SHOCK’s Trevor Parker corners actor and magician Penn Jillette to riff(kin) on his new horror flick DIRECTOR’S CUT.
Ever since the first moving images flickered out of cinematographs and onto screens, film has been considered a tangible form of modern magic. Who better then, to put one over on unsuspecting moviegoers than professional magician Penn Jillette? The towering, talkative member of the prestidigitating pair known as Penn and Teller, Jillette may have spent decades perfecting his illusions and silky slight-of-hand on stages around the world, but he happens to have saved his most devious trickery for film fans in the form of the new feature DIRECTOR’S CUT.
Jillette is the writer and star of DIRECTORS CUT, a meta-meditation on ownership and authorship in todays media wilderness (its actually all directed by Adam Rifkin of DETROIT ROCK CITY and THE DARK BACKWARD fame). In CUT, Jillette plays Herbert Blount, an affable if unstable fellow who presents and provides commentary over a standard Hollywood cop thriller called Knocked Offa project on which Blount participated as a crowdfunder. As Blounts presentation of Knocked Off unfolds, the delusional cineaste adds in his own special footage and charts a new plot in which he forces starlet Missi (GALAXY QUEST) Pyle into riding off with him into a sunset not found in the original version.
Jillette isnt exactly a newbie to the world of film, from his and Tellers early appearance alongside Deborah Foreman in the dimwitted comedy vehicle (pun intended) MY CHAUFFEUR, to a lead role in 1989 cult favorite PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED, to writing and hosting a series of successful documentary shows taking on all manner of modern swindles and scammers. It all led to him having the idea to write his own film, as he says, because I was obsessed with the kind of intimacy you get from a directors commentary, and how that could be turned around to fuck people (laughs). You hear this close-micd, inverse-square-law, lots of bass, kind of honesty. Its very paternal and you trust it Im always interested in how things that we trust automatically can be used against us. I mean, thats what magic is, really. Its finding a way to lie to yourself.
So a directors commentary seemed like the perfect way to kind of get people to be betrayed, Penn continues. With a directors commentary, its a different kind of trust, but its still a kind of artistic trust. What if the person talking to you doesnt know what the fuck theyre doing? Which, of course, with a directors commentary its always the case, but they just dont ever talk about it that way. (laughs) They never know what the fuck theyre doing; they just stumbled into a movie. And I wrote (CUT) kind of just to show that I could do it.
The twisty script for DIRECTORS CUT is an impressive feat in and of itself, balancing multiple stories and conflicting tones at once. For Jillette, the challenge of keeping CUTs multiple plates spinning was its own reward, and one not always understood by the powers that be. The puzzle aspects of this movie are pretty interesting to me, he says, because like CLOVERFIELD, when youre doing movies that pretend to be found footage it always bothers me when theres a shot that I cant explain why it was there. Like Jesus praying in the wilderness alonehow do we really know what he was saying? So I wanted to ensure that every shot (in CUT), without exception, be completely accounted for in the logic (of the film). It was that puzzle part that really interested me. So I banged it out, ten years ago from right now, and then I half-assed shopped it around the studios. You know, everybody thought it was clever, but they gave me the usual jokes you would make if you wanted to make fun of studiosyou know, Could we do this with someone else playing Herbert? Does it have to be so-and-so? Can it be more traditional? Well, no, because thats the whole idea. If you want to make it more traditional, you should make it a shitty movie.
So I didnt aggressively, like my life depended on it, pitch it, Jillette continues. I probably went to four pitches, which in Hollywood terms is not very many. And I was often talking about other stuff. I wont say (the pitches) were half assed, but maybe three-quarters assed. And so I continued to be fascinated by movies that pretended to be found footage. Im also obsessed with in movies are real time, like with TWELVE ANGRY MEN, and you know, books are so far ahead of movies in that theyve been doing diaries and ships logs, and found stuff all the time, while movies are just discovering it.
