The Big Sell-Out: John Pierson’s Return From Fiji

Reel Paradise documents a month at the 180 Meridian, which is possibly the most remote movie theater on the planet. It is located on Taveuni island, in Fiji.

John Pierson, the film’s director and indie legend, lived there with his family, and programmed that theater. Untainted by the media and the dictates of cool, the Fijians’ tastes gravitate toward Hollywood slapstick and pure schlock. There, Rob Schneider is King. Reel Paradise falls somewhere between ethnographic film and The Osbournes.

What did Mr. Pierson learn on the other side of the world? “I learned I could give up the New York Observer,” he said.

Mr. Pierson sunk back into a beige couch at TriBeCa Cinemas. He wore a Hawaiian shirt, Tevas, and requisite, thick-framed glasses, all the better for navigating the urban jungle. “The New York Observer is just the most media-insider newspaper,” he continued. “I managed to break my addiction. I’m going to start reading it this week.”

Though content to drift in indie obscurity, Mr. Pierson is responsible for helping to launch the careers of Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and Kevin Smith.

“The last year of Split Screen“—his mid-90’s program for the Independent Film Channel—”I thought, ‘Let’s do something so crazy, they’ll cancel the show—before sobriety. Let’s find the most remote theater. We showed a Stooges short. People went bonkers for it. My motivation in making the film was to just get back there and have more experiences like that. It was an environment where no one was told what to like.”

“I think the movie is just saying, here’s what it could be like if you stripped it all away—you can change your life for a year. I did it.”

His teenagers, Wyatt and Georgia were less optimistic. “I had no expectations,” Wyatt told the Transom. “Everyone’s always like, ‘Oooh independent’—but Dad doesn’t do anything! In the third grade, Dad said we’re moving to L.A. and we never did, so why would we go to Fiji?”

In the film, Georgia is a rebellious sixteen-year-old, sporting massive hickeys and oversized basketball shorts. Now two years older, and no less sassy, she informed us, “That was adolescence induced by the cameras. This party sucks. It’s spoogy people lying to me. I get the same questions and reactions everyone. Except for the Portland International Film Festival: ex-missionaries, pretentious people telling us we’re destroying the world. We defend our family a lot. Wyatt defends me because he learned how to be funny from me.” Her current aspirations include culinary school and an apprenticeship at a tattoo parlor.

And finally, the Transom caught up with famed sell-out and supposed hack, Kevin Smith, who was also executive producer for this project. He was chainsmoking Marlboros outside by a parked sedan. “Thank god every teenage girl doesn’t have a camera to her nose. She’s probably like a lot of teenage girls. A lot of distance and time, and she’ll appreciate the film.”

Mr. Smith then realized that the Transom is close in age to a teenage girl. We recounted seeing his second feature, the New Jersey homage Mallrats, in a friend’s suburban New Jersey basement at 14. Slightly perturbed, he complained, “That came out when you were 12.” Yes, but we saw it at 14. “But you were still 12… Must’ve been little parental supervision in that basement. Way to be.” The Transom was bashful.

“I’ve only made one true independent film, Clerks. Both this documentary and Jersey Girl were about families. This just didn’t have Jennifer Lopez.”

We were briefly interrupted when Mr. Pierson and two other View Askew cronies came by with a digital camera. They took a few snapshots of themselves. “Show that to [executive producer, Scott] Mosier!” said Mr. Pierson.

“Artists have to eat, too. And I don’t consider myself an artist,” said Mr. Smith. A koan!

The Transom left the posse goofing off by the car, and went inside for another Stella Artois.
—Blythe Sheldon

The Big Sell-Out: John Pierson’s Return From Fiji