Horror Movies, Music & More

Doing Time With Rolfe Kanefsky #2

Rolfe KanefskyThere’s Nothing Out There was your calling card in a way. It got you in the door. Once you got in the door, what did you do next? Tomorrow By Midnight came a few years later. What did you do in the meantime?

Well, while we were finishing Nothing, I went back to Hampshire College for a semester and worked for a short period of time at a video store in New York. There’s Nothing Out There opened for a one week run at the 8th Street Playhouse in New York in January 1992. It was seen by some producers who were trying to complete a family adventure film entitled My Family Treasure. They liked Nothing and I was hired to help finish the film and shoot the New York footage with Dee Wallace, Theodore Bikel and Alex Vincent, the kid from Child’s Play 1 & 2. It was my first 35mm film working with professional actors. A good learning experience. With two movies under my belt, I made the move to Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the studios weren’t banging down my doors. Studios and agents mostly didn’t quite understand There’s Nothing Out There so the offers for another film didn’t exactly flood in. I found a manager who got me some writing assignments. I was hired to rewrite a script entitled Red Line in 48 hours which was produced starring Chad McQueen (Steve’s son), Michael Madsen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Dom DeLuise, Corey Feldman, Roxanna Zal and Julie Strain. A star-studded B action movie.

Red LineThat was a killer cast!

Surprisingly, that also didn’t lead to much work—I’m being sarcastic here. After about three years in L.A., I started to get a little worried, so I tried to start a company dedicated to directing and editing scenes for actor’s demo reels with my friend/Nothing star, Mark Collver. He thought he’d be able to bring in the clients.

We made a few videos, but the business never took off. Luckily, it was around the time that I met a French producer named Alain Siritzky, famous for the official Emmanuelle series as well as other late-night Cinemax fare.

The work you did in, for lack of a better term, soft-core not only gave you a chance to hone your craft, it also allowed you to meet some people you’ve continued to work with—some really good actors. I’m referring to Robert Donavan and Gabriella Hall, among others.

Yes, I entered the world of extremely low-budget soft-core comedies in 1996 after meeting Alain Siritzky at the American Film Market in Santa Monica, California. He was about to produce a slate of 14 “soft-erotic” movies based on a famous comic book series created by artist Milo Manara: Click and Butterscotch.

Gabriella HallOh yeah! They’re constantly advertised in Heavy Metal.

I was actually aware of these adult comics and knew that I could make these films. A few years earlier, I had written a teen comedy script called Hormones that was somewhat inspired by elements in these comic books.

Alain had a deal with Roger Corman, and Corman’s people were writing and directing all of these movies. However, Alain was impressed by There’s Nothing Out There and wanted me on board. I felt, like you said, that these could be good small features to hone my craft and I was given a fair amount of freedom as long as I shot these 90-minute films in six days, on budget, and they had the proper amount of required nudity. So, basically, this really was the old Roger Corman training ground. I got to meet and have dinner with Corman, which I remember very well because a movie entitled Scream was about to come out and he was wondering if it would perform at the box office in December. Scream was a project that he had passed on years ago because of the humor. He did these kind of films straight. I had the same response when I was trying to get into Corman years earlier with Nothing as my calling card. Again, it was too humorous for them, which is strange because the original Little Shop of Horrors is one of Corman’s most famous ventures and was very successful. But Hollywood has always been cautious when it comes combining genre.

Good point.

Anyway, working on these series was quite a training ground. I was very involved in the casting because I needed actors who would be comfortable with the nudity but could also be funny. My scripts were very humorous in nature. Rod Steele 0014: You Only Live Until You Die was a James Bond parody and needed talented actors to pull it off. Luckily, I found Robert Donavan, Gabriella Hall and Kira Reed. I worked with all three of these actors many, many times. Gabriella became a good friend and we teamed up years later to produce a movie together called Jacqueline Hyde. I’m sure we’ll talk about that one another time.

Actually, yeah. I do want to get to Jacqueline Hyde.

Rod Steele 0014: You Only Live Until You DieRobert Donavan is one of the true undiscovered talents in Los Angeles. He has been in almost every single one of my movies since. I and everyone I know loves working with Robert.

I also found roles for Craig Peck and Mark Collver from There’s Nothing Out There in some of these flicks. Mark is great in Rod Steele and The Alien Files with Kira Reed. It was an interesting couple of years making these films with Alain, but I am still proud of some of these flicks and surprised how well they hold up. Especially my “R” rated director’s cuts. Some of these films are actually “respected” by bigger people in the industry. I heard David Duchovny enjoyed Alien Files, and John Cork, author of the massive book James Bond: The Legacy as well as the one in charge of all the special edition James Bond MGM DVDs, owns both the “R” and “Unrated” copies of Rod Steele and thought it was the best Bond parody he’s seen.

