Director Rena Riffel's follow-up to the original 1995 film SHOWGIRLS is SHOWGIRLS 2: PENNY'S FROM HEAVEN, and it's every bit as weird, unpredictable, and surprising as you would expect. It's also quite funny, often in a surreal, avant garde manner that is difficult to understand or digest: just what is Riffel doing – comedy, or tragedy? A tragedy that is unintentional comedy? A comedy that is unintentional tragedy? A Tragu-edy? History, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral…? It's not always clear, and somewhere in the 2 plus hours there is some kind of funny magic that engrosses the audience and bares Riffel's heart, soul, incredibly keen comedic talents, and her unabashed, total disregard for shame in a touching and compelling way. As director Devi Snively said after we watched it together, "it kind of haunts me now, like some mentally unstable ghost."
And it does haunt me, too.
Riffel was cast in the original SHOWGIRLS as a naive aspiring dancer who is exploited by the corrupt and vice-ridden crooks around her. Riffel wanted to parody/pay homage/reinterpret the film, incorporating her experience acting in artistic, creative, silly, and sexual films like STRIPTEASE and MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Like Riffel's previous film TRASHARELLA, SHOWGIRLS 2 explores art and surrealism with trepidatious steps. Unlike pretentious art-house nonsense, however, Riffel's films have absurdist comedy written all over them. Riffel herself refers to them as "camp," and while there is definitely some camping going on, ultimately I feel like there's something else wonderful happening in a difficult to process, innovative manner. There is nothing she won't do to get her vision on film or express herself and for that Riffel is a fearless director to be watched. SHOWGIRLS 2 lacks a budget, suffers from long and confused narratives and subplots, and numerous crazy characters, but the film itself is the archetypal "stripper with a heart of gold": there's real magic in there, evident when Riffel whips out extremely funny and well-delivered dialogue, or when she unabashedly writes all of her characters as crazy, lonely, loving or too-loved, and we find ourselves identifying with them against our own better judgement, even during the ten-minute-long ballet dance class segments.
SHOWGIRLS 2 was JUST released on DVD on September 17th from Wild Eye Releasing. As a director, Riffel belongs up on a pedestal with Damon Packard, Anna Biller, and Everything is Terrible and I hope people start putting her up there. Riffel explains in the following Q n A we conducted all of her inspirations and joy at making this incredible and nearly inexplicable absurdist comedy (even the title is absurd: Penny's from heaven. Penny is from heaven? Puntastical. I love it). She also discusses her next project, a more subdued film titled ASTRID'S SELF-PORTRAIT, and her desire to film her own take on the story of Marie Antoniette. Seriously, you have to make that Rena. My life would be better if you made that film.
The trailer for SHOWGIRLS 2
Planet Etheria: What is it about the original SHOWGIRLS that people love so much? Why does it still have fans and a legacy to this day?
Rena Riffel: I have found two different groups of SHOWGIRLS fans in my Post-SHOWGIRLS life: One group who loves it for it's campiness, loves it for winning the most Razzie Awards in Razzie history, loves how much fun it is, loves the dialogue to the point of memorizing every scene, and will show up to midnight movies of Showgirls and yell out interactive dialogue back to the silver screen, fly across the world to attend Peaches Christ's Annual Showgirls Spectacular in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre in a SHOWGIRLS-inspired costume, and love it in that way of embracing all the flaws as gems, and laugh during the pool scene, and appreciate the dry humor and comedy.
And then there are the other group of SHOWGIRLS fans who love the movie because it is an amazing story of a girl from different places who sets out to over come all obstacles to accomplish her dream and they relate to the struggles of the characters, they don't find it funny during the pool scene, and usually own a lot of the movie posters and memorabilia, and sometimes rename themselves after the character they relate to most in the film, they do love it as a real masterpiece and see it as the drama it was meant to be, and also know every line in the film but they say the lines as a way of giving good advice, not as a way to joke around.
I believe it still has the die hard fans after all these years because Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas made a great film, along with the help of everyone who worked on the movie, of course, we all came together and made something special that the critics panned but it stood the test of time because, at the end of the day, it's not boring, it is entertaining, and it doesn't suck.
Riffel in the original SHOWGIRLS, in the same role
PE: What is Penny like and what happens to her? What does she learn?
RR: SHOWGIRLS 2 is about a girl who is going to give everything up to follow her dream of being the star dancer. Although, she doesn't have anyone else in her life that wants her to follow her dancing dreams. And the world seems to set one obstacle after another in her way, as she continues to fight on moving forward towards her desire. But, she is a damaged woman who is naive to the point of being dangerously delusional, and she is chasing after her dreams from a place of fear and deep down she feels resentful about the way her life turned out, not the life she had dreamed of, and she kept believing the lies she was told and continues to be led down roads of lies. She then gets pretty much lured to the "dark side" and begins learning how to use it in her favor, going against her own morals. She made a promise to God that lap dancing was as far as she would go. But, then finally accepts the role of being a prostitute because that is the trade they put in front of her: sell your soul (to the red devil), and you will then get what you wished for. It's really a fable, it's a warning of how things can go so wrong when you don't stand up for yourself and say no to things that are going past your own boundaries. Her instincts have been broken, and there are things that weren't said in the film, there is a mystery about her and she has more baggage than meets the eye. She struggles through life, but kind of has a guardian angel who gets her through bad situations by the skin of her teeth.
