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South By Southwest Film Interview – REALITY SHOW director Adam Rifkin

by Jason Whyte

“REALITY SHOW is a darkly comedic satire about reality TV producer Mickey Wagner and his amoral attempt to re-invent the genre. Mickey's revolutionary idea is to pick an average family and put them under all encompassing surveillance...without their knowledge. Unfortunately Mickey soon realizes that the family is boring. In a desperate attempt to salvage the show, Mickey begins to interfere by injecting conflict to create drama. As the show gets better, the family starts to disintegrate. Mickey rationalizes that all will be ok in the end, for once the episodes begin airing, fame will heal all wounds.” Director Adam Rifkin on “Reality Show” which screenings at South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience?

I've never had a film in SXSW before but I love Austin. I actually spent several months there making a film a few years back and I was beyond impressed with the town. Austin is a city that really appreciates movies. I'm looking forward to spending time watching movies, debating movies and enjoying movies with a crowd that I know really understands movies.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also would love to hear about anything else you have made in the past!

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 had to 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.  The first movie I saw that opened my eyes to the idea that film can be more than just scary monsters and rubber heads was “One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest”. I saw it when I was quite young and it really had a profound effect on me.  Suddenly I realized that films can make you cry.  Can make you think.  Can change the way you look at the world.  After that I became a real student of film.  All kinds of film.  I watched movies constantly.  I also spent all of my play time making little movies with my friends.  It was always fun...and it still is.  I feel so lucky that I get to live out my childhood dream and actually make real movies for a living.

Most recently prior to “Reality Show” I made a film called “Look”, which explored the fact that the average American is captured over 300 times a day on camera.  The film was shot entirely from surveillance cams and went on to garner a lot of critical acclaim and win a bunch of awards.  It also spawned a successful Showtime series of the same name.  Prior to that, I've been lucky in that I've been able to write big studio kids' films like “Mousehunt”, “Small Soldiers” and “Underdog” while still getting to write and direct passion projects like “The Dark Backward” and “Night at the Golden Eagle”.  But probably two of my most well known films, thanks to a very flattering cult following, are “The Chase” with Charlie Sheen and “Detroit Rock City”. (Author's note: these are two of my favorite cult films from the 1990's!)

What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?
The journey to the big screen was a winding road to be sure and shares a unique kinship with very few other films.  Though originally conceived as a movie, “Reality Show” first found itself a life in the form an acclaimed television series that aired on Showtime in late 2012.  After its successful run I never gave up on my original idea of telling this story within a feature film framework, so I took it upon myself, along with my editor Rita K. Sanders, to re-edit all 10 episodes into a 90 minute film.  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.  Re conceiving five hours of completed material into a concise 90 minute movie was without question the biggest challenge in bringing “Reality Show” to the big screen.

What was your single favorite moment out of the entire production?

Watching great actors bring the words you wrote months prior to life is always a thrill.  There were countless times during production when I would become mesmerized by the acting.  You always hope when you're writing a character piece that you'll be able to find actors who can bring more to the roles than what is just on the page.  I got o lucky with my cast, they did an incredible job and watching them work was a joy everyday.  That said, the favorite moment of production by far was making my assistant J-Mo get naked for a nudist colony scene.  I allowed him to drink vodka to get up the nerve to strip down in front of our 100 person crew, but because we shot that scene at 7 i the morning, he drank on an empty stomach and got unexpectedly blind drunk.  Watching him stagger around the set naked all morning, slurring his words and picking fights wad my single favorite moment of the shoot.  The funniest part however is that his big drunken nude scene never made the final cut.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

What drives me today is the same thing that drove me when I was 8.  I love movies.  All kinds of movies.  I also love telling all types of stories. Funny stories, sad stories, scary stories etc.  That's why I feel beyond lucky that I've been able to spend my career so far making all kinds of movies.  Big movies, tiny movies, family movies, tragic movies.  In Hollywood it can often be perceived as a liability if you're not easily categorized into one box, but I've never been a subscriber to conventional wisdom.  When an idea hits me I've learned that the best thing for me to do is to run with it.  That's part of the fun, the challenge of telling a new and different tale every time.

