Filmmaker's caveman comedy to open in July

Imagine being a 21 year-old filmmaker with one low-budget credit to your name when the President of Production at Fox tracks you down and recruits you to pen a remake of “Planet of the Apes.” As far-fetched a fantasy as it may sound, that was Adam Rifkin’s enviable reality back in 1988.

Of course, as is par for the course in Hollywood, the scribe’s proposal was shelved when that executive got fired, but since then Rifkin has made a name for himself in both the studio system as a writer (DreamWorks’ family-friendly films ‘Mouse Hunt’ and ‘Small Soldiers’) and the independent world as a director (period comedy ‘Detroit Rock City’ and last year’s surveillance drama ‘Look’).

This July, Rifkin returns to theaters with the prehistoric comedy “National Lampoon’s Homo Erectus,” which he wrote, directed and also stars in as a philosophical caveman out to save his clan and win over the cavewoman of his dreams.

“I wouldn’t say that I’ve always had a yearning to make a caveman comedy but I wanted to do something I could shoot quick and make inexpensively that you don’t see every day. I thought we’d get some loin clothes and rubber clubs and make a fun movie,” says Rifkin.

While Rifkin had never pursued acting professionally, he’d “hammed it up” in his friends’ films. “I admire Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and I definitely wanted to follow in their footsteps,” he says. The question was, who would agree to finance a movie starring Adam Rifkin?

Enter Burnt Orange, a production company in Austin associated with the University of Texas. “They loved the script and agreed to greenlight the movie on the condition that production had to start immediately in order to line up with the school’s semester schedule,” Rifkin explains, adding that he would be using students as interns and production assistants.

Though the director was in the middle of shooting “Look,” he decided to take advantage of the opportunity and agreed to subject himself to a grueling work schedule, flying to Texas on weekends for preliminary prep. “It was a bizarre, schizophrenic year but it was such an exciting experience. We knew it would be a challenge but it was one we were definitely up for,” says Rifkin.

Though Burnt Orange didn’t require him to cast recognizable names in the project, the filmmaker insisted on recruiting an ensemble of seasoned professionals. “I thought it would force me to make a better movie and I also wanted people to take the film more seriously,” Rifkin confesses.

“Heroes” star Ali Larter was the first one to jump on board. “She really got it and she wanted to have some fun so kudos to her for taking the leap.” Shortly thereafter, David Carradine and Talia Shire signed on to star as Rifkin’s parents in the film. “Carradine was a total coup because I’ve been a fan of his forever, and Talia was excited to play the Jewish mother because she was sick of playing Italian moms. Tom Arnold was game for a cameo and Gary Busey, while totally out of his mind, was hilarious. People were really up for the fun of it. They didn’t take any of it too seriously. We all thought it’d be fun to go to Texas and dress up in these costumes and do something silly and goofy,” Rifkin says.

Though the director admits his range is rather limited as a performer, Rifkin believes his foray in front of the camera will forever change the way he works with actors. “I think the experience has made me a more compassionate director. I used to be very impatient with actors who would forget their lines but on this movie I was the only actor who would continually forget his lines even though I wrote them.”

When asked how having the National Lampoon brand behind “Homo Erectus” will help its performance, Rifkin lights up like the tree in “Christmas Vacation.” “I grew up loving the ‘National Lampoon’ movies and I loved the magazine as a kid. To me, the brand will forever be one I associate with quality comedy. They bought the movie out of Slamdance and I think their brand adds a lot of value to the movie and legitimizes it.”

As for his upcoming projects, Rifkin is playfully cryptic. “We’re in negotiations right now with a major network for an hour-long dramatic series based on “Look” (which won the Grand Jury Prize at CineVegas).”

So which side of the studio fence does Rifkin prefer? “Honestly, I’m thrilled that I’ve been given the opportunity to play in both worlds. I have this two-tiered career that I feel really lucky to have. I love being a part of the studio system and getting the chance to write these big movies (such as “Underdog” and “Where’s Waldo”) as well as the freedom I get to make these smaller passion projects of mine where there is no creative interference and you can make up the rules as you go along like in the golden days of Hollywood. The business has taught me a lot of valuable life lessons but what can you do besides keep a sense of humor about things.”

Fortunately for Rifkin, sometimes a sense of humor is all you need in the movie business.

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