SEARCHING FOR MR RUGOFF
When I graduated from college in 1975, I was looking for a job. I had aspirations to be a writer and director, but practicality set in and I began to call the contacts I had made while running a film series at Northwestern University. I landed a job at company called Cinema 5. It was a company I was familiar with, having been a fan of films such as Endless Summer, Elvira Madigan, Putney Swope and Z when I was in high school and in college. What I didn’t know was that it was run by a notoriously difficult man by the name of Donald S. Rugoff—or “Mr. Rugoff,” as he was known to employees.
Over the next three years, I learned an enormous amount about the film business from this crazy genius. Much of what I learned is not only still relevant but has proven to be the DNA for just about everything that is considered common practice in the contemporary independent film world. And most of it was invented by this man, now a virtually forgotten figure.
It was many years before I realized the impact that Rugoff had made on my own career or on the trajectory of what we now call “independent film.” But, over all that time, I was telling hundreds of stories about the man—mostly trading on the humor regarding his quirks, his disheveled physical presence, his inability to stay awake during screenings and in meetings, and his unappetizing eating habits. I also equated his eccentricity with the fact that he supported so many off-the-wall films that no one else would have taken on, some of which turned out to be far more successful than anyone would have predicted.
Friends suggested that I write a book about Rugoff, but as I began to contact people who knew him way back when, I started to panic about the age and worsening health of many of the people I would want to interview, and realized that I had better get them on tape while they were still around. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps it could be a film. Without financing or any institutional support, I just decided to move ahead. I bought extremely portable camera and sound equipment, and with the help of some of the filmmakers I’ve known and worked with over the years, and a huge contingent of my former students spread out all over the world, I was able to film in 17 locations and collect over 80 hours of footage, some of which I hope to eventually use for an oral history project.
Many of the people I interviewed were reluctant participants, nervous about their ability to remember details or to have anything of significance to offer. I promised them that it would be quick and painless, and that I would remind them of things as we went along. For fear of losing their confidence, I made the conscious choice not to fuss over the lighting or the backgrounds, and to keep the crew as small as possible. My priority was to make the subjects comfortable. The strategy seems to have paid off in that people opened up to me far beyond my expectations. Just a small nudge would bring back a flood of memories that filled in huge gaps in the story.
With the hindsight of my own 40-plus year career in the film business, I hope to not only bring this colorful and important character to life, but to connect his story to the larger stories of the cyclical nature of the independent film business, the personal hubris that is a common theme among people who work in the business, and the incredible showmanship necessary to get audiences to pay attention. It’s also the tragic story of someone very gifted whose personal issues eventually destroyed him.
–Ira Deutchman, Producer/Director