Reality Bites: The Ultimate Sellout?
Later this month, the Sundance Film Festival will celebrate two films from the early 1990s as part of its "From the Collection" series of screenings devoted to "the preservation of independent documentaries, narratives and shorts."
One is Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash's intimate 1991 film about Gullah women in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, a poetic work inducted into the Library of Congress's U.S. National Film Registry in 2004.
The other movie selected by the Sundance Institute to be enshrined as an indie classic? Reality Bites.
Ben Stiller's directorial debut — a romantic melodramedy about Generation X slackers and sellouts starring him, Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke — was co-produced and distributed by decidedly nonindie Universal Pictures.
The studio screened the film at Sundance in 1994, in advance of its theatrical release later that year.
It's interesting that Sundance, the ultimate example of an art organization co-opted by corporate media, will try to revive Reality Bites as an indie classic, not only because it's neither really indie nor, arguably, a classic, but also because the movie is so ostensibly critical of artists being co-opted by corporate media. The conflict between maintaining personal artistic integrity and selling out is at the core of Reality Bites from its opening scene. It's also at the core of the film's behind-the-scenes story. In fact, a probing, warts-and-all documentary about the making of Reality Bites would be a much better time-capsule artifact for the Sundance project than the film itself.
Such a movie could begin in obscenely oil-rich Houston in the halcyon Reagan days of 1987, when Helen Childress, an artistically inclined child of divorced baby boomers, graduated from the local arts high school. At 18, the precocious Childress obtained a college scholarship paid for by advertising and marketing giant Ogilvy & Mather; she used it to enroll in USC's renowned Filmic Writing Program.
"I really had no interest in screenwriting," Childress told Entertainment Weekly in 1994. "I wanted to be a poet. But poets don't make any money."
Still, in the early '90s she penned a spec script, which found its way into the hands of Hollywood producer Michael Shamberg.
Shamberg, as Stiller would later put it, already "had this idea to do a movie about people in their 20s." He hired Childress to essentially write about her own life.
Born in 1945, Shamberg was exactly the kind of successful baby boomer that Generation X was having such a hard time defining itself against: a successful professional within the film industry, who had deep roots in the counterculture of the late 1960s. Shamberg had started off in a radical video collective called the Raindance Corporation. He wrote a book called Guerrilla Television and worked for public TV on hip documentaries about characters like Abbie Hoffman.
Like most boomers, Shamberg was fascinated by the idea of "generations." A decade before Reality Bites, he had been one of the producers of The Big Chill. Ten years after his Gen X flick, he would again pull off the trick of setting so-called "generational concerns" to a hip soundtrack, by producing Zach Braff's Garden State.
With Reality Bites, Shamberg went looking for a 20-something to write a portrait of her generation — and then coaxed her to change it. By the time Stiller came onboard as a possible director, Childress, at Shamberg's prodding, had spent more than a year doing dozens of rewrites of her Generation X script.
Childress' original draft focused on her personal stories: her difficulty landing even menial jobs; her own friends' pop culture–filled gatherings; the thoughts and expressions of people she knew. Her initial romantic focus was on the tormented affair between her stand-in, Lelaina, and slacker stereotype Troy, but at some point in the rewriting the affair grew into a traditional Hollywood love triangle with a 35-year-old ad-guy villain. Then Stiller, who initially was only supposed to direct, offered himself for the part, and the role was changed to a younger, more sympathetic TV exec.
The protracted development phase ended when Winona Ryder (who ostensibly had been looking for some nonperiod pieces after a string of Hollywood costume dramas) and Ethan Hawke (who ostensibly had been looking for some scuzzy "bad boy" parts more in tune with his real life) expressed interest in the film and Universal agreed to fund it.
Between 1992 and 1994, another cultural development had made its way into the film: MTV had found its new calling with its series The Real World, launching the reality TV era of today. In the film, Lelaina idealistically hopes to turn humdrum footage of her "real life" (which mostly amounts to her and her friends chattering about pop culture while high) into some kind of meaningful statement on The Way We Live Now, à la PBS's early-'70s series An American Family. Her naivete is steamrolled by the budding industry crassly aimed at manufacturing "reality" as an entertainment product. That aspect of the plot, most likely by accident rather than by design, manages to mirror Childress' manipulation by a savvy old hippie and the ambitious showbiz brat who would end up giving the world banal blockbusters like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder.
The parallels between the moral conflicts and compromises on-screen and those underlying its production don't end there. Troy and Lelaina constantly proclaim their integrity and resistance to selling out — against a backdrop of gratuitous pop culture references and "ironic" (but lucrative and brand-building) product placement for Pizza Hut, 7-Eleven, Diet Coke and the Gap. "I didn't have a problem with it because any way we could help the movie monetarily that didn't impinge on the credibility of the film or my own integrity was fine with me," director Stiller said at the time. "And I wanted as much money as I could possibly have to make the movie the right way." Those exact words could have been spoken to Lelaina by the character written specifically for Stiller within the movie.
Even if the final product is a product-pandering mess, on some level it tells the truth about what happens to precocious ingenues who believe that artistic integrity can survive within corporate media. The movie directly reflects what its screenwriter went through as a young, idealistic would-be artist courted by producers/representatives of a system that wanted to bottle her youth and idealism and exploit them. The fact that you couldn't make a movie today in which a heroine like Lelaina wasn't at least as cynical about the idea of filmed reality as she is about her dumb sellout jobs is enough to at least qualify Reality Bites as a time capsule, for better or for worse.
Almost everyone connected to Reality Bites benefited from the film's success. Everyone except Childress. After Reality Bites, the promising screenwriter fell completely off the showbiz radar for almost two decades, until this past October, when Fox announced that it had acquired from Childress a spec script called The Mountain, an adaptation of an obscure Edith Wharton novel said to be "in the vein of Rosemary's Baby."
Ben Stiller has been announced as producer and director.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.