I don’t know how I missed the 1992 film There’s Nothing Out There. It’s a film right up my alley: a horror/comedy that deconstructs the genre (check out the review) in an astute way. So, it’s not surprising that when I did finally see it I had not heard of Rolfe Kanefsky, the writer/director. Like many independent/low-budget filmmakers, Kanefsky’s career has spanned decades. Yet, for all the time he’s been making films, he has done so in relative obscurity. This is tragic because his films are entertaining, and quite often very clever.
Many of the filmmakers I admire most, Kanefsky among them, trudge on against the current, against harsh criticism, and often against an apathetic public. I felt it necessary to track him down and talk with him. Here’s what he had to say:
Doktor: After reading all the interviews on your site (to avoid asking you the same tired questions) I’d like to start off asking you for an update on your films? What is available for rent/purchase? What’s still in the works, looking for a distributor?
Rolfe Kanefsky: Well, most of my flicks (as I’ve always called them) have been released. Actually more have come out overseas then in America where a few have fallen through the cracks. There’s Nothing Out There is currently being handled by Troma Entertainment worldwide. All the “sexy comedies” that I’ve done for Alain Siritzky, he handles himself internationally. Some of those have been released on DVD in the U.S. Through Roger Corman’s company until he got out of the distribution game. He then gave all rights back to Siritzky. Some have shown on HBO/Cinemax. That’s where the current series, Emmanuelle Through Time is now playing. The Hazing was released by MTI Home Video in the U.S. They have also released stateside my Pretty Cool movies and 1 in the Gun. Warner Brothers Home Video released Jacqueline Hyde. York Entertainment produced and barely released Corpses. Nightmare Man came out through Lions Gate as part of After Dark’s 2007 8 Films To Die For series. Currently, a small company called Lighthouse Productions is trying to make some foreign sales after Mark Lester’s American World Pictures kind of dropped the ball. My personal favorite film, Tomorrow By Midnight remains undistributed in the U.S. but has come out under such titles as After Midnight and Midnight 5 overseas in different territories. Some of my films are available on Netflix and for purchase on Amazon.com. My crazy musical Emmanuelle in Wonderland will probably never be released. It is owned by Alain Siritzky as is Tomorrow By Midnight. These are the two that are pretty impossible to find.
Doktor: What was it like working with Troma, first as a P.A. and then later when they were your distributor? Have you gone back to them with any of your other movies?
Rolfe Kanefsky: Troma was a great learning experience. Growing up in New York, they were really the only company to learn the ropes. The West Coast had Roger Corman and Charlie Band’s Full Moon. But on the east coast, young aspiring filmmakers could work for free for Troma. I was 18 working for Troma over the summer before I started college. Troma is best to work for when you’re young, have lots of energy, and when you can afford to work for free to learn the magic of the movies. Now, Troma films are a very specific kind of “magic”. Not the kind that you find in most Hollywood films. I worked on Troma’s War for about a month and a half. Before Troma I had already worked on a bunch of independent features like Posed for Murder, Rich Boys, and Laser Man. I started doing P.A. work on these low-budget features when I was sixteen. It was great training for I was also making my own feature at the time called Strength in Numbers in high school with friends. So, between my P.A. work stints and directing my own flick, it was a great training ground to become a filmmaker.
Going back to Troma, Lloyd Kaufman was always very nice. He’s great with names and he’s fun to be around. Troma’s War was the biggest budget film they had ever done. It was loaded with stunts. We shot in a National Guard park and it was grueling work that got harder when half the crew was fired or quit. We were doing multiple jobs. It was hard work. I eventually stopped because I was about to start college and didn’t want to go to school sick. A few years later when I directed by first professional flick, There’s Nothing Out There, Troma really wanted to distribute it. But at that time, everyone assumed anything released by Troma was produced by Troma and Lloyd would get all the credit. I wanted to make sure people knew Nothing was a Rolfe Kanefsky Flick so we declined. Of course, Troma also paid, or rather, never paid, so money-wise it was a bad idea to go with Troma. But for Nothing’s 20 Anniversary, Troma seemed like a good fit. They still wanted the film and let me release a really cool 2 disc DVD so I’m happy it’s out again. Although, money-wise nothing has changed. We still haven’t seen any but at least it’s out there again.
I’ve talked to Troma about my Emmanuelle in Wonderland movie but the business is so bad right now that they admit it would be a loss to release it. Like most distribution companies, they are pleading poor but if these companies were as poor as they say they are, they would no longer be in business. So, just the fact that the doors are still open means they are not being completely honest with their filmmakers.
Doktor: Speaking of Troma, is it blacklisted (as Lloyd likes to decry)? To me Troma is the first rung on the creative ladder, a necessary first step for outsider filmmakers. Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Kevin Costner, Billy Bob Thornton, and James Gunn come to mind. Though Troma is not in a glamorous or enviable position, they are still valuable and therefore worthy of respect. Or, am I completely mistaken?
