Adam Rifkin made his name writing timeless family films like Small Soldiers, Underdog and MouseHunt, while others may know him for his 1999 underground classic film, Detroit Rock City. Last night, his film, Reality Show – a production he wrote, directed and stars in based on the Showtime series he created of the same name – premiered at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.
I’m going to pick your brain about your old and new work today. How about we start with the old, what everyone knows well but maybe doesn’t realize you’re the force behind it? I truly know your family oriented films so well. My dad and I personally love “Small Soldiers,” which you wrote. I think because like many people who grew up before Twitter, he loved toy soldiers as a kid. He wants to watch it whenever it airs on TV. Yet not every critic liked it! Go figure. How do you handle criticism in a work where you’re only as good as your last project?
First of all, thanks for the kind words. I’m so pleased that you and your dad like SMALL SOLDIERS so much. It was a fun one to be a part of. The director, Joe Dante, is a great guy, working so closely with Steven Spielberg was beyond wonderful and getting to create all those characters and then seeing them materialize into bonafide toys was a dream come true. The experience was so overwhelmingly positive for so many reasons, that last thing that could ever get me down would be a less than favorable review of it. As far as critics go, although it may seem cliche to say, I really don’t give negative reviews much thought. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for everyone to adore all my films, but that’s just not reality. Everybody has a right to their own opinion and everybody has their own taste and brings their own life’s worth of previous experiences along with them to every movie they see. It’s impossible for two people to ever see the same movie through the same set of eyes. My first priority as a filmmaker is to an audience. If they like the film, if they’re entertained or challenged or touched in some way, that’s when I feel I’ve done my job. A critic’s opinion comes a distant second. If there’s one thing I’ve learned pursuing my dream here in Hollywood, it’s never take rejection personally. Ever. It’ll only slow you down. Be it from a critic who doesn’t like a film or an executive who doesn’t buy your script or a producer who wants to change your ending, never take any of it to heart. Water off a duck’s back, and keep moving forward.
You’re from Illinois like me, which automatically makes us better than other people. 😉 When you write or direct, what from Chicago shows up slightly in your films? It could be something special about growing up in Illinois, food, people, etc., and you cannot say it doesn’t because there is not one person on this planet who doesn’t let a tiny piece of themselves end up in their art.
It’s true, we Illinoisans are just a bit cooler, aren’t we? 😉
I would say most if not all of my films are loaded with my Chicago past to some degree of another. First, I learned my work ethic growing up in the Midwest. I approach filmmaking like a job. I don’t wistfully stare out windows waiting for the inspiration to hit me. I get up everyday and I write on a set schedule. I pursue getting my films made with the same dogged determination that I observed everywhere growing up in Chicago. It gets so cold there in the winters that people are just used to bullying past discomfort on their way to their goals. I also use the names of people I grew up with in all my scripts. Most of the movies I’ve written have a character named Krebbs in it. That’s an homage to my junior high school science teacher named Dennis Krebbs. Girls I had crushes on like Sheri Van Haften and Molly Hoffman have made their way into my work as well. And I also work with a lot of the friends I grew up with, in front of and behind the camera. Miles Dougal has been in just about all of my films, he and I went to high school together. On REALITY SHOW my production designer is Brett Snodgrass, he and I went to high school together as well. So yeah, there’s a lot of Chicago still in me and thusly, in my work.
“MouseHunt” is something so crazy, so depending on the ability of the actors, it could’ve been a horrible mess or a great comedy. It certainly plays into the old school style of funny. And it worked. Clearly, Nathan Lane made this movie. But someone had to make it happen on the page, so when writing a slapstick, how does it seem decent on paper? It sounds like it would be difficult writing something that’s all a dried up, severe series of movements when read on paper and imagining how that would be entertaining without seeing it happen.
All the gags and all of the physical comedy in MOUSEHUNT was definitely on the page first. MOUSEHUNT was a script I had written on spec and then sold to Dreamworks, so before sending it out to perspective buyers I had to make sure that it read as funny on the page as I had hoped it would be in the finished film. I took a lot of inspiration from the endless hours of cartoon watching I did as a kid, so coming up with the jokes and the Rube Goldberg-esque sequences wasn’t hard, but describing it all in a brief and clear way was definitely a challenge. Ultimately though I just had to trust that if I thought it was funny someone else might think so too. Luckily Dreamworks and several other studios did because the script spawned a bidding war and Dreamworks won. Gore Verbinski did a spectacular job bringing all those words to life though. He directed the shit outta that movie!
Back to the cuter style of family films, you wrote “Underdog.” You’re probably thinking I’m totally weird for knowing everything you do, but it’s because all I do is watch movies regardless of the content. And with that said, that was a super, duper cute film. I watched the cartoon myself as a kid. When you’re handling a live action adaption like that, what do you do to ensure it has the same qualities that older people loved as kids, because they’re the ones heading to the theater, buying the tickets, but please the itty bitty people, the children? You don’t want to bore them. You brought so much freshness to the old done concept.
Thanks! Well, as a fan of the original UNDERDOG cartoon myself, I definitely felt it was important to preserve a bit of what I loved about the show growing up. That said, new audiences aren’t mired by the nostalgia that I have for the property, so I felt it was important to reinvent it for today’s kids as well. Setting it in a live action world immediately changed the dynamic. In the cartoon people and animals all talk and coexist together. That would just seen too weird in a live action movie. So once it was grounded in reality I had to figure what would make it fresh and funny. We decided to go for a Spiderman-esque origin story, and along the way lampoon the whole current superhero genre. Plus, a live action dog in a superhero costume doing martial arts and kicking human bad guy ass just seemed amusing to me, and so that all became the basis for the new interpretation of UNDERDOG.
