Thursday 21 October 2010


I had barely finished asking the first question before writer/director ADAM RIFKIN was displaying his incredible passion for films and filmmaking. Not that it was any surprise. Adam is one of those rare filmmakers who is absolutely passionate about every aspect of the industry. His own work segues seamlessly between the big movies that he writes for the studios, and the smaller, more personal projects that he loves to create.

His credits as a screenwriter include SMALL SOLDIERS, UNDERDOG and MOUSEHUNT, and he directed DETROIT ROCK CITY, which I absolutely love. His new series, LOOK, (based on his movie of the same name) is currently on Showtime; where its opening two episodes had the best viewing figures the network has seen in over two years in that time-slot.

We had schedule a five minute meeting, but once you get Adam talking about movies it's impossible to get him to shut up. But with all his wisdom, advice, and insight into creativity, directing and working within the studio system, I am not complaining. This is a MUST-READ for anyone interested in screenwriting or directing.

If you could only write -OR- direct, for the rest of your career, which would you choose, and why?

I would direct if I had to choose, because I got into filmmaking because I love directing and I love the act of making a movie. I write predominantly so I have something to direct that I feel passionate about and I relate to. I know a lot of filmmakers who are writers first, who direct. I'm a director first, who writes.

In 'Detroit Rock City' you really captured the magic of being young and being obsessed with music. Were you always passionate about music when you were younger, and if so, do you still feel that way now?

I love music and I am passionate about it but my main passion my whole life has really always been about movies. I just related my passion towards movies towards the character's passion for music, to be able to draw from. My number one focus, my number one passion, my number one obsession my whole life has always been movies first and everything else has always been a distant second.

Do you think that to be a good film director you have to have that passion, or do you see director's that perhaps operate differently to that?

No I don't think you have to. If you have a natural talent for it then you can be a great filmmaker and not have a passion for it. Talent is kind of non-discriminating that way, I mean, sometimes you have it and sometimes you don't. There's a great movie about talent called "BULLETS OVER BROADWAY" directed by Woody Allen, and it's very much about that. Which is: John Cusack has the passion for playwriting and he believes his methods and the meaning behind why he's doing what he's doing is merit enough to have the talent. He believes that because his heart and his passion are in the right place, that he deserves to have the success and talent that he wants, but he starts to realize, it's this hitman, who has the talent. I just think that's an interesting exploration of that topic.

I heard Woody Allen say once that he feels lucky that he has talent, because that enables him to express what is inside of himself -- and that there are millions of people that don't have talent, or don't have an artistic temperament, and they perhaps can't express what is inside of them the same way you or I might be able to.

Well it's not a surprise that Woody Allen was able to put that into words, because he's a talented guy. Hearing you say that he said that makes perfect sense.

Your first movie, "NEVER ON TUESDAY," one of the producers was Elliot Kastner; I was fortunate to meet him just a few months before he died, he was ill at the time. I was just wondering; he was such a fascinating character and obviously a great producer. I was wondering if you have any stories about him that might interest our readers?

Not only did Elliot Kastner give me my first shot and allow me to direct a movie when I was nineteen years old, he let me write and direct my first movie, I was nineteen, nobody does that. He was a rare guy that way. He started so many people's careers that way. He started William Goldman's career. He's one of the few people that I've ever met who just absolutely, 100% trusted his gut. He didn't believe in anything else other than what he believed was right. I kept in touch with him throughout his entire life, from that first experience of making that movie with him.

He was a loon. I mean, he was a crazy crazy guy. He was very obsessed with cleanliness, he yelled at everybody all the time; his temper was absolutely legendary. But, he was brilliant, he was creative, he loved movies, he believed in filmmakers and he never stopped working well, well, well into his old age. And suffering with brutal cancer he was still, still pursuing his passion for getting movies made.

Yeah, when I met him - he was still talking about all these plans he had and projects he wanted to produce. He's going to be missed.

Very much so. And he was the one who taught me, never take no for an answer. He's the one that taught me that it's not a business for shy people. When he gave me an opportunity to direct my first film, the one thing he said was "don't fuck it up!" So err, I say that to myself every time I'm about to start a project. "Don't fuck it up!" I don't always succeed, but I say it to myself, y'know?

