Rebels inside the gates

Times Staff Writer

It came from a credit card, from a body sold to science, from the insurance payout on a car crash. Or so said the mythology.

Advocates of the independent film movement love to point out how its key movies emerged not from a studio machine but from scrappy young directors cobbling money together, bent on pursuing their visions and changing the way movies were made.

They were to be our home-grown Godards and Antonionis -- or heirs to two-fisted American mavericks like Cassavetes and Peckinpah. The rhetoric behind the movement, fueling the film festivals that helped the movies get seen, was populist shading into utopian: These directors would explode genres, tackle taboos, democratize Hollywood.

The suits were out; in came video clerks, literature professors, guys who'd always wanted to make smart, character-driven films but never had the means until Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" in 1989 showed that fresh, inventive filmmakers could come out of nowhere. Directors like the cocky Quentin Tarantino and the gawky Wes Anderson became cover boys and hipster celebrities.

Those same scrappy young directors from indie's early days are responsible for three of the fall's biggest pictures. "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," a bloody, extravagant epic that feels like Hollywood product, comes from Robert Rodriguez, whose 1992 "El Mariachi" was made for $7,000 he raised largely by leasing his body for medical experiments.

The comic "School of Rock," also a big studio film but with an unusually sweet sensibility, was directed by Richard Linklater, whose 1991 "Slacker" possessed an unhurried pace and coffee-shop-philosopher tone that supposedly defined a generation.

And the slick but still personal "Kill Bill Vol. 1" is only the third film Quentin Tarantino has directed since 1992's "Reservoir Dogs," a movie that redefined cinema violence and launched a thousand imitators. His "Pulp Fiction" is still the most emblematic "indie" film, known for its fragmented storytelling and lowlife poetry, even as its distribution -- through Disney subsidiary Miramax -- makes its indie credentials problematic.

Each of these three movies, with widely varying critical receptions, became the highest-grossing film the weekend it opened. Clearly this gang of Gen-X auteurs -- directors who broke through with independent films in the 1990s, mostly through the Sundance Film Festival -- has established itself as an important commercial force.

But did this generation that spearheaded the 1990s independent film movement do anything to change the way movies are made?

How many of them have lived up to the high artistic expectations that greeted their debuts? Can they compare to earlier anti-Hollywood movements, especially the 1970s mavericks?

A few years after the decade's closing, film historians and journalists are pursuing these questions in earnest. January sees Peter Biskind's "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film," and the New York Times' Sharon Waxman is writing a book about indie directors who brought their idiosyncratic styles to the studios. Historian Emanuel Levy is revising 1999's "Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film," the era's most complete record.

It's clear that these directors can work on a larger canvas and generate attention and ticket sales doing so. Their success with bigger budgets and more mainstream films, though, raises the question whether they can maintain their own, and their movement's, distinctiveness in the process.

Optimists point to this year's Academy Awards, in which films like "About Schmidt," "Far From Heaven," "Adaptation," and "Punch-Drunk Love" -- from indie-bred directors Alexander Payne, Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson -- won nominations and showed that they could produce distinctive films, with Hollywood casts, within the studios.

It's proof, they say, that the '90s indie generation has come of age. After working on the fringes, the best of them are now "trying to bring auteur-style filmmaking into mainstream Hollywood," Waxman says, "at a time when the studios are owned by big corporations not interested in risky or envelope-pushing work."

"It's no different from Hollywood importing European directors in the '20s and '30s, Murnau and Lang and Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder," Levy says. "Hollywood is a very shrewd system, and they realize there is a huge disparity between the people who give the industry its bottom line -- Michael Bay, say -- and those who give it its soul."

And those, of course, who give studios good seats at awards shows. Last winter Warner Bros. President Alan Horn told The Times' Claudia Eller, "Let's just say, with my tickets to the Golden Globes this year, they sent me binoculars." The studio recently launched Warner Independent Pictures, a name unimaginable in indie's fire-breathing early days.

(And now small studios are fighting for wide distribution of their films for Oscars consideration, fearful that their work will be marginalized.) The nomenclature itself has become tricky: In the '90s, Variety began calling "independent" distributors like October and Fox Searchlight "mini-majors." To skeptics, though, the indie movement was more about marketing than art and continues to be. "We're at a moment when 'independent film' has become part of a brand name," says Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation. "Literally, with the Independent Film Channel. What happened was a great raising of commercial expectations with 'sex, lies, and videotape,' and hitting a critical peak with 'Pulp Fiction.' But these commercial expectations weren't confluent with a movement."

