Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind

Brand of charming brothers
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The Independent Culture


This is essentially a book about four people who had a profound impact on independent film from the late 1980s and - in particular - on American independent film-makers. Three might be vaguely familiar to you: the legendary brother moguls, Harvey and Bob Weinstein of Miramax, and Robert Redford. One is almost certainly unknown to those not in the business: Bingham Ray, the co-founder of October Films and former president of United Artists. They are all heroes of mine. And, surprise, surprise, they are all (according to Peter Biskind's book, at any rate) flawed. Down and Dirty Pictures spends most of its time, not completely successfully, telling us why.

Let's start with Harvey and Bob. There was an article a year or so back in The New Yorker that trundled entertainingly through allegations and anecdotes similar to those in this book. Most of what is written about these two extraordinary brothers is unfailingly entertaining, if only because they are just that - both in themselves, and many of their films (which range from The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love to Chicago and The Hours). But the article and, to a lesser extent, Biskind make one basic allegation: that the Weinsteins have (like most moguls) hellish tempers, and it's best not to be on the receiving end.

There is a name for such people in Hollywood: "shouters". It's almost a prerequisite for the job, one might say. I was a shouter when I was young. I can still be a shouter when confronted by an uncooperative agent. I recall a shouting match, many years back, between myself, with my then partner Stephen Woolley, and Harvey and his staff over the conference link.

After I had accused his staff of incompetence and worse, Harvey shouted "Nik, lose my fucking number!", and the phone was slammed down. I am sure Harvey was giving his staff a lesson on how to deal with his favourite softy Brit producers. Stephen told a somewhat shaken me that: "As soon as he has got his staff out of the office so they can't observe him, he will call back because he wants this deal." Sure enough, 10 minutes later, he called.

The relationship between the brothers is a much-discussed subject. This is illustrated by a story (not in this book) told to me by Bob. He described how, when he was a kid, Harvey would ask him (they must have shared a room) to go down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get some Coke. Bob would creep downstairs, and then inevitably the lights would go on. Their parents, Max and Mira (Miramax, geddit?), would be at the top of the stairs asking what Bob was doing up at that time. Bob rather sheepishly explained that Harvey had asked him to get a six-pack from the fridge. "Did I?" said Harvey as he appeared at the top of the stairs.

Down and Dirty Pictures, like so many other books about outstandingly successful people, yet again poses the question: are they really bastards and, if they are, could they have achieved what they have without being so? The Weinsteins' success is based on many factors. There are the usual: hard work, risk-taking, charm, love of what they do and of the films they distribute or make. Then there are the unusual: a fundamental change in the demographics of the world marketplace, in that an increasingly large part of the population is receiving higher education, making a much wider range of stories interesting to more of them; a real nose for innovative talent and for how to get their work to the widest audience; and, in common with many successful people I know, nothing was too big and nobody too daunting for them to take on.

I have little direct knowledge of Robert Redford. Although I chaired a Sundance Film Festival jury one year, I arrived late so never got to meet him. Story of my life. However, I can vouch for the somewhat controlling culture imparted to his executives. After being asked to make the final speech, I was taken aside and told that the director of the Sundance Institute would like to check my speech, as apparently I had a reputation for being a little borderline. I was surprised when asked to delete a harmless but funny Clinton joke, as Bob "was a great friend of Clinton's".

The other real hero for me and, I hope, for those who have been a part of independent film, is Ray, little-known outside the business, but much loved inside it. This is not because his achievements are greater than Redford's or Harvey-Bob's, and not just because he is a fighter and a survivor, but because of his attitude - his history, his refusal to go away, the way he drinks, smokes (or at least used to), acts independently and mischievously, and says what he thinks.

My favourite anecdote also involves Harvey and Bob. The day after the Oscars in 2001, Ray was collared by his boss: "Bingham, is it true what you said in Variety?" "What did they say?" asked Bingham. "They quoted you saying that MGM winning the Oscar for best foreign film [for No Man's Land] was shoving it up Miramax's arse." "I absolutely did not say that," he replied. "Oh, that's OK then," his boss replied, relieved. "I told them, 'We stuck it up Harvey's,'" said a beaming Bingham. That one is in the book.

Overall, how is Down and Dirty Pictures? For everyone in the film business, and for all film anoraks, the book is a total page-turner. The anecdotes, the characters, the fights, the stress of independent film-making are here in all their full-bloodedness. What is not in evidence, not given balancing space, is the sheer achievement of these people; not what they might or might not have done wrong, but what they did right - especially the Weinstein brothers, with their risk-taking, humour, charm, energy and, yes, their loyalty. That is all taken for granted. That, for me, is the real story. That is a book still to be written.

Nik Powell, formerly joint head of Palace Pictures, is director of the National Film and Television School

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