Anyone who knows independent film history also knows “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes,” a memoir by seminal producer’s rep John Pierson of his role in launching the careers of filmmakers such as Kevin Smith, Spike Lee, and Richard Linklater. Between 1997 and 2001, Pierson had a new way to spotlight talented filmmakers with IFC’s “Split Screen.” Now FilmStruck has acquired “Split Screen” streaming rights and, starting this Saturday, the original episodes will become available, with six episodes added every six weeks. Pierson spoke to IndieWire by phone and shared his thoughts as to why the show still belongs on your radar.
The Late ’90s Were an Optimistic Moment
Whether it’s showing somebody you know, somebody you should know, or somebody you may never know because we featured some wacky people who never went anywhere — that sense of optimism permeates most everything we did. To me, this is a nice way of getting a dose of optimism from another time and a reminder that you don’t have to be anxious all the time. There was a general conviction across the independent industry for filmmakers that we were all literally changing the landscape of film, straight through the ’90s. It felt like there was wider cultural traction for a number of these movies and that things were really changing. Filmmakers really had these golden opportunities, not only to have a first-time success to build a sensible, step-by-step, up-the-ladder career: You could go from a low-budget film to a very modestly budgeted film to maybe, one day, a franchise film. It’s not one of these all-or-nothing things like you have now, where filmmakers jump from $2 million to $200 million. It was a more logical structure.
The Show Captured Success Stories in Real Time
The Quickstop episode, the third episode, follows the production of what was then called “Northwestern.” Of course, that becomes “American Movie” for Chris Smith. Chris shot some of the early episodes (of “Split Screen”). It was a tremendously fun time. At the end of the first season, with the investors’ trailer for “The Blair Witch Project” — which pretended that the whole film was real — that was in August 1997. Two years later, the film was out and grossed $100 million. That was how the whole story was built up. It feels good to have done that in that first short season.
Spike Lee Was Already a Big Player
I had to talk about “She’s Gotta Have It” with Spike Lee because that was something we’d originally shot to promote my book, which spends a lot of time talking about that film. But that piece as a whole is Spike reflecting back on his entire first decade. It’s so weird to think that, by 1996, he’d already been making films for 10 years. Now, 30 years later, “She’s Gotta Have It” is going to be a series on Netflix so it’s time to reflect on it again. One of the reasons I think Netflix has bought into “She’s Gotta Have It” is that the title’s so fucking great. You would just see that title used in all kind of headlines because people would just know what it was.
Linklater Never Sold Out
On “Split Screen,” we follow him around for the “Suburbia” premiere at the New York Film Festival. I believe Richard Peña describes it as Rick’s best film. This was after “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “Before Sunrise.” So that might have been a bit of a stretch. But it’s always a struggle for Rick, given his integrity, for lack of a better word. Yes, he’s shooting a movie now that has three big stars in it — but it’s not like they’re throwing money at him, it’s not like it’s easy, it’s not like he’s putting big bank away. He’s just a great example of somebody who lives for the work and assumes everything else will just fall into place, which is such a beautiful thing. Rick has effectively kept himself closer to the normal filmmaking world, but he’s still been strapped for budgets. He’s just willing to deal with it on those terms. I don’t think he’s ever told somebody they’re crazy for thinking he could make a movie for a certain amount.
John Waters and Herschell Gordon Lewis Have a Great Chat
We did the “Split Screen” piece with John Waters and Herschell Gordon Lewis right after “Pink Flamingoes” was re-released. It wasn’t an easy time for him. There was a documentary being made called “Divine Trash.” I piggybacked on their shoot. It was a funny moment for me because we’d been working a lot through the second half of 1996 on a “Split Screen” pilot for Sundance Channel. It was going very wrong and I just said goodbye to that and begged IFC to let us back in the door. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, so I almost bailed on the shoot. Then it dawned on me: I just love (John Waters and Herschell Gordon Lewis). Even if this show doesn’t see the light of day, I don’t care, we’ve got to go do this. That was salvation. From that day forward, everything went great. IFC invited us back on a short leash.
The Show Didn’t Ignore Diversity
Yvonn Welbon did a bunch of pieces for us. Her first one eventually became an hour-long documentary called “Sisters in Cinema.” It’s in the ninth episode where you see Julie Dash, Darnell Martin. Everyone’s been talking so much about where the black women filmmakers are. Hey, there were a bunch of them in “Split Screen” in 1997. We did our part. Come on!
These Filmmakers Built Their Brands
John Waters has just adapted to being John Waters. It’s a full-time job. I can’t really worry about whether he’ll make more films. At the time of the interview on the show, he wasn’t at the crest of a wave, but so many other things — especially “Hairspray” on Broadway — helped to turn his commercial life around, and he’s just done so many other things with that. This is really important: He has conscientiously built his brand, kind of in an old-fashioned way. Kevin Smith, of course, was the single most ingenious filmmaker to build his brand using every possible online approach. He’s been able to create an entire Kevin world where he can do all these different things in all these different ways. He even said he wasn’t making feature films any more. Now he is again, but if he wasn’t, he’d still be a brand. I’m not saying that in a snotty way, either. It’s the name of the game in the modern world.
Beyond having a brand and building an audience, the thing that seemed to me so much truer then is just how you could make your mark in the bigger culture — not just in the echo chamber of independent film. You could see newspaper headlines where it was assumed people would know a reference to “Sex, Lies and Videotape” or a reference to “Slacker,” or a reference to “Pulp Fiction.”
The Show’s Return Is Long Overdue
Officially, these shows haven’t been available anywhere. I always thought what we needed was a three-disc anthology DVD with the best stuff, loosely organized by theme. At that time, I was super-close to Kevin Smith, who’d been on the show a lot. I had one disc that had all the Kevin Smith material, one called “Shock Value” — which had the more out-there material, like John Waters and Hershell Gordon Lewis talking — and a third disc called “Outside the Actors Studio,” which we thought was very clever, which would start with Christopher Walken cooking exploding shrimp. We had one deal with a long-gone distributor, then another deal that was in place as we moved to Austin; [it was] with a company that went awry.
From that point on, I was always trying to convince Criterion to do it. They were very nice and constantly told me how much they liked the show. The bottom line was that they didn’t do television. Even when they did “Fishing With John,” it was different. I’m tickled to wind up with them, because streaming television is a whole new game. Everybody had a feeling back then that there was an audience on [cable] television to watch independent and art house films. They learned with time that there isn’t. But with “Split Screen” on Filmstruck, you can see there really is an audience on the right channel. I never thought all the episodes would come back in a public space.
There May Be More to Come
We’ve had some preliminary discussions about making new material in 2017. I’ve had some thoughts about getting back on the road, like we did in 1998, when we covered tens of thousands of miles in an RV. I love the idea of looking for entertaining stories. I would be happy to have people endlessly throwing ideas at me again. The structure is there and it’s short-form, so you’re not always dealing with being stuck in a world of 90-minute feature films. People can work things out at a much shorter length. That’s appealing in this ever-shorter-form world.