With your new film, “Reality Show,” it’s a satire. Very dangerous territory because not every audience gets what is going on! I suppose we have a darker humor in Illinois, so I absolutely get where you’re headed, but were you ever afraid that people might not understand everything?
I wasn’t actually. We as a culture are so bombarded by reality television that I felt the collective subconscious was just ready for some kind of commentary on it. Everyone knows reality television is as fake as professional wrestling yet so many people who watch it still allow themselves to get tricked into believing that a certain percentage of what they’re watching is real. Well take it from me, none of it is real. It’s all scripted, staged and completely manipulated for the cameras. That said, the more abhorrent the behavior and the more obnoxious the characters the more hooked people seem to get. It taps right into people’s morbid sense of curiosity. The same reason people slow down when they’re passing a car accident and the same dynamic that made gladiator matches and public witch burnings popular. People want to gawk at another person’s train wreck. It’s just too ripe a topic not to want to skewer. I suppose there will always be people who don’t connect to satire, but I always have. I made REALITY SHOW for those of us who like that sort of thing.
Why do you think people act like reality TV is so fascinating when most of it is scripted? Do you think it will ever die out?
As long as people need to see how much worse off someone else is in order to make themselves feel better about their own lives, reality TV will continue to be popular. It may evolve into other versions of itself, but at its core, it’ll still fulfill the same need. People’s need to see Christians get torn apart by lions.
The central theme of your movie is how reality itself, the real reality we see each day, is very boring. In the film, the producers take it into their own hands and mess up the family’s happy situation. As for positive messages, what in your own words as the horse’s mouth, the director, can you say audiences will find in the film that is positive? How might they find that actual reality isn’t so bad?
Yes, as a reality TV producer hellbent on success, Mickey’s character is completely amoral about what he needs to do to make this frustratingly boring family ready for primetime. He has no moral qualms about completely upending these poor people’s lives in his ferocious pursuit of ratings. It’s a mindset I’ve seen many times here in Lala Land and that’s why I’m convinced, as satirical as REAITY SHOW is, it’s frighteningly closer to being real that one might initially think. The fact that I could see this kind of thing really happening, as a potential next step in the “evolution” of reality television, is what makes it feel so dark to me. I suppose one of the reasons that I’ve always liked dark films and films with a somewhat nihilistic bend, is because strangely, those are the films that I find resonate more as life affirming with me. Gazing into the blackest of abysses forces me to search harder in that darkness for the hidden message of morality. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good happy Hollywood ending as much as the next guys, but the ones that really make me think are the darker ones.
The family is unknowingly being watched. What does your film speak aloud, underneath the script, about privacy matters and so on in this age?
We live in a very tech centric world. In a sense, we are all walking reality shows. Every single one of us. We have computers and web cams and phones with HD quality video cameras and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages and Pinterest boards and Instagram accounts and YouTube channels. Everything we do and everywhere we go we post and tweet and over share. Every detail of our lives. We have this insatiable desire to live in the most public way possible and then cry foul when we get sent an ad for something that a fancy new software has targeted just for us based on our online behavior. There is no more privacy, but we all share equally in that new reality. We intentionally place ourselves under 24 hour surveillance and nothing that we experience has any meaning unless it’s been tweeted or posted or uploaded. Our innate exhibitionistic tendencies have bloated to the extreme, in direct correlation to our ever expanding voyeuristic urges. We need to purge, and confess minute by minute and we equally need to drink in every banal detail about everyone else’s meaningless up to the minute goings on. REALITY SHOW, and in particular Mickey Wagner’s character, is a comment on our overly “reality-ized” society. The family he follows are meaningless to him without the manufactured drama he’s created and manipulated and made ready for the new consumer mind. A mind so desensitized by such an abundance of meaningless content that he has to literally destroy their lives to even get a blip on the radar. REALITY SHOW may paint this all in colors of the extreme, but I do believe that the line is fast becoming so blurred, that we haven’t even begun to experience the horrors that lie ahead…
What do you like about coming to SXSW? Do you think people live up the town motto, “Keep Austin Weird,” or are they better because they’re weird? Or are they too nice to be good moviegoers?
I haven’t been to SXSW before but I did spend several months in Austin making a film and I have to say, the people I encountered were great movie goers. Real fans. Much more so that what one might expect to find in Hollywood. In LA there’s a lot of love for the movie business, but not nearly as much for the art of cinema itself. Growing up in Chicago me and my friends were movie obsessed. We watched everything and would talk about plots and characters and motivations and cool scenes for hours. Never once did we consider what the box office numbers were or who got paid what for which roles. When I moved to LA I expected to land in the mecca of movie geeks. This was Hollywood after all, the town where they actually made all the moves I grew up loving. Instead I found less of a love for movies and more of a love for the “inside baseball” of it all. Austin felt more like being in Chicago. I felt like I was with real movie lovers, that’s what I’m looking forward to at this year’s SXSW.
Thanks so much for chatting with me today when you’re so busy. What projects do you have up your sleeve for the future? Anything you are writing or planning on directing? Or both?
I’ve written and am about to start directing a film that has been my passion project for the last several years. We finally start prepping in a few months but I’m sworn to secrecy for just a little while longer. As soon as I can talk about it I’ll give you all the delicious details.
Thank you as well! I really appreciate all the kind words about my kids’ movies and I’m really happy that you connected to REALITY SHOW as strongly as you did. It’s clearly because you’re from Illinois. We innately just get each other.