Interview: Writer/Director Adam Rifkin

Giuseppe Makes a Movie screens this Friday and Sunday at PhilaMOCA!

$10 admission, advance tickets:

Cinedelphia: Can you talk a little bit about first meeting Giuseppe? What was it about him that got him the part in Detroit Rock City (1999)?


Adam Rifkin: I think he was the first person to come in and audition for the movie. If he wasn’t the first he was among the first two or three. And he just had a quality about him that stood out from the crowd. There was just something cool about him. He seemed like he just stepped right out of another area—the ‘70s is how it felt to me. I have this nostalgia, this romance for the ‘70s. So him walking into the room and just feeling as though he stepped right out of another decade was really fun to see. His reading was great and I knew immediately he was cast. He made it so easy for me to want him in the movie. Then as I got to know him I realized that not only was he really, really cool like I thought he was but he’s really smart and he had a really great sense of cool movies, cool music, and he had this incredible backstory that you couldn’t believe. I just really thought he was a great kid.

C: Did you stay in touch with Giuseppe consistently after meeting him and working with him on Detroit Rock City?

AR: Completely. Nonstop. He and I stayed in touch all the time. During the [Detroit Rock City], while we were shooting the other kids would be off between takes fooling around, getting high, whatever. You know. They were getting into the ‘70s vibe (laughs). Giuseppe would stay on set, and he would watch—he wanted to learn about filmmaking, and he also just wanted to talk about movies with me. And the movies that he was watching, that he was obsessed with, and soaking up like a sponge were all these incredible masterpieces by all these foreign maestros. He was way into Fassbinder, Bergman, and Pasolini—I mean everybody. He was into all of them, you know? He was into Luis Buñel, he was into all these cool foreign filmmakers—Herzog—and he just watched them constantly, and wanted to talk about them, and told me he wanted to be a filmmaker, and I was really encouraging, and wanted to help him in any way I could. So I would just give him all the advice and all the help that I could. When the movie was done we continued talking and I told him that he was lucky that these days because of technology, and as it was evolving, it enabled him for the first time in movie making history to make a movie as inexpensively as he started making movies. I mean, prior to that everything had to be shot on film and film costs a lot of money to buy and develop and to edit—you have to get all these big, old pieces of equipment to edit it on. I said to him look, you can shoot movies on a digital camcorder and you can edit them on your computer. You can do it all for nothing, and I encourage you to just start shooting anything. Just get behind the camera and start shooting, make movies. And little did I know how seriously he would take that. I mean, he took that to heart. More than I could have imagined. And he just started cranking out these incredible, bizarre, hilarious opuses one after the other. They all star these very colorful people he lived around, in and around his trailer park. They were mostly homeless people, or addicts, and they became his sort of troupe of players.

C: And you can really tell he really loves these people, and they love him back.

AR: It’s great. He loves them, and he treats them like movie stars. They feel like they’re part of something important.

C: Well they are!

AR: Yeah. And it was very touching to see, and to hear the stories about it. And the stories were always, of course, funny, but it was also touching. So he would come over—every movie he finished—he would come over to my place and show it to me. We’d have a private screening, just him and me. It became kind of a tradition. And it would happen once every month or so. So he would tell me these incredible stories about what it took to get these people in front of the camera, and the movies themselves are so funny, I just had this urge to document what he was doing, because I had a feeling it wouldn’t last forever. So I said to him, “Would you mind if I came up there and made a documentary following your next film?” and he—much to my surprise, because he’s very shy about interviews and stuff—said, “I’d love to, let’s do it!” So I got my camera together and documented the making of Garbanzo Gas.


C: Yeah, that was actually one of my next questions, you know, whether or not he had any hesitation. Giuseppe seems like a very private person in a lot of ways and I was surprised with how open willing he was to share this world with you and with the camera. Do you think that was because he was so comfortable with you, or maybe due to his generous personality?

AR: I think it was entirely because he was so comfortable with me. I don’t think he would have been able to do it for anyone else. He knew me for a long time, he felt very comfortable with me. I was sort of one of the people who helped encourage him to be a filmmaker, I encouraged him all the way along, I watched every movie he made with him, and I think if it were anybody else or an outsider from his circle he would have never been able to do it. He never likes to do interviews—never has—and now he refuses to do any, even for this movie. He’s just so private and shy. The fact that we got this movie shot, and he was so willing to be so open during the filming of it was kind of a miracle, and like I said, not only was I fearful that if I didn’t capture the making of his movies now would it not last forever, meaning these people that he assembled wouldn’t be available forever, but I also had a sneaking suspicion that he wouldn’t be open to it forever. I felt there was a window here that he would be open to it, and he was, luckily, but if I wanted to do it now I don’t think he’d do it at all.

C: Yeah, and you were filming this back in…what was it again? It was a while ago, right?

AR: It was a long time ago when he shot Garbanzo Gas. It was sometime around 2005 or 2006.

C: What does Giuseppe think of the finished product?

