By Jonathan Marlow
September 2, 2005 - 5:25 AM PDT
John Pierson has been a major mover and shaker in the American independent film movement, particularly in the mid-80s to mid-90s, when he provided crucial support in the early phases of the careers of filmmakers such as Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Kevin Smith. His book about that era, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes, (briefly reviewed here) has since been updated and re-released as Spike, Mike Reloaded. For four years, he hosted the IFC series, Split Screen, and eventually relocated from the Hudson Valley to Austin. But around that time, too, he got it in his head to take his family to Fiji, run a theater there and show movies for free. Jonathan Marlow talks to John, Janet, Georgia and Wyatt Pierson about their adventure and the film that captures their story, Reel Paradise.
Wyatt, Janet, John and Georgia Pierson
You made them all go to Fiji. Is that basically how it works out? "Let's go to Fiji, let's be there for a year, let's run a theater, let's make a documentary about it." How much of the plan was theirs and how much yours?
John: We were going to go there no matter what.
Janet: The idea was already in the air. There wasn't "making." There was conversation and debate...
Georgia: I don't know why you're the one trying to answer it like you were wanting to go...
Janet: I wasn't forced to go...
Georgia: When you watch the movie, you know that initial scene was filmed before we went and you were obviously being forced to go. Just the way you're talking...
Janet: I don't really remember it very well. It's just one of those things where you believe you're going or you don't believe you're going. You're like, "Oh yeah, apparently we're going to Fiji. I don't know. I don't know if I'm going," or it's like, "Oh great, let's go!"
When you did Split Screen, you were only in Fiji for how long - a week?
John: Yeah, it was a week or eight days. That international dateline thing really confuses you because you arrive two days after you left and you come back and re-live the same day again. It's hard to keep count. I have no idea how many days we were there; it might have been twelve!
Janet: Somewhere between a week and ten days.
John: The premise of the trip, initially, was that we were going to try to go around New Year's Eve for the millennium. For two reasons. First, we wanted to not only go to the world's most remote movie theater but also to show the first movie of the new millennium. We also wanted to fly cheap and we knew everybody was scared to fly on New Year's Eve because all the planes were supposed to come crashing down when the computer systems failed. I figured we could get some dirt cheap tickets anywhere we wanted to go. The problem is that if you leave on New Years Eve to fly to Fiji, you don't arrive until January 2nd! By the way, George Clinton of P-Funk fame was in Fiji for the millennium. They had some big concert up in the field where the international dateline goes through...
Wyatt: Are you serious?
John: George Clinton slept in Wyatt's room in the house! You never knew this? The concert was kind of ill-fated because apparently they borrowed the PA system from the church but it wasn't up to the funk requirements.
Not enough bass in the church speakers?
John: It was a little tinny, from what we heard.
Janet: We all went originally [for Split Screen] and then John went back in August 2001 and he was just going to go back and write a book. When he got there, he found out that the owner was going to shut down the theater and emigrate to New Zealand.
John: Dhansukh Lal, the son of the original owner, who'd been operating it pretty much for the vast majority of those last thirty years.
The 180 Meridian
Janet: "I can't let this happen, this place is too amazing, it's too great. I have to take it over." Okay, so how do you make it work? Then there became this series of discussions between all of us. "How long," you know. There was a dialogue about it.
John: The son wasn't exactly a film booker for his theater. He was kind of a merchant, buying by the pound. "What can I get for thirty dollars? Send it on up in the ferry." You never knew what was going to wash up on the shores of Fiji, what print might show up. I remember he was showing Memento. He's a smart guy but it was utterly, totally confusing even to him. I immediately suggested that he might want to show the reels in reverse order and it might be better for the audience that way. The first trip we took, which was not spelled out in the film, we took Donnie Ward's movie, The Suburbans (starring Will Ferrell and Jennifer Love Hewitt), and Chris Smith's documentary, American Movie which...
Wyatt: Which failed.
People hated it?
Wyatt: They hated it.
Too much talking, eh?
Wyatt: We took out the middle reels. We showed the first and last reels because they hated it so much and then we showed The Stooges and everyone left happy.
John: So it all worked out.
The Stooges are timeless. People all over the world love the Three Stooges.
John: To go back to the start of this, I guess I would say that I certainly couldn't have spent a year away from my family. I'm not sure I could even spend a month away from my family.
Wyatt: But you did! You were in Fiji without us for almost two months.
John: Yeah, but I knew I was getting ready for you to come.
Janet: When he went over to write the book, he went over for six weeks and it was like... "We've been married twenty-two years and, with six weeks apart, what am I going to think about without John?" I guess we're really together all the time. "Six weeks, this is really going to be fun." Then he came back after two because everything had changed...
John: I had to come back and get the money to buy the theater. I would say that "force" is too strong a word but I certainly wanted to convince them. Once I had decided, "This is a really good idea, I really want to do this." Yes, I wanted to convince the three of them.
So you used all of your producer's rep experience to sell the idea.
John: I did... I tried to persuade. For Janet, it's all in the details for her. It's like...
Janet: I see John as a visionary. He makes these really creative leaps. At first, I'm like, "No, how's it going to work?" I go totally to details. My instinct is always say, "No." But every leap we've made together has been great, so I say "No" less often or for a shorter duration. I knew the first time we went to Fiji that it was so powerful for him and, even though it wasn't my environment and I didn't really like it, I just knew that it was so important to him. I just thought, "I have to be open to this. How bad could it be?"
John: Let me wrap this up and be very, very, very direct about who agreed fastest. Janet's under the impression that the film uses her initial resistance as a funny line for audiences, but it's a little unfair for her to be portrayed as the "resister," because she turned around immediately thereafter. Georgia was instant, and all power and credit to her for that.
