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Saturday, February 5th, 2005


Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System

by Sharon Waxman

A review by Gerry Donaghy

In his book Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser writes about what he viewed as the three pillars of the underground American economy: drugs, cheap labor, and pornography. These are things that nobody admits to liking, partaking in, or viewing, yet all represent a windfall of profits for drug lords, farmers that employ migrant labor, and pornographic video producers. Perhaps the forth pillar of American vice should be gossip. We all act aghast when we hear about celebrity failings, yet we can't consume enough of them. More Americans probably saw Joan and Melissa Rivers grill celebrities on the red carpet at the Golden Globe awards than the President's State of the Union address this week. If further evidence is needed, look at how little time was wasted in the American press when it shifted its attention from the tsunami disaster to an even bigger disaster: the break-up of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

Sharon Waxman's book Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System, is rife with gossip, filling a similar vein as Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures. Rebels on the Backlot gives the behind-the-scenes escapades of American filmmaking's young Turks, such as Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Waxman covers the entertainment industry for the New York Times and was granted an amazing amount of access to some typically inaccessible directors, particularly David Fincher (director of Se7en and Fight Club) and Paul Thomas Anderson (director of Boogie Nights). This access, both to the subjects and their associates, yields some pure gold in the form of prima donna behavior, betrayals, and idiotic-in-hindsight suggestions by the suits who work in studio marketing.

Some of these stories are not new. Most people who have any body part on the pulse of the film industry know of the dispute between Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery over the screenplay credit of Pulp Fiction, and the David O. Russell/George Clooney feud that began while filming Three Kings is familiar to anybody who picks up the random issue of Entertainment Weekly. But Waxman manages to excavate some meaty tidbits, complete with violence, adult language, and situations that would earn an R rating if released as a film.

While movie star tantrums are nothing new, they still make for entertaining reading and Rebels on the Backlot doesn't disappoint in that department. Some of the more amusing situations include Gene Hackman calling Wes Anderson a four-letter word (that starts with "c") on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums, and David Fincher replacing a line of dialogue from Fight Club, where Helena Bonham Carter tells Brad Pitt that she wants to have his abortion, with something so much worse that the producer was begging him to put the abortion gag back into the film.

Amusing as these anecdotes can be, they are no substitute for firsthand knowledge of the films being discussed. Here Waxman fails miserably. For somebody who has covered the Hollywood beat for two newspapers, Waxman drops more errors than I've seen in any book published in recent memory. Of course, film geeks can snivel all they want at misinterpretation, or the occasional flub, but there are so many mistakes in this book that it distracts from the genuinely interesting backstories of these directors.

Not to kick somebody while they're down, but here are just some of the mistakes I noticed:

  • Julia Stiles was not in Soderbergh's Traffic (page 101).
  • Wes Anderson's first film was Bottle Rocket, not Rushmore (page 231)
  • Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights didn't work at a car wash, he worked at a nightclub (which is where he met the porn producer played by Burt Reynolds) (page 116).

One or two mistakes are easy to overlook. But mistakes like these make me think that Ms. Waxman spent a lot of time talking to all of the players, but very little time actually watching the movies she writes about. This is painfully clear when she decides, to illustrate how crisp and intoxicating the script of Pulp Fiction is, to quote at length a scene that never made it to the final cut. Maybe the author saw a different version of the film than I did. Or, maybe the scene is an extra on the DVD. But in a movie that is littered with quotable scenes, why she chose to highlight a scene that most folks reading this book have never seen is unfathomable.

Another gripe I have with the book are the mavericks who are noticeably absent: Hal Hartley and Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, whose ability to shoot a film without spending the GDP of smaller industrialized nations allows him extraordinary creative freedom, ditto for Kevin Smith. Admittedly, they haven't left their imprimatur on Hollywood the same way that the subjects of Rebels on the Backlot have, but they deserve more than a passing mention (or, in Linklater's case, complete omission).

All in all, while the book makes for some entertaining reading, and quite a few belly laughs, Rebels on the Backlot is about as substantive as a 300-page issue of Premiere magazine without either the ads or the fact checkers.

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