Maverick directors enjoy their day in the sun

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If you want a good barometer of what is happening in Hollywood right now, look no further than the Oscars. The Crash producer Cathy Schulman said it all when she collected her gong for best picture. Still reeling from the shock win, she noted: "It's been one of the most breathtaking and stunning maverick years in American cinema."

Not unlike the characters of many of these films - from the sexually conflicted cowboys of Brokeback Mountain to newscaster Edward R Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck - Hollywood is awash with film-makers willing to fight the good fight from within. Once consigned to the chilly world of so-called independent cinema, uncompromising directors are now warming their hands by studio fires - without getting burnt. It's a return, it seems, to the days of what is now dubbed New Hollywood when, in the 1970s, the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola spearheaded a golden era of American movie-making.

When I began my book, The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood, back in the summer of 2003, this shift was already under way. Steven Soderbergh - often cited as the director who kick-started the US independent cinema revolution withsex, lies and videotape, the sensation of the 1989 Sundance Film Festival - had come full circle. At the 2001 Academy Awards, his drugs drama Traffic won him best director, and best screenplay for Stephen Gaghan.

Even if a bloated studio epic, Gladiator, took the big prize that night, the ramifications of Soderbergh's victory proved greater. Here, after all, was a man whose career was on the verge of extinction five years earlier, after his films Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy meant he could barely get arrested, let alone a distribution deal.

One of the significant results of Soderbergh's Oscar win was the proposed formation of F-64 six months later, as four directors responsible for some of the most original movies of the recent past said they were banding together. Soderbergh, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), David Fincher (Fight Club) and Alexander Payne (Election) were the quartet.

Their aim was to form a co-operative venture dedicated to the exclusive production of their films. More than anything, it was about control. "You would own the negative after seven years," Payne told me. "The company would actually own the film. It's kind of a financial and moral thing about owning your own creative work."

In principle, it was a great idea; keeping the studios at arm's length, using them only for distribution where necessary. F-64 didn't go ahead, but it suggested that an unofficial movement was under way. Payne said: "We're similar in that we're all interested in making good movies."

There is no doubt these men also remain united by one ambition: to work within the system without compromising the integrity of their vision. In other words, to paint their pictures on the sort of vast canvas only studios can provide. The question was: were we returning to a period in Hollywood history when directors were again revered as artists, given carte blanche to create? If so, where did they come from and how did they get there?

Others were moving in the same direction. As the French actress Isabelle Huppert noted: "You have people like Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson... they do the same kind of movies. These people come from the West Coast and some years earlier, they would've been independent film-makers from the East Coast. Now you have this group of people who make studio films, but very imaginative, like an independent film would be." I would add to Bryan Singer, David O Russell (who cast Huppert in I § Huckabees), Boys Don't Cry's Kimberly Peirce, and, of course, Quentin Tarantino, whose 1994 Pulp Fiction broke taboos and box-office barriers as Hollywood woke up to the profits an independent film could make.

No claims can be made that these directors are working towards a common goal, other than returning Hollywood to an era when films were more than just entertainment. Certainly, their choice of subject matter differs as vastly as the styles in which they choose to film them.

PT Anderson and Wes Anderson are both interested in fractured or surrogate families. While intrigued by the dangers of technology, David Fincher and Bryan Singer are drawn to deconstructing the crime genre. Jonze, via the postmodern scripts of his collaborator Charlie Kaufman, is all about the medium of cinema itself. After Three Kings, Russell is the group's political activist, while Payne is drawn to satirical studies of human folly. And Soderbergh? He's done all the above, and more.

These men and women needed a title. If the so-called Movie Brats of the 1970s were educated at the film schools of NYU and UCLA, many of these directors came to the fore through Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. Before Singer made The Usual Suspects, his first film Public Access shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 festival with Victor Nunez's Ruby In Paradise. Wes Anderson saw the short film that would eventually become his 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket, play at the festival. Meanwhile, Magnolia director PT Anderson took the script for Hard Eight - then called "Sydney" - to the Sundance Institute's Screenwriter's Lab to be developed.

While the likes of Fincher and Jonze made their mark through shooting commercials and music promos rather than attending Sundance, it seemed apt that they too be grouped under this label - the Sundance Kids. These were directors aiming their guns squarely at Hollywood.

