Miami Herald: It’s a wrap


BY RENE RODRIGUEZ | Most any film buff will concur that the 1970s marked the last great era of
American movies, thanks to the sheer number of talented filmmakers —
Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman,
William Friedkin and Brian De Palma, among others — who either began
their careers or established a position of power within Hollywood at
that time.

It’s too early to tell whether the surge oficonoclastic filmmakers who invaded the studio system in the 1990s will
go down as another golden chapter in Hollywood history. But Sharon
Waxman’s book Rebels on the Backlot, which focuses on six directors who
rose to prominence during that decade, argues that the battle between
unbridled creativity and the business end of Hollywood remains as
heated today as it did when Coppola narrowly avoided getting fired by
Paramount Pictures during the filming of The Godfather.

Waxman, a former entertainment reporter for The Washington Post now writing for
The New York Times, is known for her tough, skeptical view of Hollywood
and her thorough, scrupulously researched stories. Both qualities are
abundant in this addictively readable book, which alternates between
less-than-fawning profiles of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh,
David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze,
and the stories behind the making of their best-known films.

To varying degrees, all were battles of one sort or another, and Waxman’s
blow-by-blow accounts are filled with the sort of gossipy tidbits that
have become a requisite of insider-Hollywood books, whether she’s
writing about Russell and George Clooney coming to blows on the set of
Three Kings, Tarantino threatening collaborator Roger Avary to give him
sole screenwriting credit on Pulp Fiction, or Anderson pitching temper
tantrums when New Line Cinema executives asked him to trim his three
hour-plus drama Magnolia.

Perhaps the most momentous struggle of all was Fincher’s attempt to make the deeply subversive
Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, at a mainstream
studio for a budget of $62 million. Waxman’s fascinating account of how
and why the movie got made is an excellent primer on the uneasy
relationship between art and commerce within the studio system.

There were times during Fight Club’s production that Fincher seemed to be
embodying the anarchist spirit of Tyler Durden, the character played in
the film by Brad Pitt. When executives complained about the movie’s
violence, Fincher gave them more, not less. When his producer begged
him to change a potentially offensive dialogue spoken by co-star Helena
Bonham Carter, Fincher replaced it with even more disturbing lines.

And even as the shockwaves of the Columbine High School shootings forced
20th Century Fox to postpone the film’s release, Fincher not only
persevered in staying true to his apocalyptic vision, but also
succeeded in getting a wide theatrical release for the aggressively
uncommercial movie.

Rebels on the Backlot implies that Fincher’s unpredictable and defiant temperament was key in getting
Fight Club made (talent alone would not have cut it). The book draws
loose parallels between the six filmmakers, all white male Generation
Xers, and all saddled with distinct neuroses of their own. Of the Three
Kings director, Waxman writes: ”Russell’s antisocial tendencies seemed
to worsen with age, like a kind of physical Tourette’s syndrome; he
poked people with a finger while talking to them at close range.”
Clearly, being a little crazy can be a great boon to an artist.

On a more personal level, Waxman takes time to deflate some myths about
her subjects, such as Tarantino’s legendary white-trash Tennessee
upbringing, or Jonze’s often-repeated reputation as an heir to the
Spiegel fortune (neither is true). If her subjects don’t always come
off as completely likable, there is certainly no denying their passion
for their craft. And whether it was intentional or not, Rebels on the
Backlot winds up heartily supporting the much-debated auteur theory,
which claims that despite the collaborative nature of filmmaking, the
director is ultimately the ”author” of a movie. At least as far as
these six directors go, there’s no mistaking their movies — or their
work methods — for anyone else’s.

Rene Rodriguez is The Herald’s film critic.