Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers #5: Adam Rifkin Questions Our Fascination with Tragedy in ‘Reality Show’

Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers #5: Adam Rifkin Questions Our Fascination with Tragedy in 'Reality Show'
Meet the 2013 SXSW Filmmakers #5: Adam Rifkin Questions Our Fascination with Tragedy 'Reality Show'

Screenwriter and filmmaker Adam Rifkin (“Small Soldiers,” “Detroit Rock City) first attempted a critical look at the world of reality television with his 2012 Showtime dark comedy series “Reality Show,” in which a TV producer documents a family without their knowing. Rifkin edited the 10 episodes into a 90 minute feature of the same title, creating a film far more dramatic than the series that turns the camera on the producers and the audience, questioning our culture’s fascination with manipulated reality.

What it’s about: An unscrupulous TV producer attempts to re-invent the reality genre by putting a family under surveillance…without their knowledge.

What it’s Really about: “Reality Show” is a darkly comedic satire about world of reality television and it follows the exploits of producer Micky Wagner and his amoral attempt to re-invent the reality genre. Fed up with how staged and phony all reality shows are, Mickey’s revolutionary idea is to pick an average American family and put them under all encompassing surveillance…without their knowledge. He’s convinced that if they are unaware that cameras are following their every move, the natural drama of life that unfolds will be far more compelling than anything a team of Hollywood writers could manufacture. Unfortunately Mickey soon realizes that the family he picked is boring. In a desperate attempt to salvage the show and keep the network happy, Mickey begins to interfere. By introducing obstacles and conflict into the family’s life, Mickey quickly finds that betraying his original conceit and messing with his subjects makes for a far more fascinating show. Unfortunately for the family, they have no idea why they are suddenly besieged with so much bad luck. As the show gets better, the family starts to disintegrate and their lives begin to spiral downward. Mickey rationalizes that his sinister manipulations will all will be ok in the end, for once the episodes begin airing, fame will heal all the wounds.

What’s been your path to filmmaking? I grew up loving movies from as early an age as I can remember. My first love was monster movies. The classics; Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. I figured out pretty early on that someone was behind making them. I didn’t understand at that age what a director was, I just knew that someday I wanted to make movies too. My love gradually expanded beyond horror into a love of all kinds of movies. The first movie that really opened my eyes to cinema being a transformative art form was “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” I saw it when I was quite young and it had a profound effect on me. It moved my emotionally in a way that a film never had before. Suddenly I realized that a movie could make you cry. Could make you think. Could make you reevaluate how you looked at the world. I became obsessed with watching as many movies as I could. I also spent all of my play time making little movies with my friends. Opuses like “Murder Can Kill You,” “Paperboy Crimes,” and “The Burglar From Out of the Dishwasher.” I never wanted to do anything else and I feel extremely lucky that I get to live out my childhood dream and actually make real movies for a living. It still feels like play. Nothing is more fun in the world!

What was your biggest challenge in bringing “Reality Show” to the big screen? The film’s journey to the big screen was a crooked path that actually shares a unique kinship with very few other motion pictures. Though originally conceived as a movie, “Reality Show” first found itself a life in the form a television series that aired on Showtime in late 2012. It did really well actually and after its run on TV I decided to return to my initial idea of exploring “Reality Show” as a feature. Though the idea of cutting footage from a series into a movie is rare, there is precedent. Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar winning “Fanny Alexander” had first been a Swedish mini-series, Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” starring Steve Coogan was a British sit-com and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” was famously repurposed from an unaired ABC pilot. With those cinema heroes as my inspiration, yet having no idea if it was going to work, I took it upon himself to re-edit all 10 episodes into a 90 minute film. And much to my delight, I feel it did work. In a big way. The feature and the series ended up turning out quite differently from one another, much more so than I ever could have anticipated. The series is very much a comedy where the feature emerged as a dark drama. Both are entirely different experiences.

What’s the film that most inspired you? Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network”, directed by Sydney Lumet, was a huge influence on “Reality Show.” It’s a wonderfully scathing indictment of television as a whole and prophetically predicted the state of the medium today. It’s a great example of how powerful a tool satire can be in the war on stupidity and how effectively wit can be used as a weapon. Albert Brooks’ “Real Life” was also a movie that I thought of during the process. It’s more of an overt comedy but it also offers up some pretty biting social criticism in the process.

What would you like SXSW audiences to come away with after seeing your film? I don’t want to be a hypocrite and say that I want audiences to see “Reality Show” and suddenly become enraged at the mind numbing stupidity of all reality television. People already know reality TV is dumb. That’s hardly a revelation. They also already know that it’s fake. There’s nothing “real” about “reality” television. Every cat fight, every waxing mishap and every Bar Mitzvah debacle is preconceived and staged. But we all watch them anyway. Why? What is it about Kim Kardashian’s divorce or a New Jersey Housewife throwing a cake at her ex’s new wife at a wake or Honey Boo Boo sneezing out green caterpillars that fascinates us so? The reason is everybody loves a train wreck. It’s the same reason that people thronged to watch gladiators slice each other’s throats or convicted witches burn alive at the stake or why we slow down when we pass an accident. What I wanted to explore with “Reality Show” is the justification that goes on in the minds of the people responsible for manipulating these scenes. Just how far producers are willing to go for ratings? And how thirsty for blood are the viewers? It’s chilling to me just how fascinated we are with watching the tragedy unfold. And when when confronted with genuine impending disaster, how desensitized we all choose to remain to the amorality of it.

Indiewire invited SXSW directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on March 8 for the latest profiles.

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