Wow, that’s a nice acknowledgement. You know, I guess most people don’t realize that there are some really good actors working in that genre, and that many of them just happened to find work there and kept going back to the well—a gig’s a gig for a working actor or director.

Yes, there are good actors in some of these pictures. In the old days of Hollywood, actors, directors, writers had deals with the studios who would develop their talent over time. It wasn’t a “one chance, make it or break it” situation like today. Then, luckily, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, producers like Roger Corman created a training ground situation and discovered some amazing talent. The list of people that he gave careers to is incredible. But by the ‘90s, that had dried up, so almost nobody was helping upcoming filmmakers.

Blonde and BlonderIt’s like an actor needs a demo reel to show an agent and producer what he/she can do. But how do you make a reel if you don’t have footage of film/television work to show? It’s like a Catch-22 situation. So, an actor/director/writer needs to take work were they can get it, and a lot of the time this comes from low-budget exploitation films.

I remember when I got involved with Siritzky, a lot of my filmmaker friends thought that it was a bad idea. They said I would get stuck in these kind of films, which some people do. But I was determined to use this as a stepping stone to make other films and genres. They were all stunned that I convinced Siritzky to produce a dark comedy thriller called Tomorrow By Midnight for almost a million-dollar budget, SAG actors, 35mm scope and it was far from a “soft erotic movie.”  But I knew Siritzky wanted to branch out as well, so in 1999 I made Tomorrow By Midnight. I also wrote a script at the time called Blonde and Blonder for Alain. That too was produced 10 years later starring Pamela Anderson and Denise Richards.

Ah yes, that’s a somewhat infamous flick in its own right. Tomorrow By Midnight is an amazing film, man. It was quite a change from There’s Nothing Out There, in technique and subject matter. It looks wonderful, where There’s Nothing Out There looks like a grindhouse flick. Is that totally attributable to a bigger budget?

Well, I made Tomorrow 10 years after I made Nothing. I was a more experienced filmmaker by then and Tomorrow was a much more personal film. It was really my first attempt at drama, but I had a very professional cast and crew. We held over 45 days of auditions to find that cast. We shot for 18 days, so it was actually a shorter schedule than Nothing and it was much smaller in scope. Mainly one location and six actors. I called it “Breakfast Club with guns” or “Clerks meets Dog Day Afternoon.”

Tomorrow By MidnightSome of the stories came from my days of working in that videos store back in New York. I wanted Tomorrow to have a very slick, polished look but wanted to avoid that whole shaky camera Homicide technique that was very popular at the time. I storyboarded most of the action in the film and had a good rehearsal period—video storyboarding again.

It was a smooth shoot where everything went right until the very end of the production when we were shooting the exteriors. It rained hard for two out of three of the nights with Carol Kane and we didn’t have insurance to wait and shoot on another day. We had to deal with the weather. It was very cold and wet. But the real problem was that in the movie, my characters talk about all the Hollywood films watering down the street to create that Miami Vice blue wet look. And with all the real rain we got, it started to look like I was doing the same thing.

So, I had to avoid showing the ground and kept a lot of the ending exteriors in tight close-ups so I wouldn’t be guilty of doing what I was making fun of.

Your cast was, again, composed of unknowns for the most part, but everyone gives a wonderful performance, and Alexis Arquette especially. I love his opening “killer” movie title bit.

Alexis Arquette and Carol Kane were the only two actors who didn’t audition for the movie. I knew Alexis’ work and was delighted when he read the script and agreed to do it. The opening “killer” movie title bit was fun to write. Actually, the whole script wrote very easily because a lot of the dialogue and conversation came from my own life and knowledge of movies. I wrote the screenplay in about two weeks. It was almost like a play, and we stuck to the script very closely. Everybody really enjoyed the dialogue. Actually, Alexis added the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! line himself into the list of “Killer” titles. He asked if he could and I said “sure.”

Carol KaneYou mentioned When A Stranger Calls earlier. How did it feel to work with Carol Kane? She’s pretty much a legend.

Yes, Carol Kane was great. I loved the idea of going with a female hostage negotiator. I didn’t want there to really be any villains in the movie. It’s a tragedy that just can’t be stopped, but everyone is trying to do the right thing. I wanted a strong but motherly kind of character for Carol Kane. We worked on it a bit and I loved being able to tie in Dog Day Afternoon. Carol Kane’s first name in Tomorrow By Midnight is Jen, which is also her name as the hostage in Dog Day Afternoon. So, I threw in the idea that she is playing the same character and after her experience in the bank in Dog Day, she became a hostage negotiator to help others in similar situations. It’s an in-joke, but I thought it was kind of cool.

Oh yeah, that’s right. I always forget she was in that. When I think of her early work, I think of The Last Detail.