I'm in the UK at the moment, and we've not had a chance to see "LOOK", your new show. But I've been reading all about it and it seems like it's doing really well. I'd love to hear more; how has it been received over there? And what are your plans for it?

Well "LOOK" is based on a movie I made of the same name. It explores the idea that the average American is captured on surveillance 300 times a day. I know that number is much higher in London.

You're probably right.

Yeah, London is the most surveilled city in the world -- and so, basically it follows several interweaving storylines; but the entire series is shot solely with surveillance cameras, cellphone cameras, webcams and flipcams and all the different cameras we live our lives in front of every day but never think about. Without being preachy about it, it just inherently explores the idea of privacy or our lack thereof.

The show opened to huge numbers. It was the number one show in its time-slot with higher viewership than Showtime network had for two years in that time-slot.


Thank you. The number 2 episode also came in number one in its time-slot; so knock on wood, it's doing very well.

I've been reading some interviews, where you seem to take the middle ground when people ask you if you think all these cameras are a good or a bad thing. Do you not have any kind of opinions yourself, or feelings around the subject?

I would say that before I started the project, I would say I was leaning more towards the idea that the more cameras there were more of an invasion of privacy, I felt it was. But the more research I did into the subject, the more I really do see both sides. I definitely feel there are many many examples of camera abuses. And y'know, a very recent example is this poor freshman at Rutger's University who killed himself when his roommate turned on the webcam and filmed him having an intimate encounter with another boy, and posted it online.

In 37 States in the US it is legal to have cameras in dressing rooms and bathrooms. And that footage can often get into the wrong hands. The laws are very hazy as to who has access to that footage and what can be done with that footage. It gets out there, and that's a real invasion too.

But on the other side of the coin I think there are many many examples of cameras being used for good. In London, it's a perfect example; all those surveillance cameras caught the London bombers, y'know?

Yeah, of course, yeah.

I think it's a really complex issue and you can't really say; all the cameras are good, and that's it. Or all the cameras are bad, and that's it. I think there's a lot of levels there.

What I want to ask is really about advice for filmmakers. But I've seen you asked this question a lot, and your answers are always very inspiring; so I want to ask it a little bit differently.


So many; whether it's screenwriters or directors.. a big problem they face is the idea of this inner-critic, y'know? The voice in your head that tells you you're not good enough, or it's already been done. Y'know, that thing that keeps people flicking around Facebook all day rather than writing that script or getting out there with a camera. So I'm wondering what you think about that, and how you get past that annoying thing that holds people back?

Well I will tell you that everybody needs to know that everybody has that. Even the people that are very successful in these chosen professions that we are all pursuing. Everybody that I know, myself; you sit down to write a script-- I know very few writers who sit down to write a script and love the process and everything that they write, when they're done they say 'man, I'm good! this is great!' All of the artists that I know are very self-critical, and sometimes that can be a real detriment to productivity. But what you have to do is you have to, as best you can, ignore that voice and keep pushing forward.

The hardest part about writing a script, is writing the script. Sitting down and writing every day and getting it done. Everybody is capable of coming up with a good idea, I bet you most people are capable of coming up with a good scene and writing a good scene. But it's the discipline to sit down every day like it's your full time job and bang out however many pages a day you're capable of banging out. And you just have to keep moving forward. I mean, you get to the end, and you realize most of this is crap and I have to rewrite it. But it gets better every time you rewrite it.

But I would say you absolutely can't let that inner voice slow you down, you have to bully past it and keep moving forward. The good news is, if you're talented, which hopefully you are-- you're gonna persevere and the talent is going to rise to the top, and you're going to make it. You just have to believe that and you have to be extremely confident in that idea. And don't let all the insecurities, 'oh this is crap,' 'who cares what these characters have to say,' 'why am I bothering? why am I wasting my time?' Ignore it.

That's great. I think that's really helpful. What are you currently working on?

Besides 'LOOK', I'm working on a movie that I'm not really allowed to talk about but it's very exciting. When I can, I'll let you know. At the same time my day job is writing studio-family movies. I just wrote one for Disney, and I'm writing one for Nickelodeon. Those pay the bills and enable me to do the passion projects, like 'LOOK' y'know.

