Director Owes Plenty to Milwaukee, 'Wheel of Fortune'
Miramax-backed 'Chump Change' gets its premiere in the Cream City
Greater Milwaukee Today
Thursday, November 6, 2003
By Joey Tayler
TimeOut Movie Reporter
When writer/director/actor Steve Burrows told me that he did worse than anyone ever has on "Wheel of Fortune," I let my journalistic guard down and tried to be sympathetic:
"Oh you couldn't have done that bad."
"No, I'm the worst contestant in the history of the show. It's not a joke."
Luckily, Burrows has the buoyant, resilient personality of a guy who paid his dues and seems destined to break through in a big way sooner or later. "Chump Change," a sweet and savage reflection on show business struggle making its world premiere Friday at the Milwaukee International Film Festival, will do much to make that sooner. A Greendale native, Burrows studied political science and film criticism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but dumped paralegal plans to become "a professional funnyguy." After four years working with ex-Second City director Del Close in Chicago, Burrows moved to Los Angeles and joined improvisational comedy group The Groundlings, which included such esteemed alumni as Cheri Oteri, Lisa Kudrow and Kathy Griffin. Exposure from the troupe landed Burrows on numerous commercials, a part as a grip on "Seinfeld's" memorable "Pitch" story arc, and, yes, his "appearance and subsequent humiliation" on "Wheel."
But that's where Burrows' resilience came in handy.
"The one thing that Del Close taught me years ago was the concept of truth in comedy that you didn't really have to make up stuff - that your life is funny, things that happen to you are funny," Burrows said. "So when I was on 'Wheel of Fortune' and did so historically poorly, it was either mope around or turn it into comedy."
So Burrows channeled his experiences on "Wheel" into the brilliantly filled short "Soldier of Fortune," which went on to win 29 festival prizes despite a lawsuit from Merv Griffin. "Fortune" brought Burrows to Fox's attention, which offered him a chance to pitch a script ushering in what was, according to Burrows, "the single worst professional experience of my life."
"I pitched them my best ideas, and they were just all shot down," he said. "Then I went to my B-list ideas, and they were all shot down. Then I gave them one of the worst ideas I ever had, and they bought it."
To describe what happened to Burrows next would ruin the fun of watching "Chump Change," which, like "Fortune," became another truth-in-comedy autobiography about Hollywood insanity. Burrows basically plays himself, running from the bright lights of Tinseltown to visit his mom back in Milwaukee and instead spending a lazy winter day telling his horror stories to the woman renting his old bedroom. She's played by ex-porn star Traci Lords in an affecting performance that won her Best Actress honors at the Aspen Film Festival, where "Change" was also named Best Picture and snapped up by Miramax.
The film's affection for Milwaukee, however, is as straight from Burrows' heart as its cuts at Hollywood suits and Burrows couldn't be happier with the venue for both his premiere and the premiere party - both open to the public as festival events.
"Miramax gave me my choice of where I wanted to have a premiere - New York or LA - and I said, 'I think you're forgetting about one of the big three. What about Milwaukee?'" Burrows said. "Milwaukee gave me a lot when we were shooting this movie and this is a great opportunity to see if we can't help the Milwaukee Film Fest out in the same way that they're helping us out."
"If you've got a ticket to the movie, you're comin' to the party.'
Joey Tayler welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
At a Glance
What: "Chump Change"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: The Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee
Call: (414) 276-8711
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