Cancellation turns to renewal Creator: John Pierson thought his TV series about independent film was a goner. But he had another segment shot in Baltimore, and then his luck began to change.

Catching Up With ... John Pierson

March 29, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

John Pierson lived his first 13 years in Baltimore, and it was here that his recent run of bad luck began to dissipate.

As Thanksgiving approached in 1996, Pierson received word that Robert Redford's Sundance cable channel was withdrawing its backing from Pierson's television series, "Split Screen." The show, conceived as a sort of weekly celebration of independent film, had not even had its air debut, and already it was being canceled.

Naturally, Pierson was distraught and not all that welcoming of a call just then from Steve Yeager, a Baltimore filmmaker making a documentary on director John Waters. Yeager wanted to discuss details of a segment he was eager to shoot for "Split Screen."

"I said, 'Steve, I'm miserable. I'm shattered. I want to shoot myself,' " Pierson recalled. " 'We're out of money. We've spent money we don't even have. There's no way we can do that shoot anymore.' "

But Yeager was insistent. Everyone in Baltimore was counting on the filming, he said. It wasn't clear whom he was talking about. Still, Pierson, not knowing what else to do, relented. So right after Thanksgiving, and in a gloomy disposition, he arrived in Baltimore to be on hand for the filming.

The piece featured a staged reunion between Waters and one of his filmmaking heroes, Herschell Gordon Lewis, the legendary schlockmeister. Their interplay perfectly captures the unabashed relish of two grown men for the most melodramatic and goriest of exploitation films. At one point, Waters fondly remembers that they passed out vomit bags at screenings of Lewis' "Blood Fest."

"That deeply impressed me," Waters remarks.

'Fantastic, great stuff'

As the filming proceeded, Pierson found his mood improving despite himself. "We shot only 22 minutes, and I could tell that it was fantastic, great stuff," he says.

It was precisely the sort of off-kilter segment Pierson envisioned for "Split Screen," one that, among other things, reflected the joy of filmmaking. In Pierson's mind, it also marked the turning point for "Split Screen."

"From that day on," Pierson says, "everything has gone perfectly."

Shortly thereafter, the Independent Film Channel agreed to pick up "Split Screen" for its first season, 10 shows that impressed viewers and critics enough to merit renewals for a second and a third season, a total of 44 more episodes.

Pierson, who recounted all this from West Texas, where he was filming a new segment, is now preparing for the April 6 debut of "Split Screen's" second season.

The guiding philosophy of the show is to avoid anything that smacks of convention. It is not an interview show with guests sitting in a studio answering questions. Instead, filmmakers, both on and off staff, are encouraged to be bold and creative. The result is a show that is never predictable and is as quirky as independent films themselves. Usually, they are also very funny.

Popular segments

One of the most popular segments last year was a satire called "Swing Blade," in which swingers try to transform Karl, the angelic but dimly comprehending hero of "Sling Blade," into a ladies' man. In another, "Split Screen" attends a teen-agers' film festival in Massachusetts and finds all manner of filmmaking types, albeit in neophyte form. "Split Screen" even manages to be on hand when a would-be starlet stomps out on her teen-age director.

In yet another piece, two filmmakers attend a pricey screenwriting course in Los Angeles, where they are plied with all sorts of inane advice. The piece ends the day after the course, with the two screenwriting-course graduates staring off into space, completely bereft of ideas.

"I think we're not just doing the old, tired stuff," Pierson says. "We're not trying to sit down and talk to someone in a chair. It's more work, but it's more fun, too."

Pierson was in Texas filming a segment on Barry Tubb, an actor/bull-rider/rodeo hand who is now directing a western. Pierson was also on the trail of Jeff Dowd, a familiar figure in independent film circles, who insists that he is the real-life Dude, the terminally laid-back protagonist played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen brothers' latest movie, "The Big Lebowski."

Some television shows are derived from books. Pierson's originated in a book tour. In 1995, he published a well-regarded book on independent film called "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes." As part of his promotional tour, he showed takes and outtakes from various movies he had been associated with (more on that in a moment).

"People were having a good time looking at that stuff, and that became the genesis for the show," he says. "I thought, 'I'll do this and that, and I'll do it with filmmakers I know.' But then, it became fun working with other people. We have 50 different filmmakers working on the show."

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