AR: He says in email—his wife, Mary does all his communicating, he does all of his communicating through his wife. So any emails that come through from him are dictated to her, and she sends them to us. He said that he loved the documentary and feels it’s the greatest documentary ever made (laughs), which I think is fantastic 

C (laughing): That’s great.

AR: I’m delighted that he liked it, yeah.

C: That’s an interesting way to communicate with him. I mean, do you still hang out with him ever?

AR: No, no, no. He is completely private. The only person that he hangs out with is his wife

C: Wow, that’s so interesting.

AR: Yeah. It’s all very much a part of what makes him such an interesting guy, and what makes this movie so interesting, you know?

C: Yeah, definitely. But do you miss that friendship?

AR: I do. But I also know who he is, and I know what he’s about, and I don’t fault him for being him, you know? He embraced all the eccentricities of all the people he worked with—he never judged them, and I feel that way about him. He’s an eccentric and I embrace him for exactly who he is.

C: What about Giuseppe’s movies do you find most intriguing, if you had to pick out a quality?

AR: Well, they can’t be judged in the same way you would judge traditional movies. I would say they’re to be judged more like works of art than they are to be judged against other films—traditional films. The budgets never exceed, you know, a thousand dollars, so he has zero production value in terms of physical scope, or movie stars. But what he does have, that no one else can do is he’s got this incredible mind. His dialogue, and his ideas, the words he chooses, they’re so unique—everything he thinks, everything he says is so unique and unusual that every line is its own work of art. The dialogue is written like poetry. The ideas are so off the wall. That’s what I love about them most. He doesn’t care about technical qualities. He almost has contempt for technical qualities.


C: Right, well I love how he says he writes the script then never goes back to look at it again.

AR: Yeah, he makes a movie the way a painter would paint. They just paint it. They just paint it on the canvas and then it’s done. Generally movie making is such a meticulous process, but I like the idea that he just captures these bursts of inspiration…in the medium of movie making, which is such an unusual way. Movies take so long generally to come together, so I find that fascinating.

C: Yeah, he did it in two days. Or a day and a half, I guess.

AR: Yeah, exactly.

C: It’s like he says, it’s all about the vibe. If you’re feeling the vibe that’s all you need.

AR: Exactly.

C: What was it like for you, an outsider of this world, this universe, to be fully immersed in it for a couple of days?

AR: Well it’s a very weird world. But I was welcomed with open arms, because of Giuseppe’s trust in me. So because Giuseppe trusted in me, they all trusted me. But they do not trust other outsiders. It is a very closed circle. And I could see that when I was there. Even though I was welcomed, I knew that I was not a part of the circle. It was very clear that I was not a part of this closed-knit group—which was fine, I just wanted to make sure I could capture the closed-knit group and I feel that we did do that.

C: Yeah, absolutely. Everyone seemed so comfortable—like they don’t even remember that the camera is there half the time.

AR:  It’s really true. And I found that to be very refreshing. There were no pretenses. Nobody was making sure that they were saying the “right” thing in front of the camera, they weren’t worried about how they were going to come across, they just literally were themselves, and I found that be refreshing.

C: What was it like for you making the transition into a making a documentary as a director?

AR: Well, I love storytelling. I love storytelling of any kind—that’s why I wanted to get into movies. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to be involved in big movies…I wrote some big studio movies like Mousehunt (1997) and Small Soldiers (1998) and Underdog (2007), and a bunch of stuff like that. And then I’ve gotten the chance to write and direct of bunch of smaller movies that I feel really passionate about like The Dark Backward (1991) and Night at the Golden Eagle (2001) and Look (2007). So I just feel like I’ve been very fortunate I get to do different kinds of things, which is what as a filmmaker I’ve always wanted to do. Giuseppe’s story was just another story I felt was fascinating that I wanted to tell. So the fact that it was real I wouldn’t say made it more challenging. It just was a different way of telling a story. The story actually was there for me already, I just needed to capture it.

C: What was it like using Kickstarter for this project?

AR: I’m a big supporter of crowd funding in general. I think going directly to fans and collaborating with them and having them come in early and have them be part of the process and be a part of the movie is very exciting. And I think about when I was living in Chicago—I’m from Chicago—dreaming of making movies and moving out to Hollywood that if there was a chance that I could have been able to get involved from my house in Chicago, get involved with a movie being made in Hollywood by a filmmaker that I liked, that would have been a dream come true for me, so the fact that that exists now I think is wonderful. The film that I’m shooting now was entirely crowd funded—it’s called Driector’s Cut. It was written by Penn Jillett of Penn and Teller, and I’m directing it—we just started shooting this past Friday. That was another example of going directly to the audience that we hope the movie will appeal to and saying we can all join hands now, and rather than waiting to buy your ticket later you can basically buy your ticket now, and with the presales of the ticket or the t-shirts or whatever else more you feel you want to take part in—with your help, we can actually get this movie made, and make it directly for you. With Giuseppe Makes a Movie it was the same thing. We basically had an opportunity to say look, here’s the movie we’re making. If it seems like something you’d want to see, and you want to help us get it finished join up with us now and then you can be a part of it. And that’s what happened, and it was great.

Author: Catherine Haas

Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.

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