The stories of hedonistic excess that made Peter Biskind's account of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, such a bestseller are largely absent here. They're not drinking themselves into oblivion like Peckinpah, snorting mountains of cocaine like Scorsese, or heading for mental breakdowns in the jungle, like Coppola. In many ways, they are fans: all owe a debt to at least one film-maker from that era. With Singer, it's Steven Spielberg; with PT Anderson, it's Altman. Payne admires early Coppola and Wes Anderson obsesses over Bogdanovich. Soderbergh adores Richard Lester, Fincher is as fastidious as Kubrick and Russell unconsciously replicates Mike Nichols. Pretty much all of them owe something to Scorsese.

As romantic as it is to believe that the mavericks have again stormed Hollywood, after the financial disaster of Michael Cimino's 1980 film Heaven's Gate, it was never to be quite the same again. The age of the blockbuster sent production costs soaring, ushered in test screenings and saw movies marketed to within an inch of their lives. Long gone are the days when the likes of Dennis Hopper could be let loose in Peru to film The Last Movie.

What's more, the Sundance Kids were too canny to bite the hand. "What is striking about this crop of young directors," said Galloway, "is... how seamlessly they work with the studios and how willing they are to be collaborative and open-minded."

Yet it's naive to think that any of them have merely kowtowed to studio superiors. Rather, they know how to negotiate. Fincher recalls the tricky test-screening process forFight Club, when he came up against Laura Ziskin, one of the producers. "There was a line in the book where [Marla Singer] says, 'I want to have your abortion,' and this upset people in previews. Laura said, 'I want you to change that line.' I said, 'It's in the script. You approved the script. It's in the book.' She said, 'Shoot something else, please. Just change that line.' So I said, 'If I change it, I'm going to shoot something and whatever goes in, has to stay.' So I shot the line that says, 'I haven't fucked like that since grade school.' They begged me to take it out and put the abortion line back in."

After the 1980s and early 1990s, when star power was everything, this crop of directors has the support of the new generation of A-list stars. The perfect example is George Clooney, who has just shot his fifth film with Soderbergh, The Good German. In many ways, their formation of the production company Section Eight after Soderbergh's Oscar victory for Traffic is more significant than the aborted F-64. The outfit began with low-key efforts such as Welcome to Collinwood, but it's stepped up a gear. Clooney says: "Steven and myself are fighting to get films made that we're proud of, and we like and think are smart. We want to be involved in the entire creative process. It's a good thing to do - it makes you feel better."

Clooney has gone from heart-throb to hero for Good Night, and Good Luck, winning Oscar nominations for best director and best original screenplay (shared with the producer Grant Heslov). Stephen Gaghan featured in the latter category for his oil industry drama Syriana. With both films produced by Section Eight, the contentious subject matter in each is no doubt smoothed over by the screen presence of a box-office draw like Clooney (who won best supporting actor for Syriana).

Section Eight, housed at Warner Brothers, is an example of how the studios have specialist art-house divisions to acquire low-budget titles. The borders of Hollywood and the US independents have blurred. Geoff Gillmore, the director of the Sundance Film Festival, notes: "The arena of the independent film has changed so dramatically. It's now highly visible and a much broader spectrum, especially as you have films fully in the mainstream - Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck - doing huge business."

Last year's breakout success, Alexander Payne's vineyard comedy Sideways, was more of a surprise. A film with no real stars crept to a $71m US gross and an Oscar for Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor. "Alexander's experience with Sideways left a lot of people in Hollywood scratching their heads," notes David Siegel, co-director of the recent Bee Season, bankrolled by Fox Searchlight. "Nobody besides Fox Searchlight was going to give him the money he wanted, with no stars in the movie - yet it was super-successful. I hope that helped people think a little bit broader."

The immediate future might suggest otherwise. After creating an intelligent franchise with the X-Men films, Singer is finishing Superman Returns. Fincher has just shot Zodiac, the story of a real-life Californian serial killer that looks to return him to the territory of his 1995 film, Se7en. And Sofia Coppola is following up Lost in Translation with the biopic Marie-Antoinette.

All these are big-budget, star-heavy vehicles, but all will no doubt display the same maverick sensibilities that have brought this group of film-makers to the fore. Whatever happens, the Sundance Kids are here to stay.

'The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood' by James Mottram is published by Faber & Faber (£16.99)