The John Pierson Experience

Filmdependent post on July 1st, 2007

Editor’s Note: As I wrote this piece I couldn’t help but wonder, “what kind of form is this piece taking?” It offers bites from John Pierson’s book, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, but it’s not a book review. It offers bites from his afternoon at San Francisco’s Film Arts Foundation, but it’s not really about that, either. So, what is it? Let’s call it a report on The John Pierson Experience.

An Afternoon with John Pierson

While legendary indie producer John Pierson was in San Francisco promoting his new book, he spent an afternoon discussing the world of independent feature films and screening clips from his book’s companion video, featuring Spike Lee and Kevin “Clerks” Smith, as well as scenes, trailers and outtakes from the two dozen features he’s repped since 1985, including:

  • Parting Glances
  • She’s Gotta Have It
  • Working Girls
  • The Thin Blue Line
  • Roger & Me
  • Slacker
  • Laws of Gravity
  • Go Fish.

    He also showed, fresh from Sundance, a special preview of Chris Smith’s American Job. Pierson and his wife, Janet, live and work in the Hudson Valley of New York, where they stage an annual summer film workshop.

    Pierson began by saying that his book “attempted to capture the art, the heart, and the enterprise of the spiteful, fractious, and finally, entertaining place that is the world of independent film over the last decade.” He used passages from the book, which he read aloud and embellished upon, to set up film clips. Later, he fielded questions and engaged in dialog. Many times throughout the afternoon he emphasized the important role his wife Janet plays in his work, and without whom, the book would never have been written.

    In ’76 Pierson himself made a movie, thus qualifying him as a bona fide filmmaker, but he now sees himself as a “facilitator.” He says his book “is really about the two dozen first-time filmmakers I’ve helped make a name for themselves, and a hundred others whose success stories I’ve observed at close quarters, and a thousand more whose work may not have ever gotten too far beyond the VCR in my office. This is their story, warts and all.”

    One Pilgrim’s Progress

    “But it’s also my story, one pilgrim’s progress from 1984’s Stranger than Paradise, a film that pushed many new directors into production, to 1994’s Pulp Fiction. These two films frame a remarkable decade for the American independent low-budget film, a decade whose third benchmark, Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 debut, sex, lies and videotape, neatly divides things right down the middle. Where it had been the exception for a first timer to have follow-up opportunities, it became the rule for the door to swing wide open for anyone who made the smallest splash in places like Sundance.”

    Parting Glances & the New Queer Cinema

    Parting Glances was Pierson’s first film as a producer’s rep. Bill Sherwood teamed up with producer Arthur Silvermann, a former NYU schoolmate and Roadmovies partner of Pierson’s, and another producer, Yoram Mandel. Pierson writes “The three of them formed a traditional limited partnership, Rondo Productions, for the purpose of riasing $300,000 to produce a feature right around the time Stranger than Paradise was invited to Cannes. In essence the arrangemnent gives investors 50 per cent of the profits of a film in return for which they have no liability, no artistic say, and no guarantee that they’ll make back one thin dime.” Pierson was asked to rep the film because he ran the American Mavericks Festival. “You know everybody! You know how it all works.” Again, quoting from the book, “Parting Glances, which takes place in a compressed 24 hours, was the first theatrical feature to deal with the threat of AIDS in a world where all the gay characters behave in an extremely recognizable, normal, everyday manner. Being gay is neither an issue nor a problem. The relationships in the movie are filled with the struggle for honesty and commitment just as in the heterosexual world…” He goes on to say that Producer Bill Sherwood “had the acute judgement to cast downtown performance artist Steve Buscemi in his first featured role as the charismatic, sardonic rock musician, Nick.” Pierson was “blown away” by Buscemi’s performance.

    “One of the lowliest members of the Parting Glances crew may have been the most effectively inspired progeny. Christine Vachon is often described as the queen of the New Queer Cinema, having produced Todd Haynes’s Poison and Safe, Tom Kalin’s Swoon, Steve McLean’s Postcards from America, Nigel Finch’s Stonewall, and Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol. Unlike many other independent producers who’ve merely sought a springboard to the more commercial realm, Christine has remained true to her gay and lesbian, and often experimental calling. Yet she’s too smart and funny to be an ideologue. In 1985, she started as an assistant editor for Bill Sherwood.”

    “As for me, Parting Glances changed my life… And it’s not just that I realized the excellent opportunities for gay cinema, although I did wind up collaborating with Christine Vachon as the key investor in Go Fish.” About Go Fish, Pierson told us, “I love this movie… really love this movie. I’m proud to be involved.” After showing the scene that got him interested, he said, “Go Fish grossed more than Reservoir Dogs. Even though Reservoir Dogs copped the same release strategy, they fell half a million dollars short of Go Fish.”

