30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2005
If you felt a little let down by Peter Biskind's recent look at 90's indie film, "Down & Dirty Pictures," this juicier but also more personal book might be closer to what you were hoping to find there.
Instead of focusing primarily on Sundance and Miramax, Waxman focuses on the six men responsible for some of the biggest movies of the past decade: Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction"), P.T. Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia"), Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich"), David O. Russell ("Three Kings"), David Fincher ("Fight Club") and Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic").
They're a mixed bag of personalities and Waxman tells their stories with detail and relish, and also touches on other interesting filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Roger Avary, Charlie Kaufman, Alexander Payne and others (though some are conspicuously absent -- Spike Lee and especially Richard Linklater, who isn't even mentioned).
It's hard to miss with a collection of stories like this: Tarantino's rise to power; Hackman cursing Wes Anderson on the set of "Tenenbaums"; Avary's attempts to buy a famous French film studio; Russell headbutting George Clooney on the set of "Kings" and P.T. Anderson admitting that "Magnolia" was probably too long.
"Rebels" (very deliberately) rises to the same sordid, "print the legend" heights as Biskind's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls." But it also suffers from some of the same weaknesses - occasionally questionable accounts; some poor copy editing and more than a few awkward sentences that feel like they were written the Sunday night before the term paper was due: "Traffic" screenwriter Stephen Gaghan's high school drug problems are introduced twice in three pages; Wes Anderson's debut was "Bottle Rocket" not "Rushmore"; and what can one say about lines such as, "Soderbergh questioned his own questioning" and "The director kept the obituary about his father printed in the local paper framed in his office in Los Angeles" ? Waxman also has a strange storytelling habit of explaining the results of a situation, then backtracking once or twice to tell the circumstances that led to the results.
Nevertheless, it is absolutely impossible to deny the appeal of this book, and it was equally impossible for me to put the damn thing down for the past week.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2005
This book is a very quick read, but unfortunately shows all the signs of having been an equally quick write. I have never before stopped in the middle of reading a book to pull out a pen and write down all the glaring factual errors and omissions that I saw, but Rebels on the Backlot forced me to do just that. I see that many of the most egregious errors have already been noted by others, but here is some of what I wrote down as I read:
On page 231: "Texas preppie-geek Wes Anderson had made his first movie, Rushmore, based on his experience in prep school, with an utter unknown in the lead, Jason Schwartzman." Wes Anderson's first film, of course, was Bottle Rocket, not Rushmore. And, yes, Jason Schwartzman had no previous film acting experience before Rushmore, but was hardly an "utter unknown" to the film world- his family (both the Schwartzmans and the Coppolas) had done a little bit of film work in their past, both in front of and behind the cameras. Even Waxman might have recognized the mother of this "utter unknown" from all of the Rocky movies.
Traffic star Erika Christensen is identified on page 321 as "Erika Christenssen" and, most howlingly, on page 101 as "Julia Stiles." Yes, the two actresses do look alike, but that's just absurd.
On page 266, describing the marketing of Fight Club, Waxman writes that "Fincher insisted the studio hire a cutting-edge advertising firm, Weiden + Kennedy, based in Seattle." Weiden + Kennedy are based in Portland, home of Nike, their biggest client. They have offices in Portland, New York, Amsterdam, London, Tokyo and Shanghai, but not in Seattle.
On page 194, Waxman describes the profound influence of Aimee Mann's music in the creation of Magnolia, both at the script level, and in the soundtrack. On the very next page, she describes how writer/director PT Anderson got the idea for the film's rain of frogs, as well as its historical prologue, from "musician and friend Michael Penn, Sean's brother." Perhaps Waxman is the only person left in the film or music worlds who doesn't know that, besides being Sean's brother, Michael Penn is also Aimee Mann's husband.
This is a sloppy, poorly researched, poorly written, and incredibly poorly edited book. Reading it, one can easily imagine Waxman's interview subjects seeing how little she knew about her subject, and simply making up absurd lies just to see if she would ever catch them. Spike Jonze tells her that location scouting was conducted to find an actual half-floor building for Being John Malkovich, and she repeats this claim on page 205. I'm sure Jonze is enjoying a good laugh over that.
If you are looking for well-written book on this subject matter, I'd stick with Peter Biskind.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2005
I tore through this book, enjoying it thoroughly. It's a quick entertaining read, and seems to reveal a lot about the craziness of trying to manage a directing career.
However, there's also a really shoddy first-draft feel to the book. The irony is Waxman is a New York Times writer, and the book is filled with passages that would embarrass the paper. Example- "The question of Tarantino's ability to write without the support of a partner became a real question over the years." Oy vey!
