With all due respect to the Chairman of the Board, here’s a guy who really did it his way. Writer/director Adam Rifkin’s career has been kicking ass for over two decades, and he’s not slowing down anytime soon. Sporting wonderfully diverse credits like “The Dark Backward,” “Mouse Hunt,” “National Lampoon’s The Stoned Age” and “The Chase,” Rifkin’s latest project is a new Showtime series based on his award-winning indie film “Look.” We chatted with him about his incredible career, his indefatigable do-it-yourself spirit and the numerous highs and gut-ripping lows of his 20-plus years in Hollywood. Get that mouse!!!
Interview by Jim Cirile
Adam Rifkin: I’m from Chicago. I came out to LA when I was seventeen, just right out of high school. I figured out pretty early on that there was no magic to getting movies made. All it took was money. I grew up just obsessed with movies. Loved watching them. All I ever wanted to do when I grew up was make them. I made movies as a kid with all my friends with a home movie camera. And so as soon as I was old enough, I left Chicago for Hollywood with the idea that I’m just gonna find money and make a real movie.
Cirile: Did you know anybody out here?
Rifkin: I knew no one. I spent the first year and a half or so just getting settled. I had gone to USC for about a year, but then I left. I didn’t get into the film school. I just went to the regular school. But I actually became friendly with a lot of the film students there who have gone on to do phenomenally well. Anyway, I just started writing scripts, and the first one that I wrote got into the hands of a young producer. I was about nineteen, I think, and the producer was Brad Wyman, who was, at that time, I think, 21. He was working for an old-time producer named Elliott Kastner. Elliott has produced a million huge Brando movies and Paul Newman movies and Richard Burton movies, and he had just, not long before I met him, produced “Angel Heart,” which I loved.
Cirile: Yeah, awesome flick.
Rifkin: Yeah. So Brad was working for Elliott, and Elliott wanted to do a whole bunch of low-budget movies because the home video market was booming.
Cirile: We’re talking late ‘80s, right?
Rifkin: Yeah, 86, 87. So, if you could make a movie that was ninety minutes long, in color, had some boobs and had some blood, you could make a fortune. It didn’t matter if it was a piece of shit or not, right?
Cirile: I know.
Rifkin: So Elliott wanted in on that and was making a bunch of these movies. And so we convinced Elliott to let me write and direct and Brad produce our first movie.
Rifkin: Well, that says a lot about the times because he just wanted as much product as possible because it just seemed like the sky was the limit. The quality of the project didn’t seem to be of paramount concern. All these guys like Elliott were trying to get as much money from this sort of boom as they could before it dried up. Plus if I may be so bold, I think we were pretty creative and articulate and really passionate, and we really put up a good argument why he should let us have our first movie. He did not want to do that first script that I wrote that Brad met me on. He said that that was too weird and dark and he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to do a movie for the kids is what he said. And what he meant was like he wanted his own “Breakfast Club.” So he said think of an idea that can be shot in one location with a few actors and we could shoot it in a really short amount of time. So that’s when I came up with my first movie idea for him, which was “Never on Tuesday,” which I wrote in a week and he didn’t even read it. He just said ok you can do it, and that was that. We were off to the races.
Cirile: And Peter Berg was in that, right?
Rifkin: Peter Berg’s first movie.
Cirile: That’s wild. Alright, so what did that beget?
Rifkin: Hollywood is a cornucopia of life’s lessons. Each one is a test of character. (With) “Never on Tuesday,” I was 19 years old. Brad had grown up in LA and knew all the brat pack kids. So we got them to do cameos in the movie. Charlie Sheen was in it. Nicholas Cage was in it; Judd Nelson, Emelio Estevez. I mean all these guys showed up for a day, you know, and did fun characters. I thought to myself, I’m going to be rich and famous by the time I’m 20. We screened the movie for all the studios. And they all wanted to buy it and release it, which was very exciting. But Elliott was also in partnership at that time with another producer named Andre Blay, and Andre Blay, for whatever reason, had taken control of this property. Andre would only sell the movie to Paramount because Paramount was the only studio that would take on home video rights for an enormous sum of money and then they would, on top of that, give Andre $2 million additional with which to release the movie himself through his own theatrical arm, which Paramount didn’t realize didn’t exist. He told them that it existed to get another $2 million, and they bought it. And he walked away with (the money) and the movie never got seen. So one day I’m flying high as a kite and the next day, you know, just come crashing down.
Cirile: Yeah, that which does not kill you, right? In retrospect, it probably gave you humility and perspective and all that crap.
