Hot Docs 2014: Interview – Adam Rifkin

Giuseppe Makes a Movie - Interview

Adam Rifkin has directed and written films of every genre possible, but this is the first time he has ever made a film about someone so close to him that he actually considers them family. For the documentary Giuseppe Makes a Movie (debuting at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this week), the usually fictional minded Rifkin follows around actor and filmmaker Giuseppe Andrews, a close personal friend of his that just so happens to make some of the most original, irreverent, and out there independent films possible; all from the comfort of Andrews’ Ventura, California trailer park home.

Rifkin (who previously worked on The Chase, The Dark Backward, Chillerama, and worked on the screenplays for Small Soldiers and Mousehunt) met Giuseppe during the making of the period piece rock and roll comedy Detroit Rock City and immediately sparked a friendship with an eager young man who cited Dali and Fassbinder and other various world cinema icons as his idols. Giuseppe (who also appeared in such films as Independence Day, American History X, and Cabin Fever) has since evolved into a microbudget filmmaker capable of making an entire film in less than 48 hours with only the help of his friends – many of whom are homeless, impoverished, or marginalized in some way. Giuseppe’s films are ridiculous to squares and definitely not for anyone who can’t approach them with an open mind, but within his oddball masterpieces, Andrews is able to create a comforting environment where these people can feel free to express themselves and can be a part of something where they can feel important and wanted.

Rifkin chatted with us this past Easter Sunday to talk about following Giuseppe around for the making of his film Garbanzo Gas, the familial environment that Andrews creates for his cast and crew, and his friendship and admiration towards his subject.

Dork Shelf: You know, you go into a film like Giuseppe Makes a Movie and you think about the kinds of films that Giuseppe Andrews makes and you would expect it to be this really offbeat and irreverent and eccentric kind of ship that he runs, but it’s really lovely and surprising to see just how much really deep empathy that Giuseppe has towards all of the people in his life. Was that something that attracted you to making a film about his process?

Adam Rifkin - F2Adam Rifkin: Yes. The fact that he’s created this family of misfit toys that from people who in otherwise proper society would be completely shunned and created this surrogate family. He gives them this really creative and fun environment where they can feel like they’re a part of something special and important when otherwise in their lives they would feel worthless and judged.

His movies are hilarious and absurd and bizarre and wonderful, but the story behind his making these movies was something I always found really touching and I wanted to capture that.

DS: In a way Giuseppe’s films seem to hearken back to a younger John Waters.

AR: I think that’s a logical comparison. John Waters started out with his stock troupe of players, led by Divine, and they were all colourful outcasts and oddballs. He had a similar kind of family dynamic and he made all of these equally wild movies. With Giuseppe it’s similar, but I mean, Waters has his style of film and Giuseppe has his own style. Giuseppe makes films unlike anything anyone has ever seen. There is no more original of a voice in independent moviemaking today than Giuseppe Andrews. Hands down. I accept no argument to the contrary.

DS: When you first met Giuseppe – because you’ve known him for a while now – did you know anything about his background and what it was like for him growing up or what his living situation was like?

AR: No. He was never making films like this when I first met him. When he came in to audition for Detroit Rock City was the first time I met him. He had never made films as a director, but he had been acting since he was a kid. He auditioned for Detroit Rock City and I thought he was really unique and cool and that he was a good actor.

While we were making the movie, he was always hanging around between takes next to me, wanting to watch me work and he wanted to learn how to make films. He told me how he was obsessed with Fassbinder and Herzog and all these great foreign filmmakers and foreign films and I was really happy to hear that. I was really encouraging to him that he should start writing scripts and he should start making his own films. He wanted to make his own films, and I had no idea what he was talking about because he was talking about the most unusual, out there, and unique films that I’d ever seen. I thought he just wanted to make regular films; quote-unquote “normal films,” traditional stuff. He ended up surprising me in the best possible way, and I’ve been supportive ever since.

DS: You yourself made a little bit more edgy and low-fi material when you were starting out yourself. Did you see a little bit of yourself in Giuseppe and when you were starting out? Now you’re sort of going back and forth between independent and studio films.

AR: Oh, yeah, and I think the thing that we had most in common was that we both grew up loving all kinds of movies. Some of the early films that I made were films that I tried to make that were just as unique and original and that would stand out. If I didn’t have the budget to stand out in terms of scope or star power or production value, I knew that I would try my best to stand out with original ideas. I definitely feel that Giuseppe falls into that same spirit with respect to that. But Giuseppe takes it to a level that I could never dream of. Giuseppe lives the life of the films that he makes. He’s a guy who grew up living in a van in parking lots with his dad. He lived in a trailer park for years and years and made movie starring all of the homeless people and winos and oddballs around there.

