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Not Your Average Hollywood 'Chump'

The Leader
January 28, 2004
By Lauren Burke

If anyone deserves bragging rights, it's Milwaukee native Stephen Burrows. Since leaving his home state for California, he's been the Selsun Blue Guy in their commercial and he's been on "Wheel of Fortune" and "America's Funniest Home Videos." He's wowed the likes of Tim Burton with a controversial short film, and he's written scripts and directed commercials. And now, his first major film is snagging many awards and is selling out on DVD. Burrows has a right to brag, yet he's still pinching himself about all his success.

The Leader recently had a chance to talk with Burrows; and when asked if he was busy and had a few minutes to chat, he said, "I'm busy talking to you." For the next two hours, Burrows gave us the skinny on everything from his movie Chump Change (he wrote, directed and starred in the film), to what he hates about Hollywood, to movies he's walked out of.

The Leader: What do you think of the modern day comedy? Do you think Hollywood is slacking?

Stephen Burrows: Oh, absolutely. Chump Change is my response to Hollywood comedies. Comedies that I grew up with like Animal House or even Tootsie; these were films that had 90 minutes of humor. And comedies today, if there's ten minutes of laughs in these movies you're lucky. I just got tired of paying money to see shitty comedies; lousy comedies with no laughs. People want to laugh. You've got to give them more laughs than you have in the trailer. That's the one big complaint that I hear from everyone. They go see the movie and they realize that the best parts were in the trailer.

L: What was the last movie you saw that you hated and had to walk out of?

SB: I've only walked out of two movies in my entire life. The first one was called Born in East L.A. I just couldn't take it. And nobody's happy when I tell them this, but I walked out of Lord of the Rings. I was bored out my mind. I don't know what it was, if it was the whole fantasy thing or what. My wife was with me and we were about an hour and a half into it. The hobbits were driving me nuts, and then they kept showing close ups of that ring. It was like, "I get it! The ring's important!" And I'll tell you the exact moment I walked out is when that Liv Tyler shows up with her pointy ears on a horse and I just didn't have the patience for it. I didn't walk out because it was crap; I just couldn't take it for some reason.

L: What did you discover about Hollywood when you moved out there?

SB: I was pretty naive. I grew up with all these great films and I just assumed that that's what Hollywood does. That's part of what they do. It's show business. I've always been the show guy. I've been doing comedy, performing, writing or directing for almost twenty years now, and I've made my living doing that. My goal has always been to make it good no matter what--whether I'm working on a commercial or a TV show. I mean, the first TV show I was ever on as an actor was "Seinfeld." The bar was pretty high when I got on that show. But all he wanted really was for it to be good...and last. And that's certainly what I've tried to do with my stuff.

L: What did you want to show with Chump Change?

SB: I wanted to try and show what it was like from the point of view of the writer in Hollywood; because writing, in my opinion, is the single most important part of the process. Everything builds on that; it's like the foundation of a house. If you lay down a shitty foundation, it doesn't matter how great the house is: it's going to collapse. In general, studios just dismiss writers. They're completely replaceable. But [in] the great films, there's one thing they all have in common: and that's a single writer.

L: Where did the idea for Chump Change stem from?

SB: In real life, I had come so close to having so many movies made in the studio system. The whole story with the Tim Matheson character is genuinely true. The names have been changed to protect the guilty, and I punched up the jokes a little bit. The whole story line is the insanity of what I went though. I came very close, on two occasions, to getting a movie made and then it just went away. In one week the head of the studio was fired, and the number two guy was in jail for killing my studio executive. Chump Change was my response to all of this.

L: How did you score such an all-star cast?

SB: Some of these people are comedy legends. They've been in the business for so long, they know that there's a lot of nonsense out there, and they wanted to have some fun poking fun at the whole process. Fred Willard, I wrote that part for him never thinking that we'd actually get him. Once we had Tim Matheson and Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara, I thought, "Let's go after him." He loved it, and asked who was in it. I said, "Tim Matheson and Jerry Stiller and he said, 'I'm in'." Next thing you know, I'm shooting with Fred Willard. I'm still pinching myself.

L: How did you end up hooking up with Traci Lords?

SB: She was a last minute thing. All the big TV stars auditioned for that role because it had some meat to it. They were all good, but it wasn't really working. I wanted to try and find a person who is the role, rather than can just play the role. Traci came in to read, and I believed her when she came into audition. I thought she was the gal. No one really takes her seriously but I saw her audition and I thought, "I'll take her seriously."

L: Since Chump Change is based on your life and a true story, how much of it is actually true?

SB: I would say ninety-percent true, with about ninety-percent embellishment on the truth. I had all these little stories that were true but I didn't want to use people's names, then I would change a little bit here. I would say the nugget of everything in that movie is true.

L: Did you fake smoking a joint in the Mitchell Park Domes?

SB: Absolutely. I'm still a fake smoker. I've never figured that out.

L: Were you really the worst guest in the history of "Wheel of Fortune?"

SB: That's all true. My spiel on the show was, "I'm a newlywed, I just got married in Las Vegas, and I'm a homemaker in Hollywood." I said shit and son of a bitch on the show. It aired. They bleeped it out, but it aired. I made a short film about it called "Soldier of Fortune." That ended up winning about twenty-nine film festival awards. [Ed.: Burrows was actually sued by Merv Griffin for this movie.]

L: What else did you do in your early days in Hollywood?

SB: I was actually on "America's Funniest Videos." I was on that show twenty-five times. When they couldn't find clips for a week's show, they gave me ninety seconds every month to do my own short. Those things were on forever. They're now playing on Mars somewhere. I made somewhere between twenty and twenty-five of those shorts.

L: Did making those shorts help you when it came time to direct Chump Change?

SB: I can't say directing was easy, but I feel like I was born to do it. There are certain qualities of a director that I was born with that I can't really take credit for. I've always been fearless. The go-for-it attitude. The risk taking. I'm not reckless, but I learned in comedy that you've just gotta go for it.

Burrows has definitely gone for it. Chump Change is getting rave reviews and recently played at the First Annual Milwaukee International Film Festival. He currently has a television show in the works and is working on two new scripts.

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