Playing dirty to the max


Peter BISKIND had been working on “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film,” for several years when he finally got a phone call from Harvey Weinstein, the book’s 900-pound gorilla. “Harvey was very friendly -- he wanted to know if Miramax Books could publish it,” Biskind recalls. Biskind told him he already had a publisher -- something Weinstein surely knew -- but extracted a promise from Weinstein to do a series of in-person interviews.

So the gamesmanship began. Having read Biskind’s racy bestseller, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” which painted an unflattering portrait of Hollywood’s sex-’n’-drug-crazed 1970s filmmakers, Weinstein knew the veteran journalist wasn’t going to pull any punches. Then in the midst of making “Gangs of New York” with Martin Scorsese, who’d hardly come out unscathed in “Easy Riders,” Weinstein would constantly tease Biskind. “He kept saying, ‘Ya know, Marty really hated your book.’ ” Biskind recalls. “Once, when Scorsese had a big 60th birthday party, Harvey said, ‘Oh, too bad, I guess you weren’t invited.’ ”

A masterful seduction artist, Weinstein prodded Biskind for any weakness, asking in their first meeting: “What do you really want to do? Don’t you have a book idea that’s really close to your heart?” Biskind laughs as he recounts the tale that’s become a favorite of his. Of course, every writer has a beloved idea rattling around in the back of his brain, just waiting for a good fairy to pry it loose. “I was an idiot. I blurted out this idea, a book about the science of politics, and Harvey got very excited and said, ‘It’s great. We could sell a million copies! Forget about that other book!’ ”


Biskind quickly came to his senses. Still it was a good lesson in the Weinstein wooing process, one that -- as “Down and Dirty” chronicles -- has brought reward and ruin to innumerable filmmakers. Weinstein eventually did six interviews, chain-smoking Carltons, with two tapes running, one for Biskind, one for Weinstein. (Weinstein’s brother, Miramax co-founder Bob Weinstein, is relegated to a supporting role in the book.)

A sensationally entertaining book, “Down and Dirty” is crammed with juicy illustrations of Weinstein’s caustic, often menacing, swagger. When he heard Errol Morris give a dull interview on NPR, he threatened to hire an actor to pretend to be Morris. When Alexandre Rockwell refused to cut his film, Weinstein reached him by phone at the dentist, telling the dentist, “Knock all his teeth out.” Angry at “Frida” director Julie Taymor, Weinstein yelled at her husband, composer Elliot Goldenthal, “Why don’t you defend your wife so I can beat the ... out of you!”

The notes I took reading the book say it all: “Harvey makes Night Shyamalan cry ... Rosie O’Donnell is crying ... Harvey overturns furniture ... Harvey calls Todd Haynes an arrogant prima donna ... James Mangold is in tears ... Todd Field has a bleeding ulcer ... “

In his first public response since the book’s appearance, Weinstein sounded contrite about his outbursts. “I’m ashamed of how I’ve often behaved,” he said. He says his threats to Morris and Rockwell were meant as jokes, but he acknowledges his confrontation with Taymor and Goldenthal was a mistake. “I said it and I regret it. I screwed up.”

Weinstein says he’s seen a psychiatrist and attended anger management sessions to control his temper. “I take responsibility for my actions, because I’ve only hurt myself,” he said. “The best thing that happened to me was that I found out I was diabetic -- I had never admitted it because I saw it as a sign of weakness. My insulin would go up when I’d have sugar and it tickled my adrenaline gland and I’d have a metabolic reaction. So I’ve changed my diet, I take medicine and eat a lot of fiber. And I’ve gone from a number of incidents a year to perhaps one a year.” (Judging from my recent lunch with him, the chain-smoking Weinstein still has a ways to go before becoming a poster boy for the American Diabetes Assn.)

One of the most damaging charges in Biskind’s book is his contention that a “veritable who’s who of young American directors” are no longer willing to work at Miramax, a claim Weinstein took great pains to counter. “Baz Luhrmann and I are partners in ‘La Boheme’ and he offered me ‘Alexander the Great,’ ” Weinstein told me. “David O. Russell offered me his new film. Alexander Payne offered me ‘About Schmidt,’ which I stupidly turned down. James Mangold offered me his Johnny Cash script. Julie Taymor and I are discussing a project. Todd Field is pitching me a new project next week. And that’s not counting all the filmmakers like Quentin [Tarantino] and Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith and Anthony Minghella who make all their movies with us.”


