Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film

ISBN: 0684862581
ISBN 13: 9780684862583
By: Peter Biskind

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About this book

DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES chronicles the rise of independent filmmakers and of the twin engines the Sundance Film Festival and Miramax Films that have powered them. Peter Biskind profiles the people who took the independent movement from obscurity to the Oscars, most notably Sundance founder Robert Redford and Harvey Weinstein, who with his brother, Bob, made Miramax an indie powerhouse. Candid, penetrating and controversial, DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES is a must read for anyone interested in the film world."In DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES, Biskind takes on the movie industry of the 1990s and again gets the story....Peter Biskind captures his era as John Dunne did that of the Zanucks." Frank Rich, The New York Times"Dishy, teeming, superbly reported and packed with lively inside anecdotes...[a] juicy and fascinating expose." - Entertainment Weekly

Reader's Thoughts

David

This is a book of office gossip: who stabbed who in the back, who screwed up the big deals, who did or didn’t say x about y. Except that it’s a book of office gossip about the movie industry, so of course we’re all interested. Starting with Sex, Lies and Videotapes winning the main prize at the Sundance Film Festival and ending with Martin Scorsese failing to win an Oscar for Gangs of New York (I still like that movie), this is a book about the rise of independent film in the 1990s and it’s colonization of the Hollywood mainstream. I think it’s pretty clear that we’ve been lucky enough to have lived through a great age of cinema and perhaps one that’s now at an end (with perhaps There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men as it’s last flourish), so this is an inherently compelling subject and Biskind is a skilled enough writer to milk it for all it’s worth, even setting aside an extensive address book that puts him in touch with all the major players. Disproving the Hollywood cliché that your leading men need to be sympathetic, the main players here are the Weinstein brothers, Bob and Harvey, the old-style media moguls behind Miramax. Obviously not the most pleasant of people (and they got worse with success), this book makes clear that no one else can claim greater responsibility for the invasion of the cinematic mainstream by a host of maverick talent, from Steven Soderbergh and Kevin Smith to, of course, Quentin Tarantino. So, this is a book of office gossip and it does it’s job thrillingly. A must read for anyone interested in the movies.

Caroline

Whilst somewhat lacking in the outrageousness and salacious detail of his previous book, 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls', this is a more than worthy follow-up. It details the rise and fall of 'indie movies', movies made outside of the studio system, often by unknown or first-time directors. Many of these movies were championed and sold at the Sundance Film Festival, which was initially set up to give these directors a pulpit and a place for their movies to be seen and sold. And many were bought by Harvey and Bob Weinstein's Miramix.This book is really about these two organisations, Sundance and Miramax, and their role in first creating an atmosphere where indies filmmakers could flourish, and later, pressuring those same filmmakers into 'going commercial'. For many directors, their first movie was the only true 'indie' movie in their filmography, because once they'd had that first score, once they'd had a film hit the big time and their name become known, there was intense pressure on them to then make something big, something commercial, something that could draw on that cachet and make mega-bucks.Slowly but surely, Sundance became a place for the studios to find the next big thing, and the indie world became almost a 'farm' for talent. In effect, Sundance sold out, betrayed what it was originally set up to nurture and protect. And Miramax moved away from the movies it had made its name with, edgy, daring, sexy movies like Pulp Fiction, and became just another studio, all the more so after it was bought out by Disney.

Mark R.

It's not easy to imagine a more thorough (and entertaining) report on independent and quasi-independent filmmaking from 1989 and beyond. Biskind starts his book by noting that it's a sequel of sorts to his chronicle of filmmaking in the 1970s, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" (which I have not yet read but certainly will, in the not-too-distant future). His introduction provides a summary of the time between that era of film school-educated directors and the indie explosion of the early nineties, providing a necessary background for the main story. The two companies Biskind focuses on are, as the title suggests, Miramax and Sundance, organizations that, as the author describes, did much more than commercialize independent film--they "combined the DNA" of Hollywood and the independent scene. Biskind takes on figures like Harvey and Bob Weinstein and Robert Redford with seemingly little concern for retaliation--a theme of this book. He portrays each man not as a good or bad, but as flawed (and often greedy, mean, and somewhat demented) geniuses who changed independent filmmaking for the best and for the worst.

