An appreciation of the young turks who took hold of Hollywood in the nineties: from P. T. Anderson to Spike Jonze to the godfather of them all, Steven Soderbergh
Hollywood is undergoing a renaissance, spawned by a vanguard of auteurs who for more than a decade have managed to turn La-La Land upside down. With films like Boogie Nights, Rushmore, Being John Malkovich, and Memento, young filmmakers have in many ways forced the major studios to march to the beat of their very different drummer.
In Sundance Kids, James Mottram paints a vibrant portrait of Hollywood as it stands today. Focusing on writers and directors who made their debuts in the nineties, Mottram takes a close look at how these mavericks have impacted the cinematic landscape. He explores the current state of the Hollywood studios; what it can mean now to be "independent" in the wake of mini-majors like Miramax and New Line; the particular influence of uncompromising artists like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino; the unique platform provided them by the Sundance Film Festival; the contribution of British filmmakers like Sam Mendes to the mix; and how, for the first time since Paddy Chayefsky, writers such as Charlie Kaufman are becoming household names while playing a key part in the new Hollywood.
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James Mottram is the author of The Making of Memento (Faber, 2002). He lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Introduction: Pizza Knights, F-64 and The Mild Bunch Too many people have made a couple of good movies and burned out. The truth is, studios know how to make a successful film, one that works at the box office. Nobody believes in the maverick anymore. Rod Lurie1 Imagine the scene: a select club has gathered in Los Angeles to watch a private screening of Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time. This 1978 story of a burglar who attempts to reform keeps its viewers' rapt attention. Afterwards, its star, Dustin Hoffman, is on hand to take questions and talk about his time making it. The avid listeners are all Hollywood filmmakers, men and women working inside the studio system. They include David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Kimberly Peirce and Alexander Payne. Meeting once a month, they call themselves 'Pizza Knights'. Indebted to the filmmakers who inspired them as they grew up, they pay homage twelve times a year. They are the spiritual descendants of the so-called maverick filmmakers of 1970s Hollywood. They still believe, even if nobody else does. This book centres on the question: 'Are we returning to an age where formerly independent directors are using studio funds to further their own idiosyncratic vision?' In other words, is this the dawn of New Hollywood Part II? As the title of this book suggests, many of the contemporary filmmakers under consideration here have been connected to Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. For most - like Alexander Payne, Bryan Singer, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, David O. Russell or Steven Soderbergh - it is with a film at the festival. Then there is Wes Anderson, whose debut feature began life as a short film showcased there. For others, like Kimberly Peirce or Paul Thomas Anderson, their debuts began life in the workshops of the Institute. Many of them flunked college and eschewed film school; it was Sundance that gave them their education. That said, David Fincher and Spike Jonze have never been anywhere near the snowy heights of Park City (at least not with a film). Both stem from a commercials/music video background. But these two Pizza Knights, as we shall see, are honorary Sundance Kids. Both were involved with the development of a short-lived filmmaking collective called F-64. Together with an article entitled 'The Mild Bunch', published in The Hollywood Reporter in 2002, it gave the inspiration for this book. But more of that later. A Brief History of Sundance Formed on the cusp of 1980, the Sundance Institute was the brainchild of Hollywood golden-boy Robert Redford. His plan was to lay the groundwork for an organization that would nurture independent filmmaking talent. Based in the wilds of Utah, where he had bought some land in the mid-1960s, it was named after his outlaw from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Redford, positioning himself - incorrectly or otherwise - as a true Hollywood maverick, was at the forefront of a new era in American cinema. The Institute quickly became known for its June Laboratory, which brought independent filmmakers together with talent from Hollywood. As it evolved, other events included an annual producers' conference, a playwrights' lab and even a children's theatre. The most high-profile face of the Institute was the film festival. Taking over the ailing United States Film Festival in 1984, Sundance - to call it by its abbreviated name - became the Mecca for any independent filmmaker with a dream. If its first years weren't spectacular, there were still finds - notably the Coen brothers, whose neo-noir debut, Blood Simple, won the Grand Jury Prize in 1985. As we will see, it was Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape four years later that bolstered the Sundance profile immeasurably. As Hollywood executives began to sniff money in the pine-scented mountain air, they descended on Park City in their droves for this annual January cinematic showcase. This was the place where distribution deals could be struck and nobodies could become players overnight. It was like a