The factual errors also make me wonder how much of these stories I can take at face value. She briefly mentions Wes Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket, early in the book and then later calls Rushmore his first film. She misidentifies Erika Christensen as Julia Stiles in Traffic. She reports that David Russell used a real corpse for a shot of a bullet entering a body in Three Kings when it's been reported widely that this story was a misunderstanding of a joke that Russell had made and a dummy was actually used. These are just the ones that I (not a film industry person) caught.
That said, I recommend it to wannabe film directors as a fun set of stories that may inspire you or may revulse you to the business altogether.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2005
Waxman's book makes one wonder if she really writes for the New York Times. Any amateur film geek who's actually seen the films she writes about will find multiple errors, strange, unsupported statements, poorly written and edited sentences, and could probably write a better book themselves in short order.
That said, Waxman's interviews do give her a point of view on her six main subjects which is interesting, and some of the gossip is compelling. Waxman badly needs an editor. She thanks one in the acknowledgments, so apparently someone held the title, but no one much seems to have performed the function. Had a good editor got hold of this manuscript, it might seem less like it was written in crayon in a big hurry. Which is a shame, because it does have its moments, a few revelations, and a driving narrative. But too much takes away from these strengths to recommend the book highly.
Rebels on the Backlot is an interesting look at six film directors (Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson) and their rise in the Hollywood film world, starting from the late 80's and finishing out in the early 2000's. While it admittedly reads like one big gossip article, this in itself makes the book a page turner. What I found most interesting about the book was in how it draws similarities in the six directors through their behavior and general demeanor. Artists of their stature are usually social misfits and boy, oh boy does that ring ever so clear here. It doesn't necessarily go as in depth on their backgrounds as I would have liked but it does offer up plenty of information on not just the directors and their output but the machinations of the shark infested Hollywood studio system and how a business model like what it employs works against artistry and originality when the bottom line is all that matters. It also becomes quite painful to read in some places. The behind the scenes bits about Fight Club's travels to the screen are especially uncomfortable, along with the early days of Quentin Tarantino's career and David O. Russell's general insanity.
When the book ends, it almost feels you've just finished a piece of angel food cake. Light, fluffy and enjoyable all the way through but it won't change your life or anything when you stop and reflect upon it. What you will come away with is a little more of an understanding of these undeniably talented individuals. In fact, I'd go far as to say that Rebels on the Backlot is required reading for anyone with dreams of becoming a film maker, period.
on March 2, 2006
Sharon Waxman delves into the lives of six men who have made headlines and redefined the way studios treat directors. Overall, what makes this book fascinating are the delicious details of personal lives and the on-the-set antics. However, what fail to shine is the actual writing. Waxman labors the half-baked introduction with lists of the directors' biographical landmarks that fail to make a point. The conclusion also feels rushed and bases her views of success on merely financial results (She dismisses "Punch-Drunk Love" as a failure for P.T. Anderson. He won Best Director for the film at both Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals.)I would still contest that this is a great read for those who have been captivated by these "rebels" and their extraordinary films, but if one is looking for any depth of analysis or crafted prose, look elsewhere.
13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2005
The 1970's are now considered to be a Golden Age for American cinema, a time when directors, screenwriters and other creative personal called the shots on how studio films were made, a time when films challenged audiences, acutely reflected the darkness of modern culture. Hollywood's "auteur-era" imploded at the tail end of the decade, with its rebels - Scorsese, Coppola, Altman et al - lost in a black hole of cocaine synapse-burn, egoism and uncontrolled expenditure, a disastrous event-horizon that peaked with the 1980 release of *Heaven's Gate*, Michael Cimino's wildly over-budgeted mess that nearly bankrupted United Artists. This, along with the advent of the summer blockbuster as epitomized by *Jaws* and *Star Wars*, signaled a bottom-line-oriented revolution in the studio system. Number-crunching executives emerged to regain the mantel of power, dictating the method of the entertainment business as profit-margin first, artistic expression a distant second. The calculated blockbusters of the 1980's reflect this transition, the emphasis on big stars, big explosions, feel-good vibes and/or tear-jerking manipulation dominating nearly all of the flagship titles of the decade.
Eventually this profit-margin formula became stale, toothless in its demographic estimations; and beneath the stagnant scum-crust of the "mainstream" there began to thrive a new, angry generation of filmmakers, auteur-initiates pushing the envelope. These films reveled in violence, sex, drugs and other taboo subjects; they criticized the mentality of capitalist America, exposing the contradictions and deep hypocrisies fueling its consumer-ethic. Typically, the same studio executives responsible for propagating the 80's attitudes instantly sought to benefit from this disruptive new voice of cinema, making superstars of the auteur, capturing their caustic visions on celluloid while keeping the keys of ~carte blanche~ firmly above reach: the lessons of the 1970's had not been forgotten.