Sam Quixote

I'm one of those who came of age in the `90s and who loves film, remembering all the great films that that decade produced is great fun as well as finding out how they came about from the mouths of the filmmakers themselves. That said, I loved the book but it goes further than talking about the directors and actors, to the guys who held the purse-strings and the exposure, namely the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, who created Miramax and Dimension, and Robert Redford, the movie star who founded the Sundance Film Festival. You read about the Weinsteins' humble beginnings as concert promoters onto small films released on tape, and then small pictures released widely to garner a small profit. From there they go large, getting more pictures, some of which gain success enabling them to seem attractive to a massive corporation like Disney who then buys them and gives them the financial clout to corner the market on low budget films. Redford starts Sundance which then grows, after the initial few years, into a recognisable entity and then comes to be regarded as the place to have your film shown at, given how guys like the Weinsteins go there to buy films. The Weinsteins themselves come across as monsters. Both screaming and abusing staffers, making them wait hours for meetings, docking pay, threatening them, throwing furniture. They really seem like bipolar ogres smashing around to get what they want. Redford comes across as a control freak who is unable to make decisions and thus contributes greatly to the Sundance brand failing to become as mainstream as he had hoped. Contributions are from many recognisable faces, from the superstar directors Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith to actors Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Even Harvey Weinstein agrees to contribute to the book (Redford declines as he holds grudges). Biskind uses these to create a vivid and compelling portrait of the `90s throughout. While some might say the narrative is repetitive (Weinstein doesn't change nor does Redford and the anecdotes rarely differ - Redford bumbling about, Weinstein screaming foaming at the mouth) I found it too interesting and could easily have kept reading until the present day (it stops at 2003). I loved it, as a fan of good writing and a fan of film, it's a fantastic read and utterly great fun. Here's hoping Biskind does a follow up of the `00s.

Peter

Peter Biskind delivers another juicy read, and that goes a long way, even if the book seems relentlessly one-track-minded about painting Harvey Weinstein and Robert Redford in the most unflattering possible light. Biskind must have decided what he wanted to hear before going into any interview, so his extensive reporting merely corroborates his opening thesis -- that Harvey's a boor and Redford's a control freak. Still, it's fun to hear all that dirt, even if (in Harvey's case) it amounts to little more than chain smoking, binge eating and verbal abuse, invariably followed up with some form of apology a day later. There's none of the "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" sleaze here, even though Harvey's reputation is surrounded by revolting abuse-of-power anecdotes in real life (guess the lawyers couldn't clear that stuff).

Sean

Having read "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls" - I thought I'd check out the sequel, about indie cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. The subject itself seems very interesting and is worthy of being studied in greater depth. There was an excellent book to be had in the subject matter - it's just that Biskind didn't write it. While I can't fault his research and scoring interviews with most of the key people involved, which seem impeccable - I didn't find the various machinations and double-dealings quite as intriguing as the ones in "Easy Riders..", which seems a shame, as the 1990s, in their own way, were just as revolutionary as the 1960s had been.The main points I got from the book are: 1) The Weinstein brothers, contrary to their working-class hero image, seem to be sociopathic thugs not above using outright intimidation to get what they want and 2) Robert Redford is pretty unreliable and fickle.There's other stuff about Quentin Tarantino (he likes being famous - who knew?), Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh, but while they've made some excellent films, they aren't exactly charismatic personae. Sure, they're guys you can hang out with, but would you want to? At least Biskind does cover some of the women involved in independent film, like Allison Anders, instead of focusing entirely on the 'boys club' of "Easy Riders...".After a while, I was bored of reading dollar signs and which indie set-up was going to score the hit of the year. If you're into the business side of the film business, this is the book for you.

