Director Steve Pink on indie drama “The Wheel”

Aug 05, 2022

By Matt Conner

Web Exclusive

There’s a reason Steve Pink keeps telling the same joke—funny or not.

When describing his path to direct the deeply affecting new indie drama The Wheel, Pink makes clear that he wasn’t the obvious choice for such a movie—at least to most people. As the screenwriter and producer for Gross Pointe Blank and High Fidelity and the director of Hot Tub Time Machine, Pink had long established his comedic lane in Hollywood. If not for the mutual trust of a friend attached to the script, Pink would have moved on to the next hilarious project in front of him. It’s the reason why Pink has told that joke—“Have you seen my IMDb?”—multiple times.

But the throughline of meaningful personal exploration that’s marked all of his work to this point—even in the comedic sphere—made him an ideal choice for The Wheel, an emotional story about a young couple whose marriage is on the rocks. We recently sat down with Pink to ask him about his first dramatic turn behind the camera and how he became attached in the first place.

Under the Radar: Before we get into the film, how long have you been wanting to make The Wheel? How long have you lived with the idea?

Steve Pink: I’ve lived with it a little while now. The script was brought to me by Josh Jason, who is the producer, who I worked with at a commercial production company. We were working closely together on a particularly difficult commercial where I was a director and he was a production assistant. I’m not a hierarchical guy so I said, ‘You’re a smart guy. Let’s make this happen. I don’t need you getting me coffee. I need you to be a filmmaker.’ I won’t go into the circumstances, but I just asked him to step up and be my partner for this thing we had to do. He’s a brilliant young guy who’d been to film school, so that started our creative collaboration.

Then a few weeks later, he sent me the script and said he’d generated the financing for it and said, ‘Are you interested?’ I keep saying my response, and I’m not sure if this joke is even funny, but I asked him, ‘Did you even look at my IMDb?’ [Laughs]

UTR: Wait, what was his reaction to that?

Steve: He said, ‘Yeah, I like your movies. I would love for you to come on board and direct it.’ I said, ‘Thank you so much for believing in me.’ No one was giving me drama, and this young producer had the faith in me to give me one. So I was thrilled at the challenge.

UTR: The way you said that—was directing a dramatic film something you’ve been wanting but were unable to do?

Steve: I don’t know if I was unable. I’d certainly thought about trying to direct different kinds of material, different tones, but the opportunities in general to make a film… it’s not easy to get things going. So you stay in the world that you’re known for and that you’re comfortable working and that people will hire you for. So even if I’d let my agency know, for instances, or producers or studios that I was so ready to make a drama, I don’t know that anyone would have been beating down my door to give me one.

So I fell in love with the script. It was also COVID, right? So everything was shut down. That made it a great opportunity to explore making a small, intimate, independent film. I was in pre-production on a movie called Undercover starring Zach Levi for Lionsgate in that March or April when everything went down. So I was going to do this medium-sized fun comedy with music and suddenly here’s this opportunity to explore something else.

UTR: You just used the word ‘explore’ a few times to talk about making the film, but that word feels apt for the films you make in general. They might all be comedies up until The Wheel, but there’s a throughline of characters exploring who they are and why they do what they do.

Steve: Well, I appreciate you saying that. I think all filmmakers, myself included, will tell you that you’re telling a story through a character who starts at an emotional place and, through the journey, find himself at a different emotional place. They arc in some particular way and it has to be genuine. There has to be a fundamental conflict that the character is facing for the movie to be interesting—that’s just classic dramatic narrative principles.

When you’re doing a crazy, absurd comedy, people forget that you still have to deal with that stuff. Like my very first movie is about an assassin who goes back to his high school reunion [Gross Pointe Blank] and it’s very funny but it’s an investigation into self—even a very hilarious one. Hot Tub Time Machine is a mid-life crisis movie. They’re all disappointed in the way their lives turned out and the bonkers way they get to explore what it would have been like is through a Hot Tub Time Machine. [Laughs] I’ve always been concerned with character story and arc.

Obviously The Wheel is no exception, but this time I got to explore it in a more pure form because I didn’t have to—nor could I given our resources and time—create set pieces or even be that concerned with plot. From a plot perspective, it’s a very light movie, so I was very, very interested in exploring the emotional states of these characters and how they would resolve the distress they were feeling by virtue of interacting with the other characters. That was the basis on which they would transform themselves one way or another. That was a joy. It was really hard but a great joy.

UTR: I’m glad you mentioned all of that, because you’re right in that there’s nothing to hide behind here. Even while watching it, I thought that this whole thing could fall apart if you don’t get balanced exactly right with the chemistry, with key dialogue, etc.

Steve: It was a huge challenge to make it believable for sure. We’d walk into scenes and I’d ask, ‘is this emotionally bullshit or is this interesting and complicated?’ [Laughs]

UTR: Yeah, that’s what I mean.

Steve: I was very lucky with the cast. Amber Midthunder, I think, is an extraordinary actor. So is Taylor Gray. So is Bethany Anne Lind and so is Nelson Lee. They all brought such energy and thoughtfulness to their characters.

You have to picture this: we’re at a summer camp closed for COVID. It’s a crew of 20 people, so it’s almost this thought exercise in emotional reality. We’d make our way to the set and talk about the things we’d want to achieve in the scene and then quietly go about doing that. So in that sense, I was very lucky that I had such thoughtful and brilliant actors to go on that journey with because we had nothing else to do except what each of their characters in any given moment was going through and what the next inflection point would be. How are they transformed through the next set of circumstances in the story?

So I was very lucky to have such great actors to depend upon, because we were exploring it all in real time in this camp up in the forest.

UTR: Given your hopes to work with drama in the past, does this release feel more vulnerable than others, then?

Steve: It feels less vulnerable for me because it was a small labor of love where I was able to create and be a part of new family of filmmakers. Everyone worked for free, basically, so you’re all only there because of your love for film and your love for this particular movie. The stakes were so much lower in a way, because it’s not a big studio release with massive economic pressure and all kinds of other pressures. So it’s maybe more vulnerable creatively, but less vulnerable in terms of the actual process of making and releasing the film.

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