Peter 'Raging Bulls' Biskind Interview

We meet at Starbucks March 1, 2005, and talk for an hour.

Six years ago, my first book, for three weeks, was on a Top 40 list of best selling books on entertainment next to Peter's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Peter says that he's not reading the gossip columns much anymore.

I ask Peter: If we were to make a movie about your life, what would it look like?

Peter stares at me for a long time without speaking. "It never occurred to me that somebody would make a film of my life. You want some academic? You want some background material?"

I shake my head.

Peter: "My life is boring."

Luke: "If we translated it into film?"

Peter: "It would be like that Andy Warhol film Sleep (1963) where you just watch a guy sleep. Every once in a while, the phone rings. He picks it up and says hi, can I help you?"

Luke: "You don't have fantasies about your life on the big screen?"

Peter: "Never. Never. It never even occurred to me."

Luke: "So when you watch movies, that's not really you up there because I see me up there."

Peter: "No."

Peter Laughs. "With Million Dollar Baby, I never identify with Hillary Swank or the two male characters. I never identified with Howard Hughes."

Luke: "James Bond?"

Peter: "Maybe when I was younger. Not now. I'm trying to think if there's anything I identify with.

"Not really. The closest I get to identifying is with the actors of my generation such as Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro, but they're not doing anything interesting now. Such great talent thrown away.

"When I was in my 20s, I identified with Marlon Brando. We all did. I remember going to One-Eyed Jacks (1961) more than 50 times."

Luke: "Do you ever feel that you are living a movie?"

Peter: "You have to realize that I live in upstate New York with the cows. Nothing ever happens there."

Luke: "But the book tours?"

Peter: "That's true. From doing these books tours, you get to understand what it is like to be on the other side of the desk. You're interviewed a lot. All the things that your interview subjects complain about -- that they distort what you say, that they're out to get you -- you see what that's like. It gives me more sympathy for the interview subject. I understand why they're so often reluctant to be interviewed because you do get distorted and some people are out to get you.

"The game of writing about the movie business is so humiliating... There are a lot of smart talented journalists who don't get to say what they want to say and write what they want to write because of the constraints of the publications they're writing for or the constraints placed on them by the politics of the business... Publicists can see to it that you never write again for a decent publication. There are a lot of frustrated writers who aren't able to fulfill themselves...and so there's some competitiveness and resentment because you don't have these kind of restraints with books...that I get to say this stuff with impunity, though obviously I don't do it with impunity."

Luke: "That you're living the dream?"

Peter: "I think so. I'm not really living the dream... One of the reasons I started writing books was that I had been writing and editing for Premiere magazine for nine years and I had considered myself a journalist and I realized it wasn't really journalism, it was publicity. I got to the point where I thought, is this all there is? Am I going to drop dead over my wordprocessor at Premiere having written 101 sucky profiles? There has to be a way to do real reporting. There are real stories there that you can cover.

"Living the dream is a little romantic for me but I certainly feel more fulfilled professionally than I did before."

Luke: "What were you biggest obstacles to doing this book [Down and Dirty Pictures] and how well did you overcome them?"

Peter: "The main obstacle is the one I said in the Preface -- people are terrified of the Weinsteins [of Miramax]. They were also concerned about [Robert] Redford and Sundance. Redford has a reputation for being more benevolent than the Weinsteins... Sundance has lawyers and they require people to sign the same nondisclosure agreements Miramax would. It was people's fear of retaliation that was the biggest obstacle.

"How well did I overcome them? To a large extent. If you keep trying, so many people went through Miramax's revolving doors that you are bound to find people who will talk to you. There are different kinds of people who work for Miramax. Some were bound by confidentiality agreements. Miramax also does production deals in a way that binds people to Miramax. Then there are the filmmakers...some of whom were more angry... They were an easier group to talk to. As for Miramax employees, there were a lot of people who disregarded agreements or didn't have agreements or were so angry that they didn't care.

"When George Lucas made the first Star Wars, he says he got to put 10% of what he wanted on the screen. I think of it as the top of the iceberg. You never get to hear the best stuff and I know I didn't, but I succeeded enough that there's a good story. If you get 30-40%, you are doing well."

Luke: "Did you get more with Raging Bulls?"

