-by Larry Smathers
Director and writer Adam Rifkin may be best known for his whimsical late ’90s flick Detroit Rock City, or for that strange homage to side show freaks and bad stand-up comics, The Dark Backward, but don’t think of Rifkin as just a guy with quirky flicks under his belt, he’s also done script work on family fare like Underdog and Mousehunt. Rifkin’s most recent film, LOOK (out on DVD May 5th), is different from anything he’s done. LOOK is a frightening and funny take on the camera obsessed society we’ve become. Shot entirely by security cameras, the movie asks some serious questions about privacy and if we’re comfortable constantly living life on tape. I posed some serious (and not so serious) questions to the director about his latest project and some of his past ones.
LARRY SMATHERS: Give us the story about how you came to do a movie completely captured on security cameras?
ADAM RIFKIN: It started when I got a ticket from a red light camera. Though to this day I’d still swear the light was yellow, apparently I ran a red light in Beverly Hills and when the police department sent me the ticket they also included the picture of me running the light. It was a horrible shot, it captured me from my worst angle, not to mention the fact that I must’ve been singing to the radio because I was making a humiliating expression. Something about being able to be photographed without my knowledge and then the picture arriving at my home address unnerved me. I started to think about how many other cameras were on me on a given day without my knowledge. I did a little research and found the conservative numbers were that we’re all captured about 200 times a day. The more I started looking for the cameras the more I found them, cameras are absolutely everywhere. Then the filmmaker inside of me started to scheme about how cool it could be to shoot a movie exclusively through those countless cameras that are on us all day every day. That’s pretty much how it all started.
SMATHERS: Did making LOOK make you more paranoid about who is watching you?
RIFKIN: I started getting more paranoid as soon as I came up with the idea. Once I decided I wanted to explore the notion of shooting a movie from surveillance cameras I started noticing cameras everywhere. I genuinely had no idea that the cameras were so ubiquitous. In banks and bars and restaurants and stores, absolutely everywhere! We even learned that it’s legal in 37 states to have hidden cameras in Bathrooms and dressing rooms. Damn straight making LOOK made me more paranoid!
SMATHERS: Were you surprised the reaction the film got when it hit the festival circuit? Who were some of the people who supported it?
RIFKIN: I’m always surprised if anybody ever likes a film I made. It’s just the way I am I guess. But the reaction to LOOK was truly shocking. The first indication came from the CineVegas Film Festival where to all of our surprise we actually won the Grand Jury Prize. After that the film just seemed to snowball, we picked up support and champions from a very eclectic group; Newsweek, Wired, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Maxim, NY Daily News to name a few. We also garnered some real fans from the world of politics, Hunter Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s son, told me that he and his father watched and loved the film. The Creative Coalition, a bipartisan political group were avid supporters of the film and organized some very successful panels and screenings as part of an ongoing series of discussions about privacy laws. And Sharon Waxman, the famous New York Times columnist was extremely generous about the film, so much so in fact that she invited me to be her guest on NPR’s Politics Of Culture when she was guest hosting. To say that I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for the film would be a dramatic understatement.
SMATHERS: I heard a TV show based on the film in the works.
RIFKIN: Yes. For a major cable network. I’m not at liberty to say which network at the moment, but we were given 8 episodes. We’re prepping and casting right now. The series, like the movie, will also be shot entirely with surveillance cameras. Several of the characters from the movie will continue on through the series (Miles Dougal and Giuseppe Andrews, the kids in the mini-mart), but mostly the show will explore a whole host of new characters. The series will also focus on even more ways we all find our every movement captured on camera. Cell phone cams, camcorders and practically every personal computer has a webcam attached to it these days. Did you know that with the right software anybody can tap into your webcam and spy on you right in your own home? Think about that next time you’re watching porn!
SMATHERS: I don’t watch porn on my computer; I’m more a fan 8mm stag films from Tijuana. Speaking of great cinema, who are some of the filmmakers that have influenced your work?
RIFKIN: There are so many films and filmmakers that have, and continue to inspire me. Obviously the gurus like Coppola, Scorsese, Woody, Kubrick, Ashby, Wilder, etc, etc, etc… As far as the current crop, I love Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, Tarantino, The Coens. Why? Because they make great movies. Movies that challenge me, entertain me, movies that make me feel something. There are lots of very competent filmmakers, but many of their expertly proficient films leave me cold. I want movies to move me in some way. That’s not to say I only like dramas or heavy movies. Hell no! I loved Jackass 2 for example, that movie was hilarious! It moved me to laugh my ass off. For a movie to move me it just needs to make an emotional impact, whatever that particular emotion might be. That said, I take inspirations from many sources though, not just films. For example, Dr. Seuss is a big influence, so are the old Warner Bros. cartoons. I get a lot of inspiration from books and music and art and just living life and having experiences, there’s inspiration for film all around, not just in other movies.