Georgia: I had to hammer through it...
John: You have a process...
Georgia: Everything I was worried about came true, but that's the way it goes.
John: Wyatt was a hold out, pretty much until the eleventh hour. "Oh, we're renting the house while we're gone? You're not renting my room 'cause I'll be in it. Just make sure the tenants understand and everything'll be fine." Do you remember a day where you were suddenly willing?
Wyatt: I really kind of wanted to a little bit the whole time. I don't know. It's really good that I did go because I would have hated where I lived for another year. You have the same teachers for three years, but I got to miss the second year...
John: All part of my calculation. I was just trying to get you away from those people...
You had already relocated to Austin before you went? Or this is still in New York?
John: No. We went back to New York for one year and then moved to Austin. We're just a year into our stay in Austin, which is another favorite spot of Wyatt's.
Wyatt: I hate Austin.
Really? Austin is an island. An island in a sea of Texas.
Wyatt: It's a bunch of bros and hippies.
What's not to like about Austin?
Wyatt: What's to like about Austin?
Okay, that's a better question...
John: Just don't say "brisket" because then he'll...
Janet: He was just really happy with his friends. He had friends from when he was four years old that he just really loved. He was really comfortable in a small town and really knew it.
Georgia: We moved to Austin his first year of high school. We moved there and he went through his freshman year.
John: I teach some courses in the film program.
At UT [University of Texas]. Right.
John: It's a growing program. You know, in the end, a film school is always sort of judged by its successful graduate filmmakers. That's where we're still working through it but I think that'll start happening soon.
Quite a few productions are coming through Austin as well. There's work for people in the school or opportunities for the recent graduates to get involved in the industry. That doesn't happen very many places.
John: Everybody has really worked hard to come together to make that part of the general program in the area and it's a really cool thing. The school has an option called Burnt Orange [Productions] which is a first combination of the academic world with the private, professional world. It makes movies but puts a lot of the students to work as well. It's two films in already. The first one's going to Toronto and it's called The Quiet by Jamie Babbit. The next one is a film by guys who got nominated for an Independent Spirit Award but their film didn't really get out there theatrically outside of Austin. Bryan Poyser and Jacob Vaughan made a first feature called Dear Pillow and they have a new one for Burnt Orange called The Cassidy Kids. It's got thirty UT students working on it, it's going to get shot in the summer, it's a great thing. Rick [Linklater] made Bad News Bears in LA, though, which he's still trying to live down a little bit, but the Fast Food Nation film will be shot in Austin. Robert [Rodriguez] never seems to leave his studio.
I accused [Reel Paradise director] Steve [James], earlier, of actually perpetrating the robbery to create a hook for the film.
John: Did he tell you who brought the crew [to the house after the robbery]? Of course we called them before we called the police, but did he tell you who brought them over to the house? The missing projectionist in the green truck.
Does that guy ever stop driving?
Wyatt: Usually, you couldn't tell which were the taxis and which weren't. We'd just get rides in the back of trucks and people would just ask us for money. We didn't even know, but then we saw his green truck and his green truck was always packed... he made a lot of money with that green truck.
John: In Los Angeles he'd make a lot of money. Compared to his high salary in the projection booth, I guess. None of the mishaps from the week after Steve and his crew arrived were staged or invented by us. They might have made the movie more dramatic but they certainly made my life more miserable. You win one, you lose one...
It created a great fissure for your final month.
Janet: People often ask us if there was anything that we would do differently in the whole year and frankly the only thing that I would say is, "I meant to have an in-person security when the film crew came, because I just knew it would change things." I meant to have somebody just sitting around because that's what people did for security that mattered. We couldn't lock the house. We tried but it was impossible. I meant to do that and I got distracted. I feel like it actually would have been so much nicer not to have the robbery the last month because it would have been a much more emotional, happy culmination of a great year. Instead it was like, "Oh, this is a drag."
John: Yeah, we could have just been hanging out drinking with Andrew [the ex-pat Australian landlord] instead of fighting with him about...
Janet: Yeah, well, we had been fighting with him anyway.
He seemed to be a real character. He owned the house? It wasn't clear in the film, but he must've lived just a few feet away...
John: Take that up with our director! Yeah, he lived... you see the grass tennis court outside and he was just at the side of the tennis courts. When he cranked his radio, when he was getting all drunk at night playing the power ballads, it was like he was right in your living room.
Janet: He used to live in the house and then, when John went before us, they would stay in it together. When we were coming for a year, the idea was that we would take the whole house. That was a really great gig for him, but his solar batteries were totally dead and all year he'd tell me, "You're drawing too much power," but actually, no, they were completely dead. Stuff didn't work...
John: I don't know what will ever kill him. He will probably live forever. Somebody said last night that he's already pickled.
Janet: He was the blot in Paradise for us.
Yeah, I bet.
Wyatt: I thought he was funny. He was afraid to talk to anyone else. He'd come up to me and say, "Uh, could you tell your dad that there's no hot water?" I didn't want to tell you and I'd just let you figure it out. "Tell him that there's no water, so that when there's, at least, cold water you'll be happy and won't remember that he needs hot water."
John: Tell him he doesn't need water whenever the toilets didn't work. As he would explain it, "Just go outside."
Had you traveled a lot as a family before this year-long Fijian trip?
Wyatt: I had never really left the country.
John: Not outside the Americas, no. We went to Canada.
Janet: We spent a couple of summers in Maine when they were really small. We drove around Colorado. We're not really "vacation" people...
John: You're forgetting, we've traveled plenty in the United States for one reason or another, but no exotic, foreign climes.
"We were going to go there no matter what.""We knew what they liked."
back to past articles
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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