Adam Rifkin joins actor-writer-director club with caveman comedy

Filmmaker joins triple-threat club

Caveman comedy: Filmmakers who get to write, direct and star in their movies are typically household names like Woody Allen or Mel Brooks, but sometimes that same rarefied lightning does strike for others.

That's certainly the case with "National Lampoon's Homo Erectus," opening wide June 13 via National Lampoon, which was written and directed by Adam Rifkin, who also stars in the silly but funny caveman comedy. Also on board are Ali Larter, Talia Shire, Gary Busey, Carol Alt and David Carradine. Produced by Carolyn Pfeiffer and Brad Wyman, it was executive produced by Tom Schatz.

In "Erectus" Rifkin plays Ishbo, a philosophical caveman who's clearly light years ahead of the rest of his Stone Age tribe. Unfortunately, Ishbo's brilliant inventions and suggestions all fall on deaf ears and turn the rest of the pack against him. Worse yet, his brother Thudnik winds up marrying the beautiful cave girl Fardart (Larter) who Ishbo's had a hopeless crush on since childhood. It's an era, by the way, in which "clubbing" refers not to hitting the hottest new nightclubs, but to hitting cave girls on the head with hefty clubs and then dragging them away.

Although caveman comedies are a genre I typically don't pay much attention to, I was interested in this one because Rifkin's a talented filmmaker whose previous film "Look," a fascinating drama about the impact of surveillance cameras on our society, was a film I liked very much and focused on here. To read that column with Rifkin, which ran Sept. 26, 2007, click here.

As a screenwriter, Rifkin's credits include such films as "Underdog, "Mousehunt," "Small Soldiers" and "Where's Waldo."

When I caught up recently with Rifkin I asked him how he'd managed to get to write, direct and star in a movie so early in his career. "I had always been a huge Woody Allen fan and a huge Mel Brooks fan," he explained. "These are the guys I worshipped growing up. I had always intended when I came out here (to L.A.) to pursue filmmaking in that way, but as I was getting started certain opportunities would arise to get movies made and there wasn't necessarily an opportunity to be in any of those movies.

"So I kind of stopped pursuing the idea of starring in and writing and directing for a while just to sort of get my first few movies made and then I just settled into writing and directing and didn't think about it at all. I would ham it up every once in a while in a small role in a film of mine or a film a buddy of mine was making. I wrote this script very much inspired by early Woody Allen and Mel Brooks movies. I was not my first choice for the lead -- but Brad Pitt never read the script! I can't believe it. We offered him thousands of dollars and he still didn't read it! I just can't understand why he wouldn't do that. But anyway, I leapt from the bottom of my list after that humiliation and decided to star in the film myself."

After sharing that laugh with me, Rifkin added, "Actually, the way it really went down was a producer who I work with quite often named Brad Wyman and I had been going down a path with an actor for a different project and this actor was a greenlight-able actor. With his attachment it would have been a go movie. One thing led to another and ultimately he ended up becoming unavailable and that opportunity went away and Brad said very off the cuff and not being serious at all, 'Adam if you'd just become a star it would be a hell of a lot easier to get our movies made because you could just attach yourself to them.'

"I said, 'Don't tempt me because I'll write a script for myself to star in and if I do you have to try and find the money to get it made.' He said, 'Go ahead. Write the script.' So I took him at his word and I wrote 'Homo Erectus.' I thought I'd write a movie that could be made inexpensively and would still be fun and still be silly. I gave him the script and I said, 'Okay. I fulfilled my half of the bargain and now you have to fulfill yours and try to find the money' and he went, 'Are you kidding? Who's going to finance a movie starring you?' I said, 'I guess you're right' and I figured that would be the end of that."

Of course, it wasn't: "He and my agent at the time, Jared Hoffman (then at CAA and now a partner at Generate and Rifkin's current manager while Rifkin's current agent is Jon Huddle at UTA), just kind of on a whim sent it to one place while Brad and I had started prepping 'Look.' 'Look' came up and the opportunity presented itself and 'Look' was an opportunity to do something really unique and really fun and I was really excited about it. While we were prepping 'Look' Brad and Jared Hoffman had sent the script to a company in Texas called Burnt Orange. They were based in Austin and were affiliated with the University of Texas there. Their whole plan was they would finance movies in Austin, bring filmmakers to Austin to make the film there and then all the film students (there) could work on the production in production assistant capacities or intern apprentice capacities. They'd get to learn and we'd get to make movies.