Taylor

After Biskind's book, I cannot think about the film industry the same way again. Filled with episodes of backstabbing, double-crossing, petty rivalries, idiotic disputes, and all sorts of people dragging all sorts of other people through the mud, my eyes have been opened. Most of the book is dedicated to the vivid portraiture of Harvey Weinstein - the pseudo-Messianic figure who rules over his company, Miramax, with an iron fist. (Though his brother Bob is also clearly no pushover.) If there's a reason for the chopping of a star from the rating, it is the weird frame that Biskind tries to construct around Sundance. Of course, telling the story of the rise of independent film in the 1990s is impossible without Sundance - but most of the Sundance bits feel unimportant. Particularly in the latter half of the book, the Sundance sections consist mostly of Robert Redford's various shirkings of responsibility. The Weinstein sections, on the other hand, are commanding - even thrilling. Who knew that such blatant douchebaggery was lurking behind pictures so warm-hearted as Good Will Hunting or Shakespeare In Love? I sure didn't.

Jack Gattanella

I read the book and then got audio. One of those books I actually preferred listening as an audio book while I played video games. Some of this could be bullshit, I dunno, but it corroborates a lot of what I've read elsewhere about Harvey Weinstein being a total jerk and asshole with occasional moments of brilliance and goodness (certainly as a self-promoter), and it paints a vivid, high-and-low posit of what the 'indie' scene once was like. Worth it for just the stuff on Steven Soderbergh alone, but also fascinating is the stuff on the guys who ran October Films and how that went down in flames.

RK Byers

best book I've read on the film industry since "You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again."

Michael

Far worse than "Easy Riders Raging Bulls" wayyyy more interested in the politics of movie making and creating a sensationalistic list of things that Harvey Weinstein has done, than providing much meaningful insight into independent film or the directors behind them.

Drew Raley

A dead-eyed sequel to his book on The New Hollywood, Biskind desperately trowels on the gossip. Unfortunately, the figures at the center of this installment are less than compelling. Dennis Hopper sat in a chair surrounded by exploding dynamite for an audience. Harvey Weinstein recut some middlebrow awards-bait films. Coppola actually lost his mind in the Philippines, having mortgaged his house and shattered his Godfather Oscars in a fit of rage. Steven Soderbergh got angry at Robert Redford for not spending much money to promote a tame Depression-era story about a boy forced by circumstance to eat magazines. Jack Nicholson WAS Jack Nicholson in the '70s. Quentin Tarantino apparently has horrible BO and no new ideas. D&DP is a damp squib compared to Easy Riders Raging Bulls dynamite chair.

Medeyle

Very interesting, but narrowly focused. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in film or film history. The subtitle leads you to believe more time will be spent on Sundance than you get - I'd say the overall proportion is about 80/20 in Miramax's favor. Overall, an absorbing look at Miramax's birth, life cycle and gentle fade, with the occasional side trip to Utah. I'd say the writer really can't stand Redford personally and that makes it tough to judge how much of the stuff he says about Redford/Sundance is accurate (most, I'd guess, but so much is subjective, it's really the reader's choice to believe or disbelieve). I'd also say that the Weinstein brothers probably deserve to get their asses kicked for being such awful people, but unfortunately not everyone who deserves it gets it. Some who deserve it end up multimillionaires. On a side note, the definition of "independent film" used in this book is slightly odd. The author means any film not financed by a big studio, but I have to say I don't really think of flicks like The English Patient and Shakespeare In Love as indies - I tend to think of an indie as more like Clerks, or Ghost Dog, or Lone Star, more with the "experimental tone-excited by the work actors-financed by dentists" leanings, and less with the "giant budget-movie stars-middle of the road scripts". The author's definition is quite accurate, it just caused me a little reality vertigo to hear Shakespeare In Love called an indie.

