You could never pick a better time to have them release your film while THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!”
Calling the Pierson book “as great now as it was then, but with a much better intro,” Kevin Smith offers a new foreword in “Spike Mike Reloaded” and includes warm words for his friend Pierson.
“Were it not for John, I might have never heard of ‘Slacker,’ let alone had my life changed by it. Without John, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and ‘The Blair Witch Project’ might never have impacted the cultural and pop-cultural landscape.
In the wake of the march to the war in Iraq and the escalation of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to the top of the box office charts, Pierson and his family decided to move to Fiji. “If ever there was a time to leave America and its much-vaunted off-Hollywood boom years behind, this was it,” Pierson writes in “Reloaded.”
While in Fiji, Pierson explained that he saw a whole other side of popular entertainment. “[In] the movies that really speak to people, the widest swath of people, there are just certain attributes, a heartfelt story and character driven attributes,” Pierson told indieWIRE. “People love to use lowest common denominator as a tough, hard criticism of bad studio filmmaking or bad anything,” Pierson said, “There’s bad lowest common denominator and good lowest common denominator, there is something really wonderful about the good lowest common denominator, people really react on a heartfelt, primal level.”
Continuing, he added that Jackie Chan played well at the 180 Meridian Cinema on the island of Taveuni in Fiji. “I had to go outside America to realize what a worldwide hero that guy is,” Pierson noted.
The Pierson family’s life in Fiji was well documented. A book on the experience is in the works as is a non-fiction film from Pierson’s friend Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Stevie”) and producers Smith and Mosier.
John Pierson will conduct a master class next month with the Austin Chronicle’s Lewis Black in Texas and participate in a book signing at the fest. He will also participate in a panel discussion on the state of independent film. On March 8th, Pierson, Bingham Ray and Janet Maslin will appear at the Jacob Burns Film Center in New York and at the end of the month Pierson will be at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Vermont.
Asked to consider the state of independent film today, from his altered vantage point, Pierson offered a blunt assessment.
“I think in the end, I am sorry to say this, it’s been a talent scouting movement,” Pierson said, offering apologies to ’90s stalwarts like John Sayles who continue to be staunchly independent. Continuing he added, “These young independents, and some not-so-independents, have pretty much all made studio films.”
Writing in the new “Reloaded,” Pierson noted, “Its time to stop fretting about the death of independent film and start noticing the dearth of independent viewers.”