BY ROBERT SKLAR | For a few golden years, a generation ago, Hollywood film directors preened as artists (also known as auteurs, the French word for authors). Then the movie moguls figured out how to make big bucks producing and marketing comic-book blockbusters, and the pretense was over. Most studio directors became faceless functionaries who shouted at actors, "Scream as loud as you can at the blue screen, and the computer guys will put in the monsters later."
Most, but not all, says Sharon Waxman in Rebels on the Backlot. A former entertainment reporter for The Washington Post, now with the New York Times, Waxman profiles half-a-dozen young male directors (yes, that gender thing again) who have kept the preening auteur alive even in the corporate kingdoms of contemporary Hollywood, where accountants ride with royalty and artists usually carry the brooms and pans. This Magnificent Six — Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell and Spike Jonze (Adam Spiegel) — indeed gave us some of the most thrilling and heartening American works of cinema art during the otherwise generally sour Hollywood movie decade of the '90s.
Waxman's approach is about halfway divided between her directors' private lives and professional demeanors, on the one hand, and the intricate bluffs and betrayals of movie deal-making, on the other. No one comes out looking good, as is usual in the Hollywood-behind-the-scenes genre. The directors, no matter how much we may admire their work, generally turn out to be raving egomaniacs or social misfits or both, perfectly willing to jettison any friend, wife, lover or family member to climb out of the primordial ooze of the American indie world and make it in the big time. What's sociologically (or perhaps psychoanalytically) interesting about this group is that several of them seem permanently to have ditched their mothers long before they had a foot up on the ladder of success.
That said, Waxman tells a fast-paced and always absorbing story of how some of the most significant American movies of the era — "Boogie Nights," "Three Kings" and "Being John Malkovich," to name several — got written, financed and made. Her book is a triumph of journeywoman legwork. In addition to cadging interviews with her sometimes recalcitrant principals, she has spoken with scores of exes: agents, managers, producers, studio heads, co-workers, all of the aforementioned relations, including the ex-mothers, to craft a rich and detailed if ultimately bleak portrait of the lives of young talent on the make and the games they play. A lot of publicity myths get shattered along the way, such as the oft-repeated story that Spike Jonze is heir to the Spiegel catalog fortune.
One of Waxman's most compelling accounts details the production of "Three Kings" (1999), a unique major studio film concerning Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, which took on added significance after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Moving from TV to film, George Clooney badly wanted the lead role, and Warner Brothers, which, she writes, "had signed a huge development deal with the actor," badly wanted him in it. But Russell, the director, "hated Clooney's style of acting, which he considered a lot of head-bobbing and mugging for the camera." Although Clooney got the part, the director and star denigrated each other throughout the shoot, and once, Waxman reports, came to physical blows.
A quarter-century ago Michael Pye and Lynda Myles published a book called The Movie Brats: How the Film Generation Took Over Hollywood, and Waxman might have considered calling her book, in Hollywood sequel fashion, "The Movie Brats II." Some commentators have blamed sex, drugs and rock-and-roll for the fall from grace of the '70s auteurs, rather than changes in movie distribution and marketing. Readers may be relieved (or appalled, or not care either way) to learn from Waxman that sex, drugs and rock-and-roll still play a prominent role in the lives of the '90s auteurs, not necessarily in that order. But the differences between the two generations are instructive.
The "film generation" of the '70s — Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese and the rest — went to film school and became steeped in film history watching Hollywood classics of the '30s and '40s in class and on late-night TV. The new generation of Tarantino and company not only didn't go to film school, they hardly set foot in secondary school. Their classics were '70s films like "Star Wars," which they watched over and over again, hundreds of times, on their VCRs. They made movies less out of some relation to a heritage (leaving aside Tarantino's kung fu legacy) than out of their private demons, which may be one reason, Waxman suggests, why they persevered for months and years in making the movies they wanted to make, rather than capitulating to the crushing weight of the system that she so extensively documents.
The status of her subjects, Waxman acknowledges, is no less precarious than was that of the original Movie Brats. The fabled "green light" to make a movie is as elusive as the Great Gatsby's at the end of a Long Island dock, and often depends on the intricate game of musical chairs played by corporate bosses seeking to make a name or a statement. But one can at least come away from her book with the satisfaction of knowing that disloyalty, duplicity and bad faith are as rife in the creative precincts of young Hollywood as they are in the fat-cat executive suites.
Robert Sklar teaches Cinema Studies at New York University and is the author of "Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies."