DIY aesthetic emphasized in Slamdance panel
January 26, 2016
Slamdance has maintained its "Do It Yourself" aesthetic for more than 20 years, so it seemed fitting to have a coffee discussion Saturday morning with magicians Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller along with director Adam Rifkin, whose collaboration resulted in the film "Director’s Cut."
The film is a comedy horror that stars Jillette, Missi Pyle and Harry Hamlin. Jillette plays stalker and crowdsourcer Herbie Blount, who kidnaps Pyle and makes his own film by stealing footage shot by Rifkin.
The reality is the film would not have been made without the help of more than 4,700 crowdfunders who, through the Park City-based crowdsource organization Fundanything.com, raised nearly $1.2 million to get the film made. (See accompanying story titled "Park City-based crowdsource website helped fund ‘Director’s Cut’").
The panel began with moderator Paul Rachman who asked Jillette and Teller about their affection for their fans.
"We were never artists. We weren’t people that did stuff for ourselves. We were cheap carny trash, street performers and we did theater shows right away," Jillette told the standing-room-only crowd in the Treasure Mountain Inn ballroom. "In the beginning, we called it signing autographs, but there was no one out there. We didn’t have anyplace to go, so if someone wanted to talk with us, we were available."
That carried onto their hit Las Vegas show the two have been doing for years.
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"We are unusual for Vegas performers and Broadway performances because we meet our audience after [every show]," Jillette said. "Many stage performers are terrified of their audience, and I don’t know if this is a personality thing or habit, but we [never developed] a fear of our audience."
The thing the two have learned throughout their career is if people like them, they are more likely to like them in return.
"It seems like an odd thing to say, bit I did ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ and have spent a lot of time with celebrities and know some celebrities who unabashedly loathe their audiences," Jillette said. "They would ask people to come and give money, supposedly for charity, and then when the people arrived to give them money and hang out, [the celebrities] would show nothing but disdain."
At one event, Jillette and Twisted Sister lead singer Dee Snyder decided to do something about that.
"We would run over and suck up to fans of other people who didn’t like them, just because we were so embarrassed of [the celebrities’] reactions," he said.
Even when Jillette and Teller play London, they perform a 90-minute show and then do a two-hour post show with their audiences.
"We’ve had the experience where many of our very quiet audience [members] are the most appreciative when we meet them," Jillette said.
So, when it came to crowdfunding "Director’s Cut," Jillette and Teller were ready.
"When our peers found out that I was inviting people into my home, backstage, to movie night and magic lessons to meet me and Teller, they were horrified," Jillette said.
But through the crowdfunding Jillette has met some great people who contributed money to the project.
"There are some that I would consider friends for life," he said. "So, the advice I would give to filmmakers is: If you are going to have people help you out with financing or investing and want people to see your movie, cultivating a respect, an affection and comfort with your audience is rare and is going to be, in the next 20 years, very important things for entertainers."
In addition to showing appreciation to fans, another major DIY element is to have patience, Teller said.
"For the first six years of our first 10 years, Penn and I had lots of time when we talked about ideas that didn’t get realized until 10 or 20 years thereafter," he said. "That’s good to know, because you may be haunted by an idea and that idea might not have it’s time, yet, so you should keep your eyes open."
Also, Teller advised, don’t be afraid of creative tension.
"[Penn and I] fought a great deal and that’s something I highly recommend," Teller said. "If you work with somebody else, don’t work with someone who just agrees with you. You might as well be working by yourself. Work with someone who is going to take you to someplace that is very different from where you are."
Thirdly, Jillette told the audience not to wait for talent scouts if you want to go into show business, and cited his and Teller’s career as an example.
"The only way we got to be in a magic show was by being the producers, the writers, the directors and having complete control over the cast," he said. "If [someone was] putting together a Broadway show with two magicians that would eventually run on Broadway three times and be successful in Vegas, we would not be cast. We wouldn’t even get the audition, because we’re not attractive at all.
