Indies find a voice on cable film show

While John Pierson was touring the country with his book “Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes,” the bestselling account of a decade in the indie film world, it occurred to him that it was time to try television. “It seemed like a natural evolution,” he says. “The spirit of the show picks up from the spirit of the book, and the business side seemed obvious.” Pierson, who has an ongoing relationship with Sundance, initially pitched the magazine format show devoted to the wacky world of independent filmmaking to Robert Redford. “It was all sort of a prank at first,” Pierson says, “but the longer it went on, the more it became a good idea.”

Although Sundance and Pierson attempted to collaborate, creative differences eventually drove Pierson to the Independent Film Channel, where Pierson says he found the autonomy he felt was necessary to make the show work.

Titled “Split Screen,” Pierson’s show premiered March 10. The first episode began with Pierson chatting informally with Spike Lee about movies and the first days of their respective careers. (Pierson’s book anoints Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” the first true independent film.)

Pierson’s style is casual — rather than interrogating his guests or attempting to uncover some kernel of gossip that will play well as a soundbite, he instead offers a sometimes-meandering slice of indie film life. “I’ve always been comfortable talking to people,” says Pierson, who admits that the camera changes things, if only slightly. “With these initial shows especially, we just wanted a relaxed and casual feel. And we wanted it to be fun, entertaining and irreverent.”

Although Pierson, who created the show with his wife, Janet, writes and produces each episode, he says he relies heavily on the creative contributions of other filmmakers, who so far include guys like Chris Smith, P.H. O’Brien and Brian Flemming. “The whole idea, especially if we continue with more episodes next year, is to work with a family of filmmakers across the country,” he says. “If they can make a feature, I figure they’re responsible enough to shoot a segment, and to do it with style, panache and attitude. Once somebody’s done one, we hope they’ll do it again.”

In addition to Lee, “Split Screen’s” first episode features a wonderful conversation between John Waters (“Pink Flamingos”) and Herschell Gordon Lewis (“2000 Maniacs”), who compare their divergent philosophies on shock tactics. The strengths of this segment are the ease with which the pair chat and the snippet of film history covered in their conversation.

Subsequent episodes feature discussions with Kevin Smith (at the Quick Stop where he shot “Clerks”), Richard Linklater (who spent the day before “SubUrbia’s” premiere at the New York Film Festival being followed by Pierson — it’s touching to see Linklater nervously grappling with his mother and all the attention around him after the screening); and Terry Zwigoff (who talks about making the docu “Crumb”).

Free-style format

Pierson says most episodes probably will feature a higher-profile interview; a conversation between two filmmakers; some sort of story related to the larger arena of indie film production; and an insider’s glimpse at something we’re not apt to see anywhere else. As Pierson notes, however, even before he finishes describing the show’s format, he’s open to change. “With the fifth show, we practically turned it over to Brian Flemming who, with Keythe Farley, attended one of David S. Freeman’s screenwriting seminars and produced a short film called ‘The Juggler’ afterwards.” This episode, which also features Guinevere Turner interviewing pregnant filmmakers Katherine Dieckman and Mary Harron, pokes fun at the audacious claims made by Freeman and suggests ways that the show will build a critical edge.

Going worldwide

Thus far, the show screens on the Independent Film Channel and on Bravo as part of Bravo’s IFC Fridays. Pierson estimates the two channels get the show into 28 million homes, and while the show at this point definitely has a specialized audience, Pierson has major aspirations. He is working out arrangements to sell the show’s foreign rights. “We’ve had to upgrade all our licenses, and if there’s a satisfactory revenue flow, we may upgrade them again for homevideo.”

Upcoming episodes of “Split Screen” will feature Errol Morris, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi and Cameron Crowe.

Although Pierson’s influence in the world of independent film is substantial, and the show only reinforces his ability to dictate trends, he’s adamant about it being his own take, not a comprehensive or deciding perspective. “It’s a personal show,” he says, “and it reflects my taste and my sense of humor. And, if we’re going to proceed with more shows, it’s inevitable that we’ll get broader.”

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