INTERVIEW: Q&A with Writer/Director Steve Pink

Denny Schnulo began his writing career at age eleven with the release of his first collection of poems to the kids on the school playground. Believing that first hand reports are always best, he spent his early adult years living and working throughout the world. His writing today is informed by people he met and things they did together. Follow Denny on Twitter: @DennySchnulo

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INTERVIEW: Q&A with Writer/Director Steve Pink by Denny Schnulo | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting
Steve Pink
‘s movies have generated a ton of laughs during his career. His proprietary perspective shows us angles on life no one else can. An accomplished actor, screenwriter and director, his singular viewpoint lends a compelling tone to any project he’s involved in. He’s directed hit comedy films such as About Last Night and Hot Tub Time Machine 1 and 2. He’s the co-writer of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity.

Mr. Pink was kind enough to slip in a chat with Script in between his directorial duties on a new MTV comedy. Script wanted a sample taste of the unique wisdom he will share at the DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts’ 2nd Annual Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference on Saturday, May 21st. As usual Mr. Pink delivered.

Script:  How often do you work off someone else’s concept versus your own?

Steve Pink:  It has changed year-to-year across my career. It’s generally a mix between generating my own stuff and being asked to rewrite or adapt.

Script:  That’s been consistent across your career, it hasn’t changed one direction or the other?

SP:  Not really. I generally sell my own stuff and occasionally rewrite.  I also do a fair amount of directing for television. Right now I’m directing a few episodes of an MTV series starring Nicole Byer, a new comic who’s incredibly funny.

Script: What script did you learn the most from, maybe inspired an epiphany or let you know you were good at this?

SP:  I would say the two screenplays I’m most known for — Grosse Pointe Blank and High FidelityGrosse Pointe Blank was a big moment in that it was the first screenplay I sold. When it went on to actually become a movie, it gave me the confidence I could write screenplays for a living.  High Fidelity was the richest experience as a screenwriter because I was working with Stephen Frears and adapting Nick Hornby’s novel.

Script:  That’s an easy segue into my next question. You’ve done quite few movies with John Cusack, is there a special connection, something about the way you write that fits his character?

SP: We became close friends during our senior year in high school and then formed a theater company and then eventually began working together in film. In terms of the material, John is a brilliant actor and one of the best at expressing the authentic emotional lives of his characters, especially those with a darkly ironic view of the world.  There was certainly a sensibility that we had in common, and so it made generating material for him relatively easy.

ScriptWhen you meet someone in high school it is a very particular kind of connection.

SP:  That’s certainly true, however, I would say that we really developed our creative sensibilities when we formed New Crime Productions our theater company in Chicago.

Script:  Do you have an all-time favorite film and what makes it your favorite?  Something that you look at and say I wish I would have written that or I wish I would have directed that?

SP:  Yeah, I say that every day (Laughs.) Every time I see a movie I love.  Most recently, The Big Short and Guardians of the Galaxy are two of my favorite movies. I wish I had written or directed them because I feel like they are in my wheelhouse in terms of my sensibilities. So yeah, I aspire to that kind of work.

Beyond that I don’t know, I could list my top five favorite movies today and give you a different list tomorrow. I have pretty eclectic taste. I love filmmakers and their body of work. I would put Tarantino at the top. Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Mira Nair to name a few. As for actors, I love much of Paul Newman’s work.

I also love damn near all of Spielberg’s work. Sometimes it feels like one can’t say you love Spielberg’s work out loud. But he’s one of my all-time favorites. His films are extraordinary.

Script:  There is a certain sense sometimes that his work is more entertainment than film.

SP: Anyone who has ever seen The Sugarland Express should immediately take back that.

But okay, here’s today’s top five in no particular order: Pulp Fiction; Boogie Nights; The Shining; Apocalypse Now; The Matrix.

ScriptWhich script of yours do you most wish you had a do-over on?

SP:  Hmm, I would say it’s more a movie I’ve directed.  The first movie I directed was called Accepted, and it was originally slated to be an R-rated movie. Then it turned into a PG-13 movie and that just killed the movie.  It’s about a bunch of outsiders, all freaks, who start their own college because they don’t get into college for various reasons.  Because it was PG-13, it was just very soft.  All the crazy things you would imagine that you would invent at that age would have a lot to do with sex and drugs.  No sex and drugs in a movie about somebody who starts his own college?  It just rang very false.  It didn’t feel as real as it would have had I been able to make the movie R rated.  So, that would definitely be a do-over.