"As a matter of fact, when we were pitching ‘Director’s Cut,’ we were told how many times that they liked the script, but wanted to replace [me] as Herbie," Jillette said.
The last thing Teller counseled was to have a clear head.
"Don’t drink alcohol," he said. "Don’t do drugs and don’t believe in God. Those things are extremely helpful in getting things accomplished in the real world."
Director Rifkin’s DIY road took him on a similar journey.
"Ever since I was a little tiny kid, living in Chicago, all I ever wanted to do was make movies," he told the audience. "I didn’t understand what a director was, what a producer was, but I knew that movies got made somehow."
He started making his own films when he was in elementary school.
"I commandeered the family’s home-movie camera and stared making movies with my sister and my friends," he said. "I thought when I got old enough that I would move to Hollywood and learn how to do it for real."
The first film he made was called "The Lady Giant," which starred his sister.
"She was about four or five and I made a city out of an Erector Set and put in some Matchbox cars," Rifkin said. "She was going to wander into the city and smash all the buildings and cars."
Before the shoot, Rikin got into a huge fight with his mom.
"It was cold out and she wanted my sister to wear a jacket, and I said, ‘Giants don’t wear jackets,’" Rifkin remembered. "It was my first battle with a producer and the producer won. My sister wore a big puffy jacket."
His amateur filmmaking experiences in his backyard and neighborhood proved valuable when he moved to Los Angeles where he attended filmmaking classes as USC.
"I learned that I had taught myself all the principles about filmmaking, without knowing it," he said. "I figured out how to do those things just by doing it."
He Ieft school and started writing scripts.
"The first script I wrote was the ‘Dark Backward,’ and it was the first time in my professional career that was entirely void of professional Hollywood influence," Rifkin said.
He didn’t think about whether or not it was a financeable idea, if the characters could be cast, or if it was a genre that anyone was interested in.
"I realized the only magic of making movies was getting money to fund them," he said. "I wrote something that I wanted to see, but had no idea how to raise money."
So, Rifkin rifled through the Yellow Pages and looked for people with the biggest ads, because he knew they would have money.
"I called up doctors, lawyers and would tell them about the movie," he said.
For some reason, an established Hollywood lawyer, who had been connected with "Easy Rider," agreed to take a meeting and told me Rifkin he was doing it all wrong.
"He gave me a list of production companies and I started sending scripts to them," he said.
One of the readers referred the script to an up-and-coming producer who got in touch with Rifkin.
"That’s how things got started," Rifkin said.
Although innovation and hard work can produce results, Rifkin said it’s a mistake not to see the value of failure.
He was once hired to direct a movie called "Barbed Wire." The funders, however, were incensed that he was hired because they had their own director in mind. So he was fired before the funders saw anything he shot.
"When you get hired for a job, Variety will put that on the cover," Rifkin said. "When you get fired, Variety will [also] put that on the cover. And all the people who called me to congratulate me for getting the job wouldn’t return my calls once I got fired."
After feeling sorry for himself for a day, Rikin decided to do something creative.
"I realized the only power I had was my ability to write," he said. "Every director, producer, production company are looking for material. They are looking for books, screenplays, an idea, anything, and they will pay for it if they think it will make money."
So, while the production company that fired him was still making "Barbed Wire," Rifkin penned four scripts.
"The first three didn’t sell at all, but the fourth sold in a big way in a bidding war involving multiple studios," he said.
The script was eventually bought by Steven Spielberg and became Dreamworks’ first family hit, 1997’s "Mousehunt."
"If I hadn’t been fired and publicly humiliated, I wouldn’t have ever written that script," Rifkin said. "What gave me quiet personal satisfaction was the editor who I hired for ‘Barbed Wire’ was in a meeting after the first test screening and told me it pulled in the lowest numbers ever. He also said the producer who fired me was in the room, looking at the test scores, and looking at Variety, that had the front page story that said ‘Rifkin Sells ‘Mousehunt’ to Steven Spielberg.’"
Slamdance will run through Jan. 28 at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St. Tickets are on sale now at http://www.slamdance.com .
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