SMATHERS: I see a bit of Woody in the work you recently did for National Lampoon, Stoned Age. It’s kind of like a movie mash-up of Love and Death and Ringo Starr’s Caveman.
RIFKIN: Well Woody Allen is one of my favorite filmmakers so undoubtedly there’s gonna be influences of his in my work. Just like there are influences of Bergman in his work. If you trace the various influences of any artist you’ll see their influences in what they produce. That said, there are times when I just blatantly rip Woody Allen off! Every once in a while I just can’t help myself.
SMATHERS: I hope the Woodman has Stoned Age on his Netflix queue. What’s the oddest thing that’s ever happened on a film set?
RIFKIN: On the set of LOOK there was one particular night that had me convinced we were either going to jail or about to get shot! The scene we were shooting involved Rhys Coiro (Billy Walsh on Entourage) getting pulled over by a cop on a dark desolate road. In the scene he’s supposed to overpower the cop, beat him up, steal his gun and shoot him in the head. We had to do it all in one take because Rhys pushes the cop car in a ditch at the end of the take. As luck would have it, while we were shooting, an actual police helicopter happened to be flying overhead and saw the cop getting beaten up. The helicopter then shined its cop light directly down on us while Rhys was executing our actor cop at point blank range. Keep in mind that because the whole movie was shot with surveillance cameras our only camera was inside the cop car affixed to the dash board. Me and a couple of other crew people were crouched in the cop car, and that’s it. There were no visible signs that a movie was being shot. I thought we were all done for. I frantically was calling 911 from inside the cop car while the actors kept going with the scene. Luckily I got in touch with the police and we managed to convince them that the cop killing they just witnessed was fake. We later had to digitally remove the helicopter’s spotlight. That was pretty damn odd.
SMATHERS: Gene Simmons is a self proclaimed a-hole; did you find him to be one on the set of Detroit Rock City?
RIFKIN: No. Gene was a fantastic producer to work for. He loves movies and is very respectful of the process. Whenever we found ourselves at a creative crossroads with each other he would always defer to me because I was the director. He also fought on my behalf against the studio if there ever was a creative disagreement. Gene’s great.
SMATHERS: That film has such playful spirit to it, what did you want to do on Detroit Rock City and did you achieve it?
RIFKIN: I wanted to make a 70’s style teen comedy that would cataclysmically fail in its initial run at the theatrical box office but then steadily grow in popularity on DVD and cable and eventually become a seminal cult classic enjoyed by legions of teens and young adults alike for generations to come, so yeah, I guess I achieved it. Seriously though, I just wanted to make a movie about teen angst and adolescent rebellion. When you’re a teen, an event like a concert or a favorite band or a really cool movie can have an enormous impact on who you are. In those key years everything is heightened, things that grown-ups don’t see the inherent value of have enormous meaning to you. We’re all learning how to define ourselves by what we like and don’t like, therefore these seemingly trivial choices have disproportionately enormous meaning to us. Willing to go through Hell and back just to get into a KISS concert makes perfect sense at that age. The concert is symbolic of anything that’s important to a teen at that exact time in his or her life. That’s why I think the film continues to have a life, because you don’t have to be a KISS fan to get it. I also wanted it to be about growing up a little, coming of age and realizing that at some point there is gonna have to come a time when we all need to “put away childish things”. Did I achieve what I was going for? I’m probably not qualified to answer that part of the question, I see my own films very differently than others see them. Am I proud of how successful the film has ultimately become and am I beyond grateful that Detroit Rock City continues to build a loyal fan base beyond our wildest dreams while we were all making it? Hell yeah!
SMATHERS: Who do you hate in Hollywood?
RIFKIN: I’m a lover not a hater. Although, you’re starting to get on my nerves a little bit…
SMATHERS: I’m only as God made me, sir. What film project is up next?
RIFKIN: I’ve got a few balls in the air at the moment. My graphic novel, Shmobots, a comedy about slacker robots, I’m currently developing into a live action series for a major cable network, I wrote a movie for Fox Atomic called Sucker Punch, and I’m currently writing a super secret movie for an unnamed studio that I’m not at liberty to discuss. As far as what film I’m going to direct next… all I can tell you at this point is that it’s a bio pic. My first. It’s a bio pic about an extremely controversial figure who made headlines around the world in the late 70’s. Once we make a formal announcement it’ll make perfect sense. It’s gonna be a mind blower!
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