The newly signed Stink director speaks to Addison Capper about comedy’s power to be a “trojan horse for provocative ideas to get through” and how his own short sketches got him noticed
Claiming that creativity runs through someone’s veins is a surefire risk of sounding cliché. In the case of Rick Darge, we’re willing to take that risk.
The oldest of four kids, Rick’s mother was about to start her photography education at the School of Visual Arts in New York City when she gave birth to him. He was snuck into the darkroom as a child, observing his mother developing black and white photos for her coursework. He was “surrounded by art from a young age”, exposed to the works of Mel Brooks, Stanley Kubrick and John Waters by his mother.
It wasn’t all observing forms of creativity. He loved to draw cartoons and wanted to be a comic book illustrator and then an animator. He was obsessed with video games, specifically the Nintendo, much like many ‘80s kids. However, unlike many ‘80s kids, he would design his own video game levels on massive sheets of paper and lay them out on his living room floor to imagine what it would be like to play them out in his head. He once turned his garage into a makeshift museum and charged his parents 25 cents to enter.
Rick has just signed for US representation with Stink Films but, unsurprisingly, knew from an early age that he wanted to be a filmmaker. “I also loved to be on camera and would often move my siblings out of the way to consume the spotlight whenever we were videotaped or photographed by other family members,” Rick tells me. “I’ve been recently digitising old footage for my family and found several short films that I directed as a kid, so it was very early on that I caught the creative bug.”
He became properly serious about filmmaking while in high school. He was lucky that he studied somewhere that had its own film production programme that taught students screenwriting, production and post production. He always knew that he wanted to go to Los Angeles’ USC film school, and that’s exactly where his education took him. Post-education life took him into his first job in the creative industries as a beta tester for a big video game company, which sounds kind of awesome but apparently wasn’t so. “It was a very boring job,” Rick admits. He lasted a few months before dropping out and beginning his filmmaking career as the lead editor on an independent rock and roll documentary called High & Dry. “I remember while working as a beta tester, I would use the company computers to look for better work and after browsing Craigslist one day, I found a director who was in need of an editor,” he says. “It was a passion project for him and he was needing someone to take his six-plus hour edit and get it down to two hours. I was up for the challenge and enjoyed the working relationship. I remember when I was being interviewed for the job he asked me, ‘So are you one of those editors who also wants to be a director some day or do you just want to edit?’. I remember thinking, I have to not tell this guy that I have dreams of being a director or else I might not get the job and I’ll be stuck being a beta tester forever, so I told a white lie and said editing was my dream. To this day, I’m still friends with that director and we laugh about that moment.”
Alas, editing wasn’t for Rick, but that wasn’t the final time that he gave it a whirl. His first “legitimate” project was as one of four editors tasked with creating all of Madonna’s background video content that would be displayed throughout her performances during her Confessions World tour in 2006. The post supervisor had seen Rick’s short films online and brought him for an interview. “I remember the job giving me a strong sense of purpose, especially due to the fact that I was discovered by their post supervisor who was a fan of my work,” he says. “After working long hours with barely a day off, I realised that working as an editor wasn’t my thing.” He’d worked 10 days straight and was granted a day off. Instead of catching up on sleep, he channeled his “underappreciated frustration” into making a short film with some friends about an editor who was working under two abusive producers. When it came time to get paid, the producers took the editor into an alleyway and shot him dead. “After my day off, I came back to work and showed the short film to some of my colleagues who laughed so hard that the post supervisor and producer came over to make us replay the video. Before I knew it, the entire production company was standing over my shoulder, watching this video that I was nervously playing for them a third time. Luckily they enjoyed my dark sense of humour and I was able to continue working.”
That sense of humour is a good turning point to talk about Rick’s work as a filmmaker today. When he was young, Rick admits that he always had the idea that he would be some kind of serious filmmaker, but eight years ago, when he turned 30, Rick began writing and directing his first feature film, Zen Dog, about a man who escapes the monotony of everyday life through lucid dreaming. (A small side note: perhaps uncoincidentally, Rick is open about the fact that his favourite pastime is sleeping. “I love all kinds of sleep. Long naps. Sleeping in. Deep sleep. Cat naps. I love to dream and I try to keep an active dream journal so I can remember those dreams and decipher them later. Lately, due to safer at home orders, I find that my dream life is often more entertaining than my real life which is coincidentally the topic of my feature Zen Dog.”)
While thick in the long post production process of Zen Dog, Rick began to kill the time making short comedy sketches that proved to be a hit among his friends, family and random strangers. “I would show them at local screenings throughout Los Angeles and they were always well received,” he says. “Comedy was something that was in my blood, having a very funny dad and grandpa, but not something I ever thought I was meant to do. When I was young, I had this idea that I would be this serious filmmaker, not dissimilar to one of my heroes, Kubrick. But after hitting my 30s and making my first movie, I realised I was more in line with Mel Brooks’ sensibilities and light approach to filmmaking. We all need to laugh in order to cope and my hope is that my films will give people that brief moment of levity that’s so needed in today’s chaotic world.