Peter: "I did get more because it was the first book of that kind that I did. Once you do that, they see you coming the next time. It can work in your favor too. People feel that you will tell the truth if you have a story to tell. Some people also feel fearful for the same reason."

Luke: "What did you think of Sharon Waxman's book [Rebels on the Backlot]?"

Peter: "I thought she did a good job. She did what I didn't do and I did what she didn't do. She went after the filmmakers and did an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls number on them. I did the Miramax side. I thought the books were complementary."

Luke: "Did she critique [Down and Dirty Pictures]?"

Peter: "Yes."

Luke: "Very negatively."

Peter: "Right."

Luke: "So why aren't you slamming her?"

Peter laughs: "Because I actually liked her book. When I read it, I thought, I'm going to hate this book, but I didn't. Maybe I'm just a wuss.

"I just feel you have to recognize good work."

Luke: "When I talk to other entertainment journalists about the two books, everyone gives you props for having so much original reporting while her book seems more of a clip job."

Peter: "I don't think that's true. She uses some previously published material, particularly with Quentin [Tarantino], but nobody has really done P.T. Anderson. Sure, she builds on stuff such as with Steven Soderberg and David O. Russell, but there was virtually nothing on David Fincher...

"The only problem with her book is a lack of context and analysis. She threw out the notion of independents. She called them mavericks. When you do that, you throw out all the issues around independent filmmaking.

"Fincher is a great director but he doesn't belong in that book...

"If you work in this business, you are often mistreated by subjects, but you have to rise above it. When I was at Premiere, I went to interview [Martin] Scorsese for Cape Fear. Even though everything had been arranged by the publicists [studio publicists, personal publicists], he claimed he didn't know I was coming and he refused to talk to me. So I sat on the ground next to his trailor for three days while the publicists hashed it out. Believe me, I was pissed off, but you can't let that color the piece.

"When Scorsese finally agreed to see me, and then became my best friend for the rest of the week, I accepted that at face value. I didn't hold it against him that he had acted like a primadonna.

"I have a friend who this happened to with Scorsese a couple of years later. He just left."

Luke: "How well do you think you told the story of Sundance's importance to the industry?"

Peter: "I thought I told it well. It hasn't been told before. Redford has enjoyed this career-long immunity from press. People don't want to hear bad news about Sundance because they have good reason to like it.

"I could've written the book better if I had had more space to tell it all. It's true as some critics have said that Harvey pushed out some other material."

Luke: "I had a friend complain that you told stories about Redford but didn't tell the story about Sundance."

Peter: "There is some truth to that but Redford is Sundance... Redford blocked me with important people at Sundance."

Luke: "How would you explain the importance of Sundance?"

Peter: "This year's Oscar nominations for Best Picture were either independent or independent in spirit. Those are the kind of films Sundance nurtures both in the lab and in the festival. There is no other organization that nurtures independent films. Other festivals show independent films but none of them are as devoted as Sundance."

Luke: "I was struck in reading your book by the preponderance of anecdotes over analysis?"

Peter: "I didn't analyze the films..."

Luke: "No, not the films. The film business."

Peter: "It's always a push-and-pull. I did go to a great deal of trouble to analyze the changes that Pulp Fiction (1994) originated and how Miramax evolved from a real independent to a studio division to a quasi-mini-major competing with the studios. I think there was a lot of analysis.

"I was an academic. I do feel that you need to analyze the material. It's not just enough to present the anecdotes.

"I wish that I could've talked more about the films and the context of the era of the 1990s."

Luke: Why didn't you talk about other important figures in the independent film movement such as Mark Damon?

Peter: "There were a lot of commercial independent producers working on the fringes of Hollywood in the '70s and '80s. I was trying to focus on the group that worked outside the system....and fed into Miramax and Sundance."

Luke: "What are the principal obstacles to doing good journalism on Hollywood?"

Peter: "You're in the business of celebrity journalism, which is journalism/PR. There are a lot of reasons why it is difficult to report accurately on the subject. Even Chris Rock got criticized for slagging Jude Law. There's an etiquette in the industry about saying bad things about your peers, except for those on the way down, such as Michael Ovitz. There's a free-fire zone. You can say anything about Ovitz.