Rolfe Kanefsky: Troma has helped start some careers although not nearly in the way that Roger Corman did back in the day. Also, the big difference is that Troma didn’t hire any of those people mentioned. They distributed films that those people were involved in. That’s a big difference. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were already doing their South Park thing independently when Troma released “Cannibal…The Musical!”. Eli Roth did start at Troma but not as a filmmaker. He worked for the company but made his first film, “Cabin Fever” on his own. Most of Troma’s films have been made by Lloyd Kaufman. Whereas, Roger Corman was only a producer for his company, Lloyd is more of a filmmaker and doesn’t tend to give much to aspiring filmmakers. James Gunn did start his writing career at Troma but again, it wasn’t until he moved to Hollywood that he started his directing career. But, I do think Troma is a good learning ground for beginning filmmakers. You will learn what you should and shouldn’t do on a movie and that is very valuable.
Doktor: One thing really struck a chord with me from your interviews, that of your academic career, particularly being a “genre” filmmaker in an “experimental arts” atmosphere. I had a very similar experience in college (mine in creative writing classes) where a teacher’s only comment on my piece was, “Class, where would you put this in your portfolio for grad school?” This has caused me to question the efficacy of teaching creative arts. Do you believe that the creative aspects of filmmaking can be taught? Or are young filmmakers who go through filmmaking schools taught assembly-line fashion cranking out the “McFilmmaker™”?
Rolfe Kanefsky: Anything that opens your mind to the possibilities of writing and directing is a good thing. I watch a lot of movies to study them. I’ve read a lot of scripts to learn format and pacing. Good scripts and bad scripts are very helpful so you can see what works and what doesn’t. In college, I fought with a lot of my teachers in the film and writing courses because they wanted everyone to just experiment. It was almost anti-Hollywood. As I’ve said, they love Hitchcock but hate horror films. So, I always found that a bit of a conflict. That’s why it was interesting working on real independent films during the summers because I’d get a completely different opinion on my work. They liked my short films whereas my teachers didn’t really care for them because they were “too commercial”. Actually, when I took Robert McKee’s scriptwriting workshop, I found that very helpful but at the same time a little too cookie-cutter. He claimed that it takes at least a year to write a good screenplay. For some yes but for others no. If Breakfast Club and Taxi Driver could be written in a week, I don’t agree that every script takes a year. There are too many exceptions and everyone has different methods that work. So, one should be open-minded as a writer/director. It’s when school classes close your mind because of self-preferences that it can be damaging. Everyone needs to find their own voice. You begin by copying what you like but eventually grow to discover your own style. School and classes can sometimes help but I feel, you’ll always learn more by doing. You have to make films. That’s, by far, the best training ground there is.
Doktor: What are you currently writing? Directing? Producing?
Unfortunately, I’m in a lull at the moment and looking for work. That said, I recently had a script I wrote optioned to a company called Victory Angel Films. It’s a road thriller entitled Road to Ruin. I also just extended the option on my horror script Scream Park with Sobini Films. I wrote a new spec currently titled 1 Bad House and have a television series that I’m trying to pitch entitled Whispering Falls. I also have a huge backlog of screenplays that I’d love to sell/make someday. It’s always about finding the funding. The thing I’m most excited about is a project in England that I’m attached to direct. It could be a wonderful film and something very different for me. Too early to really talk about and the money is not in place yet so I can’t really go into it except that it’s based on a true story and deals with Hollywood in the early 1930’s.
Doktor: There are many milestones along the path of our lives. Successful people continue to grow and change with time, as they reach, complete and move beyond goals. At this stage in your life, and career, what do you long to do that you have not yet had the chance to do?
Rolfe Kanefsky: Although I have been fortunate to have made a lot of movies over the past twenty years in this business, I’ve always had to do it with little time and little money. I’ve been complimented for doing a lot with a little but my stuff has always been below the radar in terms of Hollywood. I have almost never been asked to direct a project that someone else has written. I’ve never been on the list of directors or writers that get hired. Almost all of my movies, I created and had to work hard to find the funding. I am pleased with many of my flicks but I know what they are lacking due to time constraints and finances. So, it’s been a frustrating career and I have yet to make that one flick that really gets people/producers attention. I’ve heard that some people think that I am out of the budget range, although that is probably untrue. After Troma released There’s Nothing Out There, they wanted me to make a film for them for a total budget of $10,000 including my salary to write/direct/produce/edit and find the cast/crew and equipment. I have never made a feature film for $10,000 and don’t know how to even do that.
As I’ve said, I have a lot of scripts that I would love to direct someday. On the top of that list is “NEVERMORE” my modern Poe-inspired story, “EXIT” a great Hitchcockian thriller, “MR. HAPPY NEW YEAR” my suburban “After Hours” type comedy, and “HORROR WORLD” my love letter to horror-themed amusement parks. I would also like to make a real musical with a budget. My “WONDERLAND” was a great culty exericise and I know I could do it. Their was an off-Broadway show entitled “WEIRD ROMANCE” that I would love to try to make. Also, I still want to do a great car chase sequence. That’s the one thing I’ve never been able to tackle because of budget reasons. You can’t make a cheap car chase that’s any good. I did a car chase when I was sixteen doing my home movie “STRENGTH IN NUMBERS” but that’s the closest I’ve gotten.
I love most genres so it’s great to dip into different ones. I’d like to do more thrillers. Comedy comes easy for me and horror is always a lot of fun. So, I guess the most challenging for me would be a romantic western. I haven’t written any of those but if someone has a good script, who knows.