Ma and Pa Weinstein's Boyz

Reflections on DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES by Peter Biskind.

So now I know. I was a day-player on the shoot of THE GODFATHER. I wandered onto the set, had a one-line part in a scene where yet another intrigue unfolds and another corpse hits the ground, picked up a small cheque, and went wandering off into filmmaker sunset. Now, through Biskind, I have seen the entire story.

A US indie producer friend of mine, John McDonnell 111, sent me a copy of the book that explained the last six years of my professional life. I started reading and, to the annoyance of my wife and the detriment of my work, did not stop until I reached the end. The cast is as follows; Miramax - named after Miriam and Max, the parents of Harvey and Bob. Sundance - named after an early triumph of golden boy Redford. October - named after the birthdays and other portents of the egos involved in that company.

Early on in the book, someone says "this business is about ego and greed" and I halted. Ego and Greed? I thought this was a branch of the storytelling business. But reading on, I learned.

It transpires that the Weinsteins are people you would not want to be in the same room with, let alone be making a film with. Their behaviour and dialogue is worthy of a gangster movie. But they held the keys to indie fame and fortune - the twin targets of ego and greed - and thereby lured the willing and gullible. It's like one of those Japanese TV shows, featuring a crock of gold lying at the bottom of a pond of shit - will you jump in to get the gold? The ongoing debate in the book is: are independent filmmakers really independent filmmakers, or are they people struggling to achieve fame and fortune.

I read somewhere that in the early days of the automobile industry there were hundreds of car manufacturers in the USA, but the Darwinian process of capitalism led to just three giants left standing. Similarly, the Weinsteins hoovered up the Indie business. Miramax, the champions - more like the pit bull terriers - of independent film got into the business and bullied their way into vitalising it, exploiting it, and then using it as their path to becoming another Studio. Scattered in their wake are the fallen heroes, or in my case collateral damage, of their ruthless campaign.

I have crossed the paths of some key players in the book. Years ago at the Dublin Film Festival, Martin Mahon introduced me to Todd Haynes with whom I had a long conversation. I was truly impressed by the energy and vision of the man and his film, SAFE, which was screened at the festival. Todd went on to make VELVET UNDERGROUND, and was then sent off into a limbo created by Harvey Weinstein. It was four years before he got to make another film. When I was making BUMBLEBEE, the bane of my life was producer Steven Haft who screwed me with the Hollywood ethos of film making - in which it is the producer, not the director, who has final say. Haft was just a mini-me of Harvey Weinstein. Larry Meistrich, head of the indie company The Shooting Gallery who produced the film, was another (albeit amicable) Harvey wannabe. On his staff was Eamon Bowles, who had worked for, and been abused by, Harvey for several years.

When I read this book, I was reminded of the nadir in my career as a freelance film editor in Ireland in 1989. Minister Ray Burke had put a cap on advertising on the Irish national TV and radio station RTE, and with it came the cancelling of RTE`s independent commissions. I didn't work for almost a year. Later, it turned out that Burke had taken the step in response to bribes.

This book is compulsory reading for anyone with designs on a life in film making. The mantra 'this business is about ego and greed' should be put up as a warning sign outside every film school. Every member of and worker for the Irish Film Board should read it. If the Board has a policy - I am not aware of it having one - this should inform that policy. After reading Peter Biskind's book, I understand the world of independent film making in a way I had not known at a time when it would have helped me make different career decisions. After reading it, too, I thank my lucky stars that I live in Berlin and not New York.

But the show is over. All the book can do is urge the rubberneckers to keep moving on. Miramax is now so deep in its self-made mess that the 'small' films that transformed it - such as MY LEFT FOOT and THE CRYING GAME - are below its radar. Maybe it's not all bad. I talked with a New York producer friend of mine about the book and he assured me that there are good people in this business - "you just have to search them out."

In this book, Miramax comes across as a film maker disease that makes you feel exhilarated before you keel over and die. In the wake of its march lies a film making void. I hear the noise from over the horizon, where Miramax is attacking the gates of the Hollywood giants and its armoury is proving lacking. I am here, still attempting to make films and tell stories, but it seems the markets and outlets for small films have been crushed. Perhaps one day Peter Biskind will write a book about independent cinema in the early 21st century. Then I will understand what was going on in this mystifying business that has a gift for attracting the best and the worst of people.

Martin Duffy. 20-1-04