We did have a little talk about Scream and she said that Fred Walton, writer/director of When A Stranger Calls, was also a little annoyed by the “borrowing” of ideas for Scream. I am also a big fan of When A Stranger Call Back. Carol Kane told me that Fred Walton actually has a great script for a third sequel, but they could never get the money raised. Too bad, because I’d love to see it. I think Fred Walton is a very underrated filmmaker.

Roger CormanMy first thought about Tomorrow By Midnight is that it’s a sort of love letter to people that really know film.

Someone who didn’t like Tomorrow once described it as being trapped in Rolfe Kanefsky’s brain for an hour and a half. That’s pretty accurate. Yes, I do think that Tomorrow would appeal to film majors in NYU and USC. I worked hard to make their conversations believable and argued with the producers at times. They wanted the references to films to be a bit more mainstream to make sure everyone got it. I said that film majors are going to knock mainstream and talk about the little hard to find titles—the “discovery” movies that other people might not know about. Hence, the “Hitchcock/DePalma” discussion and the “Friday the 13th/Pulp Fiction” talk. It was fun to be able to bring up a lot of my issues about film and filmmakers. It’s all opinion but interwoven with a lot of film fact. I had a lot to say with Tomorrow but wanted to keep it entertaining so it would also work as a comedy and thriller at the same time. The crew had a great time shooting Tom’s “Roger Corman: Hero or Hack” monologue because most of the crew was from Corman and we were actually shooting in his downtown studios. Tomorrow By Midnight was one of the last films to be shot at “the lumber yard” [Corman’s legendary studio in Venice, CA, which was previously a lumber yard]. Unfortunately, much of Tom’s speech got cut because Siritzky was afraid it would offend Corman. It’s still in the deleted /extended scenes on that DVD I made.

Right, right.

Overall, Tomorrow is a love letter to movies but it is also an analysis of my hopes, dreams and regrets. For me, there is a deeper meaning to the movie. One of the lines that got cut is when Kira asks the real film buff, Tom, “Isn’t it strange, watching life rather than living it?” That was said to me in college and, unfortunately, I find the statement very truthful and sometimes depressing.

Alexis Arquette lays down the law in Tomorrow By MidnightWhen I think of you, I don’t think “political filmmaker,” but you aimed at and hit a lot of targets with this film. What inspired you to write this script?

Well, the idea for the script came out of frustration. I was with two filmmaker friends in a video store and we were complaining about how hard it is to raise money to make a film. We joked about taking a video store hostage to get the attention because even if we went to jail, when we got out, producers might want to give us money to make our story into a film. That was the germ of the idea.

Then Alain Siritzky came to me with an idea of shooting a film on video to make it look like found footage. This was actually before The Blair Witch Project. I pitched him my “Video Store” idea—VIDEO STORE…The Movie was the original title of the film. He liked it and paid me a little bit of money to write it. The entire film was to only be seen through the point of views of different surveillance cameras in and outside the store and then through the news reporters’ cameras when they arrive on the scene.

So, I sat down to write the script as a Clerks type of comedy but quickly realized that, unless all the dialogue was brilliant, two hours of just watching film students hang out and talk films in a video store might get very boring to anyone not obsessed with films. So, I decided that Tomorrow had to be about something more, and the issue of violence in movies versus violence in real life could be interesting.

I wrote this in 1997. Alain read it and didn’t want to make it. He thought it was just another typical hostage movie and he wasn’t interested. So, the project sat on a shelf for a few years. I was about to try to buy it back and make it myself when some other French producers came to Alain Siritzky looking to do a project. Alain gave them a few of my scripts and one person really responded to Tomorrow By Midnight, so suddenly the project was up and running again.

Such is the movie biz, eh?

On a personal side, a lot of the script came from issues in my professional life. After Scream and Kevin Williamson’s success, I didn’t know what to do. I had a similar voice but didn’t want people thinking that I was ripping him off. So, I tried to address the situation in Tomorrow by taking the whole movie reference dialogue a step further. I wanted to ask the audience, “Why do people speak through movies rather than speak to each other?” Take the whole self-reference idea to another level. That is a major theme in the movie.

Unfortunately, three months after we finished shooting the film, Columbine happened and our reps and PR people got very scared of the movie. They were afraid we were glamorizing kids with guns, when actually the movie was addressing that very issue. It became a hot topic and nobody wanted to get near the movie. This is why it was—and still to this day in the U.S.—never released. It is available is some places in Europe under the titles Midnight 5 and After Midnight.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of A Clockwork OrangeYou referenced A Clockwork Orange throughout the flick—one of my favorite movies, by the way. I’m sure this is a stupid question, but are you a big Kubrick fan?