I wanted to make movies about interesting ideas and interesting people, but he lives it. He is one of them, and his perspective on that makes his films wholly unique and genuine and honest.

DS: There are two things about Giuseppe that come to mind watching the film that point out what an accomplished filmmaker he already is. The first is that he has this knack for creating a really welcoming environment on the set. He knows his movies aren’t easy to make and that it isn’t the easiest material being made by people who haven’t had the easiest of lives, but he’s always able to be really welcoming and accepting on even the smallest of budgets and such little time. As a filmmaker yourself, is that something that you admire about his work?

AR: Well, like any good director you have to know how to get the best out of everyone you’re working with. That really requires knowing how to talk to each individual person in the way that they need to be spoken to. The same goes for the overall environment. You want the best out of people and you want to create an environment where people can feel comfortable and where they can feel like they’re free to make fools of themselves, or try new things, or express themselves and not be judged.

Obviously, every director doesn’t do it the same way. Every director has his or her own way, but Giuseppe has been on enough real sets to know that if you want to get something out of this person you have to talk to them one way and if you want to get something out of another person, you have to talk to them in a different way to elicit a response. He really knows his crew… well, he IS the crew… (laughs)… but he knows these people well enough because he lives with them and he’s like family to them, so creating that environment is really natural.

DS: The other thing that shows me he’s a real student of the game is the scene in the film where he tells his buddy not to tell one of the actors he’s about to be paid less than what he was originally quoted.

AR: (laughs)Well, what’s funny about the film and you step back and watch the process as a whole is that there are very familiar terms, styles of work, tropes, and other nods to things that are reminiscent of “real” movie making, like that moment. When you step back, though, you realize that this is something that Hollywood would never make in a million years, but it’s funny to see those influences that he’s had on Hollywood movies and how he applies them to his bizzaro Giuseppe movies.

DS: It must have been kind of freeing for you to do this because you get to follow around someone you know and admire. It seems like there would be a lot less pressure, and the film you made seems like something that you wouldn’t have to force anything upon as long as you were true to the spirit of Giuseppe and what he does. Was that something that you kind of wanted to get back to, that kind of basic feeling, after the films you’ve made recently?

AR: I wouldn’t actually say that I ever really got away from that. I didn’t really need to get BACK to it. The last few films that I’ve made have very much been the kinds of films that I’ve wanted to make, and I got to make them the way I wanted to make them, whether it was Look, or Look the miniseries, or Reality Show.

But what I did really enjoy about the making of this film was that Giuseppe is someone that I do consider to be family. In addition to the people with whom he makes his movies, we’ve known each other for so long that he knows I’m a huge supporter of him as an artist. He was 100% comfortable with my being there and having him expose that process to me. I know he wouldn’t have felt as comfortable with anyone else. That was fun for me because it allowed for a completely open door into his brain and into his process during the making of this film.

And it’s also just a ton of fun to just run around with a camera. (laughs) If the part of the question you’re asking is about getting back to what it was like when I first started out when it was just me and a camera, then the answer to that would emphatically be yes. Even when I made Look and Reality Show there was a crew of a lot of people that were needed to make those happen. There were trucks and props and all sorts of that. This was like being a kid again where it was me and a bag and a camera and I just showed up and started shooting, and that’s basically how he makes his movies. That was a lot of fun.

DS: You guys share a common friend in actor Miles Dougal, who both of use in your films quite a bit. What’s it like seeing an actor you have worked with so closely for even longer than you’ve known Giuseppe get utilized by another director while you get to watch?

AR: I love it, especially with Giuseppe! Giuseppe knows Miles well enough to get all of the bizarre, wild, and crazy side out of him that I know are there. You know, when you meet Miles, he’s a really reserved kind of guy. Those of us who know him well know that he’s got a very crazy side, and it will come out for the camera if you just ask. I love how Giuseppe works with Miles because he enables Miles to do things that other people wouldn’t.

There’s actually one movie that Giuseppe made that has my favourite performance of Miles’, and that’s called Babysitter. You can go onto his website, giuseppeandrews.net, and in addition to checking out all his other movies and hearing his great music, and seeing his great art, and reading these great books that he writes, check out the movie if for no other reason than because Miles Dougal’s performance is simply not to be believed.

DS: If someone were to get into the work of Giuseppe Andrews, what do you think the best starting point would be? What do you think is the quintessential Giuseppe Andrews picture?

AR: I think first and foremost you should watch Garbanzo Gas, which is the film that we show him making in our documentary, and that’s a really great example of how he works and the kinds of movies he makes and the stories he likes to tell. I think to see Giuseppe Makes a Movie and then to follow it up by seeing the finished product of Garbanzo Gas is a great Giuseppe Andrews 101 class. Then any film he made, just dive in. They’re all great in their own unique ways.

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