"They called us and said, 'Okay, we'll make the movie' and we were shocked. We were absolutely flabbergasted. Why would anybody finance this movie starring me? They hadn't even met me. We were just about to start shooting 'Look' so we said, 'Okay, once we're done with 'Look' let's have another discussion with you guys.' And they said, 'No. We have to greenlight a movie immediately because our schedule is directly correlated to the semester schedule. So if we don't greenlight your movie in the next day we have to greenlight some other movie in the next day and you will lose this window.' So I looked at Brad and he looked at me and I said, 'How can we say no? This is the rarest, most bizarre opportunity that we have to take advantage of.'"

The next thing Rifkin knew, he said, was that "while were shooting 'Look' I would fly to Texas on weekends and start doing preliminary prep, just meeting crew people and getting offices open. So once we finished principal photography on 'Look' I flew to Texas where we immediately went into hard core quick prep and then shot 'Homo Erectus.' We shot both movies back to back and then we came back to L.A. and did post almost simultaneously on both. We did finish 'Look' sooner than 'Homo Erectus' but it was a pretty exciting year to be able to get to make two movies at once and especially one of them being a movie to star in."

"Look" and "Erectus" are so different that one wouldn't even guess that the same filmmaker had made them both. "You know, I just grew up loving all kinds of movies," Rifkin noted. "I love funny movies. I love dramas. I love scary movies. I love kids' movies. I just love storytelling of any kind and to me whatever genre it is if you're true to that story and you tell that story the best way that story can be told I think (that's what's important). What gets me excited is making all different kinds of movies. A lot of the filmmakers that I admire do one kind of thing and do it great and then another type of filmmaker that I admire do all kinds of movies -- like John Huston, for example, or Billy Wilder -- funny movies, dramatic movies, running the gauntlet. I find that to be a very exciting opportunity.

"It was a very schizophrenic year making 'Look' and 'Homo Erectus' at the same time because we would literally be honing a very intense scene in 'Look' where there was a child abduction and then we'd drive to the other cutting room where we had to recut the scene where I fell into the giant pile of wooly mammoth pooh! It was completely bizarre, but it was fun. It was sort of refreshing to go from one to the other. 'Look' was so heavy at times that it would be fun to go back to 'Homo Erectus' and do something so light. And then it would kind of be neat to go back to 'Look' and feel like I was getting a chance to do something weighty again. It was a neat opportunity."

Rifkin may not be a well known movie star, but he definitely managed to surround himself in "Erectus" with some big names. "It was essential to me that if I was going to get this opportunity to star in a movie I had to surround myself with seasoned pros," he explained. "First of all, I knew nobody would take the movie seriously if I didn't and because this was my first opportunity to star in a movie I had to act opposite people that I knew could act to up my own game. We got so lucky with the cast. Ali Later, who (has done) many movies and is the star of the show 'Heroes,' came on first. She trusted first that this was going to be a fun and unique experience. She trusted me and that I was going to be able to pull off playing the role and directing the movie. It was a coup to get her.

"I've worshipped David Carradine for my whole life. I watched 'Kung Fu' religiously growing up. I loved the 'Kill Bill' movies. That was an amazing opportunity. Talia Shire is an Academy Award nominated actress. That was an absolute wonderful shock when she said yes. Gary Busey is crazy, but he's good! And Tom Arnold was so wonderful to come in and (so was) Carol Alt. Everybody was so cool in trusting (me) and getting on board with this rare opportunity that presented itself to me. I owe them all a great debt."

Shooting took place in Austin, he said, a year and a half or so ago: "And then it was just heavy duty post ever since. This movie premiered at Slamdance of '07, which is where National Lampoon first saw it and came on board. That was a great opportunity, too, because I grew up loving (National Lampoon) movies like 'Animal House' and 'Vacation' and their comedy brand stamp is a stamp of legitimacy as far as I'm concerned. They bought it right then and there (at Slamdance). It wasn't finished when we screened it. We've been finishing it and plotting when they wanted to release it (since then). They raised a bunch of money to open up their own theatrical arm, which they're just now starting to do and this is going to be one of the first films they do that with. It opens June 13. It's limited at first in New York, L.A. and other major markets and then it goes wider after that."