Susan Waxman's chronicles this turbulent era in *Rebels on the Backlot,* a tale of six maverick directors gleefully subverting the Hollywood paradigm, of the suits struggling to maintain the blockbuster status-quo, and of the resultant art that came about, by hook or by crook. In tone and style this book resembles Peter Biskind's classic deconstruction of 70's cinema, *Easy Riders, Raging Bulls*, consisting of equal part in-depth examination and tabloid-level gossip.
TARANTINO: Pop-culture synthesist, blatant plagiarist, hygienically challenged: cinema autodidact Quentin Tarantino kick-started the new renaissance with his 1994 neo-noir masterpiece *Pulp Fiction.* A man-child motor-mouth and television addict, Tarantino combined his instincts for drama - and his serial theft of other people's work - to shape the gunshot heard around the world, muffled (barely) between Biblical quotes and McDonalds musings. Quick to drop his old collaborators for the star-shine of Hollywood, Tarantino then regressed into a pot-hazed period of unproductive ambivalence, secretly tormented by his inability to come up with a single original idea.
SODERBERGH: The Yin to Tarantino's Yang, Steven Soderbergh exploded with 1989's *sex, lies and videotape*, then spent many years afterward on a downward trajectory, yearning for the free-wheeling spirit of the independent sphere, making a host of obtuse 'personal' films before successfully combining his independent streak with the mainstream in 1999's drug war epic *Traffic*. Soderbergh's story is that of the truly gifted auteur trapped in a cycle of self-sabotage, emerging victorious only after a long, bitter fight.
PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: Porn-lover PTA put his heart (and everything else) on the screen with his San Fernando Valley epics *Boogie Nights* and *Magnolia.* Evoking comparisons to Scorsese and Altman, Anderson certainly had something to say - the fact that he took so long to say it, and did so in such a bombastic way, had New Line executives tearing out their hair trying to make his message palatable to a wide audience. No luck so far...
O'RUSSEL: Idiosyncratic and controlling, David O'Russel mined darkly comical material from the trauma of his wealthy east-coast childhood, and eventually came to make Hollywood's first critical take on the Gulf War with *Three Kings.* Tensions flared between the director and George Clooney, climaxing with fisticuffs in the Arizona desert and a long-standing feud after the film's release. Waxman obviously thinks highly of O'Russel's talent (more than I do, certainly), and a large part of the book is devoted to this socially-inept director.
FINCHER: The heart of darkness over at Fox Studios, David Fincher took Chuck Palahniuk's *Fight Club* and, for once in a blue moon, managed to make a film superior to the source text. A biting satire of consumerism/fascism, *Fight Club* was despised by Fox's suits and marketers and infuriated conservative honcho Rupert Murdoch; the press, just as clueless as to the film's intentions, savaged it upon release. And yet *Fight Club* is now one of the great DVD successes, having found its audience among the young and restless whom identify with Tyler Durden, or at least with what he had to say...
JONZE: A self-taught upstart from MTV, Spike Jonze slipped through the cracks to make one of Hollywood's strangest marquee flicks: the brilliant *Being John Malcovitz*, a film that would have never seen the light of day if not for the perseverance of Jonze and a studio hand-over.
As in *Easy Riders, Raging Bulls*, Waxman ends her thesis with a recount of "where are they now" - a conclusion marred by the fact that this book is only five years down the road from the peak-year of 1999. In fact, *Rebels on the Backlot* is basically a much slighter version of that chronicle: for though it is written and sequenced in the same way, the narrow focus hardly paints an adequate picture of 90's cinema. Spike Lee, Richard Linkleter and Peter Jackson are hardly mentioned; Gus Van Zant is totally missing; the Wachoski Bros, Wes Anderson, David Aronofsky, Sam Mendes and Alexander Payne and are given sketchy-at-best accounts. Several of the above listed created far more influential and brain-bending films, IMO, than O'Russel or PTA. Still, for an amusing, gossipy, and occasionally insightful glimpse into the better cinema of mid-to-late 90's, *Rebels on the Backlot* serves its purpose.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2005
I was going to write exactly what reviewer Howard Lamp has already commented on, so I encourage anyone planning on reading this book to consider Lamp's comments. If we can catch these rather larger errors in Waxman's book, why couldn't the people who were paid to catch them? And what about the author?
For what it's worth, the book also features many grammatical errors.