Weinstein and his staff also cited numerous examples of what they view as factual inaccuracies. Some complaints seem justified. Others appear to be a matter of opinion or interpretation. Miramax also disputes a number of filmmakers who claim Miramax hasn’t paid their deferred salaries or profit participation. Movie balance sheets being what they are, it’s often impossible to say who’s in the right, though Biskind rarely gives Miramax the benefit of the doubt.

But what Biskind invariably gets right is how Miramax’s ruthless style of acquiring and promoting movies transformed the genteel world of independent film. The book’s best sustained passage is set at an eleventh-hour script session for a now-forgotten 1997 film, “Mimic.” Fueled by various bagel-and-lox platters, the Weinsteins displayed an attention to detail not often shown by studio chiefs, who rarely do more than read the story department’s coverage.

When they got to something they didn’t know, the film’s producer recalls, “they’d scream, some minion would come in and they’d yell, ‘Go look up the MTA code for whatever.’ Or we’d be at a story point and they’d scream, ‘Go get “Alien” and give me a catalog of the scares and what minute in the film they come.’ ” At 10:15 that night, they suddenly stopped to watch a promo for “Scream” on local TV and when it didn’t run in the slot they’d been promised, “they called the guy at home, woke him up and said, ‘You [screwed] us, why didn’t you put it where we asked you to put it?’”

What’s missing in Biskind’s story, and what might be difficult for any journalist to get at, are the answers to weightier questions: What impact did the independent film movement have on the broader pop culture? What caused its disintegration -- was it co-opted by Hollywood’s overwhelming economic might or was it undermined by filmmaker ego and ambition? And how do you judge Weinstein’s success against his self-destructive personality?

What especially intrigued me was how much the rise and fall of the indie film movement parallels the arrival and ultimate disintegration of the alternative rock scene. Nirvana’s debut album, “Bleach,” was released in 1989, the same year that Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape” put Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival on the map. As the 1990s progressed, Miramax, and for that matter Sundance itself, went from feisty maverick to showbiz machine. (Weinstein sold Miramax to Disney in 1993.) By 1999, the big sale at Sundance (to Miramax) was a featherweight comedy called “Happy Texas,” while Miramax was so thoroughly housebroken that it was releasing Freddie Prinze Jr. comedies while unloading controversial films like “Dogma” to true independents like Lions Gate Films.

This homogenization mirrored the changes in the rest of the culture. The angst-ridden grunge rock of the early 1990s gave way to cotton-candy pop (Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears) by decade’s end. It wasn’t just Miramax that lost its street cred; it was the entire culture. Modern pop culture is so hungry for new kinetic kicks that no one remains an underground sensation for long. Hip-hop artists, like video directors, go from being unknowns to overexposed has-beens in the blink of an eye. By the late 1990s, it was impossible to turn on the radio or go to a film festival without being subjected to a raft of Nirvana knockoffs and Tarantino impersonators.


Today, even hip-hop, the last outpost of outlaw artistry, has lost much of its bite. Last month I ran into OutKast’s Andre Benjamin, today’s reigning symbol of musical cool, taking a meeting with a studio head, eager to get an acting gig.

Onetime gangsta rap kingpins are cleaning up their act so they can get a big sneaker endorsement or good placement in Wal-Mart, where the big money is. It seems unfair to judge Miramax in a vacuum. It may be releasing fluff like “My Baby’s Daddy” and family fare like the upcoming “Artemis Fowl.” But Murder Inc. is now just The Inc., while Snoop Dogg is about as fearsome today as, well, Barbra Streisand.

As much as Biskind traces the trajectory of the indie film movement, the book ends up focusing on Weinstein, its most compelling character. As the man who helped bring so many great films into the world, but treated so many people so badly, he’s both hero and villain. “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer puts it best when he says, “He dreams of the filmmaker’s dream, but it will always stay the filmmaker’s dream and not his own. And that is Harvey’s tragedy.”

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