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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Department of Book Reports: Rebels on the Backlot

With the Oscars coming up in a little over a week, I thought we'd return to Hollyweird and look at a book that was published about four years ago, and still available, Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System (Harper Perennnial $14.95). The author, Sharon Waxman, had been the Hollywood correspondent for the New York Times at the time she wrote the book, and clearly possessed an insider's knowledge of the doings in Tinsel Town.

In the book, Waxman explores the significant changes that occurred in American film during the 90's by exploring the work of six directors who helped create the Indie feel to movies at that time. She begins by reminding us that that decade was one of great corporate turmoil with studios bought and sold as if they were so many baubles on a chain. With studio honchoes turning over quickly, a certain amount of freedom developed that allowed for more experimenting in subject matter and film-making.

First, and probably foremost, (he'd probably think so), is Quentin Tarantino, whose rise from video store clerk to Hollywood's leading director, led the way. A man of immense ego, who left behind him a torrent of forgotten friendships and affairs, somehow was able to write and direct his "Reservoir Dogs", and parlay that Indie success into the mega-hit that "Pulp Fiction" became. With a screenplay that harkened back to "Citizen Kane" in its non-linear framework, Tarantino pioneered for the others that would follow.

Waxman traces the production history of those films. Soon to come would be, Paul Thomas Anderson's examination of the porn industry in "Boogie Nights", and his later ode to the San Fernando Valley, "Magnolia". (He lately has directed "There Will Be Blood", which won an Oscar for Daniel Day Lewis). David Fincher was able to move beyond the disaster of his "Alien 3" (for which there was too much studio and star interference), and score a huge hit in "Se7en", and then "Fight Club". (His "Curious Case of Benjamin Button is nominated for Best Picture this year). Steven Soderbergh could make the ambitious study of the drug trade in "Traffic", and has now followed up with his two part movie, "Che" which is slowly opening around the country. David Russell made his dark comedy, "Three Kings", and later "I Heart Huckabees". And Spike Jonze would make "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation" in collaboration with screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. Waxman chronicles the making of all these films, describing how the Studios finally gave approval to these projects, with a healthy dose of examining the personalities of these new directors, and the moguls who loved them.

I am reminded of how fertile a period this time in movie-making was. The 80's saw a lot of studio crap dumped onto the public, and these directors, all born between 1958 and 1970, did, indeed revolutionize the industry. There were hits and there were misses, but the energy created, and the new wave of talent, did create something of a mini-Golden Age in film-making, and Waxman's book is a good place to read about it.

Rebels on the Backlot is available at Jackson Street Books and other fine independent bookstores.


  1. I don't think of these directors as rebels--artists, auteurs, stoners yes, but hardly rebels. That being said, the world of cinema is better for their efforts (although the wet, bleak world of Se7en, which took the rain of porn and turned it into Varieties of Misery & Death is not something I will miss).

    All our lives are movies
    All our deaths are plays
    All our love is on the radio
    All our fear is grass upon the graves


  2. SeattleDan:

    I am so, like, bummed that neither you, nor the author, mentioned "Cabin Boy" and it's partial direction by Tim Burton. Now, THAT, was a movie!

    I've been working on a screenplay for "Al Fresco Dining With The Donners--The Other White Meat" and trying to line up the talent. So far I think I've got Donny and Marie Osmond and, um, me. Yeah, I figure if Matt Damon and Ben Affleck can hold out for working in the movies they write--why not?

  3. What about "The Sound of Music" now there was a movie worth remembering!


We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.