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The rebels who changed Hollywood

Author Sharon Waxman talks about the directors who shattered the constraints of filmmaking in ‘Rebels on the Backlot.’ Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

The 1990s saw a wave of dynamic new directing talent that took the Hollywood studio system by storm. At the forefront of that movement were Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David 0. Russell and Spike Jonze. Author and New York Times columnist Sharon Waxman spent the decade covering these young filmmakers. Waxman was invited on the "Today" show to talk about her book, "Rebels on the Backlot," where she writes about the clash between the studio culture and the rebel spirit of artists working within it.

Memorial Day in 1990 dawned bright and hot in Hollywood, even for a maker of horror films. Scott Spiegel, a screenwriter and the horror filmmaker in question, wanted to celebrate. He had some cash in his pocket from selling his first big screenplay, The Rookie, to Warner Brothers with Clint Eastwood attached to star. With his neighbor, actor D. W. Moffett, Spiegel threw a barbecue bash and invited to his backyard every starving actor, screenwriter, director, and movie wannabe he could think of, including some dedicated fans of his horror genre work.

Under leafy elm trees, behind a blue clapboard house on McCadden Place just off Sunset Boulevard, dozens of young wouldbes and couldbes in Hollywood gathered. Some of them would eventually make it. Director Sam Raimi was there, along with actor/director Burr Steers and screenwriter Boaz Yakin. Others wouldn't: One of the aspiring screenwriters present, Mark Carducei, would kill himself in 1997. The eighties still hung in the air; the cool guys had mullet haircuts and leather jackets; the hot women had long, permed hair fluffed out to there and bright red lipstick. While playing an electric keyboard, actor/screenwriter Ron Zwang belted out "Wild Thing" to a crowd slightly buzzed on beer and stuffed with Moffett's burnt burgers and hot dogs. Inside the house a few people were slumped on a loveseat watching A Clockwork Orange.

One of the restless young men hanging around the yard was Quentin Tarantino, a twenty-seven-year-old screenwriter who'd spent the previous night on Spiegel's couch. He loped around the backyard like a habitué of this crowd. He came from Manhattan Beach, an aspiring young screenwriter who only lately had started spending more time in Hollywood than in the working-class neighborhood down the coast.

Tarantino had reason to feel confident. After a decade of scraping by doing odd jobs, hanging with the other video geeks and movie dreamers at Video Archives, a video store in Manhattan Beach, Hollywood was beginning to show some interest. He had several scripts making the rounds, and a low-grade buzz had begun around his raw, clever screenplays: From Dusk Till Dawn, True Romance, Natural Born Killers. He was still penniless and unknown, but all of these scripts were on the verge of being sold. His moment was just off the horizon.

On this particular day, Tarantino was his blabbermouth self. He looked rumpled, of course, his striped blue shirt slightly untucked, his brown hair overgrown and stringy. As Spiegel wielded his video camera, Tarantino regaled film editor Bob Murawski with his latest insight on the latest movie he'd seen for the umpteenth time. When it came to film arcana, no one out-triviaed Quentin Tarantino.

"That movie — Motorcycle Gang — remember the goofy guy? His buddy? The goofy guy?" he asked, looming over his friend.

Murawski nodded.

"That's Alfalfa!" Tarantino was psyched; he'd recognized one of the Our Gang actors in the B movie. "That's Carl Switzer! I couldn't believe it."

Murawski was slightly less enthused. "That makes me glad I saw it," he deadpanned.

Tarantino didn't seem to notice. "It's the same movie" (the same one as yet another B movie he'd seen, Dragstrip Girl). "It's the same lines. Yeah — I was reading about it last night."

In the 1990s Quentin Tarantino would turn out to be the biggest thing to hit the movie industry since the high-concept film. He became an image, an icon, and inspired a genre, if not an entire generation, of hyper-violent, loud, youthful, angry, funny (though none as funny as Tarantino's) movies. His Pulp Fiction was the first "independent" film to crack $100 million at the box office, though technically it was made at a studio that had just been bought by the Walt Disney Company. Cinematically he spoke in an entirely new vernacular, and he threw down the gauntlet to fellow writer-directors as if to say "Top this, assholes."

He also happened to come to prominence just as the spinning, whizzing media machine began to be the central function of Hollywood rather than a mere by-product of its production line. In the 1990s the buzz machine — the sprawling, relentless entertainment media — became the very engine that made Hollywood run, a monstrous contraption that required constant feeding. And the Quentin Tarantino story was the perfect product to fill the cavernous maw.

The only thing is, a lot of the story wasn't true.

The myth that worked for the likes of Esquire magazine and Entertainment Tonight went that Tarantino was a half-breed, white-trash school dropout from rural Tennessee who went to work at a video store in Torrance, saw every movie known to mankind, and emerged, miraculously, a brilliant writer and director, a visionary autodidact with his finger on the pulse of his generation.

The reality is something far more subtle and complicated. Quentin Tarantino was not raised in poverty, nor in a white trash environment, nor as a hillbilly. He was from a broken home, but his mother was unusually intelligent and ambitious, and she did all she could to associate her son with the bourgeois values of the upper-middle class: education, travel, material success. Which Quentin chose to utterly reject.

After Quentin became a media star, his mother, Connie Zastoupil, was horrified to see a distorted view of his background spun into myth. After journalist Peter Biskind interviewed her for Premiere magazine, she was mortified by the first sentence that referred to Tarantino's background as "half Cherokee, half hillbilly." At the time, "I was the president of an accounting firm; my lawyer sent it to me," she said in 2003. "You have no idea the humiliation that caused me. Nobody ever got beyond that one sentence." She refused to talk to journalists for years after that.

Excerpted from “Rebels on the Backlot” by Sharon Waxman. Copyright © 2005 by Sharon Waxman. Published by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.