March 3, 2005
Q & A With Sharon Waxman
If you loved movies like "Pulp Fiction," "Fight Club," "Traffic," "Being John Malkovitch," "Boogie Nights" and "Three Kings," then you should probably read Sharon Waxman's new book, "Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System" (HarperEntertainment 2005). Waxman has covered Hollywood for The New York Times for a year and for The Washington Post for eight, and in her eminently readable and well-researched book, she encapsulates the 1990s through the breakout films of six young directors: Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David. O. Russell and Spike Jonze: "With their films, the rebels of the 1990s shattered the status quo, set new boundaries in the art of moviemaking, and managed to bend the risk-averse studio structure to their will. They created a new cinematic language, recast audience expectations, and surprised us -- and one another."
Waxman, 41, talks to The Journal about filmmaking, about being an observer to "this foreign country" of Hollywood and about the biggest taboo subject of all: Being Jewish in Hollywood.
Jewish Journal: Why did you want to write this book?
Sharon Waxman: I did the book because I was covering Hollywood for the latter part of the '90s and most of the movies I was writing about were not interesting movies -- retreads and blockbusters with computer effects. But as the '90s wore on I'd see some very innovative films and I'd meet the directors who made them -- and it occurred to me that there was a new kind of movement; enough of them were making movies that were very different from the kind of movies that the studios were making at the time.
I wanted to look if there was a new generation leaving their mark on the cinema -- that was the thesis, and I went out to prove it.... I was trying to draw a contemporary portrait of the 1990s ... how they were making their mark in a Hollywood that was increasingly run by corporations and very bottom-line driven.
JJ: Is this a book with a happy ending or a sad ending? You have all these new directors who created a voice of the 1990s, but what has happened to them in the new millennium? (In her conclusion, Waxman writes, "But in truth, the system had already begun to beat them down and dilute their voices.")
SW: I don't think that this is a book that you can write the final chapter yet. These guys are right at the height of their filmmaking powers. I wrote about the decade where they wrote their one breakthrough movie; movies that will mark the culture.... That doesn't mean that's the end of the story for them. It's silly to try and say what the ending is.
JJ: It's too early to tell?
SW: People reviewing the book say [the independent spirit of moviemaking] is over -- that was the '90s, it was done.... There's a lot of debate about it. I tend to think that filmmaking is a young person's game, and it's really hard to stay true to the pure artistic drive that you have as a young person -- but there are people who beat the odds, like Clint Eastwood. So how can you possibly judge until you see what movies they're going to make?
JJ: What do these filmmakers have in common?
SW: I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that [they] are all extremely driven, that they're extremely individualistic, that they are wedded to their ideas, to what they want to create as filmmakers, and that they don't want to budge from that. They're egotistical -- but I don't think they're more egotistical than anyone I come across in Hollywood, not more egotistical than the average Hollywood director (egotistical not in a bad sense).
Directors (and screenwriters) are the most interesting people you meet in Hollywood because they're very different. To be a great director requires so many different talents....
JJ: How else are they similar?
SW: All of them are guys, they're all white, from an upper-middle-class environment, all had broken homes and tortured relationships with their mothers and fathers. The common point is that they were driven from a very young age to make movies.
JJ: Are any of them Jewish?
SW: No. Except David O. Russell is half Jewish. (His father was Bernard Markovski, the name of the main character in "I (Heart) Huckabees.")
JJ: If you read histories of Hollywood or look at the old studio system and the people who were making movies, it really did seem as if the Jews were running the system. But none of your book's main characters are Jewish.
SW: The directors aren't Jewish, but the executives are still more often than not. There's a very large Jewish presence in Hollywood. Maybe it's a bit less than it was at the studios -- I guess it's no longer 100 percent. But there are a large number of Jewish people in powerful positions.
JJ: Yet, no one wants to talk about being Jewish in Hollywood...
SW: The Jewish question in Hollywood is the most taboo subject in Hollywood.
SW: There's a reluctance to highlight the fact that there are a large number of Jews in Hollywood, because there's a concern that people will take that to mean there's some kind of Jewish influence or cabal, and people don't want to feed into false negative stereotypes.
JJ: Does being Jewish have any value in Hollywood?
SW: I think that it's just part of the culture of Hollywood. In "A Mighty Wind," Christopher Guest plays this Swedish music producer who speaks in Yiddish the whole time, [saying] "he's so meshuggene" -- and it's so hilarious, it's a gentle satire that there is a Jewish character to Hollywood. Here's a Swedish character who can throw in Yiddish [because that's the] tone of the culture that he's living in. That's a reality.
JJ: Does it help to be Jewish in Hollywood?
SW: Just like if you are from Detroit, and you want to get a job in the auto industry, and you have relatives at the Ford Motor Co., so you have that connection; from that standpoint [if you're Jewish in Hollywood] you might have that advantage going for you, if you grow up in a connected Jewish community then there might be someone in the system you could reach out to...
JJ: Is that a sensitive point for you?
SW: I think that it's a sensitive question that deserves a sensitive answer, because I wouldn't deny that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood. I am not "The Jews of Hollywood," I am just one person, I am a reporter.
I think there's a desire to not be lumped together and not be a target, but at the same time I would never deny that there's a lot of Jews in Hollywood and there is a certain Jewish characteristic to the industry.
JJ: How is it to be part of the Hollywood community and the Jewish community?
SW: I'm observing Hollywood as a reporter. The day that I become "part" of Hollywood is the day I should stop covering Hollywood. I'm an observer, I'm not a joiner. I'm not part of synagogues and denominations or any of that stuff. I think that the challenges to me personally in the job that I have and in the Jewish community that I live are personal challenges. Similar to the way every parent here does,
my husband and I are trying to
raise our [three] children with good values in a very materialistic and often superficial place that is wealthy Los Angeles.
JJ: How is it to be The New York Times correspondent presenting Hollywood to the rest of the world?
SW: I have the same approach as at The Washington Post. I treat it like it's a foreign country. I think that there are differences between East Coast and West Coast culture, and I try to translate it. I've been here a while, but I still do.
JJ: What can young filmmakers learn from this book?
SW: I hope it will in some ways be an inspiration or useful to them -- yes they can make the movies that they want to make, yes it is difficult, but it's not impossible.
JJ: Did you ever want to make movies?
JJ: And now, after covering Hollywood, less so?
SW: What is less than never?
Sharon Waxman will be at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Encino on March 8 and the Santa Monica store on April 11.