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Indie seen

John Pierson offers a cutting view of insider filmmaking

by Gary Susman


John Pierson is one of the unsung heroes of the independent-film explosion of the last decade. Just ask him. A New York-based producer's rep, he was among the first to discover and help finance the debuts of such filmmakers as Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Richard Linklater, Rose Troche, and Kevin Smith. Pierson recounts these discoveries and describes the booming independent-film scene from the inside in his memoir Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema, a book as personal and idiosyncratic as some of the films he has nurtured.

These days, when independent films regularly outperform big-budget Hollywood competitors at the box office, among critics, and at the Oscars, it's easy to forget that 10 years ago American independent movies were a blip on the cultural radar. In those days, Pierson worked various jobs in the tiny Manhattan indie-film circle, programming movies at downtown art houses or helping small distributors acquire foreign films.

For Pierson, the decade of ferment began with the 1984 release of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, which heralded a new voice and style in American independent filmmaking and was a modest success at the box office. Soon after, Pierson invested $10,000 in an exuberant comedy by a young NYU film-school graduate, She's Gotta Have It. The completed film cost about $115,000, grossed about $8 million, and inspired not just blacks but aspiring filmmakers of all stripes to pick up a camera.

"Spike Lee is my hero," writes Pierson, not just for Spike's own uncompromising accomplishments, but for launching Pierson's career as a producer's rep, a kind of agent who helps a filmmaker find both the financing to complete a picture and a distributor to buy the rights and release it. Pierson would go on to shepherd some of the most noteworthy independent films of the next decade, including The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me (his biggest sale, to major-leaguers Warner Bros.), Slacker, Laws of Gravity, Go Fish, and Clerks.

This guy is not short on ego, though he is frank about his own missteps; in fact, he remains bitter about deals he could have negotiated better, and he maintains long-standing grudges against those who have treated him unfairly or offered insultingly low bids for his movies. A lot of the book is inside baseball, including detailed recountings of negotiations and reprints of actual contracts and budget documents. But it's Pierson's bile that helps make Spike such an entertaining read. He's not afraid to piss people off, whether it's Rob Weiss, the gangsta-wanna-be director of Amongst Friends (to whom Pierson devotes an entire chapter called "Amongst Jerks"), or Harvey Weinstein, the steamrolling co-chairman of Miramax, with whom Pierson currently has a first-look deal on any movie he discovers.

What cannot be denied is the author's eye for talent. Rookie filmmakers are continually sending him videos of their works-in-progress, and if this book is for anyone, it is for them. He offers a lot of good how-to advice, most of which emanates from the belief that one should be a filmmaker because one has a burning desire to make films, not in order to become famous. (Especially since opportunism is the surest way to make an enemy of people like Pierson.)

To his friends, however, Pierson remains fiercely loyal, even to the point of letting one of his newest and youngest friends, 24-year-old Clerks director Kevin Smith, weave throughout the pages of Spike a running commentary on the people and issues Pierson mentions. Smith is supposed to represent both a product of the indie revolution (the movie that inspired him to go to film school was 1991's Slacker, a Pierson-assisted project) and an avatar of its Gen X-led future. Unfortunately, this 13th Gen-like device is already a cliché, and Smith, a genuine raconteur in real life, has little of interest to say in response to Pierson's unimaginative questions.

Pierson himself has no bold pronouncements to make about the future of independent film, merely noting that with the success of 1994's Pulp Fiction, an era of scrappy innocence is certainly over. "The definition of `independent' now is much more elusive than a decade ago," he writes. The independent-film community is as tight, incestuous, and fractious as ever, but larger audiences, increased media hype, and greater corporate involvement have made the stakes much higher. Fortunately, filmmakers keep coming along who reaffirm Pierson's faith in the medium, just as this book should reaffirm yours.

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