At the end of the story, she is heading off to Broadway, either to get back together with her long time boyfriend/baby daddy who loved her (though he didn't really support her to go after her dreams, because he believed she didn't have what it takes to be a real dancer, he wanted her to be happy doing what he wanted her to do, to be a wife and mother, cook and clean, and be happy about it). Penny is more of an entrepreneur, (maybe you could say she is a feminist) and she wants to be a star. Or, what road will she take, is she going to Broadway to continue trying to find fame and fortune? I leave the ending up in the air, and I don't know where she went. I don't think she has really come to her senses. But, she has learned to stand up for herself and became confident in her survival instincts leaving home and going out into the world on her own, but has also become a bit hardened. She did become famous, but not the way she intended, she became famous in the tabloids for the crime she was involved in, not famous for being a great dancer.
PE: How long did it take you to make the film, from when you first had the idea to when it was edited? And, what specific challenges did you experience making it?
RR: I experienced just about every challenge there is to experience. I took on way too much, while filming I was running around doing way too many things, probably doing the job of 20 people at one time. I was so determined to complete this film, I just pushed myself. I somehow would make it through each day, thanks to the help of my friends (who were my crew and producers and actors, so much help from Ford Austin! He would do random jobs, too, like making the police line up with tape on the wall, to finding random things and props we needed, to doing a great job stepping in as an actor, playing the role of Mr. Von Brausen the owner of the show Star Dancer, to putting out fires of on-set drama, producing stuff from muffins to making things happens. And my other producer, Josh Eisenstadt, he personally made so many props, got so many costumes for us, so he doubled as prop master and wardrobe. He booked so many locations for us, and stepped in as actor, but his scenes were cut because of the long length problem that happened).
While filming sometimes I would realize how my dream was coming true, and how what I wrote on paper was appearing before my eyes, how the location I was imagining has now materialized, and I would have these little moments of trying to enjoy the present, which was usually while we were acting the scenes. It was truly rewarding in these little fleeting moments, especially working with Peter Stickles (Godhardt) because we had such intense scenes together. Most of the other scenes were all filmed stop and go, stop and go through out the scene, picking up where we stopped, mostly because actors would forget their lines, or the DP would need to stop because of something. It really affected my editing because I never did have a smooth full take of any scene and had to piece it all together like a huge puzzle with miniature pieces. A nightmare. But, my nightmare story is usually the case with filmmaking. All and all, it probably went much smoother on a certain level than even SHOWGIRLS did, there was some drama like on Showgirls set, but we all survived and at the end of the day, the movie was made and got distribution with Wild Eye Releasing! So, through all the mud it finally did find the end of the rainbow!
I actually wanted to make another SHOWGIRLS since 1995 really, when there was some talk about doing a sequel while still making SHOWGIRLS, and it was mentioned to me that it might be all about the Penny character. I loved working on SHOWGIRLS, I loved the dancing, the big budget movie with all the excitement surrounding it, I wanted more! But, after it came out, no one wanted to make a sequel anymore.
The trailer for Riffel's previous film as director, TRASHARELLA
I wrote the first act in 2004, but then couldn't make up my mind what the tone should be or what the theme should be. Should it be comedy? Should it be Sundance-style? Should it be like MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS? Should it be campy, or should it be the movie that SHOWGIRLS was "supposed" to be: a serious erotic drama. Then, after TRASHARELLA, I had made up my mind, I was gearing up to make this SHOWGIRLS movie happen. It took me a year of writing to come to a script I was happy with, I wrote 28 drafts which were all very different from each other, but mostly with WIZARD OF OZ themes and big special effects, tornadoes that sweep Penny away, witchcraft, Lipizzaner Stallions, and of course ballet, all this surrounds the show Star Dancer with the underlying plot being a human trafficking ring. (it's still in there, but most of it was also cut out) It would be a big budget studio film. I presented it to Verhoeven, he did give me his blessing and wished me good luck. And another year went by trying to find investors. I then shot a 12 minute short film, on 35mm film, and then cut that down to a short trailer for Kickstarter, this was in 2010. The short film actually cost me almost as much as I had raised on Kickstarter, so, looking back, I should have asked for more money on Kickstarter, or should have not bothered with the Kickstarter nor the short film I had to make for it. I ended up with $4,200 after all the fees that are taken out. A few weeks after the Kickstarter, we began filming, Summer of 2010 in July and by the end of October we completed filming the very long script I had written. We shot about 20 days over the three or four month period. I had done a rewrite when I decided I would go ahead and make the movie with a micro-micro-budget. But, then I kept adding parts for actors who wanted to be part of the project, so the script kept creeping up in length, and I did a bad thing which came back to bite me, I cheated my margins and spacing in the script writing program, making the script seem like less pages, and did this just to make myself happy that it was only 100 pages (in reality, it was still 130 page script). Note to self: do not cheat margins, just cut scenes.
