*We chopped it up with competition reality director Paul Starkman (Top Chef, Ink Master, Nailed it!, Making it!) about his feature directorial debut, Wheels, which is an indie film centering on a DJ (Max) finding his way in Brooklyn. Check out the trailer above.
The drama won 6 awards in the last year on the festival circuit, and is loaded with cameos of hip hop legends, such as Lee Quinones of Wild Style, Nyck Caution, and the Beastie Boys editor, Neal Usatin.
Wheels stars Arnstar, a Brooklyn and Harlem Native whose his father was the late Kippy Dee of the Rock steady crew, and brother of Lil Mama. Shyrley Rodriguez of “The Get Dow,” also stars alongside Joshua Boone (Premature).
Check out our Q&A with Starkman below, he breaks down his inspiration behind the project and the message he hopes viewers take away.
To kick things off, why the decision to shoot the film in black and white? What emotions were you trying to convey with this aesthetic?
That’s a great question, which I get this often. I decided to film Wheels in black and white for several reasons. The first reason being that I feel like right away, shooting in black and white takes you a little bit out of reality, and it can put you into this world immediately. So, you’re in Max’s world right away and so there’s no other distractions about that.
Also, a lot of times you see films, hip hop films or films that wannabe old school and you see that color has been drained out of them, and it’s supposed to look older like old school, or they look super glossy. I wanted to separate myself from that because I wanted mine to be… even though the setting is a DJ in Brooklyn, it’s really a family story. It’s about a boy following his passion and I wanted to separate myself and make that story the main focus, even though it’s about deejaying. I also love old cinema. I love classic cinema like On The Waterfront, which is a tale of two brothers and I wanted to do a little homage to that as well.
Talk a little bit about the inspiration behind this tale. As your feature film debut, why did you want to explore this story about a DJ finding his way in Brooklyn? Is this story personal for you?
Well yeah, it is personal because I feel like I’ve always wanted to make movies. Following my dream has been something that sometimes you don’t always know how to get there, or sometimes you don’t know the exact way to do it. So, I’m a TV director. I’ve been doing TV a long time and I’m thankful for the work I have, but sometimes it takes you off the course of what your dream has been. I feel like that’s reflected in this story: Max trying to find his way and trying to figure out how to make his passion come to life.
I think it’s a universal story in that way, in that I wanted to find my voice and he wants to find his. I think I was able to relate it, so he’s a bit of me in that way. But I also wanted to make a movie about things I care about. I love music. I love Black culture. I love New York. I love Brooklyn where I’m from and I love hip hop… I grew up on hip hop… the way it makes you feel; the way artists can express themselves. I just feel like that’s something I wanted to see in a movie and it’s something I could see tackling.
Also, it’s a small story. The canvas is small so, as my first film, I wanted to do it that way, keep it bite-size, and tackle subject matter that I thought I could relate to: a brother relationship; not knowing what you want to do; how to follow your dreams. These are the kinds of things I wanted to focus on because I thought I would be able to, so I kept it small that way.
As you know, sometimes cities themselves (the setting/backdrop), can serve as a whole nother character in a film. So talk a little bit about how New York City helps drive the tale in Wheels.
Brooklyn has changed so much as major cities in the US have. They become gentrified and have change. In Wheels, in particular, I did not want to show the gentrification side. I wanted to show a working class side that still exists. So that’s where my camera focused, on the streets that don’t have the fancy shops and the streets that were hard and the subway doesn’t go there, and you have to walk long distances to get to the subway. That’s the character that I wanted to tell, that the streets are hard and that even though we’re in modern day Brooklyn, this exists. This working class life exists. You don’t see it often in film. You see a lot of films that gloss over it and stay with… Even though the film takes place in current day, I wanted it to have that feel and really carved that out, and I think the black and white actually helped that as well.
Is there a central theme that ties this story together?
Yeah. I would say that love is the central theme. I would say that if you have love, you can feel like you can do anything because you know you’re supported, and you know that you can be yourself, and you can express yourself. And if you have love and let it guide you, then you will find a way.
Is there a social message that’s woven into the fabric of this story? And if so, what’s the message you’re hoping viewers take away?
I think that the message is that people are complicated and that good people do bad things, bad people do good things. There are a lot of gray areas in life. That’s one thing that makes life exciting. That’s one thing that makes life intricate and I feel that we’re all made up of that.
So, there’s a big culture nowadays of cancel culture and all of this. I’m not a big fan of that. I’m a fan of you want to see the best in people, and I think that just because people make mistakes, you can find the good in them. And just because people are all good, it’s sometimes not as rosy as it might seem.
I know that brotherhood is also central to this narrative. So talk about Max and his dynamic with his brother. What does this film say about brotherhood and the importance of the bond between men?
