Author’s note: The 9th Annual White Sands International Film Festival takes place here in Las Cruces, September 4 – 8, 2013. What follows is an extended version of the interview I did with writer/director/producer/actor Adam Rifkin for the WSIFF Official Program. Rifkin’s entry, Reality Show will be screened at the Allen Theatres Cineport 10, in the Mesilla Valley Mall, Thursday, Sept. 5 at 4:30pm and Saturday, Sept. 7 at 7:30pm. If you haven’t made plans yet to see it, do so. It’s a definite must see.
There’s a quote from the Tom Robbins novel Jitterbug Perfume that begins, “Reality is subjective, and there’s an unenlightened tendency in this culture to regard something as ‘important’ only if ‘tis sober and severe.”
The author wasn’t talking about reality television, but he might as well have been, though severity seems to have overtaken sobriety when it comes to the current rules of the genre. Writer/director Adam Rifkin understands this far better than most.
“I believe the impulse to watch reality television is the same impulse that led people to watch gladiator matches in ancient Rome, or made them want to gather around and watch someone being guillotined,” he said. “People have this morbid sense of curiosity. Even if they hate it, they love it. I’ve just taken that one step further.”
The reference is to his latest film, appropriately entitled Reality Show, a scathing look at the genre in which a morally bankrupt television producer ensnares an innocent family, chosen at random, to become the guinea pigs in his latest crowd-pleasing endeavor. He does so by planting cameras throughout their home, work and school areas, then manipulating them to create the necessary drama to keep studio execs happy and ratings high.
The resulting damage to the all-American Warwick family is both shocking and heartbreaking, but as witnesses to the atrocities being inflicted on them, we, the audience, become accomplices to what amounts to crimes against humanity. We become our own worst enemies. The end result is razor sharp satire the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Sidney Lumet’s Network.
“Network is one of my favorite movies and is exactly the one I took my inspiration from in wanting to satirize the reality show model,” Rifkin said. “That movie was prophetic in a way. At the time it came out, it was seen as so outrageous that television would ever go in this direction. Of course, now we look at that movie and realize that television is far worse than it predicted.”
A writer, director and actor in Hollywood since the late 80s, Rifkin knows what he’s talking about. The man behind such social satires as “The Dark Backward,” “Small Soldiers,” “Mousehunt” and “Welcome To Hollywood,” he’s occupied the role of Hollywood insider, while never losing the outsider edge that makes his work so potent.
“I’ll tell you this, it has hurt me, too,” he said. “Because I can do a variety of genres, it’s been difficult for Hollywood to categorize me. As a result, it’s been more of a struggle. Now, that said, I would never do it any other way.”
Rifkin attributes his successes within the industry to a deep abiding love for movies; all kinds of movies, in a variety of styles.
“I have had a very eclectic group of influences,” he said. “I’ve just always loved movies. I love big movies. I love small movies. I love funny movies. I love scary movies. I love cheap movies. I love expensive movies. I love weird movies. I love kids movies. I just love movies. I love the experience of watching movies. I love going to the movie theatre. I love watching movies at home. I’ve just always been a big cinema fan. That’s, I think, one of the reasons I like to make all kinds of films, because I like to watch all kinds of films. I’ve been really lucky, throughout my career, that I’ve been able to do both. I get to be involved in studio movies that are big and appeal to a wide audience and I also get to be involved in small films that are more personal and more unusual and hopefully find their niche. To me, that’s the fun of it.”
Fun which translates into savvy business deals. In fact, it was his connections within the system, partnered with his past successes, which allowed Rifkin to produce the idea for his latest film festival hit “Reality Show,” which had its beginnings as a ten episode mini-series on Showtime.
“I had the idea to do ‘Reality Show’ originally as a film,” he said. “I thought it would make a really cool idea for a movie, but because I had had a very successful experience with Showtime, doing another mini-series for them called ‘Look,’ they approached me and asked if I had any other ideas. I said, ‘well, I have this idea for a movie, but I think it could also be a miniseries.’ They said, ‘great! We love it. We’re in,’ and they greenlit the whole thing.”
A large part of what makes a Rifkin film stand out from the rest is the fact that he knows how to negotiate a contract. For the Showtime deal, he accepted a limited budget in exchange for creative autonomy. This allowed him to make the film the way he wanted to.
“It was great,” he said. “As long as I could bring it in for so much money, they would leave me alone and that’s exactly what they did. So, I wrote all ten episodes first and –this is how we got our bang for the buck — I directed the whole series like one giant movie. Instead of having to go back to a certain set ten times for ten different episodes, we shot all ten episodes worth in three days. Then we cut it together into episodes.”
Ever the independent thinker, once the series aired Rifkin returned to his original idea. Though there wasn’t any money in the budget, he convinced editor Rita Sanders to sit down with him after hours in order to create a lean 90-minute feature.
“She was totally game,” he said. “She was so vested at this point. We’d had such a great time and we were both very proud of what we had created, so we went for it. It took us about a day to cut ten half hour episodes down from five hours to about two and a half hours. It then took us about a week and a half to cut the last hour out. We really had to work fast, because we had no money and we were doing it on the sly.”
The next step was actually the hardest for the filmmakers. With no budget to finalize the cut, Rifkin hit upon the plan to submit the film to Austin’s prestigious South By Southwest Film Festival.
“We had already missed the deadline by a mile,” he said, “but I called them up and said, ‘look, you don’t know me, but I made this series. We’ve pared it down to a movie. I know we missed the deadline, but please check it out. They checked it out and not only did they accept it, but they gave it a world premiere on opening night, which was a huge opportunity. Based on that, we were able to raise additional money to get it finished.”
Reality Show was a huge hit at South By Southwest, with viewers chiming in on the movie’s Facebook page and on other movie related sites providing coverage of the festival. Words like “hilarious,” “shocking,” “brilliant,” “superb,” “disturbing” and “intoxicating” were tossed around, along with discussions about the reality of the situation, so to speak.
All of which begs the question, how far-fetched is the premise for Reality Show? Could something like what happens in this film actually happen in real life?
“I believe one hundred percent that this is the kind of thing that could happen,” Rifkin said. “People have such a morbid sense of curiosity, it seems only natural that as we become more and more desensitized to what we see on television, or the internet, and the more that these horrible things keep happening, and the less that we connect them to real life, the more disconnected we become to cause and effect and real life consequence. I think we’re becoming a race of sociopaths. I think the next logical step is a completely psychotic producer, pushing the reality show to these depths and I wanted to see how far I could push it and still keep it relatively believable.”
The result is a gripping, edge-of-your-seat glimpse into a reality that may not be so far removed from the world we currently inhabit. A cautionary tale for modern audiences that received its world premiere on Saturday, March 9 at the South By Southwest Film Festival and is currently in negotiations for a major distribution deal.
For Adam Rifkin, it’s just part of the process.
“In boiling down the five hour series to 90 minutes, we lost a lot of the comedy, we lost a lot of the parody of other reality shows, but once we changed the context from a television show to a movie, it’s amazing how, psychologically, everything shifted,” he said. “Now, what’s left is this very dark drama about a family being fucked with, literally, to death. That’s why, humbly, I prefer the movie to the series. I’m proud of the series, don’t get me wrong. I think it turned out great and I will support it when it hits Netflix and other outlets, but the original inspiration for this was as a movie. It was the story I came up with first and that’s why I’m so glad I got a chance to express that idea.”