"When John Connolly wrote that article about Schwarzenegger, it did raise a lot of hackles, but he sort of got away with it because Schwarzenegger had had a downslide. You could say bad things about Sylvester Stallone. Nobody would give a s---. But there were periods when you couldn't do that.

"If you're an editor, you are always looking for people who are on the skids, so you can be tougher. But generally you have to be careful. No one is going to talk to you if they know you are snarky.

"People say that Rex Reed, who was snarky when he started out, got to the point where he couldn't get any access and he became a critic."

Luke: "How did you handle access vs honesty?"

Peter: "In my magazine work, I definitely played ball. In my book, I tried to be more honest and do real reporting, though I need the access like anybody else. I can't afford to burn every bridge. It's always a fine line."

We talk about the hard time Connolly would have getting access to Hollywood after writing tough pieces on Arnold and on New Line.

Peter: "If you are going to write stuff like that, I think you have to have a good reason. I got flak in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, for getting into people's personal lives, but I feel like I had a legitimate reason, which is that my subject was a decade of personal filmmaking and that you couldn't understand why many of these careers went bust unless you understood the drug culture.

"If someone is boorish in their behavior, there's an argument that they should be focused on. If there were murders, we focused on it. The trick with those magazines [such as Premiere] is that you have to publish so much bland stuff, you struggle to keep the magazine interesting. When you can find a way to do a more hard-hitting story, you do it. Sometimes you do have to risk alienating people. Usually they come back. At Premiere we lost studio advertising on a regular basis but they always came back because (a) you have ways of making it up to them, and (b), they need you..."

Luke: "Why not just run all hard-hitting stuff?"

Peter: "Because nobody will talk to you. You can run a column like that.

"Spy did [a hard-hitting magazine] but it wasn't just about the film business. There have been attempts to do that -- Film Threat, the old Hollywood Confidential... You'd need financing and good lawyers. It's an amusing idea. I don't know that I would want to publish such a magazine but I wouldn't mind reading it.

"I love movies too much. I respect a lot of those people."

Luke: "What do you think of Premiere and what it has become?"

Peter: "I got myself in trouble. I had a collection of essays come out. I wrote an introduction and got into trouble for being dismissive of Premiere."

Peter writes in his new book:

Gossip, not in the sense of rumor -- true or false -- but people acting badly when they think no one's looking, was important, especially in reporting on the industry, where the players believed they had license to kill. I realized that it is impossible to draw a firm line between the public and the private because so much of the former is driven by ego, by pettines, by vanity and venality, a truth brought home again and again by the best books on the film business from the eighties and nineties -- David McClintick's Indecent Exposure, Steven Bach's Final Cut, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, and Julia Philipps's You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, all of which are rich in personal detail.

Then came Entertainment Weekly, which changed the rules of the game. EW solved Premiere's problem by being more newsy and more gossipy. It didn't care about film art or inflate its subject with windy claims. As a weekly, instead of a monthly, EW's lead time was dramatically shorter than ours, while its stories were briefer and pithier. Whereas we had indulged ourselves with six-, seven-, occasionally eight- or even ten-thousand word articles, their's rarely exceeded six hundred words, and were often less. Under pressure from EW, our's were pared down dramatically, but we still couldn't break news, and thereby gave up our only asset -- in-depth reporting. It was the worst of both worlds. The magazine downsized as if it had been shrunk in the washer. Circulation flat-lined at around 500,000. No longer an exciting start-up, Premiere had become a dowdy senior in the blink of an eye.

It was high time for me to leave Premiere. I had never considered myself a celebrity journalist, but there was no denying that I was writing almost exclusively about celebrities...

Peter: "What Premiere had going for it was the ability to write in depth but the movies weren't good enough to sustain that kind of attention.

"I'd like to see Premiere with a little more edge to it. It's hard to be a single-subject magazine because you always live in a symbiotic relationship with the subject you're covering.

"Rolling Stone ran a lot of investigative reporting about politics and other stuff outside of music."

In the mid '80s, Biskind suggested to a publishing house a book on gay Hollywood. He says it has yet to be written. Peter doesn't believe he could write such a book because he isn't gay. "I think the gay Hollywood subculture is fascinating."