Interview: Hot Tub Time Machine Director Steve Pink


A hot tub at a rundown ski resort takes four friends back into the ’80s where they have a chance to recreate their future and change things about their adult lives that pretty much suck! John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry and Clark Duke star in MGM’s rowdy comedy Hot Tub Time Machine that takes you on a sick and crazy wild ride as they flash back into a time they loved much more than their present lives.

Director Steve Pink cleverly instills insane humor balanced with just enough heart to make the story work and we caught up with him in Lake Tahoe to talk about his latest project.

Q: Crispin Glover told us that you never spoke to him about casting him as an homage to or a link with “Back to the Future.” Was that at all on your mind when you hired him?
Steve Pink: Thank God I agreed with Crispin last round table because I would have really looked like a schmuck if I said I had cast him just because of that! Crispin wouldn’t talk to me anymore! Look, it’s both. He’s a great actor and he’s hilarious and iconic to me. As an actor from “River’s Edge” to “Back to the Future” and all of his other work from the time, and he’s one of my favorite actors. Period. It did not escape me that he’s in the most famous and successful time travel movie. The idea of bringing him in to do this movie was a really great concept. That being said, the way we treated most of the characters in the movie we just didn’t call attention to it. He just gets to play an independent character of his own, and it’s not important to reference the past – the past takes care of itself. It’s Crispin Glover in the flesh. It’s true with William Zabka. We could have had him come in and play the “Karate Kid”–you could have had him come in and play Johnny!–and then you would have known…

Q: Because a lot of people don’t realize.
Pink: Right. And I don’t want to put all of my chips on people knowing who he was. I don’t know how many people saw “Karate Kid” years ago. He’s just a good actor, so to have him play his own version of Rick the f*cking club douche? And not call attention to his other characters. If you get that it was Zabka, great. If you don’t, then great. That’s not important because I still have to make the scene work on its own.

Q: And it seems that’s the case with John Cusack as well. You know he’s ’80s, but you don’t have to weave in “Better Off Dead” and everything.
Pink: We did have bigger jokes, and now there’s just a small one. There’s a shot of him looking around – you hear the line and then we cut to him and he’s going like this, and that’s it. We had to juggle a lot [with] the references. But first it had to be funny on its own, period. If it had just been a parody movie, if it had been “Hey, please enjoy and laugh at all these references,” you would have been bored out of your f*cking skull.

Q: That’s what I was afraid of walking in, that it would be “I Love the ’80s: The Movie.” And that’s not what you made.
Pink: I tried to stuff as much “I Love the ’80s” in there because it’s important to support the idea of the movie, and it’s fun. And I don’t judge the references, like the metal stuff – some people like Motley Crue and some people didn’t listen to them at all. That’s why there’s New Order and The Replacements and Public Enemy…

Q: You seem to embrace the ’80s and not poke fun at it. It seems to poke fun at now, in fact.
Pink: How do you think it pokes fun?

Q: Looking at all the silly things we have now. Chernoblee, especially Clark’s character – he’s sort of the modern guy, and he’s totally out of place. With the ’80s there’s some ridiculous things, but like you said it’s not constant parody of that time.
Pink: This was tricky in that way. To me most importantly you really want to like the characters because the more you like the characters the more everything is funny. You’re going to get the weird reference, because when you talk too much [at junkets] you start to get the weird sh*t, so here’s my weird one: Anthony Michael Hall in “Sixteen Candles.” I watched it recently with my family, I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and he’s incredibly annoying for the first 40 minutes of the movie. And then, without changing a single thing he’s doing, you start to laugh at everything he does. You’re an hour into that movie and he hasn’t changed anything and he’s suddenly extremely funny, because you’ve grown to like this weirdo who is extremely annoying. As he grows on you he becomes more enjoyable, whether you think he’s funny or not. That’s just the example I thought of. So that to me is really, really important. If you don’t go along for the ride with the people who have to deal with these ridiculous circumstances they’re in, you’ll be bored out of your mind. Because then you’re just relying on something to be funny as soon as it’s not funny anymore you’re bored. That’s a bummer. Also, I was like let’s embrace the ’80s but let’s let the character decide what they think about the ’80s themselves. Some liked them more than others; obviously Lou liked them, but John’s character, Adam, hates the ’80s. That was a terrible time for him, apparently. But for Rob’s character Lou that was a great time. I want to say that about all decades too. It’s not like all the decades are one thing. We can’t look back as a country and say it was one thing for everybody, because it was not. That’s why I like having Clark. He’s a smart dude as an actor, and as a character in the movie he’s the commentarian who allows us to see the differences between the ’80s and the present, he did it really subtly and really well, I think.

Q: Can you talk about casting Chevy Chase, and how that came about?
Pink: We all wanted him. The idea came up and we thought it would be an incredible thing to have him, and I think John knew him just from being out and about in Hollywood, and he called him up and asked him. That’s how we got him to do it. That’s my understanding. He auditioned! He didn’t win the role in the room, really. He had to come back a number of times. I had him work on a couple of things and he got it. I actually think he’s underutilized in the film because you really want more set pieces, and the role as written had real promise but we had little time. I think he’s underutilized, as great as he is in the movie. I want more Chevy, frankly.