Rifkin: It definitely did all those things. But here’s how one thing can lead to another thing. The movie had been screened, like I said, for all the studios. The head of Twentieth Century Fox at that time was Craig Baumgarten (“Jade.”) He liked the movie and called me in for a meeting and said he liked my personality and (asked,) What do you want to do? And I said well, you guys own my favorite franchise, “Planet of the Apes.” I want to reignite the “Planet of the Apes.”
Cirile: I remember reading you were hired on for that. Whatever happened with that?
Rifkin: I got hired to write and direct a reinvention of the “Planet of the Apes.” My take on it was it’s a sequel to the first movie. You open the movie with Charlton Heston at the foot of the Statue of Liberty screaming,“Damn you! Damn you!” You realize it’s Earth, right? Fade to black. And then a card reads, “300 years later.” And then you fade up on the apes having reached their Roman era. And you basically do “Spartacus.” So the humans are the slaves and the apes are the Romans, and a distant descendant of Charlton Heston’s character leads a slave revolt against the apes, right?
Cirile: Works for me.
Rifkin: Yeah, that would be really fun, right? I told him that in the spirit of how I was able to pull off “Never on Tuesday” for a really small amount of money, but we got it to look really big, I (would) do the same with “Planet of the Apes.” And he said, “I’m in.” So I wrote the script. He loved it. The only notes the studio had at the time were can you trim about ten pages out. It’s too long. That was the only note, right? So I’m in heaven again. Of course, life lesson number two approaching fast. We were about to start pre-production. We had been in talks with Danny Elfman to do the score and (special effects makeup guru) Rick Baker to do the apes. And at the time it was going to be Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen to play the human. And then Craig Baumgarten got fired, of course.
Cirile: For the sake of our readership who don’t necessarily understand how this stuff works, explain what happens when the studio executive gets fired.
Rifkin: When a new studio head comes on, he’s probably going to shelve the better part of all of the projects the previous administration had been working on because (A,) they may be different than his or her taste, (B,) if one of them is a big hit, it looks kind of bad that I’m the new studio head and my previous person in my seat picked the big hit, and (C,) I’m a studio head now. I get the freedom to do whatever I want to do.
Cirile: So where does that leave the writer on the project?
Cirile: I’m sure there was a couple of weeks of wound licking in there.
Rifkin: Yeah, but if you’re a boxer and you take it personally when you get punched in the face, you’re going to be a really shitty boxer. Your job is to get punched in the face as often times as the other guy can punch you. And you still, in spite of that, have to win the fight. No matter how many times Hollywood punches you in the face, you just have to keep moving forward. You’re a shark. If you stop, you die.
Cirile: “The Dark Backward” is the one that really put you on a lot of people’s tongues. How did that one come about?
Rifkin: That was actually the very first script I ever wrote. My philosophy was, I don’t know anybody. I know I can’t afford movie stars. I know I can’t afford big explosions. I can never compete with studio movies. The only shot I have is to be unusual. Because I thought at least that will set me apart. I’ll write a script that nobody else has written. And then when people read it, they’ll say this is nothing like anything I’ve ever read and that hopefully will make this script stand out. And it worked. And as a result of that, I got to meet a lot of people and we ultimately got it made. And because the script was unusual, we were able to attract a really, really cool cast. I mean, it’s a pretty oddball movie. It’s the kind of movie that people either seem to really like or really hate. But it really helped me a lot in terms of just establishing me as a filmmaker with a sensibility that people can kind of get.
Cirile: Yes. Plus, it kind of went viral back in the day. I was back in New York at the time, a young kid myself when I remember hearing all about this really cool, you know, messed up film, and this really cool new filmmaker and writer. But did that sort of rep hurt you as well as help you?
Rifkin: That movie definitely didn’t help my career, because all the people who loved it were creative types; other actors, other filmmakers. All the people who could hire me hated it. They said, “Hly shit, this kid is going to put circus freaks in all his movies.” I said no, that was a choice for this movie. I’ll tell you just as a broader sort of concept, I’ve never had a blockbuster. So I don’t know from any firsthand experience if it truly makes a difference or not. But (I’ve) made a lot of movies, and all of them have made their money back and some of them did very, very well. But it never feels like it gets easier to get a movie made. Every movie I make, I think okay, once this movie is seen, it’s gonna make all the next ones easier. That’s something to keep in mind for everybody that’s struggling. It’s a constant process. It’s pushing a rock up a hill each time. That said, if “The Dark Backward” had made $200 million, there’s a lot of freedom that comes along with that. But (those filmmakers) say everything’s relative and they have the same kinds of struggles.
