Want to know which hot young director prefers which recreational drug? Which one bathes and changes his clothes so infrequently that he smells bad? Which one hates his mother? New York Times Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman zestfully provides the answers in her enjoyably dishy book, obviously modeled on Peter Biskind’s bestselling “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” Waxman boasts the same journalistic chops and slightly nasty tone as Biskind, but she’s working much closer in time to her subject; a bunch of not necessarily likable rebels and the industry they defied, then redefined in the 1990s.
She focuses on six directors, also paying due attention to the handful of studio executives who made it possible for them to play in the big leagues. Quentin Tarantino storms onto the scene first, which is only fair. The huge commercial success of “Pulp Fiction” — 10th-highest grossing movie of 1994, most profitable independent film ever — announced that the mainstream was ready for the fractured narrative structure, stinging satirical humor, casual violence and obsessive immersion in pop culture that characterized the work of many young directors.
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Steven Soderbergh enters more quietly, although it was his “sex, lies, and videotape” that put the indie world on Hollywood’s corporate radar way back in 1989. Soderbergh may be “a control maniac among control maniacs,” but he’s also the cool, cerebral one who mostly gets along with the suits and occasionally deigns to make more conventional films, such as “Out of Sight”‘ and “Erin Brockovich.”
David O. Russell, who swaggers in next with the incest comedy “Spanking the Monkey,” has a more typical psychological profile. “Infuriatingly unpredictable,” with “antisocial tendencies,” “has many former friends,” Waxman avers. (At least his pals seem to have been jettisoned for neurotic personal reasons; the author relates many incidents that bolster longstanding rumors that Tarantino makes professional use of his buddies, then drops them.)
Russell’s dysfunctional relationship with Warner Bros. was more understandable — the studio foisted both its hidebound crew and a TV star on him for “Three Kings” — though a less confrontational director might have tried a little harder not to alienate George Clooney.
Few people get to make movies for being nice, especially if they’re trying to smash genre restraints and capture the messiness of modern life, and Waxman characterizes all of these directors as possessing a firm artistic self-confidence that’s often viewed as arrogance by their corporate paymasters. But none of the others has quite the sublime hubris as Paul Thomas Anderson. At 25, he turned his 92-page script for “Hard Eight” into a 2½-hour film and refused to change a frame. After “Boogie Nights” put him and New Line on the map, he got final cut on “Magnolia” at age 28, telling the executives, “You hired me to be cool. You didn’t hire me to make money.” It must be hard to be humble when Brad Pitt phones your agent and says, “Tell Paul I’ll sweep the floors in his next movie.”
Pitt didn’t have to sweep floors for David Fincher on “Fight Club,” but having a bankable star did little to soothe Fox’s anxiety over a brutally violent movie that blisteringly satirized America’s consumer culture. Fincher, an exacting perfectionist who did things his way or not at all, wasn’t about to compromise. “The budget is what it is,” he said to producer Arnon Milchan when told he had to cut $5 million from it. Waxman seems to admire such intransigence, although her depiction of Fincher as bitter and demanding, “with a little bit of a mean streak,” has the same edge as the rest of her portraits.
The only one she seems to really like is Spike Jonze, who got off-the-wall films like “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” made by charming collaborators with his “We Can Do This vibe” and the relaxed atmosphere he created on the set. Mind you, the author suggests this sweetness is a ploy, via a quote from Steve Golin, then of Propaganda Films: “Spike has a very childlike manner. But he’s clever as a fox. Some of it may be an act.”
Tracing her subjects’ occasionally intertwined odysseys through the 1990s, Waxman finds some interesting similarities. None of them went to film school, and few attended college; Tarantino dropped out of high school. Jonze, “ignorant of all history before Generation X, and proud of it,” is only the most openly unintellectual of a group too driven and self-motivated to waste time on formal education. In marked contrast with the visionary directors of the 1970s they self-consciously emulated, they tried to keep their bad habits, if not their raging egos, out of the newspapers. They had absolutely no interest in tailoring their work to suit the demands of an industry that had only grown more rigid and bottom-line focused since Coppola, Scorsese, et al., butted heads with it in the ’70s.
When Biskind profiled that earlier generation of mavericks, 20 years’ distance gave a book no better written or reported than this one greater historical resonance and a stronger impact on the general public. Waxman’s work seems more tentative: despite her subtitle, she comes to no final conclusions about whether any artist can survive the studio system’s interfering embrace. But against the widget-makers, she counterposes the rebel directors’ sense of belonging to the decades-long saga of “the struggle for auteur filmmaking within the American cine-culture,” as Soderbergh puts it.
The irony of this comment, coming from someone whose most recent movie was “Ocean’s Twelve,” is only appropriate.