ScriptOne of the things I love about your films is I often feel like I’m watching some very normal, intelligent person that’s just been hit in the head and they’re slightly askew for a while. Is that quirkiness something you go for or just a natural attribute of your writing?

SP: I don’t think anyone ever intends or aspires to be quirky. But I am very interested in subverting expectations. I work toward character surprising us by taking a left turn when you were certain he or she was going to turn right.

For example, since all roads lead to Game of Thrones these days, let’s talk about that.  The creators of that show are masters of subverting expectation in my view. It’s also my view (and I’m sure the GoTosphere has already covered this), but there’s unique brilliance how most of the characters are dead serious in a way that seems almost inversely proportional to Peter Dinklage’s ironic POV. I think he’s beloved in that role because he’s the only self-aware/contemporary feeling character in the whole affair. So, to torture this example, I would say that I tend to write Peter Dinklage material rather than say House of Stark material.

Script:  As a writer and director what would you tell the writers out there is the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re approached about a project?

SP: Insert cliché here, but I’d say you have to love it. You have to feel that the story has enough for you to dig into and keep you inspired, thinking, and continually sparks your imagination.

The only semi-exception is if I’m working on something that I don’t necessarily love but know how to execute well. Especially in the case of a rewrite job. I don’t always have to actually love it, but I do have to believe that I can make it better — that I can get in there and improve it in some way, add to it.

Otherwise there’s really no point in doing it. It’s just too much pain (Laughs). It’s pain anyway so think of it as pain mitigation. Because even if you love it, it’s going to be torture (Laughs). It’s just going to be worth it in the end, versus not worth it at all (Laughs).

Script:  People are out there telling new writers if you want to be taken seriously stick to one genre.

SP:  That’s’ very strange.  I don’t why writers are telling writers that.

Hot Tub Time Machine

Hot Tub Time Machine

Script:  You hear it in classes, see it in books, things like that.  But I look at someone like you, you’ve been successful and respected in several genres.

SP:  Well, no one’s looking to me to write a drama. I mean there are very little dramas in film these days except during award season. However, I have managed to sell two dramas in television the last two years.

I would say that the reality is you will be defined by what you achieve success in. So I’ve been more on the comedy side than the drama side or action side simply because I wrote stuff people thought was funny, and I had success writing comedy. So, people naturally come to me for that kind of material.

A lot of the people in the business want the math to be really simple. And that’s understandable. I can’t tell you how many ski movies came my way after Hot Tub Time Machine. I’m like why, because I work in snow? (Laughs) I was offered a female Hot Tub Time Machine. Well, not exactly Hot Tub Time Machine, but it was a woman who finds out her husband’s cheating on her and three friends take her to heal her pain at a ski resort they used to go to when they were younger (Laughs). I’m like, well I just made that movie.

So, you will be defined by your work and then that might drive the path you go down subsequently, but you shouldn’t let that be the thing that defines you if you have other interests and want to write other stuff. Like all things, you may or may not find success writing other genres. But it seems pointless and worthless to say that if you want to be successful you should stick to one genre. That actually sounds like bad advice to me. I would never say that to a writer. I would say write what inspires you, etc.

There are a lot of writers like William Goldman who wrote across genres. Goldman wrote both Marathon Man and The Princess Bride (Laughs). Marathon Man is a suspense drama in the spy world. The Princess Bride is a comic adventure fable. Then there’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then there’s The Sting.

Mike Nichols crossed genres. Sydney Pollack did They Shoot Horses, Don’t They and lost Best Picture in 1969 to Midnight Cowboy. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is one of my favorite films by the way. It’s a tragic drama about marathon dancers in the Depression Era. Compare that to Tootsie (Laughs).

So again, I would say do what inspires you. If you have an original way or inspiring way to work your way into a genre then do it. Pretty much every great filmmaker has defied what you’re saying is supposedly axiomatic. Of course, there’s Kubrick. I realize he’s the exception that proves the rule, but I think every single movie he did was a different genre (Laughs).

So, the one genre thing? I would ignore anyone who says that and then immediately start to question anything else they say.

Script:  (Laughs) That sounds like sage advice.

Meet Steve Pink DePaul’s School of Cinematic Arts’ 2nd annual Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference, Saturday, May 21, 1:00-7:30 PM! The event takes place at 247 S. State, lower level. FREE admission but seats are limited. See the full list of events here, including a panel led by Script magazine’s editor, Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, talking with fellow Script contritibutors on issues facing writers today. Hear insights from screenwriters Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, Hostage), Tawnya Bhattacharya (Perception, Night Shift) and Rebecca Norris Resnick (Cloudy with a Chance of Sunshine).

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