According to United Artists President Bingham Ray, "the system hasn't changed a lick."

The achievement of these directors, though, is hard to dismiss and shows a great deal of range. Todd Haynes' career, for instance, began with the radical work of the New Queer Cinema, wound through "Safe," a detached but powerful reframing of the disease-film genre, and culminated last fall with "Far From Heaven," probably the year's best reviewed film.

Neither conventionally intellectual nor political like the Brown-educated Haynes, Spike Jonze found his way into cinema through retro rock videos and skateboard videos: His films, "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," both written by Charlie Kaufman, are kinetic, surreal and Borgesian.


Directors like these have taken independent film beyond the "Reservoir Dogs" clones and callow coming-of-age films that limited the genre in the early and mid-'90s. Their subject matter is all over the place.

"What these filmmakers share is a certain irony and humor that's shot through with sometimes violent, sometimes very emotionally dramatic material," says Waxman, whose book is tentatively titled "The Rebels." "It's the note that I recognize in Tarantino, and in David O. Russell -- two very different filmmakers."

"When I got involved in the business in the '80s, the studios and the producers had all the power," says John Lesher, an agent at Endeavor.

Filmmaking has changed immeasurably, he says, from the days when execs created films themselves and shaped them by committee. "These are all smart people; it's not an evil system. But there's something about the studio process that rubs down the edges."

And indie directors -- who often acquire credibility by casting A-list actors who work cheap -- have opened the door for foreign directors to work in Hollywood. Lesher calls "21 Grams," a coming film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amores Perros"), a movie that would never have been made before the '90s' indies made Hollywood more flexible.

"It was a huge achievement to throw off the Hollywood yoke and make viable commercial art movies," Biskind says. "Especially considering what things were like in the late '80s. There was some stuff here and there -- by John Sayles, the Coen brothers, Spike Lee -- but at that point none of those pictures had made over $25 million. To go from that to over $100 [million] with 'Pulp Fiction' was a whole new world."

For all the successes, this generation of so-called outsiders produced its share of disappointments. One comes from their very self-conception: These directors typically see themselves as auteurs, writing their own material and working in distinct styles or subjects. Some do work so personal it becomes its own miniature genre, kicked off with a brilliant debut.

Often these first films remain their best, Biskind says. "A lot of them repeated themselves. But that's true of a lot of 'auteur' filmmakers. Scorsese certainly repeated himself. In exploring material you know best, you run the risk of repeating.

"And there's pressure on young directors, going into the studios, to repeat their first film as a studio film. Neil LaBute remade 'In the Company of Men' with 'Your Friends and Neighbors,' " he says of the director's acid takes on romance. "Kevin Smith remade 'Clerks' as 'Mall Rats,' as a studio film. And Rodriguez remade 'Mariachi' as 'Desperado.' The independents became so hot that the studios descended on them, and that's hard to resist."

Similarly, indies increasingly faced pressure to get name casts for their films, says Christine Vachon, longtime indie producer and partner at Killer Films. She calls it the biggest change since she produced Todd Haynes' "Poison" in 1991. The original indies, she says, were director driven. "It didn't matter who was in them; they were about visions particular to the filmmaker."

Things had changed by 1999. "It was only by the skin of our teeth that we were able to make 'Boys Don't Cry' with Hilary Swank," she says. "Some of our partners really wanted a name actor. I don't know if you'd get away with [an unknown] now."

Early indie advocates made a lot of noise about the need to bring women and minorities into filmmaking. But despite talk in the early '90s of the New Black Cinema -- including the Hughes brothers and John Singleton -- few of its pioneers maintained critically acclaimed careers.

One early hero of the Sundance crowd was Allison Anders, whose feminist-themed "Gas Food Lodging" found "desolate, low-key poetry," in one critic's words, in a New Mexico trailer park. But her career sputtered, and these days she works mostly in TV. It's telling that the hottest female indie director is Sofia Coppola, whose father's connections smoothed her way.

