Peter Biskind: Digging the dirt on cinema

Peter Biskind gained a theatreful of enemies with his exposé of Seventies Hollywood. Now he's gunning for Miramax - but Harvey Weinstein doesn't scare him, he tells Matthew Sweet
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I expected, at least, to get my knee squeezed by Peter Biskind; to do a bit of eyebrow-waggling and hugger-muggering with him; to have some unprintable scandal whispered in my ear, and wipe a little slaver from my collar.

This is the man, after all, who wrote Easy Riders, Raging Bulls - easily the most revealing book about the American movie business since Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon - and made himself a whole synod of enemies in the process. Francis Ford Coppola and Ben Affleck can't stand the sight of him. Robert Altman denounced him as "the worst kind of human being that I know". Robert Towne, the screenwriter of Chinatown, was forced to turn to Nietzsche for a phrase to convey the depth of his opprobrium: "Sometimes," he said, "our loathing for dirt is so great it prevents us from washing our hands."

Could they really have been talking about this gentle, grey-haired, balding gentleman sitting beside me on a squashy chintz sofa somewhere in Soho? This donnish type with the lopsided moustache, Ned Flanders specs, creaseless midnight-blue jeans and a voice so soft that you have to lean towards him to catch what he's saying? Apparently so. And now that he has written a sequel - Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film - his guts have gained a whole new set of detractors.

Robert Redford, for one. Biskind's new book portrays the film star and founder of the Sundance Film Festival as a man mesmerised by his own beneficence - which those who have worked alongside him, it seems, find rather harder to detect. And Harvey Weinstein, for another. Down and Dirty Pictures depicts the head of Miramax, one of the world's most successful film companies, as a foul-mouthed Rabelaisian monster for whom intimidation is a standard business practice.

"The last week or two of working on the book was probably the worst couple of weeks in my entire life," says Biskind, like a man describing how he survived an air crash. "Worse than oral exams at graduate school. Worse than funerals or moving. My editors were very good about letting me make changes, but I was adding major things literally days before the text of the book was locked in. And, meanwhile, my fax machine was chattering away with letters from Miramax's lawyers. They had three different lawyers faxing me on the same day. It was demoralising. It was chilling. There wasn't very much substance to it because they hadn't read the book - they were just keeping their lawyers busy. But at a certain point I thought: 'Nothing is worth this. No amount of money is worth this.' I thought I was going to shoot myself in the head. It was just horrible. An excruciating process. But it's over now."

Unlike Redford, who refused to be interviewed for the book, Weinstein welcomed the author into his office - where he attempted to persuade him to abandon the project by offering to fund the production of a book on any subject other than Miramax. Biskind declined. A baseball bat, he recalls, was a sinister presence in the corner of the room. "He didn't say I'm going to break your legs," he reflects. "He didn't threaten me. But there was a sense of menace. Somehow Harvey is able to generate this sense of ominousness. Maybe it's some sort of chemical effusion through his skin, the opposite of pheromones."

Weinstein and his brother Bob named their company in honour of their parents, Mira and Max, and expanded it from a small firm that imported British sex comedies such as Can You Keep It Up for a Week (1974) to a muscular production and distribution outfit, with Pulp Fiction (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Cold Mountain (2003) on its books and dozens of Oscars in its display cases. Harvey's rise to dominance, Biskind contends, was achieved by a mixture of excellent taste and vicious bullying - not to mention a talent for yelling and ripping phones from walls that reduced colleagues to tears and rivals to jelly. "I interviewed one guy who was a former employee," notes Biskind. "When people agree to see you, you assume they're going to say something. But this guy was shaking. I thought he was going to faint. Harvey does inspire fear and trembling."

Some of his sources were not so jittery. The director Bernardo Bertolucci, who made Little Buddha for Miramax, raged against Weinstein as "a little Saddam Hussein of cinema". Saul Zaentz, who produced The English Patient for Miramax - and asserts that the firm still owes him money from the deal - described Harvey as "full of shit". Spike Lee, perhaps, put the boot in hardest. "I'll speak my mind," he told Biskind. "I'm not scared a' that fat fuck, he can't whiteball me out of the industry."

And how did Biskind find his hours in Weinstein's office? "Harvey is extremely smart. He's very charming. Very engaging. I looked forward to my interviews with him. If I'd had my way I would have spun them out longer, but I had to finish the book and so our sessions ended. And now it's not going to happen again."

Was he an honest interviewee? "It's not a question of honesty or dishonesty. If you ask him if he hit Tony Safford, or if he owes money to Saul Zaentz for The English Patient, he has a rap down. But he likes to talk, so once in a while something slips out. You have to listen to a lot of verbiage before you can get a three- or four-sentence quote. But it's always worth waiting for."

Down and Dirty Pictures may paint Weinstein as a venal, greedy, cruel, petulant figure who shouts people down and stubs out his cigarettes in smoked salmon platters, but it can't help celebrating his genius for picking winners. Might Biskind's subject not be revelling in the book? "Other people have said this to me, but I gather that he's not revelling in it. What you've got to remember is that Harvey's gotten a very good ride from the press. And Miramax is known to come back to you for the slightest things. If you say that his shoelace was untied, or that he doesn't change his handkerchief, you'll get 80 testimonials from people who say they've never seen him with his shoelaces untied. Nothing is too trivial. So if you do a 500-page book they'll take issue with everything." And they have, it seems. Biskind has lost count of the number of objections that have been made. "Some of them were helpful corrections that I was glad to hear about; some were differences of interpretation; some of them were just idiotic."