I think that brotherhood, you’re born with your brother. You don’t get to pick and choose. So, I think the theme of a brotherhood is usually…in Max’s case, he’s a younger brother, so he grew up with someone that he looked up to. He looked up to someone that he had expectations of and those expectations… See, I don’t want to spoil it either. But sometimes those expectations aren’t met and that can be a tough situation because we’re expecting somebody to be who they’re not. I think if you’re able to, like I was saying before, see the good in someone and take the parts of them that you do like and enjoy, and use those to help you, then that’s a good lesson if someone hasn’t met the expectations that you have looked for.
So, I think that brothers, there’s a loyalty there too. You feel very loyal to your brother. But sometimes you have to say, “What’s important here? I might have to put myself before my brother because that’s… I’ve been hurt too many times.”
As a filmmaker, as a male content creator, do you want to see more messages geared towards the importance of male bonding in films? Is this your niche?
That’s a good question. I think it’s funny. Wheels is my first project. We should talk about this a little. I wrote the first draft of Wheels in the 90s, but when I was in film school. That was my first draft of it. I’m 46 years old now. The themes have changed a little bit, but I do like themes of comradery and people coming together for a common cause. I do love that and I do love the idea of… I think I said it before… seeing the best in each other, rather than tearing each other down. Because I think we have more in common across ages, across sexes, across races, than we do have differences. I think that is something that’s nice to explore further in my career, which will be part of moving forward. I’m moving in several directions, but always themes of love and family Iare things that I care about.
The response to the film at the film festivals has been amazing.
Yes. Yes. We won six festivals. I’ve been overwhelmed by the response. We won the Woodstock Film Festival Best Narrative Feature in 2018, the fall. Then, we won Best Feature at the San Francisco Black Film Festival and Best Feature at the Harlem International Film Festival. We played 20 film festivals that we were official selection, but the response has been the same across ages and races. From Woodstock to Harlem, people relate to the characters, the universal story of someone following their dream and not knowing how to get there and just a family struggle.
People have related to that across the board, which has been a wonderful thing and a great way for a conversation. And also, you make a film and you think you’ve done something with it, and then you’ve got to let it fly and live on its own. Once that happened with the festivals and all of the wins are coming in, it just felt like we touched people and I think that’s been the most important thing for me.
What has been most rewarding for you on this journey of having your film compete at several major festivals?
I think a couple of things. I think the response has been extremely rewarding, as well as knowing that it’s scary to go and make your first film, or to put an idea into the world and to have that validated in a way means that you do have something to say; you do have something that people would like to hear. I feel like that’s been… I feel very fortunate that these ideas have touched people.
For our readers who want to learn more about Wheels, where can watch it?
And Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Fandango iTunes, Fandango, Google Play, Voodoo, Vimeo Yeah. And then now we’re going to go to Urbanflix as well.
Talk about the process of securing distribution on these various platforms.
When the film was completed, I just did it like everyone else. I submitted it to film festivals, every which one that I thought would be good for the film. I went to them and I networked. I met as many people as I could and I had conversations. We did Q and A’s and we met people along the way, and you really get to meet a film community. Through that, I was able to get a meeting with 1091 Pictures through someone that I met through a festival. They watched the film and they loved it and said we would distribute it.
We did the film circuit for a year. I just kept going and kept meeting people and shaking hands and emailing, and I put out that: “I want to get this distributor, do you know any distributors?” And then, by the end, there were about three that were interested. I had to go through and decide which one I felt would be the best for this film.
It’s not the big sale or anything like that. It was just that they provided a platform. And also, just one more note, as a first-time filmmaker, my goal was to tell a story and put it on screen. The distribution was something I didn’t even really think about and didn’t know about. Now, I believe that’ll hopefully help get financing for the next film because you do have an accomplished film that is out there in the world and picked up. But I started with wanting to tell the best story I could and I stayed true to that, and then let that lead the way.
Last question, there’s so much happening in the world, in America especially as you know, with this past year being hella crazy with the protests, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement and all the civil unrest amid the COVID crisis. How, if in any way, has all of this inspired you at all as a filmmaker? Are any of these topics affecting Black culture something you want to explore in your future work?
Absolutely. It’s been hugely inspiring and to actually have racism come to the surface and boil up the way it’s boiled through our political system, and so forth, come to light, it’s been inspiring because it is out there and people want to talk about it and want to battle against it and come together. I feel like it’s like I was saying before, the comradery of it all of seeing a light at the end of the road because you’re coming together for a common purpose is something that I do want to tackle in my films.
I have a small film, even a little smaller than Wheels, that I’m working on now that is also… It’s like a social injustice film. I feel like Wheels, he’s able to climb out of his situation because his situation is from systematic racism. I mean, where he is in his life and his family is… and the opportunities that are in front of him are because of the systems that have been put in place from the beginning of time. So, I think that all of it coming to the surface is a good thing, and I think the stories will only embolden people to battle more.
“Wheels” is now streaming on Amazon, Itunes, AppleTv via 1091 Pictures.
Visit the “Wheels” website for more information.