For more than two decades, John Pierson and his wife and longtime business partner Janet Pierson have worked diligently behind the scenes of the New York independent film movement, launching the careers of Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Kevin Smith, and many others. But in director Steve James’s latest documentary, Reel Paradise, the Piersons chose to go in front of the lens. “Call me delusional,” says John, who executive produced the film with wife Janet and Kevin Smith, “but I never thought it was going to be about our family.”
The 51-year-old former film programmer and producer’s rep initially expected a documentary on the 180 Meridian movie theater, a 51-year-old ramshackle single-screen showcase in Taveuni, Fiji, which he operated for 12 months in 2002–03. “I truly wanted to capture the essence of how fantastic it was to see an audience seeing a movie in a place where there was almost no other media and movies had a primacy that they might have had in 1932,” he says. But what Pierson got instead was an uneasy chronicle of cross-cultural collision, Hollywood imperialism, and family dysfunction.
Pierson’s benevolent mission to bring free movies to the Fijians became problematic after Jackass unleashed its “decadent” influence on the locals and the “independent films” failed to resonate. “But I improved things immediately,” John argues. “They had Scary Movie 2 the night before I showed my first free movie, The Fast and the Furious.” A debatable upgrade to be sure, but Pierson explains, “I also found it reassuring that if we showed something that was a total dog, like Men in Black II or Stuart Little 2, the first night would be full, but the second night half empty. They have word of mouth, too, and they could tell when something was a fucking stinker.”
The film’s dramatic core is not the Meridian, but the family spats, particularly revolving around the Piersons’ 16-year-old daughter. “We’re sensitive to how Georgia comes across,” says John, who admits to differing with director James over how she was portrayed. “It was a huge worry,” adds Janet, speaking about her daughter and their then 13-year-old son Wyatt. “My biggest fear was being accused of pimping out the kids and it still is. But they have surprised us with their understanding of how a 110-minute film represents not the totality of who they are.” While satisfied with their own representations in the finished product, the movie-savvy Piersons admit they’ve all been turned into narrative constructs: the devoted mother, the impassioned father, the rebellious teenager, the wise-ass adolescent. “The film has a lot of truth,” adds John, “but no film ever has the whole truth.”