PE: How do you feel about comedy and shame and how they relate on camera?
RR: Well, it's a curse or it's a blessing, right? I have always had the "blessing" of being uninhibited as an actress. In real life, I am always censoring myself, because I don't want to say something stupid that might hurt someones feelings, and then I will feel bad because I accidentally made someone else feel bad, blah blah blah…that sort of thing, and other angles on that psychology. So, for me to play an outrageous character, it is actually a safe place to do something wild and crazy. Also, I knew for this film, I have my fans who will be having fun getting into the SHOWGIRLS spirit of leaving your inhibitions at the door: the show is about to begin, again! To take risks in that way feels empowering actually. And if I am on a set with others who are in that same spirit, there is no shame. And that's how we were on Showgirls and Showgirls 2. I have been trained like that from working with so many great directors, and when you have to be shameless and do what they hired you for, you have to be bold and do it.. and then you have done a good job. I can't go on set and be inhibited and worried about everything. So, that's where all that comes from. I am okay to embarrass myself, as long as the camera is rolling. Maybe it is my Meisner technique that got me to that point. It's weird, really.
PE: Why do you choose to direct? Tell me what that role means to you.
RR: At first I was kind of scared to direct, thinking it would be exhausting and not wanting to deal with so many problems. But, I have come to a point where I am spoiled now with so much freedom that I can't go back to the box I had been in and my imagination has really opened up to create the whole picture. I used to be focused just on my own character and what my character does and feels. And now, I am in touch with the entire story and process, I feel what all the characters are feeling, and writing the script is the most rewarding and my favorite part. Directing for me feels like just not having someone else change my script/story or my vision of what this is suppose to be. I love giving practically no direction to the actors, just talk a bit about it and how I see the character doing things or the motivation or back-story I know about that character, and then let them do their thing, and that's where most of the "collaboration" has come in for me. I let the actors do their job, and trust that what they do is how it is meant to be, they bring it to life. It has given me so much more control over my life and future, now that I am writing and directing, and editing…and can act in my own films. But, I have also come to the point where I want to allow myself to have more people help on my projects, I take on too much and it is really great when I can work with someone who I enjoy or admire their talent.
PE: What do you want audiences to take away from watching SHOWGIRLS 2? How do you hope people feel when the film credits roll?
RR: I hope that they find it interesting and enjoy it. I hope they learn something from it, like what not to do if you want to be a dancer. And I hope audiences take away knowing that I sincerely tried to make this film something special that they could relate to and enjoy watching. And yes, I went campy and Warhol with it. I know the technical part of it is not a slick studio picture, to say the least. And I am still planning to fix the sound quality. That's the thing with a film, some people have said a film is finite, but making a film is infinite. A film is truly never done, I am still toying with ideas of different versions/edits. When the credits role, I hope they feel the triumph for Penny that she survived the maze of this twisted underworld she went into, and I hope they also feel that because of them, my audience, I was able to triumph in a way of finally getting this SHOWGIRLS film D-U-N, dun, after all these years, and they just watched the credits role to what was a fantasy for 18 years, and now you see SHOWGIRLS 2 has materialized on your screen.
PE: Tell us about your future directing projects.
RR: After SHOWGIRLS 2, as I have been going on about, I was burnt out. So, instead of setting my sights higher and making that 50 million dollar film.. I made the smallest movie I could dream up, it has only 2 other actors in it and is titled, ASTRID'S SELF-PORTRAIT I call it my recovery from SHOWGIRLS 2 film. It's avant-garde, not too spaced out, but it's definitely an art film. Astrid has been widowed six times out of seven marriages and her one surviving Ex-Husband comes to her rescue to help her make her art film after being fired from her job as a film critic. She is struggling with alcoholism and she reveals her checkered past in the segments of her art film, which turns into a disaster and leads to her demise. It's a comedy. Just kidding.
I also have two other scripts I am focusing on to go into pre-production. One is a big romantic comedy based on a TV series I did back in the early 1990s. The other is my "Marie Antoinette" project. I wrote it as factual but with my own twist of theories on what really happened, but historically all my timeline is from facts. And it kind of exposes the behind the scenes that weren't written in history because the monarchy kept it all hush hush. It is erotic thriller/horror, but still has the touch of camp.
Keep tabs on Riffel at her official website.