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I find it intriguing that New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman has pulled together a book on six film directors who seem to have little in common save for the fact that they were able to break through the hermetically sealed Hollywood studio system in the nineties to forge identities as visionary filmmakers. I suppose that's reason enough to group them together, though when one thinks of their predecessors in the seventies - Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese - this new brethren hardly seems to be at the same level of creative invention or business savvy, nor does one sense the professional bonding that propelled this former group toward critical and popular success. And unfortunately, Waxman chooses to bypass the current crop of minority filmmakers who have emerged in the past decade, such as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Robert Rodriguez and Alfonso Cuaron, whom one can argue have made as significant an impact as these six auteurs have had.
The six filmmakers under Waxman's microscope are Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction", "Kill Bill - Parts 1 and 2"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights", "Magnolia"), David Fincher ("Fight Club"), David O. Russell ("Flirting With Disaster", "Three Kings"), Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation") and Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic", "Erin Brockovich"). Waxman takes an investigative reporter's scalpel to provide a sometimes scathing expose of the directors' intersecting private and professional lives, but it's saved from total tabloid fodder by providing an incisive and rather disheartening look at Hollywood movie deal-making replete with cleverly maneuvered betrayals. What emerges are six men who, despite their obvious talent, come out as ego-driven, socially inept mercenaries, all willing to compromise their integrity and even their families to secure the deal that will make them the center of the independent film scene. Top of the heap despite his spotty box office track record is Tarantino, a one-time video-rental clerk who parlayed his in-depth film trivia knowledge of film into highly stylized films, the most successful being 1994's "Pulp Fiction", probably the touchstone for all other independent films that followed its over $100 million domestic take. But the others, despite critical acclaim and awards, have fared less well financially, proving that these men are not really the rebels who have conquered Hollywood, just survivors of a system that will always view artistic statement as a lower priority than profitability, a major accomplishment in itself if you are to believe the author. If you have any doubts about Hollywood's preoccupation for the bottom line, I suggest you read James Stewart's just released "Disney War" to get validation of the points Waxman raises here.
To her credit, she gives highly detailed, often compelling accounts of how some of their major films were made, in particular, "Boogie Nights", "Three Kings", "Being John Malkovich," and most interestingly, "Fight Club", a movie so desultory to the studio heads that it brought down Fox's Bill Mechanic, who green lighted the film in spite of performing the same task with a little film called "Titanic". In addition to interviews with the six, who are understandably wary of Waxman's book, she has spoken with plenty of colleagues and relations to paint an awfully bleak portrait of the current Hollywood scene. One is left to wonder if the business will allow them any sort of longevity comparable to their predecessors despite their talent.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2005
I have to reiterate the comments of some other readers who have reviewed this book. The backstories of these directors and the films they made are incredibly interesting, especially if you're a fan of independent film. But the book is so sloppy in places, it's incredibly distracting and it seriously affects Waxman's credibility.
Aside from glaring factual errors, the narrative jumps around so much that it can be hard to follow. On a large scale, the story jumps from one production to another, and then back again. Theoretically this is because it's organized in chronological order, but within each section about a particular film she is just as likely to backtrack to a producer's childhood, or jump ahead a few years to the audience reaction when the film is screened at Cannes. If you're going to do that, why not just stick with one film and tell the story all the way through? On a smaller scale, many paragraphs seem to be written in a stream-of-consciousness style so that it's impossible to tell if each sentence has anything to do with the one before or after it.
It definitely seems like the book wasn't well copyedited when you read a paragraph about "Being John Malkovich" that begins with the sentence, "Without even reading the script, New Line's De Luca made the deal, though it took weeks to make things final" and two sentences later says, "De Luca felt he couldn't take on 'Malkovich,' too, though he loved the script." So... did he read the script or not?
She explains how David O. Russell never wanted George Clooney to star in "Three Kings," and mentions that Clooney sent him a note saying that he understood how his work in Batman and E.R. might not make him seem like the best candidate, but he had recently done Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" (which he clearly hoped would be his indi-film calling card). This didn't seem to help his case any, but Waxman doesn't bother to explain (until much, much later in the book) that Russell and Soderbergh already had a long-standing feud at that point. This seems like an important and relevant detail.
Later, on the subject of this feud, she says "The Clooney matter had much broader repercussions, and not just for the director and the movie star..." These "broader repercussions" amount to:
1. Spike Jonze was offended that Russell wasn't invited to join Soderbergh's filmmaker's club (though Jonze himself was).
2. Mark Wahlberg was caused discomfort.
Seems like a pretty dramatic statement that isn't backed up at all.
These may seem like nitpicky things, but the cumulative effect of such lazy storytelling is that the reader starts to question how trustworthy some of the accounts are. Clearly there are contradictory points of view in some of the conflicts described in the book. And, in several cases, I'm not sure I trust that Waxman got the "real story." Read it if you're a fan of these 6 filmmakers and their work, but take it with a grain of salt.