Biskind was raised in New York, educated at Yale University, and had begun teaching English in a Californian university before realising - as more and more of his students were jailed for their participation in violent protests against the Vietnam war - that his career was best pursued outside the seminar room. At first, he combined teaching with shooting documentaries for exhibition on the campus circuit - he filmed an oil slick in Santa Barbara, took his camera to student demonstrations - but in 1974, he jacked in the day job to become the founding editor of Jumpcut, a Marxist-flavoured movie journal that still publishes today. He became hooked on the Russ Meyer, the French New Wave, post-war Polish cinema, and the pictures that were being made in America by his near contemporaries - Martin Scorsese, Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich. Jumpcut, which Biskind distributed across New York by hand, was filled with paeans to their work. It was only at the end of the 1970s, when Michael Cimino's western Heaven's Gate (1980) went so over its budget that it bankrupted United Artists, that Biskind began to give any thought to the money side of the movie business. And that interest - through his subsequent editorship of American Film magazine and Premiere - has continued to grow. The academic fanboy became a cool observer of the impact of Hollywood's profligacy and excesses upon the work it produces.

The argument of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls will be familiar to anyone who's read Bernard de Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees (1714): private vice can produce public benefit. The film-makers who breathed new life into the dreary cadaver that Hollywood had become by the late 1960s - William Friedkin, Ford Coppola, Scorsese - would never have done so if they had lived prim and proper private lives. "The Seventies people were making personal movies," explains Biskind. "So you couldn't understand these people without knowing about their personal lives." If Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had gone biking across the desert with nothing more mind-bending than Kool-Aid and cheese sarnies packed in their saddlebags, Easy Rider (1969) would not have become a Zeitgeist-defining cultural artefact.

It's a perfectly respectable premise. It's also a delicious opportunity to yank every last skeleton from your subjects' closets, disarticulate them bone by bone, and praise them as you do it. For most readers, this was the joy of the Easy Riders - it was intellectually coherent and packed with stories about snorting, boozing and shagging. For some of the actors in his story, the book's subtitle - "How the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock'n'Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" - wasn't sufficiently flattering to compensate for the scholarly reconstruction of their peccadilloes. And for some of its critics, there was the worry that the experience of watching these pictures would be undermined by Biskind's archaeological work on the indiscretions of their directors - like a DVD commentary you couldn't switch off.

On this last point, the author is sceptical. "One of the great things about cinema is the intensity of the two hours that you spend in the dark with the characters. I don't think that anything you can write is going to overwhelm that experience. Coppola was upset by the book, but I always felt that if I'd made the two Godfather films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, I would feel that my place in cinema history was assured, and wouldn't give a damn about what anybody wrote about me." Friedkin, he thinks, offered the most sensible response. "Oliver Stone told me that he'd run into Friedkin in the men's room," says Biskind, "and they'd been chatting at the urinals about the book, and Oliver, who's a bit of a provocateur, said: 'I see from this book that you were a bit of a motherfucker in the Seventies.' And Friedkin shrugged and said: 'It's only a book.' And I think he was right."

If only all of his subjects had been so philosophical. Affleck granted Biskind an interview for Down and Dirty Pictures, but when Vanity Fair published an extract from the book that included his comments, the star dashed off a snitty letter to the magazine's editor, Graydon Carter, saying that he regretted co-operating with Biskind, and dismissing him as "yet another gossip columnist masquerading as an 'entertainment journalist'."

Biskind and Affleck have not spoken since this incident. "And I don't have any real desire to," the author drawls. "I thought he was toadying to Harvey. It made me so angry that it would be an awkward conversation. It was completely uncalled for - especially because he reviewed his quotes and then said he was misquoted. There's no point in continuing feuds with these people, it's just not worth my time."

So after his next book - a biography of Warren Beatty, to be written with the actor's co-operation - Biskind says he'll look for subjects beyond the movies. He has lost his appetite, it seems, for dealing with egos of such gargantuan proportions. "In Hollywood," he complains, "even over-the-hill actors who haven't had a decent role in 30 years, they still have publicists who make you jump through hoops. You want to say: 'Are you joking? You'd be lucky if you got a job delivering pizza!' And they still want to know who else you've interviewed, what's the angle. And they do it because they can. As long as every magazine in the world needs a movie star cover, and the celebrity culture continues to grow, they're in the driving seat." Writing about politics, he says, is much less troublesome. He recently compiled a long piece on Ralph Nader for Vanity Fair, and didn't once feel like shooting himself in the head.

We're on our way out of the room, and I've turned off my machine, so I'll have to quote his parting remarks from memory. "People always talk about sources being betrayed by journalists. Nobody ever talks about how journalists get betrayed by their sources." And he shakes my hand, leaving my knees untouched.

'Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film' is published today by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99