Chump Change

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Making Chump Change

The Week
January 22, 2004
Story by Cathleen Loud

"It was meant to be."

At least that's what writer and film director Steve Burrows said to White-water polka music-maker Steve Meisner about his music in Chump Change, the award-winning Wisconsin/Hollywood comedy released by Miramax Home Entertainment on DVD and VHS Jan. 20.

Chump Change, starring Tim Matheson, Traci Elizabeth Lords, Anne Meara, Fred Willard, Jerry Stiller, A.J. Benza, Clancy Brown, Amy Stiller and Abe Vigoda, is a true comedy about the life of Steve Burrows, aka "Milwaukee Steve," a regular guy from the Midwest. After starring in a commercial for jock itch lotion, of all things, Steve's life becomes a Hollywood tabloid-ish exploit filled with industry executives, limo sex and movie deals gone bad.

After all the fame and fortune, fast forward to the current day to scenes from all over Wisconsin where the beer, cheese and romance comes in. Typical Wisconsin characters set in local dives and visits to some not-so-well-known Wisconsin spots make this film one that not only locals can enjoy but those who just don't get what it's all about in the Midwest. Mix this all with loads of intellectual humor, a bit of strong but entertaining language, romance and good music, too, and you've got a movie that Meisner says is too mainstream to be an indy film but too indy to be mainstream.

As far as the music is concerned, "Milwaukee is a mainstay in the polka industry," said Meisner, who got involved with the film when Burrows came to town in search of a polka band for musical score and a scene in Chump Change.

According to Meisner, Burrows looked through the yellow pages and stumbled across a place called the Bayview Bandwagon in Milwaukee. He visited the bar where he heard some polka. But, the magic really started when he was pulled aside by the owner. The owner informed Burrows that if he wanted the best polka band he'd have to contact Meisner.

Eventually Burrows and Meisner hooked up at a place called Russ and Darlene's at 35th and Lincoln. The perfect setting for the scene, they filmed Meisner and his band playing "Tchip Tchip (Dance Little Bird )" better known as the song from the chicken dance, while "Milwaukee Steve" and "Sam" his new beau, played by Traci Elizabeth Lords, stand front and center clucking and flapping their arms along with the rest of the crowd.

And the crowd, said Meisner, couldn't have been more perfect. When the film was originally pitched to the studio, executives thought the scenes and the characters were part of a set. But, really, these are real people. In one scene stands Darlene with a big blonde bouffant hairdo, smoking a cigarette and snapping along to the music. It's Wisconsin polka portrayal at its finest and exactly what Burrows wanted to capture.

After the chicken dance, Meisner's line comes: "Now it's time to slow it down." The lights fade as Meisner breaks into "The Morning After," a melodic solo he plays on the accordian, and the song that brings Sam and Milwaukee Steve into a passionate lip lock.

"Steve (Burrows) knew it was a pivotal scene but he didn't know how it was going to work until after the tracks had been laid down in California. He called and said, 'What you did in the scene made everything work.' It wasn't until I saw the cut that I realized it's a big screen moment when it all comes together and makes sense," said Meisner.

The polka scene is just one of many scenes that captures Wisconsin so well. Others scenes, like Meisner said, are extraordinary and unbelievably breathtaking, too. The cinematography shows creativity in a place you wouldn't assume one could find that kind of spark. The Midwest isn't a place that the film industry generally finds captivating. But, Burrows, being from Wisconsin, knows the lay of the land and represents it in true fashion.

In one scene, when Sam and Milwaukee Steve are stomping through the snow, a drive-in movie theater screen stands in the background. Sam, walking backward, talking to Milwaukee Steve, seems to float across that background screen. It's the simple scenes like this that make the movie come alive and seem very real.

Chump Change is a positive movie about what counts in life yet adds enough tongue-in-cheek humor so that the audience doesn't feel like they have to feel bad for the characters or about their own lives. "It's not a movie that makes you do anything," said Meisner.

It shows the absurdity of life in L.A. and takes Wisconsin, where we live said Meisner, and shows the audience that the wholesome values of the Midwest are real.

The actors in Chump Change really believed in what they were doing with the film, said Meisner. They were on a miniscule budget of $500,000 and the actors were making $248 a day, he said. But they did it because they believed in it and knew it was worth it. There's something to be said for a film that people are willing to step out on the plank and dive in for, said Meisner.

Meisner also walked the plank. He had been working on a Christmas CD for the past five years and really wanted to get it done for the release of the movie. "I gotta get the Christmas recording out," he said before releasing it.

He crammed the whole month of November and collaborated with many friends and family members to produce the album. The final product blends a bunch of different types of polka tempos and styles. And, he finished it in time to make it available with the movie release. "It was an amazing experience to get the songs in there," he said of the album and the film.

Forever Christmas, an album of 19 songs, some of which appear in Chump Change, is available through Meisner's Web site

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