The film is a very personal medium, and to have an intimate connection with an independent cinema great is the stuff of legends. Or, at least the subject of an award-winning documentary.
Producer Ira Deutchman chose to tell the story of his former boss, Cinema 5 founder Donald Rugoff, for his feature directorial debut, Searching For Mr. Rugoff. Admittedly for Deutchman, Rugoff became a larger-than-life character known for his wacky marketing schemes, fierce temper, and eccentric business practices. Yet, Rugoff slipped out of the spotlight decades after working on films like Scenes From a Marriage and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and thus indie film producer and distributor Deutchman set out to find what really became of his divisively beloved mentor.
Searching For Mr. Rugoff premiered at DOC NYC and was released in theaters on August 13. All proceeds from the film will be donated to not-for-profit art house theaters presenting the film across the U.S.
Acclaimed film producer and distributor Deutchman virtually sat down with The Knockturnal to discuss Rugoff’s legacy, the timing of the film, and why independent cinemas need to be preserved. Below, hear what the Fine Line Features founder had to say.
The Knockturnal: What was the inspiration behind this film, and how familiar were you with Donald Rugoff prior to making it?
Ira Deutchman: The thing that was literally the catalyst for me to make the movie was realizing that nobody knew who this guy was. My history goes back to the fact that my very first job out of college was working for Rugoff. It was an amazing experience. It was my first time in the adult world. I didn’t realize until many, many years later how much he affected my way of looking at things, the fact that I learned so much working for him in a relatively short time. I worked there for about three and a half years, and they were not his best years, frankly. But I did learn an enormous amount and catapulted me forward in my career. For years and years, I was telling Rugoff stories because of his outrageous behavior, a lot of it was just funny. He used to fall asleep in screenings and still wake up and buy the movie, stuff like that. And at one point, I realized when I was telling these stories, the people I talked to had no idea who I was talking about, and that’s when the mystery of “whatever happened to him?” started to gnaw at me, and ultimately it sort of catalyzed why this story needed to be told.
The Knockturnal: As a filmmaker and as a documentarian having that personal experience with Rugoff, how did you tow the fine line of adding too much personal sentiment to it, and then maintaining a journalistic, third party approach for a film like this?
Ira Deutchman: That’s a great question and it’s also a real dilemma. One thing that’s definitely true is that I approached the material initially with a little bit of remaining PTSD from having worked there. And I thought the portrayal of Rugoff was going to be way more negative than the way it turned out. So, in a way I guess I’m answering the question by saying I allowed the process of making the movie to affect me rather than the other way around. The interviews I did with people, I was really surprised at how much love there was for him among people who used to tell all those horrible stories about his behavior, and at the end of the day when we started putting it all together telling the story, I was just as surprised as anyone would be that the film turned out to be a more positive portrayal of him than I was expecting. I don’t think any documentarian can say that they didn’t influence the telling of the story through their own lens, but I think in this particular case, the documentary affected my lens.
The Knockturnal: In this era of toxic workplaces in Hollywood being dismantled, what does the timing of this film release mean to you?
Ira Deutchman: That was in my mind, just not as heightened when I was making the movie. The two things that I did want to portray was the connection that appears to be true not just in the film business but across a million different businesses where there’s a certain arrogance and a certain bullying behavior that seems to be associated with incredibly talented people. I wanted to explore that connection to some extent. In the case of Rugoff, his behavior never really crossed the line of a lot of the people who were truly horrifying that we’re finding out about. But by the time I was working on the final cut of the movie, I was already aware of the Harvey Weinstein situation and I knew I had to deal with it in some way. It was clear at that moment in time for me was that I had put in enough exhaustive research to know Rugoff never behaved like that, that there is a difference between being a difficult boss and a rapist. But on the other hand, I knew Harvey was going to be in peoples’ minds when that kind of behavior was talked about, so I did include a reference to it in order to acknowledge it, but to also make it clear that this was a different story.
The Knockturnal: This film really is an ode to both filmmaking and film-going. How did you decide to partner with independent art houses, especially with the scavenger hunt component?
Ira Deutchman: I did also have in mind that I wanted to remind people how wonderful that experience was of going to the movies, that it was part of my agenda right from the start, and I had no idea that that was going to become so poignant as a result of what’s going on now. In five years from now, will it have the same poignancy? I just felt really strongly that given the current environment that we’re in and understanding that the film is about the very thing that these arthouse theaters want their audiences to care about, it was a very good vehicle to make it clear why people should support these institutions. And so it was only a small leap from that to just say, why not just give them all the film money? I’m lucky enough to be in a position where it’s not going to break the bank, and my feeling is that to the extent that I can motivate people to come to the movie theaters to see the film in that environment, remind them how great that experience is, and know inside that they’re actually supporting the institution that they’re going to see the film in, to me that’s a win-win all the way around.
The scavenger hunt to me was an attempt to get into Rugoff’s head. I was literally thinking, what would Rugoff do? What kind of crazy idea would he come up with to try to engage people and make them pay attention to the movie? During the making of the film, I was visiting all these locations because I was filming what these theaters had become, so I was very aware of what the current situation was. None of these places are really far from each other, so it suddenly dawned on me: a walking tour. Then the scavenger hunt idea, I came across a website for a software that allowed you to create a game like that. The hardest part of creating the scavenger hunt, frankly, was getting permission to hang the QR codes. It’s an interesting side story about the control of real estate of Manhattan at this point. Who controls to put something in a window? It was just an attempt to do something different.
Searching For Mr. Rugoff is now in theaters.