With writing Studio films, obviously you need to be passionate about what you're writing, even if it's an assignment. How do you keep motivated when it's not something that has necessarily originated from within yourself?

If I'm writing something that isn't necessarily coming from my soul, it's not like I'm born to write it and I need to express it otherwise I'm going to die unhappy. If I'm doing it more for the fact that, you know, this is an opportunity that's come my way--- um, first of all I try to do the best I can with every project I'm involved with. I love all kinds of movies, I love big silly popcorn movies, I love small independent more artful movies, and I love everything in between. So I try to find a way to love everything I'm working on even if it's nothing that I necessarily would have originated myself anyway.

At the same time I also keep in mind that this job, let's say it's a big studio family movie that came my way--- this job is going to afford me the freedom to make the next movie I want to make which is a smaller more passion-project of mine. If it weren't for the big studio job I wouldn't have this opportunity. So for me, it's a great sort of give and take. I'll give this to the studio system, and in exchange - the studio system very graciously gives me the freedom to afford to do the smaller passion project.

I think that's something that's changed now. I think before, people use a phrase like 'artistic integrity' and think you have to be like Woody Allen and do exactly what you want year after year. But I think now, people like yourself, or Steven Soderbergh; it's that idea you do one for them, and hopefully then you get to do one for yourself.

I have found that that has been one great, lucky opportunity that I've been afforded. A lot of the filmmakers that I admire, John Sayles is a good example; and also, by the way, John Cassavetes and even Orson Welles. Cassevetes and Welles would act in films, y'know, specifically to make some money to get the freedom to make the films they were more passionate about. I don't feel in any way that it's a compromise to my integrity. To me I feel really lucky and fortunate to be a part of big studio Hollywood, and really lucky to be able to make smaller, more personal films too.

I really liked 'SMALL SOLDIERS' I think it's interesting with these types of films, because you're writing for two audiences, right? You're writing for the youngsters and for older people; because you don't want the parents sitting there bored. How do you achieve that mixture?

The biggest inspiration I take is from the Warner Brothers cartoons. I think about all the Bugs Bunny cartoons that I grew up watching. They were very funny for kids, but there was also a lot of adult themed humor, and double-entendre humor in what the characters say. I didn't understand a lot of that as a kid, but now as a grown up you appreciate it on a whole separate level. I think the best kids films do that, I always try to do that.

What is the one achievement you're most proud of. The one where you say "yeah, I really got that right."

I would say it's a two pronged answer. My sentimental favorite is "The Dark Backward". It was the first script I ever wrote. It was the first and one of the few times where I had total creative freedom. It was a great experience, it's my sentimental favorite.

I do feel though that I'm the most proud of "LOOK", the film and the series. I do feel that it's my best work. The characters and the character complexity, and the subject matter; I'm very passionate about it and I feel the best stuff I have done is "LOOK" the film and "LOOK" the series.

Is it hard to cast for? Because the acting has to be extremely natural, and it must be tough to get right?

We see hundreds of people for each part. It really is a different style of acting. I can't rely on movie tricks to manipulate a performance. I have to cast people who I believe can pull it off completely naturally, we have very few cuts and can't hide behind the tricks of fast editing or the camera pushing in to create tension. I like to believe we pulled it off, and we got great people. I'm really happy with the cast and so far the reaction has been great.

How do you deal with criticism-- when you read a review or you hear something about your work and it gets completely slammed. Do you read that stuff? Do you pay attention to it?

I read it occasionally. My feeling is: you can't take anything personally in Hollywood. If you start taking things personally, it will cripple you. To me, criticism and at the same time rejection - because in Hollywood when you're pursuing a career in making movies you experience a lot of rejection. You just can not allow it to affect you one bit.

I think a lot of that is just a function of just a natural ability to not let it bother you. I know a lot of people who are very bright and very talented, and no matter how many times they tell themselves they're not going to take it personally, they do, and they can't help it. I'm lucky that way; I just don't ever let rejection or criticism slow me down. It just does not affect me. When someone says nice things about my work I'm happy to hear it. But I don't rest on my laurels either. I don't get overly swayed either way by positive or negative. For me it's all about keeping my focus, keeping my eye on the ball, moving forward. I want to write that next script, I want to make that next movie. If they liked the last one great, if they hated the last one, great, irrelevant, I'm just going to keep moving forward and keep making stuff.