Yes, I think every filmmaker has to respect the masters, and there’s no denying that Kubrick made some brilliant films. I knew from the beginning that this whole hostage situation had to begin with them trying to rent out A Clockwork Orange. If you’re dealing with issues about violence in today’s society, Clockwork Orange is the go-to movie. Again, I had a little fight with the producers about this because they thought the film was too old and the young audience wouldn’t know what it was. I argued and won. Three days before we began shooting, Kubrick died, so all of his films came back in a big way. It was sad but making this movie was a nice tribute to his memory and I’m proud of that.

On the DVD, you included an alternate ending for Tomorrow By Midnight. I really loved it, and it featured Lloyd Kaufman and Kira Reed. Why did you cut it?

Unfortunately, since almost nobody has seen this film because it is still not released, it tricky to talk about the ending. But a short answer to this question is that when we screened the film for a PR company, they felt that the film would be more powerful if we ended where the film ends now. The final scene they argued was anti-climatic. I felt that the original ending would let the audience take a breath so they could start discussing the film when they left the theaters. So, we compromised. I ended the film where they wanted it to end and then you hear the last scene during the end credit scroll.

I’m still on the fence. I agree it is a powerful way to end the movie, but I really like that last scene. At least on my homemade DVD, you can see the original ending. One day soon, I hope the film is really released so everybody can see it. It is still one of the films—if not the one film—I am most proud to have made in my career thus far.

No doubt. While watching it, I got an almost palpable feeling that the maker of this flick just flat-out loves movies, and that you made it for movie lovers. It made me feel like a member of a club.

Thanks. Obviously, I do love movies and watch way too many of them. My movie collection now is over 8,400. I have dedicated my entire life to making movies, for better or worse. I think it good to be passionate about something and I chose movies. I made Tomorrow just after turning 30 and felt very good to be making this film at that time in my life. It’s an important film for me and I hope others can appreciate it as well, when they can find it.

Oh, and speaking of members of a club, you and Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith all appeared out of nowhere around the same time [the early ‘90s], and you actually name-check them both in Tomorrow By Midnight. Do you consider yourself part of that early indie scene? Was their work—or that scene’s overall vibe—important to you at that time?

Well, I am a fan of both of them and have enjoyed most of their films. Their impact on the film business at that time is undeniable. Everyone was trying to make movies with that kind of dialogue. Once again, that was always my style as well. I love films from the ‘40s with Cary Grant. Still make all my actors watch His Girl Friday. Loved Danny Kaye flicks. So that screwball, fast-talking attitude is a part of me and my work. I was never trying to copy Tarantino or Kevin Smith, but you could not make a contemporary film about film majors and not have their names come up and their influence on the business.

A few years after I made the film, I went to a DVD signing of Dogma that Kevin Smith was attending and waited on line for over three hours to get it signed and see if he would check out a copy of Tomorrow By Midnight, which I brought with me. When I reached him, I said, “Hi, I’m Rolfe Kanefsky…” and he stopped me cold by saying—true story—“Wait. I know you. You directed a film called There’s Nothing Out There. I saw it when I was working in a video store in New Jersey. You know, I think Scream ripped you off, man.”

That is awesome!

I was floored and very impressed. He did take a copy of Tomorrow, but I don’t think he ever watched it. Over the years, I have heard from reliable sources that Tarantino also knows and enjoyed There’s Nothing Out There.

I bet he has. He’s seen everything.

And I just ran into Eli Roth, who knew the film and saw it when he was a student at NYU. So, I guess in an “under the radar” kind of way, I was part of that indie scene. I just never got the release or exposure that some of these other guys received. I’m always amazed when people tell me that they’ve seen my early work because many of these films, Tomorrow especially, are near impossible to find. I really hope one day that changes.

Bloodsucking FreaksI hope so too, because it’s a very good film. By the way, I notice that you have a poster for Bloodsucking Freaks in the video store in Tomorrow By Midnight. Would care to elaborate its significance? You were born into cult film royalty, were you not?

Many of the trailers and posters in the store have some kind of connection. The video store is loaded with films from Roger Corman, Full Moon and Troma. Trailers for Troma’s War and The Killer Eye play in the background. The poster for Tromeo and Juliet shows a young Tamara Craig Thomas [who plays Kira in Tomorrow By Midnight]. Tromeo was her first film. Brad Rushing was the director of photography on Full Moon’s Shrieker. That poster is also seen in the store. The theme song to Emmanuelle In Space plays in the background in the adult section of the store. And yes, Bloodsucking Freaks was edited by my father, Victor Kanefsky, who has many varied credits. In the cult horror world, he worked on Just Before Dawn, Blood Bath, Ganja & Hess and of course my flicks, There’s Nothing Out There, Jacqueline Hyde and Nightmare Man. He also edited Tomorrow By Midnight.

So, that comment of watching Tomorrow By Midnight is like being trapped in Rolfe Kanefsky’s head for 90 minutes is pretty accurate. I just hope people enjoy their visit.

~Theron Neel

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