Cirile: One thing that is really interesting about you and your work is you sort of exist on multiple planes at the same time. I mean, you’ve got this wonderful backlog of family oriented stuff, which is all great stuff. I can take my daughter to it. It’s awesome. “Underdog” and “Zoom,” I really like that film. And, of course, “Mouse Hunt” and “ Small Soldiers” -- I love that movie. And yet you can be sort of an indie guy and you can be studio guy, too. Seems like it would be a difficult tightrope to walk. I often advise Coverage Ink clients who like to write in multiple genres to narrow their focus, because agents and managers tell me you need to be one thing -- find the one voice that they can market you as.
Rifkin: Well, it definitely hurt me that I can and have done lots of different things. If I was just the guy that did gross.com, or I was just the guy that did family movies or if I was just the guy that did weirdo “Dark Backward”-y style movies, my career would probably have been a lot easier. But I just have so many different kinds of movies that I like and so many different kinds of movies that I want to make, I can’t help myself. If I get an idea, I just have to write it. Yeah, it will make your path an easier path if you are able to have a singular voice. Market yourself in the industry as that guy and just follow that trajectory. I just can’t really help myself. And it has been to my detriment in many ways.
Cirile: But you’re still working. You’ve had a two-decade long career. That’s pretty damn amazing.
Rifkin: Knock on wood. Thank God. Thank God.
Cirile: Can you tell us a little bit about the “Mouse Hunt” spec sale? And do you think that something like that could even happen now in the same way, what with the changing economic environment and the corporatization of Hollywood?
Rifkin: Hollywood’s changed a lot just in the last couple of years, let alone the last ten years. I had been hired to direct “Barb Wire,” which wasn’t necessarily a movie that my soul was yearning to make, but I felt like it was a next step that I should take in my career. It was the biggest budget that I would have ever had to work with. I didn’t write it, but I was getting hired as the director and (Pamela Anderson) was a big star at the time. I got hired by the comic book company Dark Horse against even the knowledge of the financiers, let alone the wishes of the financiers (Propaganda.) And so there was a big battle between Dark Horse and Propaganda as soon as I got hired, and the next thing you know, I had gotten fired. I sort of became the fall guy in their sort of power struggle. And all the people that called me to congratulate me for getting the job were suddenly not returning my calls after they read on the front page of “Variety” that I had been fired.
Cirile: “Creative differences.”
Rifkin: Exactly, “creative differences.” So feeling very powerless at that moment, I realized that the only power I have is my ability to generate material. So I just went on a writing tear and wrote, basically, four scripts in the time that they were still shooting “Barb Wire” with the different director. The other three didn’t sell. And the fourth one that I wrote was “Mouse Hunt,” (It) was the 30th script that I had written and tried to sell, not including the indie movies that I wrote and directed. At the same time, I was always writing studio movies to try and sell. 29 of them hadn’t sold. The reason I wrote that one in particular was I would read about another spec script that sold, and the logline was just so dumb. So I came up with what I thought was a really dumb idea: two brothers inherit a house. There’s a mouse in the house. They can’t get rid of the mouse. The mouse fucks with them and it destroys the house -- live action Tom and Jerry.
Rifkin: And my best friend Val says, "You gotta write it and it will sell for a million dollars." And she was right. It sold for $1 million. Timing and luck and hard work all have to come together at the same time. It just so happened that DreamWorks was looking for material. They had been in existence for a couple years and hadn’t done much yet. So they were getting some flak, like, what are you guys waiting for? When (DreamWorks SKG cofounder) Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney, it was a very, very public divorce. And so when he heard that a spec script came in called “Mouse Hunt,” about a mouse, he said, “I want my own mouse!” How could you predict that kind of lucky timing? There were some other small bids on the table, and DreamWorks just came in and said, “What will it take to wrap it up right now? My agent said be bold. $1 million, and that was it. And then my life changed. All the crew members on “Barb Wire” were people I had hired. The editor told me that he was in a meeting with the guy who had fired me. And in one hand he was holding the “Variety” (with the $1 million spec sale cover story,) and in the other hand he had the test scores for “Barb Wire,” which were the lowest test scores in the company’s history. And I felt that that was pretty satisfying.
Cirile: (laughs) Oh man, take that to the bank. That’s beautiful! Now I know you’re a big fan of DIY. Talk a little bit to our readers about empowering yourself by just going out there and just getting it done however you can.
