It could be said that actress Rena Riffel was born to be in showbiz. Rena started appearing in commercials as an infant and soon graduated to the stage. Before long, she was modeling and appearing in films. Her first major role was as Penny/Hope in Paul Verhoeven’s notorious Showgirls. Since then, she’s done a little bit of everything, including horror, drama, comedy—even Czechploitation. Rena has long been enamoured with the myths and legends of Hollywood, so it’s fitting that she appeared in David Lynch’s surreal ode to Tinseltown, Mulholland Dr. In 2009, Rena moved behind the camera to write and direct her own paen to Hollywood, Trasharella Ultra Vixen. I recently touched base with Rena to talk about Andy Warhol, Valley of the Dolls and glamour, glamour, glamour.
Hey, Rena. Let’s talk Trasharella. This film is your debut as a writer and director, right?
It is my feature film debut.
Well, you say this is your feature debut, but you’ve obviously had previous hands-on experience. What have you done in the past to prepare? Shorts? Videos?
Yes, I made a music video for “Deep Kiss,” a song I sing and co-wrote. I made the “Deep Kiss” video with my ex-boyfriend, who is a still photographer. We filmed with 16mm and Super 8mm film—I love film so much. That is one thing I wish I could have done, is filmed Trasharella on real film instead of a digital camera. But the digital look kind of adds to the trashiness, so it works. I also filmed a few commercials for my dad’s business when I was a teenager and [in my] early 20s. And, in high school I was doing choreography for the cheerleading squad and had a dance troupe, so that actually helps with experience in directing, having a vision, and creating something with a group of people. I also was a producer, getting my hands dirty, on an indie film called Between Christmas and New Year’s. I learned how to buy film, load film, get sound equipment, cameras, locations and do all the behind the scenes stuff that goes on.
I have always planned on making movies. It was hard to get started. So, that is how Trasharella came about. I decided to not wait for anyone and just do it.
You’re definitely a Hollywood veteran/survivor at this point. You’ve worked as an actor on dozens of sets. What surprised you about directing? Was there anything all your previous experience hadn’t prepared you to expect?
Yes, the post production process is more difficult than I had ever imagined, especially doing an indie film with no budget.
For those who haven’t seen it, can you give us a brief synopsis of Trasharella?
It is a surreal, metaphoric film about what happens to aspiring starlets who come to Hollywood to become famous. They encounter the Hollywood Vampire who tries to destroy them. So they must continue to fight the curse of the Hollywood Vampire to survive, and the only way is to become a super hero, ultra vixen superstar.
Trasharella is very much a campy, cult-type movie, by design. Are you generally a fan of this type of film?
Yes, I love camp and cult films.
Andy Warhol and Jacqueline Susann—that is an amazing pair! Susann once said the ‘60s were about “Andy Warhol, the Beatles and me.” The mind reels at what she and Warhol could’ve done together.
Yes, oh, that would be amazing. I heard that Jacqueline Susann hated the way the movie [Valley of the Dolls] came out and she left the theater during the premiere. I might have heard that on the commentary track, actually. It must have gotten the Showgirls reaction, but later was appreciated as a cult hit.
You created your own Hollywood mythology for Trasharella. Are you personally very much influenced by the glamorous past of Hollywood? The stars and starlets and rumors, and so on?
Yes, I love the old Hollywood glamour and love the history. I have a new character I will be introducing as Harlo Jean, inspired by the haunting past Hollywood story of Jean Harlow. Yes, I spell it different than her and mixed it up backwards, but she inspired me.
Marilyn Monroe, of course. I met Jane Russell today, we traded autograph pictures. I love Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but I told her about Showgirls and she was so sweet and witty. She told me that gentlemen do prefer blondes, but they marry brunettes.
[Laughs] Who do you look to for inspiration—as an actress and as a director?
I get inspired by whatever I am led to. Sometimes a great old movie will inspire me, maybe a musical movie like Top Hat with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or even some type of visual or an experience. My mom tells me stories or about historical people; that puts me on a path of inspiration. I just finished a new take on Marie Antoinette, but more in the style of my “bound heat” films, very sexy. But, I get inspired easily. Of course, I also look to Lynch and Verhoeven as inspiration as a director—they are the best.
So, you’re a writer, director, cinematographer, actress and model, but you are also a musician and songwriter. In one wonderful sequence, Trasharella allows you to sing. Can you tell us a little about the song?
