For two years back in the late ’90s and early aughts, producer, filmmaker, author and cinephile John Pierson hammered together the lovingly DIY television series, which introduced movie buffs to all manner of filmmakers and their creations over the course of 60-plus episodes. “Split Screen” was IFCtv’s signature series from 1997-2001, boasting such guests as Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Mary Harron, Katherine Dieckmann and many, many more.
Late last year, the cult classic found a new home over on streaming service FilmStruck, which began releasing episodes of the series on their Criterion Channel in December, with a tiered rollout planned.
On Wednesday night in New York City, the series’ reintroduction to the cultural consciousness continued apace, as Pierson and a group of some of his most famous friends and guests hit the Film Society of Lincoln Center to present a special “Criterion Live!” event that reflected back on a handful of the show’s most important episodes. Pierson was joined by filmmakers and friends Kevin Smith, Miranda July, Richard Linklater, Dan Myrick, Chris Smith and Donal Ward, along with his wife Janet Pierson, who also contributed to the show and now runs the SXSW Film Festival.
Styled as a freewheeling panel with plenty of clips, Pierson unspooled seven crucial segments from the show’s run — from the infamous cooking with Christopher Walken bit to an early look at such indie breakthroughs as Smith’s “American Movie” and Myrick’s “The Blair Witch Project” to a charming episode about July’s ambitious Big Miss Moviola venture — followed by further discussion with his guests. Here are four of our favorite stories from the evening.
1. How the Show Inspired “The Blair Witch Project” and Its Wild Marketing Scheme
“Split Screen” is infamous for being the first place to really shine a spotlight on what would become “The Blair Witch Project.” Co-director Dan Myrick helped out on the show, and when he asked Pierson if he could pass him a tape for a so-called “investor’s reel” that laid out the proof of concept for his and Eduardo Sanchez’s genre-busting feature, Pierson said sure.
What Myrick and Sanchez sent to Pierson blew him away — and, like many others over the years, forced him to ask how much of it was true — and helped shape one of the most essential episodes of “Split Screen” ever. Pierson and Myrick screened the reel in its entirety, and it’s a wonder of canny marketing and genuine scares.
Of course, that desire to play with the documentary format and get people to think the story of the Blair Witch and her victims was real helped shape the DIY campaign that turned the film into such a massive hit, but that might not have happened without Pierson and “Split Screen.” While the segment focused on the film pushed the movie into the forefront of the film world and provided invaluable marketing, Myrick confessed that it also inspired him to do something that would prove key to the film’s success: make a damn website.
Myrick said that after the first episode about the film hit the airwaves, “that’s when it really went up a notch. The [internet] forums exploded on that second airing. It was really the impetus for us getting our website started. We were so fucking clueless. John was like, ‘You guys need to get a damn website, and let me steer some of these people over from the forums,’ so we quickly put together a free Earthlink page. We were able to start thinking in terms of online marketing, when we had no clue.”
That worked out pretty well.
2. That One Time Christopher Walken Got Super Mad
The way Pierson and a gaggle of his dedicated producers tell it, Walken had been shopping a cooking show around for quite some time, a clearly brilliant idea that a number of channels passed on. By the time the idea worked its way down to “Split Screen,” Walken had one demand: it needed two cameras. Sold!
The cooking segment featured Walken, Julian Schnabel (also, when is someone casting Jon Favreau in a Schnabel biopic? Soon, right?) and their pal “Cha-Cha” crafting Walken’s apparently signature “exploding shrimp.” Walken, despite his desire for such a show, was reticent to provide actual instructions while he was cooking, helping feed the segment’s inventive style and great humor.
But it wasn’t all rosy, as producers P.H. O’Brien and Doug Stone shared an end-of-shooting snippet about Walken getting a little ticked off at the show’s crew. Whether it was a total misunderstanding (likely) or something else, it’s a classic Walken tale.
Because of the series’ indie-leaning budget, the “Split Screen” producers were literally doling out cash to Walken and Schnabel for their various grocery purchases throughout the day. By the end of the shoot, they were eager to tip out some of the restaurant staff who had been so helpful, so they went looking for leftover cash. Big mistake.
“We looked over at Julian, and there was just some cash coming out of his front pocket, which was basically ours, it was the change from an all-day shopping spree,” O’Brien explained. “So Doug kind of just goes over, with his hands together, and says, ‘Oh, Julian, do you mind if we just, maybe…’ and then all of a sudden there’s Chris coming out of the side, and he just grabs Doug by the neck, takes him into a corner.”
He continued, “The camera just goes down, but I’ve got the wireless [mic] on, and he’s like, ‘Hey, you don’t do that! You don’t ask him for money! What’s your problem? You’re the producer here!’ That was my favorite part of the day.”
And, yes, that story required a pretty decent Walken impression from O’Brien.
3. How Richard Linklater Discovered One of the Show’s Most Shocking Guests
Pierson also showed off one of the series’ most shocking segments, which focused on the 1970 short film “Selective Service System.” In the short, young filmmaker Dan Lovejoy literally shoots himself in the foot — and hits an artery to boot — in an act of defiance against the possibility of being drafted into Vietnam. To say it’s a bloody, eye-opening affair is to seriously tone down the impact of the short, which Lovejoy made alongside friend and fellow San Francisco State student Warren Haack.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater discovered the film in the ’80s when programming for his then-newly-launched Austin Film Society, and would show it to packed crowds. But Linklater often wondered about Lovejoy and Haack, and put the idea in Pierson’s head to make a segment about the men and their wholly unique short, which Bill Daniel later directed.
“I was wondering, ‘What happened to that guy?,'” Linklater recalled. “I think Bill Daniel, an old friend of mine from Austin, said he knew Warren Haack. That’s really my contribution to this! I just threw out an idea!”
The segment features both Lovejoy and Haack discussing the making of the short, along with a long look at its most crucial sequence, but it also offers up a happy update on Lovejoy and his life now. Linklater still couldn’t get over that.
“It was cathartic to me to see this and to find out that this guy I’d been watching in this movie, to see that he was okay,” Linklater said. “I remember feeling very good that he had his business, a family, things had worked out for him.”
4. The Run-In That Led to “American Job” (Finally) Getting Into Sundance
Pierson and “Split Screen” also contributed to kickstarting the career of Chris Smith, whose documentary “American Movie” was also immortalized on the show. Smith had been trying to get his first film, “American Job,” into festivals for months without a bite. He even sent it to “Split Screen” without hearing back, but that changed when he happened to be in Toronto for TIFF, alongside his “American Movie” subject, fellow filmmaker Mark Borchardt.
Smith heard that Pierson was in town, and when he spotted him at a party, he had to say hello. That changed everything for the budding filmmaker.
“I went up and introduced myself, and I said, ‘Hi, I made this movie, I sent it to you,’ and he just looked at me like he wanted to strangle me,” Smith said. “Unbeknownst to me that he was getting, at that time, 800 movies a year. He was talking to another guy, and he asked me what the name of it was, and I said ‘American Job,’ which was my first feature. And he grabbed my shoulders, I remember this very clearly, and he looked to the guy next to him and said, ‘He made the best movie of last year.'”
The other guy? Sundance programmer Christian Gaines, who had also loved the film when it was first submitted, but he couldn’t quite pin it down. Pierson suggested Gaines program the film for the next edition of the festival, which he did on the spot, changing Smith’s career forever.
The FilmStruck Criterion Channel rolls out six episodes of “Split Screen” every six weeks.