On The Line with Adam Rifkin

One of Adam Rifkin’s greatest accomplishments is that he directed the 1999 cult classic, Detroit Rock City. For those who have yet to see it for some reason, the film takes place in 1978 and follows the journey of four teenage guys that are determined to do whatever it takes to see their favorite band KISS live on stage in Detroit. The four encounter many highs and lows along the way, everything from scalpers to strippers, priests to parents and of course, their hatred for disco. With an impressive and eclectic soundtrack, as well as enough vulgarity to make Jeff Spicoli blush, it’s no wonder that Detroit Rock City has held on strong enough to finally be released on Blu Ray this week. I had the honor of speaking with Adam about the film and what this exciting news means to him.

Alex Obert: Were your teenage years anything like what took place in Detroit Rock City?

Adam Rifkin: No. I was obsessed with movies. I was definitely not obsessed with any particular band. From the time I was eight years old, seven years old, maybe even earlier until I was seventeen and I moved away from Chicago and headed to Hollywood, I was doing nothing but watching movies, talking about movies, obsessing about movies and making my own movies with my friends. I was using my Super 8 camera that my dad gave me. But I am a lover of pop culture. I have a romance with the 1970s because I have nostalgia for that period of time in my life. And KISS was such a big part of the fabric of 1970s pop culture. I was very excited to be a part of it and very excited to be a part of recreating the 1970s. I was a little younger throughout that decade than the kids in the movie were. I knew kids who had older brothers and such, they were the ones who were the kids from Detroit Rock City. I thought kids like that were cool and I liked them, but I wasn’t necessarily one of them.

Alex Obert: What was your first impression of KISS when you discovered them?

Adam Rifkin: I liked them because they were like a monster movie and I loved monster movies. They just seemed like scary, colorful monster. And they were also a little bit taboo to like, that was kind of fun. It felt like you were being rebellious by liking them. Their music was ubiquitous at the time. They were always on the radio and always on television. You could not live in the 1970s and not be aware of KISS.

Alex Obert: When you met the four lead actors for the film, what did you immediately see in them?

Adam Rifkin: Valerie McCaffrey was our casting director and she’s great. She brought in people that she thought I would like, unique people that captured a certain sense of authenticity to the era. And she was absolutely right. Three of the four guys that were in that movie came in the first day to audition. I think Giuseppe Andrews came in first, if I’m not mistaken. He just stood out because he looked like he stepped right out of the 1970s, as far as I was concerned. When he walked in the room, he just looked like, acted like, sound like, was those kids’ older brothers that I looked up to when I was in junior high school. And Eddie Furlong came in the first day, so did Jimmy DeBello. We then went on a big search for Jam, which we couldn’t find anywhere in LA. Sam Huntington sent in his audition tape from the East Coast and we fell in love with him from that. When you’re casting a movie, you have a certain impression in your mind of what each character is going to be like. You look for people who embody that a little bit. Obviously, actors can change who they are and portray different types of people. But when you’re casting a movie, the vision takes over and you’re just looking for the actual characters to just somehow walk in the room. And that just happened to happen with these four roles, they were these guys. Obviously they weren’t exactly these guys, but they were enough of the characters that I had imagined. It was like they walked off the page and into the room and said “Hi, I’d like a job.” It was cool.

Alex Obert: Which scene was your favorite to film?

Adam Rifkin: The KISS concert was by far the most exciting scene to film. We had ten thousand extras. I got to tell KISS what to do and boss them around all day. We may have had like ten cameras, I don’t remember exactly at this point. It was really exciting and really fun. Beyond that, there were other scenes that had special significance to me for different reasons. The various scenes that take place in the convenience store, that was special because when you walked in that convenience store, it felt like you walked back in time. We replaced every product on the shelf with products from the 1970s. And I remember as a kid going to the local convenience store all the time. So you walk into this set and every magazine on the magazine stand is from 1978, every product on the shelf is from 1978, all the bubblegum cards on the counter are from 1978, all the tchotchkes from behind the counter were from 1978. It was staggering and it really felt like you went into a time machine, that was fun. Same with the basement at the beginning of the movie when the band Mystery is practicing, that was like walking into the past. I knew so many kids who had a cool older brother who lived in the basement and turned it into his 1970s rock ‘n roll man cave. It was just perfect the way it was recreated. Those stood out to me.

Alex Obert: How did you go about recreating the 70s throughout other scenes in the film? Did you study a lot of footage, recreate it from memory, what was it like?