Well, I’m not a cinematographer. [Editor’s note: Oops.] I co-wrote the song “Beauty Is Pain” with Martin Blasick for Desperate Housewives, but oddly enough, “they” said the song was great but too dark. So, I reworked the lyrics and used it in Trasharella/Trasharella Ultra Vixen instead. The same happened with “Perfectly Imperfect.”
It was written for another project, but ended up in my movie. It was spontaneous, I told my DP [director of photography]/producing partner that “we are going to do a musical number tonight,” and he lit it beautifully and I just did a few takes. I wanted to sing the songs straight through without cutting in editing, to give it a live feel, so that is why I left both performances as one take straight through. I was always impressed when directors have one long take and things go right, no need to cut around mistakes or whatever.
Trasharella went back into the editing room after you’d released it and emerged a very different film (titled Trasharella Ultra Vixen). What brought about this unusual step?
Since I made the movie and edited it, I could easily continue to edit. I think every filmmaker would love to continue to improve their films over time if they could. I wanted to simplify the movie. My first edit is much more complex, deep and metaphoric. I wanted to explain things and make it more of a slick film. Though, it can’t escape being a trashy bad camp movie—that is how I filmed it. I cut almost 20 minutes from it. A movie is never finished, only abandoned. So true. I heard Hitchcock said that, but Leonardo da Vinci said it first about art. The same goes for a screenplay—even after finishing it and putting it down, new ideas come later. It’s hard to turn off that faucet of ideas; it keeps flowing into the project. The best way is to refocus onto the next movie or project; then it starts all over again—the creative process.
I thought it would be very controversial, but for different reasons. I had no idea that 15 years later it would be even more popular than it was when it came out.
As we all know, it’s taken on a life of its own over the years. And you have become the unofficial keeper of the Showgirls flame. You seem to be the only cast member involved with it at this point. Do you enjoy it?
Yes, for sure.
How did you inherit this role? One fabulous event led to another and another?
Yes, basically. I was invited by MGM to get my hands cemented in front of the Vista Theater, where they held the premiere for the Showgirls special edition box set DVD. Also, [co-stars] Patrick Bristow and Lin Tucci came. And then I began getting invites to attend and be the special guest for midnight movies of Showgirls and private events. And then it seems that most of the cast doesn’t want anything to do with the movie anymore, but I love the movie, so I show up for it.
I recently filmed a short “teaser” which I also wrote and directed for a Showgirls follow-up film that I am working on. The teaser is very different than my feature film screenplay, but I just wanted to get the ball rolling and have some fun. It is called SHOWGIRL: The Musical, being that I am the last and only Showgirl keeping that flame. Some original cast members will be in it and some of my Mulholland Drive cast members will appear, as well. It will be my Yentl, like Barbra [Streisand], starring/directing/writing. I am editing the teaser now and will release it either on the internet or as a preview at the Showgirls midnight movie screenings. I am working with top post production talent now, like the original post production team who did the original Showgirls. It’s pretty exciting and amazing.
You’ve worked all over the spectrum: A-list films to Z-grade flicks. What attracts you to a project?
If I see a light at the end of the tunnel, that attracts me. Also, it is very important to me to work with directors who I admire, believe in and enjoy being around. I steer clear of drama or bad experiences anymore—it’s just not worth it. I have been really lucky to work with such wonderful people and end up in some great movies, or even some that found big audiences and got recognition, though they were small productions. I love working in the A-list films, and the B movies are fun and creatively rewarding, too.
I love going to Staples and buying office supplies as a business woman, but I would be happier just being a glamorous movie star. Lately, I have become a full on “geek.” I am learning way too much about technology and have mastered Final Cut Pro, though it is liberating to be able to edit my own movies now. I need to step away from my editing suite and spend more time in dance class or in the makeup trailer.
So, what’s next for you, Rena? IMDb tells me you have several projects in process. What are you excited about?
I’m excited to make a new movie, being the new SHOWGIRL movie. I’m excited also to work with Troy Jensen, the top make-up artist to the stars like Kim Kardashian and all the “It” girls. I will be his March glamour celeb shoot launching his new blog, so that is coming up next. I have some movies coming up, one being a short with Showgirls actor Greg Travis, who played Phil Newkirk, which is in the works, and Noirland by cult director Ramzi Abed. And Tony Todd will make his directorial debut, which I will be in. I’m excited to get back in front of the camera and get glammed up again.
A girl’s got to be pampered, right? Okay, Rena, thanks so much for talking with me.
Thank you! Now can I do your nails, darlin’?
Absolutely! Could you get Gina Gershon to do my toes? ‘Cuz that’d be awesome…