Indie Film Legends Gather to Celebrate the Return of John Pierson’s ‘Split Screen’

Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Miranda July, and more shared their memories of the '90s indie scene, and the guru (and show) at its center.

“This must be like the ending of Big Fish for you,” Kevin Smith told indie film guru John Pierson, early in Wednesday’s night’s “Criterion Live” event at Lincoln Center, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his cable series Split Screen. And he had a point: “It’s everyone you’ve ever loved in one room! Are you about to die?”

Pierson’s health was fine, but it was very much a stroll down memory lane for both the show and the man behind it, who made his name as a “producer’s rep” — the vital link between novice filmmakers and the distributors who could get their movies seen. His list of successes reads like the modern indie movement’s hall of fame: She’s Gotta Have It, Roger & Me, Slacker, Clerks, Parting Glances, Go Fish, Working Girls, The Thin Blue Line, Crumb. His brand was so strong that in 1997, IFC offered him the opportunity to host Split Screen, a magazine-type show which he conceived as showcase for both established independent filmmakers and up-and-comers. They ended up putting together more than 60 episodes over the course of its four seasons — and now those episodes are streaming, for the first time, on our favorite streaming service, FilmStruck.

At the FilmStruck/Film Society of Lincoln Center event, Pierson (above right, with Richard Linklater) and his all-star panel presented “a sampler of what those four years were like”: seven segments from the show’s run, followed by interviews with people responsible, in one way or another, for them. Some of them appeared on-camera, others brought clips to Pierson’s attention, some created work the show aired.

And many members of the show’s production staff, the people producing, directing, and editing the segments, ended up as known filmmakers themselves; one of the show’s assistant editors, for example, was Laura Poitras, who Pierson acknowledged thus: “Not only is Criterion Live filming this tonight, but because Laura’s here, I believe we’re also being surveilled.”

Pierson’s generosity, in both attention and opportunity, was part of what made the show special. “When you first started working on it, you were the guy who facilitated the dreams of others,” Smith (above) told him. “People like me, Richard, Michael Moore, Spike Lee… for so many people, you were the bridge from a dude or a lady sitting there going, ‘I have a story to tell! And I’ve told it but I don’t know what to do with it.’ And you were the guy who was like, ‘Well, let me introduce you to people.’ You created so many careers for people, and so much joy in people’s lives and the lives of storytellers. And it was thrilling, as a friend, to watch you then go bring your stories to life.

“And oddly enough, your stories weren’t even about you still! Like, independent filmmakers are very arrogant, navel-gazey, our heads spent up our asses our whole lives, from boyhood to adulthood, no pun intended,” Smith grinned, with a nod towards fellow guest Richard Linklater. “And somebody gave you a TV show, and rather than being like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna focus on me,’ you once again turned it over to the world, and said, look what’s happening in this community right now. And not even by profiling people who are making the movies, but by taking a bunch of kids who had started making films themselves, and giving them all the trust in the world, saying ‘Go nuts, don’t worry, it’ll be on TV. It’s only Bravo, but still!'”

One of those young filmmakers was Daniel Myrick (above, right), who joined the crew as a camera operator on a location shoot. Pierson recalled, “On the way out of town, you said, ‘Do you mind if I send you a little tape, something we’re thinking about?’”

“It was the investor’s reel,” Myrick said. “Before we shot the film, we thought it might be cool to do a proof of concept, based on the film school idea Ed and I came up with.” That “film school idea” was a fake documentary about a trio of filmmakers who disappeared in the Maryland woods while shooting a film about a local urban legend. “Our logic was, if we could fool a group of dentists in a room that this was real, then we’d say, ‘Hey, we could do this for a whole movie.'” Pierson ended up airing that investor’s reel as a segment on Split Screen, where it fooled many more people than that; its airing there helped Myrick and co-director Ed Sanchez raise funds to make the final film, The Blair Witch Project, which became one of the most profitable independent films of all time.

“You dialed in to something that was much grander than what even we were thinking at the time, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that,” Myrick told Pierson. “You’re the first one that really got it, the first one that really saw what we were doing.”

Another new talent first showcased on the series was Miranda July (above right). She was still living in Portland, Oregon when John’s wife Janet (above left, and an indie king- and queen-maker herself these days, as director of the SXSW Film Festival) profiled her for the show, spotlighting her “Big Miss Moviola” program, which circulated tapes of short films by female filmmakers — a kind of VHS ‘zine for people like her. She created it to carve out a place in a scene that “just seemed so intensely male to me — and I had been inspired by the very same articles about, y’know, you can max out your credit cards and make movies, but the whole thing didn’t feel comfortable to me. It was such a male narrative, and I had just as much guts, but I just didn’t connect to it. The scene I was connecting to was women in this whole other independent world, of zines and stuff. So Slacker, She’s Gotta Have It, all that was in my head, but I was sort of trying to do it in this kind of riot grrrl world in the Pacific Northwest. I saw that as a challenge.”

July, of course, went on to considerable fame as a filmmaker, artist, and writer; the “Big Miss Moviola” library recently went to the Getty Museum’s archives, “So it will be preserved for all time, all these women’s work.” Seeing her Split Screen segment again did cause one bit of discomfort for July: “I was a little chagrined to see that I was wearing a 1940s tunic and tights, then and tonight. [I] have not progressed too much past that fashion moment.”

But watching the show is a stroll down memory lane in many respects, both for those who were part of the scene, and those of us observing it from afar. “I love this, and I love FilmStruck, and that this just exists, that these are back,” Richard Linklater enthused. “Because it’s time capsule, it means a lot to a lot of us. I remember these episodes like you remember films!” And it’s strange to realize that it is a time capsule, of what, it’s now clear, was a golden age of American independent film — that period in the ‘90s, between Slacker and Blair Witch, when every festival seemed to yield exciting new discoveries, and in which anything was possible. For a kid like me, film-crazy but stuck in Kansas, dispatches like Split Screen, magazines like Film Threat, and books like Pierson and Smith’s indispensible Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes captured a vibrant scene — and one where any nobody could be the next Spike or Mike, if they had a compelling story to tell. Pierson was a huge part of that, so it’s appropriate that this celebration of his series also became a toast to the man.

“There was no conduit, for people like me in the Midwest who didn’t know anyone, to get your movie out,” confirmed Christ Smith (above, right), director of American Movie. “And so John became this mythical figure for us… and it actually was true.”

Split Screen is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck. Photos: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.