Paul Starkman is an acclaimed director who has worked on several Emmy-nominated shows like “Top Chef” and “Project Runway”. We caught up with him to discuss the themes of his new movie, Wheels.
The Knockturnal: What inspired you to make this movie?
Paul Starkman: I’ve wanted to make movies since I was a kid. Inspired by my brother and his photography, I saw stories in pictures. I grew up on rap and hip-hop in Brooklyn in the ’80s. The music, the beats, the stories told in the lyrics, had a huge impact on me, like RUN-DMC, Whodini. I find inspiration in movies, especially underdog stories; stories of someone finding their way and growing out of their struggles or circumstances, like Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and Wild Style. I decided to put the two together and wrote Wheels as my first feature. It’s the story of a young man trying to find his way, navigating his family dynamics as he balances his passion for music. I could relate to Max, wanting to make his dream come true, but not sure exactly how to get there. I’ve been directing competition reality shows for over a decade – Top Chef, Ink Master, Making it! etc. I watched passionate people with strong skills, from all walks of life – chefs, fashion designers, tattoo artists, makers, put their dreams first. I took a note from them and learned to trust the voice in myself, allowing the love of my family and passion to guide the way.
The Knockturnal: Is there a reason you chose to film in black & white?
Paul Starkman: I chose to film Wheels in black and white for several reasons. I always think that black and white immediately takes the viewer to a new world, outside of our normal reality. In this case, I wanted the audience to be catapulted into a Brooklyn that feels like an old New York one rarely seen in contemporary films. We often see hip-hop films or TV shows that look “old school” with drained color to give it a retro feel or movies that are shiny and glossy. Though this film has hip- hop and DJing, the film is about relationships and family. I wanted to separate Wheels from hip-hop films and the expectations that come with them. Being able to play with shades and light to help tell the story was important to me as well. I believe that life is grey. Good people can make bad choices, bad people can be good. No one is 100% good or bad. Using light and dark, we were able to craft and block pivotal scenes using silhouettes or Max emerging, into light. These choices are telling and add to his journey.
The Knockturnal: Did you know anybody like the people in the movie?
Paul Starkman: Definitely Max. I feel like he’s a part of every artist I know working to make their dreams come to life. I see him in myself. We all have people in our lives who disappoint us and don’t meet our expectations, that’s where Terry comes from. He’s a friend or family member who falls short, too smart for their own good, getting in their own way. When I was in school in California, in the ’90s, my friend Monty Luke was a DJ I looked up to. His sensibility was unmatched. He always had a can-do spirit and knew his music. He definitely inspired the character of Monty, as someone who is older, inspiring, and took DJing seriously.
The Knockturnal: How did you get permission to film at a clinic?
Paul Starkman: We called many clinics and doctor’s offices to see if we could film there. This one clinic in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on 5th avenue, was willing to give us a window before they opened for the day. It was across the street from Max’s apartment location. We shot the scene very quickly and were out and done before their day started. As for a lot of the other locations, we relied heavily on what friends were able to connect us with. My friend Matt owned a small garage that was vacant at the time. We were able to turn it into Lloyds Repair shop, Lee Quinones domain, as well as Brooklyn City Radio Station. Having two shooting locations in one physical location made the shoot possible as our daily moves were cut down. On a project of this size, I had to be efficient and quick. Having everything close to each other allowed us to make the days.
The Knockturnal: Why did you have Max start out in the broken down recording studio?
Paul Starkman: Brooklyn City Radio Station stands for many things in the film. You hear of overnight success, but they are rare and far between. People learning a craft start small and build up over time whatever their craft might be; this is exactly how I wanted to portray Max’s journey. I wanted the lesson to be about the music and the fundamentals of DJing more than the physical place. Monty, Max’s mentor, DJs there and is a big fish in a small pond, but because he is able to showcase his skills at Brooklyn City, he gets new opportunities. The station might be broken and the booth’s glass might be cracked, but the music, what people hear and listen to, is the most important part of it all. Making the point in one scene, Max says “No one is coming here. It’s the radio.” I wanted that idea to be at the heart of the film. I grew up on Stretch & Bobbito’s show in the ’90s. It was college radio in the middle of the night with a modest signal. What they had was the newest of the new when it came rappers and music, fresh from the studio to the radio station, making for the most exciting show in existence. Its strength was the music and their personalities. Gloss is just that- gloss.
The Knockturnal: What is the symbolism behind his different DJing gigs?
Paul Starkman: From the beginning of the film I wanted to establish Max as a likable person with DJ skills that were fitting for where he was in his journey. First, you see him DJing for kids and birthday parties, this level of DJing immediately sets his skill level and popularity. He’s fun to be around, and he can DJ, sufficiently change records, and play for them. He’s charismatic and someone you would want to be around, but he’s not moving big crowds. I wanted to show that he must stumble along the way to get where he wants to be. I don’t want to spoil anything, but sometimes we need to take chances as well and play bigger gigs or take on opportunities that we might not be ready for in order to push ourselves to excel. Sometimes we need to be in over our heads to get knocked down, to humble us, to take a step back and learn the fundamentals before we step into a big arena.
The Knockturnal: How did you set up your shots around the city?
Paul Starkman: Most of our shots were planned and permitted around Brooklyn. I wanted to show a side of Brooklyn you don’t see much of; a side that is contemporary, but not gentrified. A way to put you into Max’s world between Sunset Park and Red Hook. I wanted to show Max’s long walk under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway where there is something beautiful to the structure that runs over the Gowanus Canal. This is a Brooklyn not seen a lot in movies, where the streets are everything and it’s a far walk to the closest subway. The subway we shot on was one of the older cars where the announcements are still made by conductors. I wanted to use footbridges and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge to put the audience in this place, where coffee shops and cheese shops don’t line the sidewalks: a working-class world. All of the shots were purposeful and choices to give you a sense of Max’s Brooklyn, and a sense of how some of New York used to be. The same goes for Oscar’s corner. I chose a street with overgrowth and cobblestones by the Gowanus Canal. You have to make a choice to go and see him in this place. This is where Oscar hangs out and works from his car. You feel like you are in an old street film, like Gazzo in Rocky or Johnny Friendly in On The Waterfront. I wanted that feeling.
The Knockturnal: What is the meaning behind the movie’s title?
Paul Starkman: Wheels is what DJs call turntables. “The Wheels of Steel” is what Max wants and needs to learn. His brother Terry is involved in stealing cars. There are wheels on cars. They are both involved with wheels, but going in different directions, truthfully and metaphorically. Wheels spin in a circle, round and round. Is Max going to stay on the same path and go around and around, or will he change his direction?
The Knockturnal: What do you want your audience to take away from the film?
Paul Starkman: I want the audience to take away that changing one’s life is relative. Everyone comes from different circumstances and varying responsibilities. What might be a big step forward for someone, might be a small step for someone else. To one fighter, getting to the ring to fight or making it to the fight might mean something more than winning the actual fight. It’s all relative. I also love it when you leave a movie and it keeps you talking about it wondering what would happen next beyond what you saw on the screen. If you have questions and feel for Max, then I’ve done my job.
The Knockturnal: Are you planning for another film soon?
Paul Starkman: Yes. I’m developing two projects, both New York stories. I’m using this time to write with my wife and work on getting them made. Wheels is the first of many. I plan on continuing to tell New York City stories. It’s the city I love so much. Now that I’m on the other side- can’t stop, won’t stop!