Rifkin: Well, anybody who wants to be a filmmaker today is in a really lucky spot because it’s easier to get movies made now than every before. When I made “Never on Tuesday,” in order for a movie to be taken seriously in any context, it had to be shot on film. Film is just expensive. Now you can shoot a movie on a consumer camcorder for nothing. And you can edit it on your laptop. “Paranormal Activity,” perfect example. I know the filmmaker. He made the movie for a few thousand dollars in his house in a week. He was the only crew member. Because it was good, it got accepted into the Slamdance Film Festival. The buyer from DreamWorks was there and they saw the audience react and they bought it, even though it sat on the shelf at DreamWorks for two and half years before they figured out what to do with it. Because the test screening went phenomenally well, they said, “You know what, this can’t be denied. We’ve got to release this thing.” And it made a fortune. So my advice is make a movie. Just be really smart, really clever and really talented about the way you do it. And if you make one that’s really, really good, you’ve got a great shot.
Cirile: We don’t need to be sitting around moaning that no one’s buying our scripts anymore.
Rifkin: Not at all. And, in fact, the people who do that are just using that as an excuse to not do anything because they’re afraid to take the next step. And also to I know tons of people who didn’t even make a feature, but they made a series of shorts that they put up on YouTube. Worldwide audience, YouTube. Worldwide distribution instantaneously. You don’t make money, but you can get your movie seen. And I know people who have made shorts on YouTube that as a result have gotten movie deals. There’s no waiting for permission anymore. And that’s what’s exciting about the movie business today. The old way of doing things, it’s getting harder and harder to get movies made that way because fewer and fewer movies with bigger and bigger budgets are being made. And those are the preexisting titles – “Transformers” and things like that. And by the way, that’s fine. But what’s exciting now is that anybody can make a movie. So my advice is just go do it.
Cirile: I haven’t seen “Look” yet but it looks really interesting. Let’s talk just a little bit about that.
Rifkin: I wanted to make a movie that I haven’t seen before. We are under constant surveillance. I did a little research after I got a traffic ticket on a red light cam. They sent the ticket in the mail and there’s the picture of me running the red light, right? I thought, wow, how many other surveillance cameras are on me that I’m not aware of? So I started paying attention. There are surveillance cameras absolutely everywhere. I didn’t realize how pervasive they were. I learned that the average American is captured two hundred times a day. I thought, wow, that’s creepy. I started to think if I had access to all the footage of all the cameras that I walked in front of today and I cut those together, I’d bet I could cut together a pretty interesting little scene. And if I had all the footage from all the cameras I had been in front of all week, I bet I could cut together an interesting movie. So I thought to myself, I’m gonna write a movie and I’m going to make it. I’m not going to wait for permission. It’s an idea that organically lends itself to being made very inexpensively. If the script is good and the acting’s good, that’s all that matters. And so I made “Look.” It’s a movie that was entirely shot with surveillance cameras that follows four or five interweaving story lines over the course of about a week.
Cirile: But it was scripted, right?
Rifkin: It was completely scripted. We (didn’t) want any name actors because we have to believe that this is real surveillance footage. It was the first time in my career that names were being thrown at me. (Famous) actors were wanting to play these parts. It was very difficult to pass on them because it adds so much value to a little movie. But (we went) with all fresh faces. And I’m glad we did. The movie turned out great. We got great reviews. We won a bunch of film festivals. We played the art house scene for like six months, traveled all around the country. But we also for great write-ups in all the entertainment sections of newspapers and magazines because the privacy issue is topical. We got all kinds of op-eds and articles in the political pages too – “Wall Street Journal,” “Newsweek,” “Wired,” “USA Today,” about the state of privacy in our country. It sort of became a little talking point about the movie. Anyway, because the movie did well, we are now doing it as a series for Showtime.
Cirile: Sweet! That’s a success story if I ever heard one. Thanks so much for your time, Adam. One last question -- after two decades in the biz, how do you prevent burnout?
Rifkin: I’m very passionate about being able to keep one foot in the studio system and write movies for Disney and the other studios, and I just love that kind of stuff, and I hope to always be able to be involved in doing that kind of thing -- and one foot firmly planted in sort of a more independent sensibility-type project like “Look,” where I get to express myself a little bit more as an artist. Doing things that are a little more experimental, a little more riskier, I get to exercise different creative muscles, and that’s what makes it so much fun. Each project is like a little refreshing escape from the other one. It’s fun to work really hard on one to the point of exhaustion but then instead of taking a week off, I then work for a week on a different project which is energizing because it’s fresh and it’s different. I love that kind of stuff.
Check out Rifkin’s award-winning film LOOK on DVD right here on Amazon.com.