‘Time’ to direct again

By David Orlikoff

Steve Pink grew up in Evanston during the’80s alongside John and Joan Cusack, Jeremy Piven and Lili Taylor. Unlike those four, his acting career has been limited, but he has flourished behind the camera as a writer, producer and director. He co-wrote and co-produced two big Cusack comedies, “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “High Fidelity” on which he was also the music supervisor. He attended Columbia from fall 1985 to fall 1986 before graduating from University of California Berkley. In the last 10 years, he’s gotten into directing, first the 2006 comedy “Accepted,” then some TV work and now “Hot Tub Time Machine.”

The Chronicle talked to Pink on the phone about the eccentricities of this project, the soundtrack and his relationship with John Cusack.

The Chronicle: What attracted you to the project?

Steve Pink: Is it too trite and worn out already to say “Hot Tub Time Machine”? Because a lot of people are like, “‘Hot Tub Time Machine’—that’s really stupid.” … Of course, I thought that too. Then I realized that’s why it was so fantastic. We’re very conscious of and call out the fact that we’re aware of how ridiculously stupid it is. And going back to the ’80s. It’s a hot tub time machine and they go back to a period when I was in college—high school, actually. It’s nostalgic to go back and both lampoon and embrace that era.

The Chronicle: How does the cast fit together?

SP: Rob Corddy has a very different speed than Craig Robinson, so their ability to play off of each other was outstanding every single day. And that’s true also of Clark Duke and John Cusack. Everybody just had a different speed pitch.… They were never fighting each other for laughs because their laughs came from different places. So as a result, the ensemble works really well because you are always getting a slightly different vibe and slightly different perspective from each of the characters, which helps generate the comedy between them.

The Chronicle: What made you get back to directing features four years after your first film, “Accepted”?

SP: Well, you always want to get back to shooting when you get the bug, as I do.… While I liked “Accepted,” it’s limited in tone by its rating. And this movie, given that its “R.” … I enjoyed the freedom of tone and the range of tone you can get away with in an “R” movie. Everything I’ve written, for the most part, it tends to be an “R” movie, so it gives me a freedom that I really enjoy. And it’s called “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Man, what’s not to love?

The Chronicle: What’s your relationship been with John Cusack over the years?

SP: We wrote our first show together [in] our junior year of high school, so we’ve known each other 20 years now. Long enough to want to kill each other, but realize we have no choice but to keep working together. So I’m fortunate that we have such good creative collaboration.

The Chronicle: What was it like directing him after years of collaboration in different ways?

SP: Well, actually, it was really empowering. He’s really generous, so in a way it was a more satisfying position to be in. When I was writing and producing as his partner, he would often talk to me while we were on set about what we’re doing with the writing and where the story’s going, and talk about his character and the film we were making. But I wasn’t saying “action” and “cut” and I wasn’t moving the camera. So I wasn’t having the director conversation with him in terms of his actual performance between action and cut. And so to then direct him and also be a part of that process—which is really the essential part of the process in the end, because you want to get it on film—was just fantastic and great.

The Chronicle: I saw that you were the music supervisor for this film just as you were for “High Fidelity” which you wrote. Can you talk about the soundtrack for “Hot Tub”?

SP: I love music. In movies, it’s really important to me. We actually did it in “Grosse Pointe Blank” as well—the first movie we did, that I ever did, that I wrote. In terms of mood or feeling or energy or whatever you need, most really good music supplies that. For “Grosse Pointe Blank” for instance, we stayed in the alternative post-punk college radio and underground music scene, and then when we went to the prom and did more public stuff, we did more pop music. In this movie, it’s kind of the same way. When you are with the characters, I tended to use music that was more alternative. Whereas when you are in the ’80s when the characters are experiencing the ’80s, I kind of focused on the big pop music that was happening at the time across many genres. There’s Motley Crue and Poison and that genre of music, then there also New Order and Men Without Hats and that genre. Then we also have the Replacements in the post-punk college radio genre. Of course David Bowie, who from almost every decade has something to offer. I tried to use as wide a range as possible for this particular movie so that all the different genres that were popular in the ’80s were represented.

The Chronicle: How much did the actors improvise in the comedic moments?

SP: You read a lot that some movie was mostly improv, which tends to be dismissive of the writing. On the other hand, if they said every word that was in the script, it dismisses the talent of the actors. And so I can only say that it’s always a combination. You look at the text and when you rehearse the actual script, sometimes it’s really, really funny and they don’t improvise at all. Sometimes because they are naturally funny, comic actors they can improvise new material around the storytelling point of any given scene, in which case the scene as written can be entirely thrown out. Because once they get the sense of the scene and the story point they are telling, whether it’s a plot point or character, then the scene can be improvised and it can be 20 times funnier than the scene ever was. But I wouldn’t call that strictly improvised. It’s not like, “Hey, we got the camera, let’s just think of some funny s— to say.” It’s not really like that. All the good comic actors of today do their homework in terms of what crazy circumstance they are in and improvise from that basis. That might seem obvious, and the only reason I give this long answer about it is because I think there is a bit of a misconception about it.

The Chronicle: It seems like the films you write are more narrative driven, and the films you direct are more absurd. Why is that? Will you ever direct a movie you’ve written yourself?

SP: [Movies that I’ve written] were very difficult to get made. So I have a number of scripts that I’ve written that I’d love to direct and I think more closely follow those tones, but they are slightly smaller movies. “Hot Tub Time Machine” actually presented an opportunity to inject what I think tonally is funny and good in a movie on a broader canvas. And so that was really fun. I’ve moved into that direction as a director because it’s really fun and fulfilling. So I wouldn’t say there’s much of a change for me except that I have to get people to actually make the movies that I’ve written as well. My desire to direct smaller movies is something that I’m working on in my career and that I love doing. One always wishes to [love] what they wrote, I wish to have the opportunity to direct what I write, but it just doesn’t happen.

The Chronicle: Can you tell us about some of the films that you’ve written that haven’t been picked up?

SP: Well yeah, there’s an adaptation of a book by Ned Vizzini, which is a kind of teenage narrative called “Be More Chill,” which I adapted for the Weiss brothers and it’s still a script sitting on my shelf that I love that I would direct. “Be More Chill” is about this kid who gets nano-chip technology in his brain that teaches him how to be cool. But it’s obviously a Faustian bargain, so it’s this twisted misadventure of this teenager. Its “R” rated, so that always makes it harder. High school “R”-rated movies are a little harder than “R”-rated movies that are college-aged and beyond.

To read about the difference between writing and directing, and the next film Pink wants to get made, check out The Chronicle online at ColumbiaChronicle.com/Multimedia.