For many male directors who emerged in the '90s, Soderbergh was the model; enter through indies, move to the studios, and move between both worlds. But this can be dangerous.

"Some of them have not done well by going Hollywood," Levy says. "Neil LaBute's last three films have been disappointing."

"Or Doug Liman, who made 'Swingers' and 'Go' and then made 'The Bourne Identity,' " Biskind says. "They're making tent poles, and they don't have final cut, or much control at all. There's no question of them having any independent spirit at all -- they don't."

Some question whether the independent films really have any independent spirit. These doubts became especially common when Miramax was purchased by Disney in 1993.

"What the 'movement' is about is a commercial reconsolidation of the film industry," says the Nation's Klawans. "Because it used to be, when you had a studio system, you had a balanced program each year. So many super-productions, so many A pictures, so many B pictures, so many shorts. So the bets were hedged across the board."

These days, he says, films with A-sized budgets come out on Warner Bros., while B pictures come out on Fine Line, a Time Warner company.

Peter Rainer, critic for New York magazine, thinks too much was made of independent films. "There was such a thirst for a new direction in American movies that everyone cut the so-called independent movies a lot of slack," he says. "A lot of these movies are visually undistinguished, the acting is highly variable, and they really don't show anything besides a desire to create a resume for studio work."


Part of what made the '90s independent movement different from earlier decades of underground film was a new infrastructure of funding sources, festivals, film magazines, award shows, cable TV stations, and boutique "indie" distributors that grew up after the success of "sex, lies and videotape."

Indies of the '90s found a receptive audience, says Dawn Hudson of the Independent Feature Project, partly because the VCR revolution had schooled a suburban and rural audience in underground and foreign cinema -- and viewers craved new films in the same vein.

But the establishment of an indie network, with a cheering section in the press, made it easier for second-rate talents to break in. "In the '90s, Sundance and these places got going," Rainer says, "and the media began to take notice. 'Go to Sundance and bring us back the next 'Roger and Me,' the next New Wave, the next Tarantino.' It worked as an inflation, to pump up the independent movement to something bigger than it was."

Earlier directors had to fight harder, and it showed in the work, Rainer says. "When David Lynch began, with 'Eraserhead' and so forth, these films seemed to come totally out of a private place, a fully formed artist right out of the gate. While for a long time the independent movie was a kid maxing out his father's credit card, getting his friends together for sub-Scorsese goombah fests."

Klawans too is dubious of the indies. "There was an actual independent film movement in the '50s and '60s, with Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke and Stan Brakhage," he says. "It was really about content that couldn't get into the other movies -- if you were going to do a film about racial subjects, like in 'Shadows,' or sexual subjects, like Jim Broughton's films." The term "independent film," Klawans argues, persists mostly out of nostalgia.

John Waters, a godfather to the indie generation, disagrees. "I don't think things were better in the old days," says Waters, whose first feature was "Pink Flamingos" in 1972. "I think it's better now. And it's harder for them: There were more taboos back then. There aren't any taboos now. But studios are now looking for what they call 'edge.' When I was young, they weren't even looking."

'90S VERSUS '70S

The period the '90s indie directors hark back to most often is the 1970s, from Martin Scorsese's friendship with Wes Anderson ("Rushmore") to Spike Jonze's marriage to Sofia Coppola. How do the new films compare? "All told, the films of the '70s were superior," says Biskind, whose book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" helped canonize the era. "The audience for those '70s movies, the counterculture audience that despised Hollywood movies, really disappeared."

The problem goes beyond film itself, Rainer says. "Movies were much more at the center of the culture decades ago," he says. "In the '70s there was a whole devotional aspect of going to the movies. And we don't have a body of work from the last 10 or 12 years that can compare to what Scorsese, Coppola and De Palma did.

"The '70s was a richer time, and it was the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era. There were very conflicted, roiling feelings shooting through. That gave a tragic sense, a kind of depth, to the movies that doesn't exist now."

The '70s mavericks began their careers in the studios, while the '90s generation fought its way in after several films. Will the infiltration of Sundance kids revivify American cinema?

