As you’d guess from the title, Adam Rifkin’s “Reality Show” is about television — specifically unscripted TV and the quest to be both genuine and to gather the most juicy of dramas. It follows a producer (played by Rifkin) who proposes a show in which the subjects don’t know they’re being filmed, though he soon discovers the selected family is too stable and well-adjusted to make for compelling viewing without a little outside interference.
But the film, which made its world premiere at SXSW, also has its roots in the small screen. It started as a late night Showtime series that premiered in the fall of last year, a 10-episode half-hour scripted dark comedy that Rifkin then cut down into a 92-minute feature. Indiewire caught up with Rifkin, whose past work includes directing “Detroit Rock City” and writing “Small Soldiers,” to hear about the project’s unusual path.
“Reality Show” isn’t the first project of yours to be both a TV series and a movie, right? You also had “Look” at Showtime.
“Reality Show” originally was an idea for a movie that evolved first as a TV show. The opportunity arose to do it as a TV show and we took advantage of that, then, based on the footage from the show, we re-edited it into a movie. “Look” was a movie first, and based on the success, it inspired a series that was an entirely different entity with different people in it and a whole different situation. We made that for Showtime and that did very well.
Because of the experience with Showtime, we thought, well, this idea [for “Reality Show”] might lend itself to a series as well. So we conceived it as a tv series instead of a movie, and Showtime said “okay.” Like with “Look,” it’s ten episodes that stand alone like a miniseries with a beginning, middle, and end that span the season. As we were finishing the show, I said “you know, there’s still a movie in here somewhere. The original idea is not dead to do it as a movie — I think we should cut it together into one.”
There was no money to make a movie, so Rita [K. Sanders], the editor, and myself decided that we would do it on our own. Just edit it into a movie and see if it would work. We cut it down from five hours of finished material into 90 minutes of finished film, and we thought it worked very well. We submitted it to SXSW and got accepted.
Tell me about your deal with Showtime — I know that they have had some comedy series that they air late night. but they don’t promote them as part of their normal slate?
Both shows [“Look” and “Reality Show”] were late night shows — they’re acquisitions, they’re not Showtime originals. To the average TV watcher that doesn’t mean anything — if they’re on Showtime, it’s a Showtime show. But technically a show like “Dexter,” or “Homeland” is a Showtime original — they produce it, they fund a big portion of it, they promote it and it becomes a big part of the Showtime brand. These make up the primetime block.
They also acquire shows for late night, and ours was one of them. So we knew going in that they promote their primetime shows that will promote their brand. We knew they wouldn’t be promoting their late night show. There’s no problem with that. And they were very gracious — when we said we also wanted to do it as a movie, they were very supportive.
Did you finance the show independently, then?
No, I had first pitched it to Sony as a micro-budget feature, but then the opportunity to do it as a TV show was available, so we said to Sony, “How about instead we go to Showtime with you as the foreign partner and financier of the bulk of the episodes, and Showtime comes in as the domestic exhibitor?” And Sony said “Great!” Sony funded about 80% of the budget and Showtime with their acquisition fee covered the rest.
So you have the film up for acquisition at SXSW? You could get a theatrical distributor?
We absolutely could, and it would be great if it happened. I mean the plan is we want to get as much attention as we can, hopefully get a distributor who gets the movie and sees the potential.
How has cutting “Reality Show” down changed it? Has the tone shifted?
Yes, it changed dramatically. The television show is very much a comedy. It’s got dark elements and is still a satire that skewers reality TV, but in a much more overtly funny way. Boiling it down to a 90-minute movie, we had to cut out everything that wasn’t the essential story. What’s left is only the dark undercurrent. So the movie has become a very concentrated, very black satire. I love the show, don’t get me wrong, but the movie is more of what the original idea was, which is a real cautionary tale.
How do you think people would actually react to a show in which the subjects were not informed they were being filmed? Part of the reason why we can hold people in reality shows at a comfortable distance is that they consented, they signed up to be there.
I hate to say it, but I believe it would be a success. I think people would talk endlessly about how horrible it was, but tune in every week. That’s why I say it is a cautionary tale, because I think that it’s not that far away from being the next step. I’m sure conversations have occurred in network offices already where they discuss the legality of putting people under surveillance. How okay is that? I just know it’s coming.