Adam Rifkin: A combination. A lot of memory, a lot of photographs, a lot of old movies. We watched a lot of old movies from the 1970s, movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Over the Edge. I remember in the seventies that we were obsessed with these bubblegum cards called Wacky Packages. We bought a bunch of them online and stuck them on a bunch of lockers, it helped add to the authenticity of the era. The high school we shot at, all the lockers were painted grey or blue. And I remember in the seventies, everything was sunshine colors. And so we repainted all the lockers yellow and orange, more earthy seventies colors. It really helped bring the era back alive again. There was a lot of wood paneling in people’s homes in the 1970s, we brought that in into some of the sets. The clothes were from magazine ads from the 1970s, we looked at all the advertisements and all the photographs. We recreated the hairstyles. We didn’t necessarily want it to look like a spoof of the 1970s, we just wanted it to look like the 1970s.

Alex Obert: I feel that the camera work and transitions in the film really stick out and makes it more interesting.

Adam Rifkin: Thank you! It’s all part of the philosophy that I had going in which is that when you’re a kid, certain things are really, really important to you such as going to a KISS concert. And nobody quite understands how important these things are in the mindset of a kid. With the camera work, I wanted to give that urgency, that over the top importance. This adventure is through their point of view, so everything to them is of tremendous importance. I thought that giving the camera work a lot of energy and a lot of life would just add to that teenage frenetic urgency.

Alex Obert: It’s one of those films that you have to watch more than once to understand all the connections of events and pick up on things that you may have missed the first time.

Adam Rifkin: We just tried to make the best movie that we could and we just tried to connect all the dots in the best way we could. If people get more out of it with each viewing, then that’s just a bonus for us.

Alex Obert: What was the influence behind using so many songs in the film? Each song fit the scene to a tee, whether it was rock ‘n roll or not.

Adam Rifkin: I just really felt that the movie lent itself to a really music-heavy soundtrack. It’s a movie about these kids who love rock ‘n roll, will live and die by rock ‘n roll. It’s the era of the classic rock vibe, it permeates the era completely. I remember that when I grew up, there was music playing everywhere that I was and everywhere my friends were. All those seventies songs, all those seventies bands, it just really helped to create a more authentic portrait of the era. When we first were cutting the movie, we knew we couldn’t afford most of the songs. We had the KISS songs because Gene and Paul were producers on the movie and they were gonna give us all the KISS music for a pretty penny. With all the other songs in the movie, we just put our wish list of songs in the rough cut. We were completely convinced that we wouldn’t be able to afford it because we had a $500,000 music budget, which by the way, is an enormous music budget. It was bigger than anything I’d ever had. But we knew that we could never afford all the songs that we wanted for $500,000. We put in every song we wanted first and then we knew that later, we’d have to change them out. But when we did our first test screening, it tested so well and the audience reaction was so great that New Line Studios said that they’d pay for all the songs that were in the rough cut. The music budget then jumped from $500,000 to two and a half million dollars in just one phone call, it was fantastic. So we got every song that we wanted off our wish list.

Alex Obert: Whose call was it to have the guitar cover for the New Line Cinema intro at the beginning of the film?

Adam Rifkin: I think that was my idea, if I may be so bold as to say. I thought it would be keeping with the rock ‘n roll vibe of the movie.

Alex Obert: Sixteen years after Detroit Rock City first came out, what does it all mean to you when looking back?

Adam Rifkin: I’m very proud of this film. To me, one of the things that I wanted to create when we made it was a real sense of teenage rebellion. I wanted to somehow capture the spirit of teenage rebellion, that time in your life when you’re not a kid anymore, but you’re not an adult. It’s your last hurrah to be a genuine teenage rebel. I really wanted to capture that. I felt we did it when we made the movie. But one of the things that I’m so pleased about is that even though the movie didn’t make any money when it came out initially in theaters, it has garnered this huge cult following. And I think it’s because it speaks to that phenomenon in teenagers. I think they all feel it. I think that’s why the movie keeps getting rediscovered and rediscovered. And I think it’s why it’s had all these legs for all these many years. There are many movies that came out the same year as Detroit Rock City and made a lot of money at the box office, yet nobody’s talking about those movies anymore. But Detroit Rock City is one of those movies that just keeps on growing in popularity. I thank the fans because that is just such an amazing compliment, it means so much to me. It speaks to that teenage rebellion that is universal.

Alex Obert: In closing, what are your thoughts on the film being released on Blu Ray out of nowhere?

Adam Rifkin: I am absolutely delighted that it’s coming out on Blu Ray because you have no idea how long of a list of movies, of classic films that Warner Bros. has that will never be Blu Ray. There’s just such a big list and it costs so much money to properly transfer these movies to Blu Ray. The fact that our movie is one of the ones that they did pick to put out on Blu Ray, it’s just fantastic. And so I’m delighted. It looks beautiful, the transfer is beautiful and it’s just a real compliment. I thank Warner Bros. tremendously.

Alex Obert: I am looking forward to the Blu Ray release of such an awesome film. I would love to thank you so much for your time and a great interview.

Adam Rifkin: Thank you, man!

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