A Conversation with Split Screen Creator John Pierson

Photo by Janet Pierson

In the late eighties and early nineties, American independent film was coming into its own both artistically and commercially, and John Pierson was at the center of the movement. Once described by the New York Times as a figure who “hovered like a guardian angel, unnoticed by moviegoers but an indispensable ally to aspiring filmmakers,” he spent years supporting the early work of filmmakers like Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Michael Moore, and Kevin Smith, helping to get their films seen.

After writing one of the key books on independent film, 1996’s Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema, Pierson channeled his knack for storytelling into the magazine-format television program Split Screen, which he created, wrote, and hosted over the course of its sixty-episode run. The first series to premiere on the Independent Film Channel, Split Screen was comprised of half-hour-long episodes, each of which consisted of three to four segments, that offered an inside look at pockets of independent filmmaking across the country. With material ranging from intimate encounters with mavericks such as John Waters and Herschell Gordon Lewis to the premiere of the first footage of what would become The Blair Witch Project, this irreverent and clever series was like nothing else on television at the time and remains a candid portrait of a turning point in American cinema.

Starting this Saturday, the full Split Screen series, which ran from 1997 to 2001, will be making its way to the Criterion Channel, with six episodes debuting on the service every six weeks. To celebrate this upcoming addition to the Channel, I spoke with Pierson about his memories of creating the series.

How did you first conceive of Split Screen, and what did you intend to show the world about the independent film community?

I’d written Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes in 1996, and when I was touring with the book, people always asked me what I was going to do next. So I started joking that I wanted to be on television. At that point, as established as Robert Osborne already was at TCM, AMC was also a big deal for classic movies, and Bob Dorian was their main host. I didn’t want to mess with Robert Osborne, so I kept saying, “I want to be the next Bob Dorian on AMC.” It was strictly a joke. But then I started thinking more seriously that it would be fun to make a television show for one of the independent film channels, since IFC and the Sundance Channel were either on or about to be on the air.

The only clear thing in my head was that the show should have a magazine format, and it should be a way for filmmakers to get some exposure in shorter form, without having to make a feature. I thought that if we could find a system and a structure that could provide money for filmmakers to go off and pursue their stories, we would be getting the added value of all these individual voices. We started with my ideas of what I wanted on the show and people I had access to, then we built up our ensemble and also, of course, defined what the basic attitude of the show was.

Can you tell me about the people you collaborated with and how you worked together?

I collaborated with my wife, Janet, who now runs the South by Southwest Film Festival and was my partner in all business-related matters for many, many years. Then somebody that I had worked with from Miramax introduced me to an editor named Michael LaHaie, who became a crucial partner. There was also a guy from Boston named P.H. O’Brien, whose first feature I had seen and was taken with, and he started coming around to New York and hanging out.

A lot of the first few shows were shot by Chris Smith, who was in between filming American Job and American Movie. We featured American Movie in our third episode, and we realized that was another great idea that we could regularly incorporate: showing films that were in the process of being made and needed some exposure. By the end of the first season, we met the guys from Haxan Films, who were behind The Blair Witch Project, at the Orlando Film Festival. We wound up making an arrangement that put ten thousand dollars in their pockets to shoot the feature film. In the meantime, we had their whole backstory on Split Screen at the end of the first season and the first footage that anyone ever saw from the movie at the beginning of the next year.

That’s certainly an instance of stumbling on something unexpected and extraordinary. But for the other episodes, how did you go back and decide who and what to focus on? There’s so much packed into each segment.

At first, I would have an idea and either do it myself or think of some filmmaker I knew who might be able to do a good job with it. Then, as we formed an inside team, people would have ideas, and we would just say, “We trust you. Go off and do that.” We started to buy digital equipment, and we were the first digital show on a cable channel, as far as I know. We did not restrict the segments to the core people, though. When I was representing films, anybody could send me a film and I’d watch it and think about it. So once the show was starting to make some kind of an impression, we were very open to soliciting ideas from any filmmakers out there who wanted to throw something at us, which happened a lot.

What was the reception like when the show first aired? And was there any response from viewers who were less familiar with the independent film scene?

I never thought of it as being that inside. It was on IFC, so whoever watched that channel could easily respond to the show. Also, it was a different time in cable, and there were fewer choices, so numbers and budgets were better. I always thought that the material on the show was designed to have wider entertainment value; it wasn’t supposed to be some obscure, esoteric film. It was meant to be something that you could actually stumble across and sit there and decide to watch: “What the hell’s this? Let me check this out.”

It grew in fits and starts. It was IFC’s first original series, but it had a weekly broadcast on Bravo as well. Bravo wasn’t a reality TV channel like it is now; it was mainly a movie channel. And that was a very good platform to help expand the size of the audience right away.

Independent filmmaking has changed so much in the last thirty years. What do you think about how the industry has evolved and how it compares to when you first began the show?

To me, it’s kind of a nightmare. There’s not just more of everything, there’s way too much more. We got in at a lucky time because the number of feature films being made was finite and the number of new shows on cable television was also finite. But when you see how much material—not even counting what’s online—is on television now, it’s just mind-numbing. I represented two or three films a year between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties, and everything was more manageable. But Split Screen got in on the ground floor of the digital revolution, and that revolution was both an incredible blessing and a tremendous curse for feature filmmakers trying to stand out and make their mark.

Were there any filmmakers you worked with on the show whose careers have surprised you?

Laura Poitras—who was trained as a cook, I believe—was our assistant editor. She was initially on the overnight shift, when everybody else went home and went to sleep. I have been completely amazed, surprised, and delighted to see her become not just an important documentary filmmaker but such an amazing political figure over these last five or ten years. Also, last year at South by Southwest, when Janet showed Pee-wee’s Big Holiday from Netflix, she met the director backstage after the premiere and realized it was Split Screen alum John Lee, another one from our assistant-editor ranks.

What do you think about Split Screen existing now in the digital streaming world?

It feels almost indescribably fantastic to have it available and accessible for people to watch again. There are some filmmakers who have come up to Janet or me, and they remember the show so vividly that you kind of can’t believe it, so it will be fun for them. But it’s just so exciting to think of the new audience that will discover it. What comes across in the series is that it was a time of tremendous optimism, and it feels like a nice transfusion to get that energy back.

Below, check out our trailer for Split Screen:

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