❉ Penn Jillette and Adam Rifkin’s film-within-a-film lives up to its own mad, twisted hype.
“Director’s Cut is very much a horror story for the 21st century, delving into that unpleasant ‘what-if’ that comes with fans’ ever-growing interaction with creators. How bad can it get? What responsibility do creators have to the fans that support them? Should we be drawing a firmer line than we currently do? Crowdfunding makes amazing things happen, but what happens when we venture to put a price on celebrity contact?”
A while back, Penn Jillette (of legendary magic duo Penn & Teller) announced that he’d written a screenplay and wanted to get it made. It was a found-footage horror piece, and there were two conditions for its creation. One, he wanted Look director Adam Rifkin at the helm, as it was Rifkin’s style that had inspired him to create the piece. Two, Penn himself wanted to play the villain.
Hollywood said no (deeming it ‘too smart’ and saying Penn is too well-liked to play a baddie), so Penn launched a crowdfunding campaign. He enlisted his considerable celeb connections – from actors to adult film stars to pundits at both ends of the political spectrum – to make videos telling everyone what a horrible person he was. He treated every contributor like a producer, offering them the screenplay in full to read and up-to-the-minute production information.
And finally. Finally. After nearly five years at various stages of development, Director’s Cut has gone out digitally to its backers and will be hitting screens around the United States in the very near future. And fortunately for viewers – those who backed it and those just discovering it – it lives up to its own mad, twisted hype.
‘We Know Whose Movie This Is’
Director’s Cut is a film-within-a-film, served up as a director’s cut with commentary track. The central movie, a by-the-numbers crime drama called Knocked Off, stars Missi Pyle as an FBI agent backing up a police investigation into a string of copycat murders, mimicking famous killers throughout history. And, of course, there’s a romance – Pyle’s character hits it off with Harry Hamlin’s tough-talking, hard-vaping police officer.
But that’s only half the story. In the fiction, Knocked Off is a crowdfunded piece itself (still written by Penn and directed by Rifkin), and high-rolling contributors are allowed to record the behind-the-scenes goings-on. One of the biggest contributors is self-styled ‘filmmaker’ Herbert Blount (Penn), who contributed enough to get an executive producer credit and dinner with Missi Pyle.
He’s also convinced this is his movie and that Pyle is his ‘muse.’
What follows is a blend of the film proper and found footage from increasingly disturbing sources. Blount’s own camera on set. His camera across the street from Pyle grabbing lunch with a friend. Cameras set up in her hotel room. And that’s not even as bad as it gets. Before the film is over, we see just how far Blount is willing to go to see his vision realised.
It seems odd to say the strength of central film Knocked Off is in just how unremarkable it is. But that was the difficult line it had to walk: decent enough that it wouldn’t become a joke, but not so entertaining or intelligent that we would attempt to tune out Blount to follow the plot. It’s serviceable – and it’s a spot for nod-and-wink jokes and cameos, which Blount can then lampshade.
One of the treats of the film is Penn’s stage partner Teller as an extremely talkative red herring suspect. Saying anything about his role would ruin the wonderful, sketchy weirdness Teller was offered; it’s something to be witnessed firsthand. You’ll also see look-ins from Gilbert Gottfried and Ron Jeremy.
Knocked Off begins and is dotted with creative gore that, for its few moments, is gloried in to the fullest. Fans of Black Mirror will be unsurprised by it: it’s about the same level as we see in Penn’s ‘Pain Addict’ segment from ‘Black Museum.’ Much of it is fast-forwarded through (as it doesn’t contain Missi Pyle and is therefore unimportant to Blount), but there are some especially juicy shots of our culprit eating someone’s face a la Charles Manson, for example. In case that isn’t (or is) your thing.
To Be Bl(o)unt
Penn’s portrayal of Blount is a double-edged sword, and one that doesn’t fully show itself for what it is until late in the film. His bouncy, slightly awkward line delivery for most of the commentary has very few moments of true menace. If anything, it sounds like someone who’s never been behind a microphone before in his life but loves the sound of his own voice.
There are two Blounts in this story, and we see both. Mostly we hear who Blount thinks he is: an up-and-coming filmmaker whose various actions are doing the world of entertainment (and Missi Pyle herself) a great service. But found footage segments show us the real Blount beyond the uncomfortable try-hard: the true menace, the man untrusting of authority, the person so self-assured in his beliefs that he has no problem breaking the law to see them through.
Blount starts the film as a joke: a ridiculous fanboy in ridiculous clothes who’s riding a little too high on a crowdfunding reward. But the truth creeps up on us bit by bit, like a lobster having the heat turned up underneath it. And by the time we realise that Blount is a danger, it’s too late – for anyone. The ludicrous green-screen action and AfterEffects editing, weirdly funny in the trailers, are now downright disturbing because we have all the context.
Meanwhile, Pyle was given a rough but rewarding role: play an object of obsession without being objectified, a victim without being a damsel in distress. Her portrayal of this unfortunate version of herself was never going to be easy to pull off. Harder still is the fact that she needs to pull this off while Blount rules the editing suite.
Director’s Cut could easily have tripped that line between horror and exploitation solely on the basis of how Pyle was portrayed in the metafiction. But she holds herself with strength and intelligence, with even her moments of apparent helplessness carrying an undertone of control. Too, Blount’s almost childlike relationship with the concepts of sex and violence mean that potentially exploitative scenes are played off with sight gags rather than demands on the actress.
Director’s Cut is very much a horror story for the 21st century, delving into that unpleasant ‘what-if’ that comes with fans’ ever-growing interaction with creators. How bad can it get? What responsibility do creators have to the fans that support them? Should we be drawing a firmer line than we currently do? Crowdfunding makes amazing things happen, but what happens when we venture to put a price on celebrity contact?
The fact that this film itself is crowdfunded shows that the makers believe very much in the overall positive nature of fan support; a professionally-funded film telling the same story would have had a very different, very accusatory feel to it. And as someone who saw the emails and the correspondence during the film’s creation, I can say with certainty that this was a labour of love, and a gift to the people who pitched in.
Director’s Cut, in all its dark, squirming discomfort, is both a love letter to the business of crowdfunding and a warning to both fans and creators about the personalities that will always lurk along the edges. It frames a film reveling in its own sanitized Hollywood grittiness with something unabashedly dark and nasty and experimental – what we’re used to getting wrapped up in what we secretly want. It’s Penn and Rifkin at their most unhinged, which will either push you away or already have you hunting for the nearest screening.
❉ A Dread Central presents release, ‘Director’s Cut’ is released in select theatres on May 10 and 11 and on VOD and Blu-Ray/DVD combo on May 29. Written by Penn Jillette and directed by Adam Rifkin. With Missi Pyle, Penn Jillette, Harry Hamlin, Hayes MacArthur. 1h 30min.
❉ Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, interviewer, and over-analyser of geek entertainment. She can currently be read in Stranger Tales of the City from Obverse Books. Find more of her work at karadennison.com or on her Twitter @RubyCosmos.