Bookmarks Magazine

Trust Biskind. You don't know half the story behind the movies you see. In this gossipy, titillating expose on the marriage between Sundance and Miramax, Biskind vilifies everyone: Redford, the Weinsteins, those greedy little actors just trying to earn a modest living. It's a fascinating read--even if you don't believe every word. Nor should you. Biskind dishes out insider's tales of lost dreams, treacherous motives, and thuggish corporate warfare. But Down and Dirty is repetitive and rife with errors, and many of his subjects (like the slandered Redford) refused to speak with him. (Weinstein, on the other hand, did.) Despite these flaws, this book will remind you that "there's no business as dirty as show business" (Miami Herald). This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

Troy Blackford

This was a great and illuminating read. I just read Peter Biskind's examination of the rise of the 'New Hollywood' directors of the 70s, 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,' and this one was even more interesting. A thorough and engaging look at the Indie film renaissance of the 90s, up through 2004, focusing primarily on Mirimax and Sundance. Sundance plays far less of a role, primarily because (as this book reveals) Robert Redford has a hard time focusing enough on a particular thing to make sure it gets done. The Weinstien brothers, on the other hand, seem to have run Mirimax with an almost maniacal, over-the-line focus and drive that has ruined myriad relationships even as it has racked up accomplishments. It's kind of interesting to see what a difference those two attitudes can make when stretched out over a career's length.Anyway, I greatly enjoyed this read. I can truly recommend it.

Caracalla

This book focussed on two distribution companies, Miramax and October-USA-Focus, and the Sundance Film Festival, and aims to understand the independent film movement. This focus might help him deal with something as inchoate as this movement but it is a move away from the focus his last book on the personalities of New Hollywood, that makes the gap between his interest, personality and gossip, and his subject, the businesses and institutions behind the indie movement, a little uncomfortable. Apart from endless anecdotes about Weinsteins anger, you don't get a strong sense of how the Weinsteins struck a balance between art and commercialism, what the logic was behind the line they drew. Clearly, they were in the business of throwing their weight around pointlessly at times, but there must have been some idea of the direction they wanted to be going in. Miramax has a sort of story arc, beginning in The Piano and the Crying Game, interesting films with progressive ideas about sex and gender and a sophisticated sensibility which they picked up at festivals, to Shakespeare in Love and Chocolat, more expensive films they produced that have aged badly and hardly make good on any promise of real or interesting sophistication. October has a similar progression but it involves less personality and is determined by the inexorable forces of the movie market that it couldn't escape. Finally, Sundance is the story of Redford continually being a bad businessman and there's little sense of a narrative there. So maybe these weren't perfect fits as subjects of a chronological account.Certainly this institutional focus might have been a good starting point and where Miramax ends up with films like Cold Mountain and Gangs of New York or even ultimately with the ouster of the two brothers certainly should consistently be kept in mind. Still, it feels a shame that so little was said about Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David Russell, the Coen Brothers, Van Sant, etc. Maybe their aesthetic contribution has little to do with the industry and how it works but ultimately when the subject moves to how Shakespeare in Love got made, you kinda feel like you've left the independent movement and original film-making voices behind. You come out of the book understanding how the oscars have come to be ruled over by the independents, why studios still bother with auterish types (note how many different comic-book franchises Aranofsky has been attached to) and why there might always be room for innovative and personal film-making but often in a very compromised way. Films like Traffic and Shakespeare in Love still feel a little too compromised by the compromises between commercialism, art, audiences, etc. but that might be the definitive experience of the late 90's. Maybe there's less of a story here than in the 70's: 90's film-making feels a little too governed by the idiosyncratic stylistic tastes of its directors and not by directors with ideas of broad significance for the genre and their environment(Three Kings is held up as the great 90's marriage of studio and auteur, because of its left-wing credentials, an understandable choice but compare Apocalypse Now to it). Otherwise, it could be a case for first in tragedy (70's), then in farce (90's). Whether it's Biskind's fault or not, this is the definitive account of the 90's without doubt but it leaves you a little unsatisfied.

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