funfair for the American dream. Like any organization, as it grew, it began to swallow up cash. Peter Biskind noted that by 1991 the Institute was dogged by 'a ballooning seven-figure deficit that required the elimination of nearly half the staff'.2 Moreover, behind its idyllic façade, the Institute had 'been torn by staff backbiting and factionalism', as well as accusations of long-term mismanagement. Sydney Pollack - who directed Redford seven times and was a founder member of the Sundance Institute - notes, 'Like anything that's good and successful, the Institute is a bit of a victim of its own success. You can't help that. Once something is terrifically successful, it's hard to hang on to the purity of what it was originally.' Over time, the sponsors moved in. Suddenly, Starbucks was providing free coffee, socialites like Paris Hilton came to party and accusations that the festival had become an annexe of Hollywood were as frequent as the snow-showers that fell on Park City. 'It's become this monster,' Redford told me in 2001. 'Jesus, it's like going to Las Vegas. It's so exhausting, yet the heart of it is still true. The heart gets smaller and smaller every year, because the body around it overwhelms it: fashion, Hollywood, the media. The media pays more attention to the celebrity aspect of Sundance, and the celebrity aspect feeds itself. It becomes this self-perpetuating goon. At the heart is still a wonderful festival, which I have a lot of pride in. We program it the same way every year; it's not about commercial quality. It's about the originality, the diversity. The independence of the film.' The purpose of this book is not to explore the Institute as an entity or to examine Redford's part in its successes and failures. As David O. Russell, who would arrive in 1994 with his debut Spanking the Monkey, says: 'People are always beating up on Sundance. It's a classic American story and they want it to follow those beats, like the beats of F. Scott Fitzgerald - talented, successful, drunken, dissolute and ruined by success. I don't think that's necessarily accurate. It's still a launching platform for some really good filmmakers. It's a market - but it's kept that alive. It's an identifiable niche that studios can point to now. It's definitely a good thing that this entity exists. I think there's an understanding that audiences have an appetite for something that's different and ahead of the curve.' The Sundance Kids aims to look at its graduates and how they shaped American film over the past fifteen years. To do that, we must first consider their predecessors. New Hollywood, the French New Wave and the Maverick Filmmaker As critics, industry figures and the public increasingly celebrate 1970s Hollywood, the term 'maverick' has become more loosely used. Figures such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and William Friedkin are regularly termed 'mavericks', despite the fact that they all worked within the studio system. The New Oxford English Dictionary defines a 'maverick' as 'an unorthodox or independent-minded person' or 'a person who refuses to conform to a particular party or group'.3 If anything, grouping these directors as part of the New Hollywood movement is surely to contradict the isolation felt by true maverick filmmakers. It's not unreasonable, however, to treat these directors as a collective: seemingly given carte blanche at the studios as a new generation of executives swept a broom through the Hollywood closet, each was fuelled by ego, drugs or ambition - often all three. Many of them had graduated from film schools and were raised on the same diet of Italian neo-realism and French New Wave, as well as the works of Howard Hawks, John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock. Many had become friends or colleagues - George Lucas started his career as Francis Ford Coppola's assistant, for example. Much of their work was a reaction against the glossy, bloated epics that almost destroyed the studio system in the 1960s. Their films buzzed with references to the political upheavals of the time and even elevated classic American genres, like the gangster film, to a higher level. But, though critics like Pauline Kael influenced their thinking, they were not united to change the course of cinema. They were just in the right place at the right time. The closest any of them came to being a conscious collective was in the summer of 1973 when Charles Bludhorn, CEO of Gulf and Western, the owner of Paramount, suggested that Coppola, Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich start what would become known as the Directors Company. All three were riding on the back of glorious films - respectively, The Godfather (1972), The French Connection and The Last Picture Show (both 1971). The idea was simplicity itself, and appealed to their desire for creative freedom. With Paramount bankrolling the company to the tune of $31.5 million, each could make any picture he wanted for under $3 million without the need to seek studio approval. With each director sharing in the profits of the others' movies, the scheme should in principle have worked. But while Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973) was a hit, his adaptation of Henry James's Daisy Miller, along with Coppola's The Conversation (both 1974) was not. Irritated by the others' work, Friedkin got fed up and backed out, without even making a film. All three soon fell from grace. Likewise, the careers of other New Hollywood directors would fluctuate. ...
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