  • I Have Seen the Future of Cinema, and His Name is Spike Lee
    Going back to the book he writes, “Parting Glances provided me with a taste for deals, more confidence in my poker-face abilities, and an unexpected windfall of $10,000. The actual cash wouldn’t pass from Cinecom to Rondo Productions to me for six months, but I knew I could count on it as my five per cent fee on a $200,000 sale. Five days after signing off on the Cinecom October 25 deal memo, I saw a rough cut of another first feature in the Bijou Theatre at NYU. Walking down the street afterward, I told my wife, Janet, and Bingham Ray (October Films), ‘I have seen the future of cinema and his name is Spike Lee’.”

    Pierson showed part of Spike Lee’s first ever TV appearance, on the David Brenner show, which included a video clip of Lee standing on a street corner hawking his movie. “Ya gonna go? Ya gonna go? If you don’t, I’ll still be standing on this street corner selling tube socks. Three fo’ fi’ dallah! Three fo’ fi’ dallah!…”

    As he sets up a clip from She’s Gotta Have It, Pierson tells the audience to look for the erect black penis in the scene. In the book, he tells the story: “The Motion Picture Association of America slapped an “X” on She’s Gotta Have It for the first time in late May. Much has been said and written about the ratings board having a bias against black sexuality and/or independent distributors like Island Pictures. This may very well have been true then, and it may be true now. Nevertheless, they definitely do not give R ratings to studio movies in which you can see an erect penis of any color. In the Greer/Nola pixilated jungle-drumming sex scene that appeared in the original version of She’s Gotta Have It, you could most definitely see a black man’s (John Canada Terrell’s) erection.” At this point Pierson showed us a clip of the uncut version and told us to watch carefully since it would go by fast. As I recall, he ran it twice so we’d be sure not to miss the good part. According to the story, the MPAA rep had been unusually specific about what to cut, referring to “the penis in question as a ‘smoking gun’.” He goes on to say that Spike only cut part of the scene and that they’d gone back and forth with the ratings board trying to get an “R” rating. Finally, “The first matinee at noon on Friday had only about twenty-five customers. There was no time to worry too much about that humble start because the MPAA had threatened Island with a full-fledged lawsuit for displaying a poster with an R rating (their copyright) while the film was unreeling unrated. They sprang their devious trap. Either we cut the entire second half (thirty seconds) of pixilated sex or the MPAA would go to court. I called editor Barry Brown at his weekend house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to beg him to hustle into town, go to the projection booth at the Cinema Studio and physically cut the offending footage out of the very print that was showing. He left his newborn baby and made it in time to cut and splice between the second and third shows. Spike always resented the pressure tactics, but he had tempted fate in the first place.”

    From Clerks, we were treated to the part about the”37 dicks” and a trailer that went out on 800 prints of Pulp Fiction. We also saw a different ending, where Dante gets shot by somebody robbing the store. Kevin said the reason he had wanted this serious, in-your-face ending was because of Spike and Do The Right Thing. Kevin had made “all these funny movies. But until something serious happens, you haven’t made a REAL film.” He also showed us an hilarious clip about the movie pitch from hell in My Life’s in Turnaround. It’s worth renting the video just to watch that scene. You will relate.

    Pierson makes a sincere effort to discourage filmmakers from expecting to make a lot of money with an independent film. “First, seventy-five per cent of all independent films made will not recoup their money, and second, when there is a success, there are not the profits one might expect.” He used El Mariachi as an example because, although it received a lot of attention, it did not make money. It was not a successful home video either, being in Spanish with English subtitles. Everybody heard about the $7.5 thousand that was spent out of Rodriquez’ pocket but you don’t usually hear what the studio spent on P&A. El Mariachi made $2 million, but millions of dollars were not made. Go Fish made a healthy profit, but not a gazillion dollars.

    “For me, if I had to name one theme for this [independent film] movement, it’s empowerment. That, to me, is the name of this movement. And that’s why the films that I love best are films that I think suggest a way of attainability, a way of accessibility, a way of you thinking ‘I can do this too.’ That’s important to me, and that’s what Pulp Fiction doesn’t do in any way, shape or form. That’s almost too daunting. That almost would discourage you. It helps with the industry being more receptive, but it doesn’t help you, the individual filmmaker. So those are two themes I’m always mindful of. The circle goes round and round. You have Jim Jarmusch inspiring Spike Lee to get started. You have Richard Linklater looking back at guys like that. You have Kevin Smith looking to Richard Linklater. It all goes together and it’s very nice how that happens, I think. Very organic.”

