Crowdfunding has taken over indie filmmaking. Auctioning off executive producer titles, access to the set, and even roles in the film itself has become part and parcel to how low budget films get made these days. But just who are these investors? And what do they really want?

DIRECTOR’S CUT, which world premiered as Slamdance’s opening night film, finds a disgruntled and basically insane kickstarter investor re-cutting the film he helped fund with his own footage, revealing something far more disturbing than the thriller the filmmakers were trying to make. Adam Rifkin directs DIRECTOR’S CUT, from a screenplay by Penn Jillette, who also stars in the film as the investor, Herbert Blount.

Rifkin had made a film called LOOK, all shot from surveillance cameras. “The average person is captured on camera 300 times a day, right?” he tells me, “and that film came out and it did well and it got great reviews and about two years later, my then assistant called me and said ‘Hey Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller is tweeting about LOOK.’” When Rifkin got home, there was a private Facebook message from Jillette. He said he loved the film and wanted to talk about it with Rifkin, and he gave him his number. “It was late at night,” Rifkin remembers, “so I wrote him back. And I said, ‘Listen, thank you so much, that’s so cool of you, here’s my number, call me anytime over the weekend, and we’ll talk.’ And, as soon as I hit ‘send,’ two seconds later my phone rang, it was Penn.”

Austin-Tower

The time code is intentional – Herbert Blount tells us this scene was cut out of the film and he doesn’t know why.

Jillette was very complimentary about LOOK and pitched Rifkin his script for Director’s Cut,  and said that Rifkin should direct it. Hesitant (because he normally directs his own material), Rifkin read the script.  “I called him back, said Rifkin. “I told him ‘You know, this is such a unique script, this is such a fresh idea, I’ve never seen this movie before, how could I say no?’ I’d be crazy not to want to be involved because it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”

It was Jillette who brought up the idea of crowdfunding and agreed to be the face of the campaign. ‘If it fails,’ he told Rifkin, ‘I’ll take the hit and be the one that gets embarrassed.’ Of course, it didn’t fail, they raised far more money than their goal and made the film entirely on that money, giving them tremendous freedom.

The best thing about DIRECTOR’S CUT is that it is really two movies in one. There is the original thriller the characters are trying to make called”‘Knocked Off”  (including Rifkin as himself, the director of “Knocked Off”) and there is the footage that Jillette’s character Herbert Blount has added, for his own version of the film. These scenes include him stalking and eventually kidnapping the lead actress Miss Pyle, with whom he has become obsessed.

Also there are also sequences of “Knocked Off” that Blount has recreated, plastering his own face over the other actors to try to have a larger role in the film. “It was often very interesting,” Rifkin explains, “because we’d cut something together and then we’d realize, ‘Oh, wait. That’s too good. Herbert wouldn’t be this talented, we have to make it look like shit.’” This aesthetic found its way across all the departments. “We were shooting in Herbert’s lair, creating Herbert’s set, or Herbert’s props,” the director says of the sequences Herbert himself has designed for his added footage, “everybody’s just trained to do the best job they can, and so we always had to keep reminding ourselves, ‘Oh, this is the part of the movie where it’s supposed to look shitty, alright we have to do a worse job here.’ So, it was a very interesting thing to try.”

Of course, the multiple narratives add all sorts of complexity to a shooting schedule. “I got to make a couple of different types of movies all at the same time,” Rifkin says, “We shot about 70% of the movie within the movie and you know, with very little money and very little time, we could finish that movie and have a completely legitimate little thriller on our hands, you know what I mean?” The whole time the cast and crew had to keep track of which movie was which, how they combined together, and to adhere to the rules they had set: “everything that you see cut together has to have been cut together by Herby, by our lead villain.” The DVD/BluRay release, of course, has endless possibilities for extras, extended scenes, etc., including a full version of “Knocked Off”, which Rifkin keeps threatening to make. I feel there should at least be a Director’s Commentary on the actual Director’s Cut.

Rifkin’s film brings me back to memories of getting my first DVDs, when I would rush to the Director’s Commentary to learn from the master. I converted all my VHS tapes into DVD because it’s like a film school on a disc. Rifkin agrees, “I do think that is fast becoming a thing of the past. It all came out of the need to have extra content, so that people would upgrade their collections. Now that everything is all streaming discs are becoming relics, and I think commentaries are fading, which is too bad, because I love them.”

The ‘director’ of the film, Herbert Blount, becomes another in a long line of unreliable narrators like Humbert Humbert or Nick Carraway. “It’s funny you should say that,” Rifkin says, “that is exactly what we talked about from the start. He sets himself up as this film scholar and expert filmmaker and very, very quickly you realize he’s just completely insane.”

I love the idea of the Director’s Commentary as a narrative device. I’ve already raved about DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY: THE TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, but Rifkin’s film works in a slightly different way, where the director is actually in control and acknowledges what he is doing to the film. The ‘director’ of the film, Herbert Blount, becomes another in a long line of unreliable narrators like Humbert Humbert or Nick Carraway. “It’s funny you should say that,” Rifkin says, “that is exactly what we talked about from the start. He sets himself up as this film scholar and expert filmmaker and very, very quickly you realize he’s just completely insane.”

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In addition to the narrative device, DIRECTOR’S CUT is crammed with fun cameos.  Teller of course has a scene stealing moment, and Gilbert Gottfried plays an eccentric landlord.   Even Nestor Carbonell from Lost has a cameo.  “He wrote some of these characters with some of these people in mind,” Rifkin says of Jillette’s script, “And there were other people that we decided who would be fun for this role.   Harry Hamlin just seemed like the perfect choice for this grizzled cop in this cop thriller, whom Penn happened to know through his wife because they were on Celebrity Apprentice together.”

DIRECTOR’S CUT is Rifkin’s second film at Slamdance, after a comedy set in cave man times, HOMO ERECTUS. “Sundance is big, it’s established, there are films with tremendous artistic merit and big celebrities and, you know, Robert Redford,” he says, “Slamdance is its punk rock little brother.  They have wilder films, and it’s a crazier vibe, and it’s more subversive and more irreverent. It’s a blast.  The idea that they both are concurrent and synonymous with one another is fun, because you can jump back and forth between the two and it’s just a neat combo package.”

Next stop for Director’s Cut is February 2nd, at the ArcLight in Hollywood.

About Bears Fonte

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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