Jillette says he wanted to go ahead with DIRECTORS CUT as an independent project shot on the (very) cheap, and a reluctant viewing of Adam Rifkins experimental found-footage curiosity LOOK led him to who would prove to be the perfect CUT collaborator. As Cocteau said, you have to get your (film) tools as cheap as a pencil and paper before its really art, says Jillette. And now were getting there, at least in the developed world. Many, many, many people have an iPhone, and its easy to make a movie on that. So, Ron Jeremy, whos a friend of minethe porn guy who can blow himselfhes also friends with Rifkin. And he told me theres this great movie called LOOK. And because Ron Jeremy told me, I didnt bother to see it, because what the fuck does Ron Jeremy know except for sucking his own cock? Which Im not diminishing in any way… So (LOOK) was playing in Vegas on a night that I could go, and I still didnt see it. Then a friend that I trust, Mitch Nathansonhe worked a lot on this moviehe told me to watch LOOK. So I watched LOOK and went out of my fucking mind. It still is my favorite movie of this century. I could just not believe how good it was. It is exactly to my heart; it meant everything.
I finished watching LOOK at about one A.M. early Saturday morning, Jillette continues, and I wrote right away to my agents and managers and said, Ive got to talk to Adam Rifkin. I have to talk to him. I got impatient and went through social media and found out that we had some friends in common. So I wrote to Rifkin and said, Listen, Im in love with you. Can I blow you? LOOK is the greatest thing ever! He wrote back to me right away. Fortunately he had heard of Penn and Teller, enjoyed some of our stuff We started texting like teenage girls, and I just said, Can we meet and talk and Ill give you money and suck your cock? Because youre the greatest man who ever lived. He called and we chatted, and I told him that Id written this script (for CUT), and God damn it seemed right for him. So I sent it to Rifkin at two-fifteen, and at three-fifteen he called me back and said he loved the script. I said, Lets do it!, and so by three-thirty, we had decided to make the movie together. I then wrote an email to my managers and agents and said, Fuck off. I dont need you. I found Adam Rifkin on my own. Then we had the only problem there is in show business, which is getting money. I said to Rifkin that I had shopped (CUT) around a little bit, and attaching him to it simply makes it harder to sell. (laughs) If I go in and say Adam Rifkins going to direct it, theyve got to say somethinglike to change the director or the star or whatever. We were never going to sell this, and Id rewritten the script to reflect much, much more of a crowdfunding (storyline), so all of a sudden I told Rifkin that this movie has to be crowdfunded.
A major component of the DIRECTORS CUT storyline stems from a crafty crowdfunder gaining access to a film set and eventually hijacking the production, but Jillette promises that the actual experience of crowdfunding his film proved much the opposite. One little odd feeling about the movie is that it ends up being this cautionary tale about crowdfunding, and yet it was crowdfunded in a beautiful, peaceful, wonderful way, Jillette says. The strongest thing I can say about it isand this is probably not as shocking to you as it is to meis that three, maybe four people that crowdfunded, and that I only know through crowdfunding, became friends that Ill have for life. And thats amazing; I live a pretty cloistered existence with my family and very few old friends. I work and Im with my family and I dont see people. So making four friends through a project is unbelievable. Rifkin is a friend Ive made because of this, but thats kind of expected. You work with somebody closely, producing and directing and all of thatyoure either going to make a friend or an enemy. And so Rifkin and I have become very good friends, and thats maybe the best thing about doing this movie, but you add four people who just gave us money to make a movie and nothing else that ended up being on that level. I spent hundreds of hours, and theres no exaggeration there, with the people who crowdfunded the movie, and I liked em. There was no Herbert Blount. I cant say that there were no awkward momentswhen you let people into your life, youre going to get thosebut they were much rarer than you would ever imagine. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. Very labor-intensive, and very emotionally tiring and Im sure the diamond miners in South Africa are worried about me being emotionally tired (laughs), but you do spend a lot of time doing it, and its very rewarding and fulfilling.
TO BE CONTINUED THIS WEEK…