His red triple-mohawk. His dark eyeliner. His showing midriff. His shiny black fringed leather jacket, necklaces made of bones and skulls, one long dangling earring and holey black jeans with red tights underneath.
“They really got me good,” recalls Dante Basco, laughing.
Now, Basco’s character in the 1991 movie Hook has become iconic for kids of the 1980s and 90s who remember the Lost Boys crowing “Ruffi-ooooo!” for their fearless leader. Skrillex's Grammy-award winning 2012 dance single Bangarang was a shout-out to Rufio’s battle cry. A pop-punk band in the early 2000s named itself Rufio. Basco has even seen tattoos of his teenage face on other people’s bodies.
“Now it’s cool,” he says of the costume. “But when you’re 15, you’re like, ‘Dude, what are we doing? I have my belly button out? Really?’”
Basco, 41, is now older than Robin Williams was when he played the 40-year-old Peter Banning in a story that imagines what would happen if Peter Pan grew up and had to return to Neverland to save his children from Hook. But he's still trying to keep the character's legacy alive - and take advantage of its strange cult fandom - by helping to produce a new, Kickstarter-funded short film about Rufio’s origin story, called Bangarang, which premiered online last week.
Basco has a cameo in the film, but is too old to play the young Rufio. A new generation of kids now knows him better for his voice-over work as Prince Zuko in the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. But he still gets recognised by Hook fans every single day.
“I've been Rufio longer than I've not been Rufio, for sure,” he says. “To this day, it’s a blessing and a curse. Some people have such strong memories of me as a young actor, that it’s hard to see me as anything else. But everyone comes to Hollywood hoping to get a role people are going to remember them for, and I get girls saying I was their first crush, or Asian guys saying Rufio was the first time they saw an Asian kid on-screen that wasn’t nerdy or stereotypical, so I was lucky the character that resonated was cool.”
When Hook premiered in 1991, it was panned (pun intended) by critics and underperformed expectations at the box office. Even Spielberg famously dislikes the movie, often bashing it in interviews.
Still, during a press junket for his film The BFG, he said, “I don’t love Hook, but my kids do, and there's a whole generation of young people who really appreciate the movie on a level far beyond what I put into it.”
One fan is Bangarang director Jonah Feingold, who considers Hook his favourite film.
“Hook is the reason I make movies," he says. “I saw it when I was two years old with my dad and told him I wanted to be a director.”
He even dressed up as Hook every day at school for almost all of prekindergarten, so much so that his teachers called his parents.
“As a kid, you’re watching it from the perspective of the Lost Boys,” says Feingold, “so when I first saw Rufio, I just felt very safe.”
He met Basco serendipitously at a West Hollywood bar early this year. As Feingold saw Basco walking by, he pulled out his phone to show him that he had the Hook poster as his background image. Feingold is developing a romantic comedy about a modern-day Wendy and her life after Peter Pan (with Brittany Snow attached to star), and asked Basco if he'd consider a cameo role. After Basco read the script, he agreed, and soon after, Feingold suggested that it’d be fun to produce a film about Rufio together. Even though Basco has been approached numerous times over the years by with scripts and pitches for a Rufio project, nothing had ever materialised.
In February, just three weeks after they met, Basco and Feingold launched the film’s Kickstarter campaign. They raised their goal of US$30,000 in less than three days, before eventually earning US$68,790.
They attribute the success not only to those who watched Hook over and over as kids, but to 90s nostalgia generally, including reboots of Full House, The X-Files and Twin Peaks.
Feingold has an image showing an article about their Rufio prequel trending on Twitter alongside news stories about Trump and North Korea.
“I’ve made a lot of things with not a lot of money and typically not a lot of permission,” says Feingold, who got his start making videos at BuzzFeed. “So that’s always been my mentality: We’re going to go out there and make it, whether the filmmaking powers that be come with us or not.”
J.V. Hart, one of the writers on Hook, and his son Jake, became part of the producing team. Jake Hart, now a filmmaker himself, was the one who came up with the idea for Hook when he was 10 years old - and he also played a Lost Boy in the movie.
The original script described Rufio as having “wild dark braids” and “flashing dark eyes”. Basco remembers thinking the character was Jamaican. Spielberg added “bangarang”, the Jamaican word for “chaos” that becomes the Lost Boys’ rallying cry. But Spielberg cast Basco, who’s Filipino - because, as the director told him, he was the only kid they auditioned that scared him.
“I wanted the [new] leader to break the traditional Lost Boy mould,” says Hart. “Rufio is more street punk, Lord of the Flies, a gang leader.”
For Bangarang, Feingold and his co-screenwriter Jeremy Dylan reverse-engineered the story from Hook, starting with the line Rufio says as he lies dying in Peter’s arms: “I wish I had a dad like you.” In their story, a Filipino-American 13-year-old named Roofus (played by Sheadon Gabriel) is fighting with the school bully while his mother, an undocumented immigrant, is being deported to the Philippines. The film is littered with Hook references, including a dinner scene where the kids say grace by shouting “Grace!”
“Child protective services, being taken from your mother to be put in a foster home - these are powerful forces in a young person’s life, [yet] the young Rufio refuses to defeat his imagination and his belief that there is a better place for him, which is Neverland,” says Hart. “Beats anything I might have come up with.”
Now Basco and his team are hoping to expand the story into a full-length feature.
“The most fascinating thing for me is that Peter Pan is a fairy tale, but now, this Filipino kid is a part of the folklore,” says Basco. Even the Peter Pan segment on the ABC drama Once Upon a Time had a reference to Hook killing Rufio. “Can you imagine telling the story of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and all of a sudden there’s a Filipino kid in there after all these years?”
“So the selfish part of me wants to bring this Asian-American hero to the next generation,” he adds. “It’s cool that Asians got into the fairy tale.”