The Book on Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes
Some might say John Pierson's got a big ego. But after reading the 360-plus pages of his new book, and spending an hour talking independent film with the guy, you begin to realize that whatever ability he uses sell himself is the same ability that's allowed him to be the point man on almost every major independent film released in the past decade. Pierson's a deal maker, a producer's rep, a consultant, an astute student of film and now an author. Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema (Hyperion/Miramax), his look inside the low budget world of independent filmmaking, reveals far more than just the backroom deals that brought films like Clerks, Roger and Me, Go Fish and She's Gotta Have It to the silver screen. Rather, it's a book that works on many different levels: as a story of the indie film industry, a primer for filmmakers looking for sage words of advice and most importantly as a history of the art form that has come into its own, starting as Pierson says, with Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise in 1984. "The reason I really single out Jarmusch is that I know what that film meant to me, I know what it meant to Spike [Lee], I know what it meant to everyone else in New York, and over the years I've learned how much it meant to other aspiring filmmakers from Gus Van Sant to Greg Araki," Pierson says across the table at the Claimjumper Hotel in Park City, Utah -- ground zero for flesh-pressing and deal making at the Sundance Film Festival. "One of the main themes on the filmmaker level of this book is empowerment -- the feeling of being able to do that which you see, or want to try and do that which you see. That was the first key moment of a film which provided empowerment with a capital E. "My inscription to Jim when I gave him a copy of this book was, 'You may not want this crown, you may not want this title, but you started a defining moment of this particular decade. You can try to run, you can try and hide, but I'm pinning that credit on you.'" And as Pierson launches into his story that leads from Stranger Than Paradise to Pulp Fiction, which he calls the other "bookend" of his story, the tale he tells in between is compelling and often quite funny. The chapter he spends detailing an eight week bidding frenzy over Michael Moore's biting Roger & Me is incredible. Pierson recreates, in minute detail, the situations that led the film in two months from fielding a distribution offer of $50,000 all the way to the unheard of price of $3 million. But he also finds the humor in the craziness of the business: "We were [flying into L.A.] on Universal's tab, but 'sneaking across the street' to check out Bugs Bunny," he writes of the filmmakers' covert business operations. Warner Bros. (aka Bugs Bunny) eventually won the bidding war and released the film. "I had never thought about the book until Michael Moore brought it up during the filming of Roger and Me," Pierson says of the tome's genesis. That was in 1989, two years after Pierson had watched his old friend Spike Lee (the author gave Lee his first $10,000 of completion funds for She's Gotta Have It) release the first of many books on the art of filmmaking -- a combination script and production diary for his first film. But Pierson knew that wasn't the type of book he wanted to write, and it wasn't until another turning point in his professional life that he decided the book would happen. "It was in the middle of the depths of depression over Amongst Friends (a tale of urban tough guys trying to be gangsters from New Jersey) that I realized there was another story -- a negative story, a 'how not to be' sort of story that gave further shape to the idea of writing a book," Pierson says of his only major professional gaffe -- working with Rob Weiss, writer-director of the 1993 buzz film that just didn't have it. "But I wouldn't have done it after Amongst Friends because regardless of everything, I would have had an unhappy ending. If Clerks and Go Fish hadn't come along to kind of redeem everything and the whole idea of what younger filmmakers were up to and what good work they could make from the heart, there never would have been a book." Pierson's examination of the Amongst Friends saga, in a 30-page chapter titled "Amongst Jerks: Rob Weiss and the Dark Side of Overnight Success," is brutal to read, but fascinating all the same. It also allows the author the best opportunity to utilize the transcripts of conversations he had with Clerks writer-director Kevin Smith, conversations which serve as lead-ins to chapters throughout the book. "The Rob Weiss story is meant to show... I don't say this, Kevin Smith says this in a dialogue: Rob would seem to illustrate everything you don't want to be as a first time filmmaker, and I think that it's important for people to learn that," Pierson says. "If you walk around in the world with nothing but an ambitious attitude, and you come across has having this sense of entitlement: 'Of course this should all come to me...' I can't abide that. "And when someone does it so transparently, and, in the end, so ineffectually as Rob did, I gotta lay it out there." And lay it out he does. Pierson, in effect, deconstructs Weiss' personality and explains in startlingly honest detail, why not everyone can be a filmmaker. "When the actor Tim Roth talked about the experience of working with Quentin Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs he told the Village Voice that he didn't consider Quentin to be a first timer because 'he's been rehearsing all his life,'" Pierson writes in the "Amongst Jerks" chapter. "The implication is that [Tarantino] was preparing to be a filmmaker, not an instant celebrity; that just came naturally with the territory. For the far more calculating Rob Weiss, the order was reversed. He too had been preparing all his life, but Amongst Friends, his first film, was just a means to an end." Pierson almost treats the two young producers of the film, snotty friends of Weiss and his cronies, with less respect by printing an excerpt from a letter he wrote to them in the waning days of his relationship with the movie. "Don't call me. Don't write me. Especially, whatever you do, don't fax me since I wouldn't want to see another $11.65 charge for fax paper on your next expense report," he writes in one of the nicer paragraphs of the brutal missive. Pierson says the decision to include the "Amongst Jerks" chapter was not difficult. As a stand-alone unit, the 30 pages are a bit extreme, but in the context of the story he tells throughout the rest of the book, it makes complete sense. "I don't disown the movie. I think the triumph there was taking something that could've never been finished, and actually creating a slick, polished product that had enough going for it to get a 3/4 of a million dollar deal coming out of Sundance," Pierson says. "A lot of the chapter is meant to be funny, but that letter in the chapter is me exposing myself." It's one of the few places in the book that Pierson does show the emotion he's felt over a decade in the business. For the most part, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes is an insider's outside view -- it's as if the author was a fly on the wall, who occasionally put in his two cents, but for the most part let the activity swirl, ebb and flow around him. This is, of course, not true -- Pierson was the guy calling the shots through most of these stories -- but it's to his benefit that he can pull such tales of films and filmmakers together into a cohesive, cogent analysis of the world in which he lives. "There's still room for wide diversity in this industry, but everytime you get another middle of the road, wide appeal film, from the up from under like the Brothers McMullen... each success story inspires people, and it also breeds imitators," Pierson says. "I've been observing this since Stranger Than Paradise. Man, if I had a nickel for every deadpan, downtown New York comedy, or every noirish black comedy that came in the wake of Blood Simple, back in 1985, that would've been it. "One of the things you learn very quickly in the world of independent film is that one of the best ways to get over is to be original." If that's what it takes for John Pierson to be a successful author, he's well on his way.