“I love the idea of comedy because I think it’s a real trojan horse for provocative ideas to get through,” Rick adds. “If you can make people genuinely laugh, then you’ve earned their trust. Once that trust is earned, you can introduce ideas that they would otherwise shrug off. I feel like the great stand up comedians of our time are more philosophers than they are comedians. They have a way of stripping reality down to its core and poking fun at it by holding a mirror up to society. Great comedy challenges who we are and makes us question why we are laughing in the first place. I hope that I’m able to make people laugh with my work and after they’re done laughing, make them think. But don’t get me wrong, I do love all forms of comedy, including the low hanging fruit kind from time to time.”
The short sketches that were Rick’s first foray into comedic filmmaking are essentially what got him noticed by the likes of Stink and the opportunity for commercial representation. When lockdown kicked in at the end of March 2020, he began making a bunch of his own short sketches at his LA home with a camera fixed on a tripod and a wireless monitor to gauge focus. Some of the sketches would star his girlfriend Hilary, who’s a creative at an ad agency, but mostly he was a total one-man-band. “They would often revolve around the current climate of our situation as well as typical relationship issues that all couples go through,” he says. “Making those short comedy sketches in early lockdown ended up getting me noticed by Hollywood and is one of the main factors that led to getting signed with Stink Films as a commercial director.” (If you’re jaded and in need of a laugh, we highly recommend heading over to Rick's Instagram
and tucking into them.)
When it comes to consuming media for inspiration, Rick takes in comedy via standup, Instagram, art house cinema and comedic TV. Standup favourites are, to name a few, Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy and George Carlin for their ability to bring “magic to the stage” and ability “to destroy taboos in a single punchline”. On Instagram he’s digging the work of writer and actor Connor O’Malley “who is just absolutely insane and hilarious with the work he’s been doing”. Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos inspires him “on every level with his attention to detail and skewed sense of reality”, and his movies The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer have proved worthy rewatches during the pandemic. From a TV standpoint, recent enjoyment has come from What We Do in the Shadows and old Monty Python. “I love how inventive and absurd Shadows is and how every actor just commits to their role with so much authenticity and passion. It’s been nice revisiting old Python episodes and seeing how the grandfathers of sketch paved the wave for modern day comedy. It’s amazing how ahead of their time they all were and a reminder that we can strive for greatness with everything we do.”
The technical side of filmmaking is also a point of passion and he’s always loved camera equipment and lenses, and stays up to date with new pieces of tech and their impact on the industry. He also likens his love of technical filmmaking to his newfound nerdy relationship with coffee. “I’ve also been very passionate about espresso lately,” he says. “I’ve become obsessed with the art of chasing the perfect shot. Reading up on extraction recipes and brew ratios. I’ve even dabbled into water recipes that give you the best tasting pull. I find that cinematography and espresso go hand in hand with each other. They both require certain elements to be just right in order to get the perfect shot. No pun intended.”
A self-proclaimed “mutt in the best sense of the word”, Rick comes from a mixed, but mostly Italian background. Both of his grandfathers were full Italian but married fair-skinned northern Europeans. He was born in New Jersey but moved out west to northern California at the age of nine. “I identify more with my east coast roots and can clearly remember large Sunday dinners at my grandparents house where the entire extended family would gather, converse and eat for hours,” he says. “Food was a way of connection in my family and offered the glue for interesting conversation. My background infused a strong affinity towards family and heritage and how traditions can last an eternity as long as you pass them down to the next generation. Traditions, food and connection bridge the gap of time and make us who we are and I’ll always take that with me.”
His uncle is a family member who Rick singles out as having a particularly prominent effect on his work as a creative and as a filmmaker. “My uncle is this wild bohemian artist who’s truly amazing with both the brush and his hands,” he says. “He’s someone I always looked up to as a child because he’s never subscribed to the idea of becoming a normal adult. Whatever that means. He just marches to his own beat and I love that about him.
“I remember when I was in film school, he wrote something on a small yellow post note and handed it to me. It simply said, ‘It’s all about the work.’ and that simple phrase has stuck with me forever. I use that mantra for every decision I make and every wall I run into. At the end of the day, all you have is your unique voice and the ideas that come to you. I think it’s easy to sometimes focus on the money, or the fame, especially living in Hollywood. But really, the only thing that matters is the content of what you’re trying to say.
“It’s such a simple phrase but it’s had such a big impact on what I value in this medium.”