I guess the two extremes of loving it or hating it; it's much better than someone just walking out and not really having an opinion, right?

I would absolutely agree with that. Some of my movies that have enjoyed the longevity, the ones people are still discovering and appreciating.. were the ones that were hated by a lot of people and loved by a lot of people. So I'd much rather have a movie that has an extreme reaction than no reaction.

I think, as you work in the studio system, I think this is an interesting thing to ask; it's more of a screenwriting question. There are so many books and seminars now that say there's '12 steps to writing' and 'you must have this happen on this page,' all of these rules; and I think upcoming writers especially feel so much pressure to deliver a script that will please people, and it gets further and further away from writing what you want to write. How do you get that balance between pouring out whatever is inside of you, passionately onto the page -against- writing something that essentially people will want to make?

Well that is a great question, because all of the rules of screenwriting often completely strangle the creativity right out of it. If you love movies and you've seen a lot of movies and you want to make movies, and you've lived your life studying movies; you're going to kind of have a natural understanding of a movie pace and plot. I don't think you really need to over analyse what page this plot twist is supposed to come on, or when an act break is supposed to occur. You want it to be original, you want it to be creative, you want to be inspired by all the movies you've seen in your past.

One of the things that makes movies good and original; when you look at the movies you're researching and watching, and loving, and watching over and over again - is that they have originality to them, y'know? The perfect structured film is rarely the best film.

Definitely, yeah.

It doesn't hurt to know what a basic three act structure is, and it doesn't hurt to hear what some of these rules might be. But you kind of want to forget about them when you're sitting down to write. You want to be swept away in the story and the characters. You want to blaze a new trail for yourself, you want to be original. That doesn't mean write something that's absolutely non-sensical and call it original. You want it still to be a movie that people can digest to some degree, you know? But I think people get mired in the formula---- but I will tell you this: if somebody has a natural talent, that formula will not slow you down unless you allow it too. You have to trust your talent. The people who have no talent, all they have to rely on is the rules and the books and the formulas. It's like playing the piano, or a cookbook. If you have a natural talent for cooking, you're just gonna feel how much salt is gonna make it taste better. You don't necessarily want to measure salt grain by grain just because it says it in the book.

Linked to that question-- do you think there are certain character traits in people who are successful in this industry compared to people that aren't, or do you think it's just luck?

It's interesting. One of the things I like most about the movie industry is that there are absolutely no rules. If you go to medical school and you study and you get your grades, you come out the other side as a Doctor. You know what I mean?


If you want to be a filmmaker, there's no set path, no rules. You make up your own rules as you go along. Everybody does it different, and everybody blazes their own path. One of the things I like about the people who succeed in the movie business, or anybody pursuing a career in the arts of any kind, is that they just innately know that their way is the right way, for them. It might not be the right way for someone else, but it's the right way for them. And if it isn't working one way, you can shift gears and try it another way. The people who succeed at it are the people who know, 'yeah this is the way for me, this is the way I'm going to pursue this career for myself, and to hell with everyone else and the way they did it, I'm going to do it my way.'

Talking of doing it your own way, I'll finish on this one now. I'm doing a feature film in the coming months; without going into the details of it -- do you have any advice?

Don't fuck it up!

Care to share?


  1. This is great! I love your interviews always very good choices. I didnt know about Look but I will watch it! thanks

  2. Adam also makes an appearance in an incredibly encouraging documentary about the life of the screenwriter called "Tales from the Script". I thoroughly recommend it to any screenwriter looking for a little boost in their drive.

    From imdb... "Shane Black ("Lethal Weapon"), John Carpenter ("Halloween"), Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption"), William Goldman ("The Princess Bride"), Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver"), and dozens of other Hollywood screenwriters share hilarious anecdotes and penetrating insights in "Tales from the Script," the most comprehensive documentary ever made about screenwriting. By analyzing their triumphs and recalling their failures, the participants explain how successful writers develop the skills necessary for toughing out careers in one of the world's most competitive industries. They also reveal the untold stories behind some of the greatest screenplays ever written, describing their adventures with luminaries including Harrison Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Joel Silver, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg."