Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System

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New York Times correspondent Sharon Waxman reveals how six 1990s directors turned the movie industry upside down

“Riveting tales of Hollywood hubris . . . a fun read.”

– Entertainment Weekly

“Like all good reporting Rebels on the Backlot ultimately opens up its subject for debate and leaves the final verdict to the reader . . . astute . . . Waxman unearths juicy anecdotes that’ll keep film fans cackling and turning the pages . . . Film directors’ careers are full of second and third acts. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of any of these guys, and I’m grateful we’ll have Sharon Waxman on hand to fill us in.”

[Read more reviews]

In REBELS ON THE BACKLOT: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System (Harper Perennial; January 1, 2006; $14.95), Sharon Waxman brings the same level of incisive reporting that distinguished her at both the Washington Post and, today, at the New York Times to tell the gripping story of independent filmmaking in the 1990s as it moved into the studio system, challenging the norms of commercial Hollywood and changing the movies we see at the cineplex. Waxman analyzes the careers and signature films of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze. “With their films, the rebels of the 1990s shattered the status quo, set new boundaries in the art of moviemaking, and managed to bend the risk-adverse studio structure to their will,” she writes. “They created a new cinematic language, recast audience expectations, and surprised us_and each other.” In the early ’90s, a seemingly endless series of corporate mergers had turned Hollywood’s major studios into profit factories, churning out sequels, remakes and formulaic star vehicles guaranteed to bolster the bottom line. But under the radar a group of talented newcomers was operating. They were interested in making movies their way, much like their predecessors of the 1970s. But unlike their 1970s counterparts, the young directors of the 1990s weren’t film school graduates, but rather self-taught, independent thinkers eager to remake modern cinema in their own image.

In REBELS ON THE BACKLOT, Sharon Waxman gives a rare, 360-degree view of the creative and business sides of film making, tracking the labyrinthine process. Her choices of directors and films offer a fascinating glimpse at the fractious relationship between artistic talent and commercial imperative, the ever present tension in contemporary Hollywood. REBELS ON THE BACKLOT focuses on the following iconic movies:

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: Tarentinoesque has become a codeword for movies with irony-tinged violence and pop culture references. Pulp Fiction is so ingrained in the public consciousness that it’s easy to forget that it was also the first “independent” film to earn $100 million. Pulp Fiction inspired a generation of filmmakers and remade conventional beliefs about what the public would pay to see. The success of the film set the studios on the hunt for the “next Tarantino” with many, like Fox and Universal, setting up new divisions specifically for indie-style movies.
  • Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights: A sweeping, Altmanesque look at the rise and fall of a ragtag group of 1970s porn stars, Boogie Nights made studio executives and exhibitors uncomfortable. New Line took a chance on the film, which earned critical acclaim, three Academy Award nominations, and turned underwear model/rapper Marky Mark, now Mark Wahlberg, into a respected actor.
  • David Fincher’s Fight Club: A viscerally violent, nihilistic movie in which matinee idol Brad Pitt gets his face battered, Fight Club was every studio executive’s worst nightmare. Waxman outlines Fincher’s struggle to get his film made and stay true to his artistic vision as the studio struggled to find a way to sell a movie its own executives found distasteful. Ultimately, a confused marketing plan and a post-Columbine aversion to violence doomed the project to commercial failure though it has thrived as a cult classic.
  • David O. Russell’s Three Kings: Russell set out to make an intelligent action movie about war and human conflict, an effort undermined by studio indifference, conflict with the film’s star, George Clooney, and Russell’s own temperamental behavior. Hailed as one of the best films of the year by critics and industry insiders, the film was marketed as an action picture and shut out of every major award. With America now at war in Iraq, it is regarded as one of the decade’s most brilliant, and prescient, films.
  • Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich: Charlie Kaufman’s bizarre script, about a puppeteer who discovers a portal into actor John Malkovich’s head, had been kicking around Hollywood for years before getting the green light at PolyGram. Overlooked by merger- consumed executives, novice director Spike Jonze, best known for his dirt bike and music videos, not only brought the odd script to life, but infused the characters and situations with remarkable on-screen believability.
  • Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic: Soderbergh gained national attention with his first film, the indie sensation sex, lies and videotape. After squandering his early buzz on unsuccessful and increasingly marginal projects, he took on Traffic, a serious drama about illegal drugs that initially no studio wanted to touch. Soderbergh’s perseverance resulted in a critical and financial success and made him a Hollywood powerhouse.

Although these six films seem to have little in common, Waxman notes “the movies of these new rebel auteurs shared many things. They played with structure, wreaked havoc with traditional narrative form, fiddled with film stock, and ushered in the whiplash editing style true to a generation of video game children. Their movies were shockingly violent and combined their brutality with humor.”

Waxman conducted more than one hundred interviews with actors, producers, executives, and the directors themselves to produce this provocative, insightful, behind-the-scenes account of the clash between the prevailing studio culture and the rebel spirit of artists working within it. In writing REBELS ON THE BACKLOT, Waxman says, she “tried to choose movies that had broken through to a wide audience, that marked the culture in some indelible way, films that over time will be seen as emblematic of the brutal, surreal, confused sensibility that, came to define the 1990s-a decade better known for consumer excess and Clintonian dysfunction-and presaged the far more serious world that awaited us beyond the millennium.”

About the Author Sharon Waxman is the Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times, and previously was a correspondent for The Washington Post, becoming the paper’s first reporter to cover the entertainment industry from Los Angeles. She came to Hollywood after nearly a decade of reporting abroad, covering European politics and culture, and before that the Middle East, focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She lives in Santa Monica, California with her family.

REBELS ON THE BACKLOT: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System By Sharon Waxman Publication date: January 1, 2006 Price: $14.95 Pages: 448 with 16 page b/w photo insert ISBN: 0-06-054018-4

Autographed Copies

You can buy an autographed copy of the hardback book, which is no longer available in stores, from the author directly for $20.00 plus shipping and handling. Send requests to for details.