Looking back at the challenges of production, clearly one of them had to be Rifkin needing to direct himself in most of the film's scenes. "Thank God for video playback," he observed when I asked how he'd managed all that, "because I have no idea what I look like when I'm doing a take. I have to go back and look at it. We were moving so fast. To say it was a 'modest' budget is being generous. It's under $5 million definitely. We were shooting so fast and we had so much to do each day and so many different locations. Our locations were literally out in the middle of the wilderness. We would have to hike sometimes for two miles just to get out to the locations we were going to shoot at and the sun was always moving so fast across the sky.

"I never had time to get nervous about starring in the movie because I was just so focused on trying to get everything shot. But I will tell you this -- I'm the only actor on the set who continually forgot his lines -- even though I wrote them! I would always forget my lines. Everybody was very patient with me. Now on previous movies I've always been very impatient with actors who forget their lines and, of course, this time I'm the one actor who always forgot my lines. So I've learned a valuable lesson."

As for other challenges that he faced, Rifkin told me, "Because we made 'Homo Erectus' for such a low budget we didn't have enough money for a stunt man. Like an idiot I volunteered to do all my own stunts to save cash. I guess I didn't really consider just how physical all the slapstick I had to do was going to be. Needless to say, I injured myself in a different way every day. In fact, I hurt myself so often that the running joke on the set if someone hurt themselves was that they 'pulled a Rifkin.'

"One scene required me to fall off a small ridge and into an airbag. I fell off the ridge just fine but then I bounced off the airbag and proceeded to roll all the way down a very steep hill. At the bottom I landed in a cactus patch. Thankfully I suffered no broken bones, but because The Hollywood Reporter is a PG rated paper I hesitate to tell you where I had to
pull some extraordinarily painful cactus needles from."

At first, he recalled, "being the star was great if for no other reason than I got to kiss Ali Larter and Carol Alt on screen. Unfortunately, I also had to make out with Tom Arnold and a chimpanzee, both of whom kissed back! Particularly the chimp, who actually took such a liking to me that whenever he'd see me talking to someone else he'd get jealous and run over to me and punch me in the arm to get me to stop. Have you ever been punched by a chimp? Those little hairy bastards are strong! He literally knocked me off my feet on several occasions."

As for the weather, he pointed out, "We got so lucky. It was beautiful and sunny every day except for the very last shot of the last day it started to rain. It was very bizarre. I will tell you this -- when you're making a movie there's so much going on, there are so many people involved and there's so much money at stake and the pressure's on. I always would find it very embarrassing at times when I'd find myself in a very heated argument with the producers (like) 'I need more money for more extras' or 'We need to have more days.' I would get very impassioned about what I needed. And I would suddenly realize that I was having these arguments dressed like a caveman. That was always embarrassing.

"Sometimes after this long day of shooting it was so exhausting that I just didn't have the energy to take off my costume so I would trudge through the lobby of the Four Seasons in Austin still dressed like a caveman. That sometimes got some funny looks."

Reflecting on the film's period setting, Rifkin added, "We totally lucked out. When we started shooting the movie there were no other caveman things going on. Since we made the movie, '10,000 B.C.' has come out and the ABC 'Caveman' television show has come out. All the Geico commercials are hilarious. It's been cavemania! So I think our timing has been great. It's the age of the caveman."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 28, 1991's column: "With Columbia, Tri-Star and Universal now Japanese-owned, with Japanese investors involved with companies like Disney, Carolco and Largo, and with prospective Japanese buyers eyeing other studios, it's clear that almost anyone in Hollywood could benefit from a crash course in Japanese culture.

"Not surprisingly, just such a program, 'West Meets East: In Japan,' is now on the market. Fittingly, it's available on video cassette on a purchase or rental basis. 'This is a cross-cultural management training film. It does not teach you how to negotiate to make a deal. Rather, it speaks to you about how to not make a fool of yourself in relation to the cultural differences of the Japanese,' explains marketing executive David John Flock, who produced the 37-minute color program with writer-editor Jourdan Arenson...

"Japanese interest in Hollywood is so strong, he points out, that recently when 'Japan's leading business daily newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun presented a seminar in Tokyo on how to invest in the American film industry, 260 Japanese business firms attended...'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel