Mudslinging Memoir Massacres Miramax

Picture the scene: Fresh out of film school, brimming with ingenuity, one writes the script of which dreams are made. Then, one borrows some cash from Uncle Joe and scours the Internet for undiscovered talent willing to work hard only for art's sake. Filming commences. It is perfect. It could be next big thing. The kids at the film company catch wind of the masterpiece. Just when the vision of making a deal with a distributor becomes a near-reality, one is awakened by the sound of a cackling executive thundering : "You'll never work in this town again, but we'll call it even". Welcome to the making of indipendent films Hollywood style. It ain't pretty.

Such a portrait of the status of independent film in the U.S. has been clearly painted by journalist Peter Biskind, but along with the humorous mudslinging towards the film establishment, comes a slippery slope of questionable accuracy.

However, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (Simon & Schuster, 544 pages) is still worth its weight in gold for any industry professional or film buff. This work of non-fiction by the former executive editor of Premiere Magazine and contributor to Vanity Fair, was conceived and carried out with the main intent to show that even the "softer" side of Hollywood can be ruthless.

With this work, Peter Biskind presents a follow-up to his earlier eye-opening book about the 1970's film industry, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Simon & Schuster, 512 pages). Now he dishes a fly-on-the-wall account - both vicious and irresistible - of the tumultuous takeover of independent film by the larger-than-life Weinstein brothers of Miramax and Robert Redford's Sundance Films.

But, again, it's gossip and a class act it's not; Biskind takes readers on a wild ride of back-stabbing, cheating and lying within the film industry.

Though the Weinsteins are under the gun for a good part of the book, timeless boy-wonder Robert Redford also takes some flack and is portrayed as a control-freak who fires, hires and bogs down the creative forces behind his own film company, Sundance Films. Ironically, Biskind's book was released one week before the Sundance Film Festival, creating uneasiness among the attendees and Sundance staff. Redford himself declined to comment on the book to the press, saying that he simply had not read Biskind's work.

In one of the juicier passages of the book, Biskind reflects on a particular actor-executive relationship in which "harsh words were spoke" between Harvey Weinstein and actor Billy Bob Thorton after the controversy surrounding Sling Blade's post-production plans, which Biskind unravels.

Harvey reminds Billy Bob that he himself is, in fact, a "big, fat, hairy Jew" while Thorton, with his thick Southern drawl, thoughtfully rebuttals, "...down heah wheah ah come from, we don' like Heebrews."

Biskind then raises the stakes with unflattering remarks about Weinstein's background and relationship with his WASPy ex-wife Eve Chilton: "Chilton was the first rung of the ladder that helped Harvey climb out of Queens [New York City borough] Shtetl [a small Jewish village] where he grew up", reported Biskind.

Other references and tales are relayed indicating how Harvey has little class and etiquette. Unfortunately, the book does not factor in the success that independent film has earned, due to the Weinstein vision and tenacity.

Biskind asks the reader to enter into the mind of a panic-stricken Miramax intern, timidly offering a plate of bagels and lox to Bob Weinstein with quivering hands or witnessing an in-office screaming match between a nicknamed Harvey "Scissorhands" and actress Uma Thurman. This reviewer can sympathsize with the enviroment in which people work there, having known several interns or entry-level youngsters who "did time" at Miramax.

Apparently, from Biskind's perspective, no good can come from that pair of evil, totalitarian dictators ruling an entertainment-based company.

The erudite reader, though, realizes Biskind's acknowledged bias, and ingests the material with either an inquisitive fascination or the grain of salt behind each sweeping statement.

Aside from all the dirt, there is much to be learned from the book about the process of approval and film funding that independent film makers face.

According to Biskind, the film maker's creative choices are somewhat open before the deal is made, but limited at anytime during the process: Todd Solondz is given as a good example. When distribution for his 1994 film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, was discussed at Miramax, Harvey called for saccharine renditions. Miramax offered to re-shoot the picture with a more optimistic ending. Solondz went with Sony Classics instead, and his unaltered version was very well received.

In final analysis, doubts are raised about the book and information is questionable at best, plus, it's clear that Biskind has accomplished his goal: exposing the volatile conditions under which indepedent films are made today. HM