Even enthusiasts like Waxman have their worries. "A lot of these movies performed very poorly and had huge studio marketing budgets," she says. "So you had movies like [Soderbergh's] 'Solaris' that could really kill things. It cost $47 million to make, something like $30 million to market." The film earned $15 million domestically. "That's a very dangerous precedent to set," Waxman says. Haynes may be the indie kid who's demonstrated the greatest range. After the Oscar nomination for his Douglas Sirk homage "Far From Heaven," you'd think he'd jump to another mid-sized project -- proof that the studios are now open to innovation.

But Haynes is working on an unpredictable feature starring Bob Dylan and is turning down studio offers, according to Vachon, his producer. "They tell him how wonderful a movie he made," she says of his experience with studios, "and tell him, 'When you're ready to become a commercial filmmaker, to give up everything that makes you interesting, come talk to us.' " And as celebrated as "Far From Heaven" was, its domestic gross barely earned back its budget.

Peter Broderick, who helped fund low-budget films and now runs Paradigm consulting, says the sensibility of indie pioneers like Kevin Smith and Rodriguez inspires young directors working in digital video. "But as those opportunities for production have opened up, the channels of distribution have narrowed," he says. "No longer is the hardest thing making the film; now it's bringing it to the world. Filmmakers have to take more responsibility for that, the same way they once struggled to fund their productions."

The casualty in the explosion of indies, says Mark Gill, president of Warners' indie wing, was foreign films. "Those used to be the only places you could see serious themes and explicit sexuality. But no more. They're one of our last and best ways to understand other cultures and perhaps behave a little better in the world." Gill hopes to bring out a foreign film or two a year but adds that "the odds are so long these days."

Others say indie is a victim of its own success. " 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' is a big, fat, bad movie," Levy says. "It doesn't do any good for indie cinema, and what worries me about this and 'Blair Witch Project,' which is a much better movie, is that they are changing the definition of success." The films grossed $241 million and $141 million in the U.S. "In the past an independent movie that made just a few million at the box office was considered decent. I worry that there will be pressure on directors to compromise their vision, their integrity, especially when they work in studios."

To its fans, though, the movement has a lot to be proud of. "The evolution of American independent film as an institutional force, as a viable industry," Levy says, "is the most positive aspect in American pop culture in the last quarter-century."



Progress report

Which of the promising directors of independent film have lived up to their promise? Which ones haven't? And who's coming up next?



"Richard Linklater did something nobody expected with 'School of Rock': He held onto his humanity, his wry sense of humor and his idiosyncrasies," says Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures.

Critic Stuart Klawans admires David O. Russell, especially "Three Kings," his Iraq-based film from 1999. "He made the film of the year, of 2003, and he made it four years ago. And he made it for Warner Bros."

"When I first saw Paul Thomas Anderson's work," says Sharon Waxman, author of "The Rebels," "I felt I'd had the breath knocked out of me. I thought, here's a masterful, ambitious filmmaker shooting for something huge. And there's a humanity to the story."

"Todd Solondz made 'feel badness' a real art form," says John Waters. "Certainly his films are incredibly dangerous, in the best sense of the word, and make people really uptight, which I'm all for."



"James Mangold is a major disappointment," film historian Emanuel Levy says. " 'Heavy' is a very interesting movie, but then he made 'Copland' and 'Girl, Interrupted.' He decided to go mainstream."

Darren Aronofsky: "His editing gives me a headache," says critic Peter Rainer.

Gregg Araki: Waters likes the raw style of this pioneer of the New Queer Cinema but is let down by the amount of work he's produced since "Nowhere," from 1997. "I miss him -- I liked his voice, an L.A. voice."


Faces to Watch

Levy likes David Gordon Green, who made "George Washington," for his "deceptively simple stories told in a nuanced, multilayered lyrical way. In the current climate of hyperkinetic mass spectacles, Green's work stands out."

Levy also looks forward to more films by Richard Kelly, whose "Donnie Darko" drew comparisons to "Blue Velvet." "In its metaphysical concerns with the inner workings of the universe and challenging notions about time travel, the film aims higher than most American coming-of-age pictures."

Dawn Hudson of IFP likes "American Splendor" directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. "The film is both ambitious in subject matter and sure-handed in its direction -- and we know it's not easy to turn comic book material into good films."

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate, praises Michel Gondry. " 'Human Nature' was one of the more underappreciated films of the last couple of years. Michel has a keen eye that I look forward to seeing in next year's 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.' "

Scott Timberg can be reached at

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