I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

“Reality Show” was shot by Will Barratt, who was uniquely qualified to shoot it because not only has he shot tons of independent movies and lots to scripted television, but he's also shot tons of reality TV as well.  Part of the fun for Will was getting to lampoon a genre that he was more than familiar with.  The film was shot exactly the same way a team might go about shooting an actual reality show, so we used mostly Panasonic HVXs and GoPros.  That said, we used a litany of other types of cameras as well, including web cams and iPhones.
What do you want audiences to take from the film?

It's no great revelation that reality television is as fake as professional wrestling.  The fact that "reality" TV is completely staged should come as no surprise to anyone.  But as our culture grows more desensitized to ever increasing egregious, humiliating and character assassinating behavior, is it what the audiences continue to demand that pushes producers to create even more extreme behavior?  How responsible should we as viewers feel when yet another character from Celebrity Rehab dies, or when a Beverly Hills Housewife husband kills himself due to public ridicule.  There may be zero reality to reality show plot lines, but the bodies that keep piling up are very real indeed.  Is it worth it for a little prime time entertainment?  And how is it that the players involved in creating and producing many of these shows, the ones who continue pushing for wilder and more embarrassing content, are so adept at rationalizing away any personal responsibility or culpability?  I'm not saying it's always "bad" to watch these "evil" reality shows.  I'd be a hypocrite if I said that because, Hell, I've watched them too.  But what I would like people to think about after they've watched “Reality Show” is where they, as an audience, fit into the chain of responsibility.  We as individuals may not have the power to single handedly stop a train wreck, but when we collectively make some of these shows bonafide hits, and make some of these less than stable individuals genuine stars, we have to share in some of the blame when the people we've made famous for all the wrong reasons publicly implode.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

When it comes to independent films and film festival titles, critic support is essential.  Small films rarely have the P&A  budget to cut through the clutter so good reviews and champions in the media become the most valuable tool in getting your film heard about and talked about and hopefully seen.  On gigantic movies it's less of an issue.  Nobody who's excited to see the latest “Fast and Furious” movie is gonna give a shit if the New York Times gives it a good review or a bad review.  Movies on that scale are pretty review proof.  It's the movies that need to be discovered, that need to build a word of mouth to succeed that are helped most by critic and media support.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, what is the future release plan for the movie? Where would you like it to go?

The film elicits such a strong audience reaction that I'd really love for people to have the opportunity to see it with a crowd.  The plan is to definitely take it out in theaters, though specialty theaters are probably the smartest way to go.  Showing it at unsuspecting mall multiplexes could illicit protests.

Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

My favorite theater has always been the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.  To me it symbolizes show biz: the myth, the history and the reality.  Every time I've had a chance to see a film of mine show there it's been exciting.  Showing “Reality Show” there would be a blast.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?

I'd say, "You better be tweeting about how much you're loving this movie!"

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. I was curious if you had any advice to aspiring filmmakers?

I'm a firm believer in never asking for permission to pursue your passion.  If you want to make movies, just make them.  Don't wait. I know it'd be great to have millions of dollars to make your magnum opus, but in the meantime, if you have $57 in your bank account, make a movie for $57!  The technology has finally caught up with people's ambition.  Shoot it on your phone if you have to.  The cheapest production value is talent, and if you have some you can take any restriction and turn it into a creative challenge.  If you don't just do it you must not really want it badly enough.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?

I've seen a lot of great movies at a lot of really fun festivals, but I suppose I could narrow it down to two that stand out for me.  When I saw “Gods and Monsters” at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and when I saw “Man Bites Dog” screen during Cannes.  Both are fantastic films for wholly different reasons and both screenings were memorable.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2013 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 8-16. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/06/13 17:53:02
last updated: 03/06/13 18:14:43
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