    About Slacker director Richard Linklater of Austin, Texas, Pierson says “Rick is a model citizen. We should all strive to be like him. He still lives in Austin. He runs the Austin Film Society. He helps other filmmakers and helps Austin (unlike El Mariachi’s Richard Rodriguez, also of Austin, he is quick to point out). I call my company ‘Grainy Pictures.’ I’m against production values! But a strategy like (the moving camera in Slacker) enhances a film. Both the trailer and the one-sheet for Slacker highlighted the film’s cheapest laugh: the Madonna Pap-smear girl. Whether it’s slicing an ear off (Reservoir Dogs), eating a dog turd (Pink Flamingos), or hearing Bob Eubanks tell a disgusting joke (Roger and Me), movies are remembered for their most notorious moments.”

    Sons of Mean Streets

    Pierson used as a Son of Mean Streets example, Laws of Gravity. “I consider this to be a totally brilliant film. It bites on Mean Streets. In fact, it’s directly adapted from Mean Streets.” He showed the openings of both films, with Peter Green in Laws of Gravity and Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets, pointing out ways the two scenes are identical. “OK, it’s daytime (the one difference). Watch the eye-wipe, and watch the way the head turns. Scorsese-influenced, along the lines of Goodfellas.”

    Now, some Q&A — without the Q part

  • “Second features are a problem. You’ve lived your life around your first and put in everything you know and own into it. The two things you’ll run up against with a second feature are: One, it’s too ambitious. Two, you did it before. For Lee, School Days was too ambitious. For Jarmusch, Down By Law was Stranger Than Paradise all over again. At the other extreme, Pulp Fiction is a second feature.”
  • “When I called the latter-day IFFM with its undistinguished mass of hopelessly unreleasable films ‘a toxic dump’, the Independent Feature Project’s executive director, Catherine Tait, became quite incensed. After a volatile discussion, we both agreed that I would henceforth refer to it as a ‘dump,’ not dangerous to your health. The IFFM is a graveyard. A place for films with no home. Yes, Clerks came out of IFFM… But, generally, when you’re one out of 450 to 500 films, it’s hard to screen out the background noise and stand out.”
  • “The world can only accomodate one woman indie film writer/director. I don’t understand why. With the loss of public funding, there’s even fewer women writer/directors. In the Sundance dramatic competition, the average is three women in the group. This year, the Year of the Woman, there’s four. Once there were 5. There’s a 4-to-1 ratio (boys to girls).”

    Q: “What can we do?”
    JP: “Declare yourself! Say, ‘I’m an independent filmmaker!'”

  • “Build up a film scene locally. Have a lot of “hometown” releases, like home towns of actors, director, locations where film was shot, etc. A short can break you into the business.”
  • “Advances are nice. Gross Corridor is harder to get. Bump is getting paid a certain amount, say 50 G’s, when it tops a million.”
  • “My favorite trailer ever is The Thin Blue Line.” About the movie: “If you haven’t seen it, your life is poorer for it. Spike was once asked if films like Do the Right Thing can change history. On the broader social scale, his answer was ‘no.’ Then he added that The Thin Blue Line proved that a movie could change one man’s history. Errol Morris accurately described his film as ‘the first murder mystery that actually solves a murder.'”
  • On the use of deceptive or misleading trailers: “You can do anything to get your movie seen.” The worst trailer of the year was The Brothers McMullen. But the audience liked The Brothers, and they got tremendous word of mouth. I don’t know what it’s an alternative to, although it is grainy, no stars, low budget…”
  • “I’m against production values. We don’t want production values at Grainy Pictures. I don’t do scripts. I only work with films I have money in. I want new people! First timers! I believe that is my calling.”

    Q: “Do you have a list of criteria that sell a picture to you?”
    JP: “No.”
    Q: “What makes you decide to go with a film?”
    JP: “In order of importance:

  • It is most original
  • A cool filmmaker. One that’s FUNNY and MAKES ME LAUGH
  • They have a hook or angle on how to market the film.
  • No car chases
  • I do want to see a canoe chase, though. That would be cool.
  • In conclusion, I would say that Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes is required reading for anyone who would like to gain a quick ten years’ experience in the business end of filmmaking. For me, reading it has been like watching many of the names in my film company database come to life. For years I’ve been tracking the Ben Barenholtz’s and the Bingham Ray’s from company to company, and following Goldwyn, Miramax, October, New Line, Fine Line, First Run, American Playhouse and the others, as the scene has grown and transmogrified. John Pierson was there and tells it like he saw it. His book will take you behind the scenes for a rare insider’s vantage point.

    Cheers! Cynthia Johnston.
    The Afternoon with John Pierson was hosted by Film Arts Foundation, S.F. CA.


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