Kent State grad finds ‘footing’ in Hollywood

Ryan Sheridan

“They say never meet your heroes. That’s bullshit,” said Rigney, a bespectacled 2007 graduate in English who looks like a grown-up version of Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” with the snarky, foul mouth of Seth Rogen. “Meeting and chatting with Cameron Crowe (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Say Anything”) after a Cat Stevens concert was one of the most insightful and inspiring 30 minutes of my life.”

Rigney decided against graduate school to make the trek to Los Angeles in July 2008. All he had to show for himself was a homemade film. Created with help from four of his best friends, Rigney’s intentions were to submit it to the Sundance Film Festival.

“Until seventh grade, I never thought it was possible to make a feature film,” he said. “Then I saw Kevin Smith’s low-budget slacker masterpiece ‘Clerks.’”

Rigney’s 82-minute film, “Understanding Vander,” shot with a handheld camera in the style of “The Office,” is about a home-invading, delusional musician named Vander who’s prone to mental breakdowns and unintelligible rants.

“Vander is the misguided musical bastard child of Kurt Cobain,” Rigney said.

He admitted he had some breakdowns of his own.

“The total production cost less than a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger at Wendy’s and was plagued with problems,” Rigney said. “The camera that I had owned for three years decided to die midway through our first week of production.”

Despite its technical difficulties, “Understanding Vander” was edited and finished three weeks before Rigney left for LA. Featuring music by Kent band NJs and The Jeff, the clip from “Vander” has been viewed more than 21,000 times on the Web site Funny or Die.

“If you’re young and into comedy and have anything worthwhile to put out, I believe (Funny or Die is) the site to upload your material to,” he said. “It gets noticed. The first “Vander” short didn’t get noticed until I moved out to LA, and I was approached by producers to do a larger version of it.”

While currently reworking “Vander,” Rigney has taken full advantage of his new home in the entertainment capital of the world. With a resume that includes a stint at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, shooting a pilot with “Seinfeld’s” Jason Alexander and a short film with Justin Timberlake, Rigney prides himself first as a writer, not an actor.

“All I do is write and perform,” he said, while giving the synopses of several of his completed screenplays, one of which was written for Ken Jeong of “The Hangover,” adding, “I found solace in performing at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB).”

UCB is an improvisational theater founded by Amy Poehler, among others, where many “Saturday Night Live” performers got their start.

But it wasn’t fun at first, admitted Rigney. As a transplant in Hollywood coming from Ohio, Rigney said he encountered problems with his first job as a naïve intern.

“After reading several articles by top Hollywood agents, I thought getting an unpaid internship at a production company would be beneficial, so I did that,” he said. “Let me tell anyone interested in entertainment: Do not fall for this. You’re a secretary with no breaks or benefits, and they treat you like garbage.”

Despite a bitter start in Hollywood, Rigney said he has now found his “footing” by practicing a formula for success.

“Entertainment is about dedication and determination and staying active,” he said. “When I hear ‘no,’ I don’t get discouraged. It’s fuel.”

Contact features correspondent Ryan Sheridan at [email protected].