Q: Is everything you filmed basically in the movie because of time constraints?
Pink: No, I just mean in terms of the time we had [on screen]. This is the role we had. It would have taken more writing. You don’t realize how great the opportunity is–I mean, we understood it–but in order to fill it we would need to change the writing more significantly than we did. We needed to open it up a little bit more, and if we had opened it up to me he would have been able to take off more than he does. But it’s not anything we left out of the film. He’s just so great. I think. To me he fulfills the role really well – I just wish there was more Chevy.

Q: Have you given any thought to what if the film is a big success and where you might go with it?
Pink: I’m superstitious, so I don’t. If I was riffing, in this one they went back to only one place so “Bill & Ted” it. Wouldn’t it be great if they could jump in and then be in Medieval times and then jump in and be in the American Revolution and then jump in and be in the future? A lot of time travel movies do that. So they exploit that framework of a time travel movie. Whatever – I don’t know, I’d have to think of one, but Lou’s Medieval self possesses a secret orb and… I don’t know! It would just be really great to exploit the time travel genre structures that are available that we didn’t get to because we only went to one period of time. I was far more interested in this time travel stuff than I was always able to express. The “Terminator” speech was something I brought in and it makes me laugh every single time because it’s so true. That’s the time travel stuff that really intrigues me.

Q: Your timing is great because you have “Lost” in its final season right now, doing all this time travel stuff. It seems like time travel is in the popular consciousness.
Pink: I guess. It kind of always has been, though. But you’re right that because of “Lost” it’s bigger. And people are embracing it in a mainstream way as opposed to thinking of it as a gimmick. I mean, you’re right about that. The popular ideas around time travel… I wish I could remember the name of the book Rob Corddry gave me [about time travel] to read, and then NPR had this segment about time travel while we were shooting, and there was this guy who had proven mathematically that you could time travel and there was this equation.

Q: You’re interested in time travel, the mechanics of it, all of that – but how often does it get in the way of the comedy? How often do you say, “F*ck that, we need a joke.”
Pink: All the time. It always gets in the way of the comedy. When in doubt, throw out the f*cking time travel. “What’s got to go? We’re sinking, and something’s got to go, and it’s not going to be the comedy.” All the time. Comedy is king. It has to be. And who knows anyway? Time travel – are you kidding me?

Q: What’s the balance between the script and the improv on the set?
Pink: I think there’s this myth of improv, which goes like this: “Hey we got all this money and we’ve got a camera, let’s put on a show! Let’s just f*cking make things up! We’re so smart and so funny we can just f*cking say whatever we want and it’s going to be awesome and the audience is going to enjoy it, because we are comic gods!” I read it in the paper all the time – “They say the film was largely improvised.” No it wasn’t. Improvised means we have a ball of string and some gum wrappers and we’re going to fly to the moon. You don’t MacGyver it. Basically the answer is once you have a very specific set of circumstances that tell all of these things–a character beat, a story beat, a plot beat, whatever it is–then you have the comedy expressing those ideas in each scene of the story, and then you have the dialogue that tells that story, and then you take off from there. Because those guys are such brilliant improvisers they’re able to embrace whatever circumstance they’re in and play to that circumstance and then it becomes improvisational. A lot of what those guys did came purely out of their relationships. They’d be like, “You’ve never been my friend, you motherf*cker! Hey that’s really cool, you’re doing a long sleeve, short sleeve thing? You’re doing brown and red. I do mostly black. Would brown and red be good on me?”

Q: Are we in the example or are you actually asking me?
Pink: I was in the example. They would constantly undermine the stakes of the characters, but that came out of the guys knowing each other. They would be able to move from the reality of their circumstances to something totally preposterous because they knew each other’s characters so well, and they knew kind of their disposition as characters. They were always in the moment. All of those guys are also really good at using the sets. They’re really good at diving into where they are to get that kind of material.

Q: How much of the budget went to the soundtrack? With a movie set in the ’80s you have to get the right songs, but clearances will cost a lot of money.
Pink: The studio supported the music budget really, really well. They knew it was going to be significant. We were able to make it affordable because a lot of musicians were willing to give us songs without killing us. [Having artists] believe in the project always makes it more affordable. We knew we had to deliver that. I’m a music geek–for reals–and I still miss a lot of stuff that could be in. I think we have a good spectrum from Public Enemy to The Replacements to New Order to David Bowie to Echo & The Bunnymen to Poison to Motley Crue – that’s a pretty full spectrum from the ’80s – but there’s still some left out. I think we even have English Beat in there, but there’s still stuff I missed. There’s so much great ’80s music that’s not in the movie. So I hope people go, “Oh I remember that song” and then go listen to something else.

Q: How did you settle on “Let’s Get It Started” as the “Johnny B. Goode” of this film.
Pink: The Johnny B. Goode rip-off? To what are you referring, sir? [laughs] Of course we deliberately ripped off all kinds of things. We ripped off whatever we could, frankly. I just liked the song. You try to find a song that you’ll listen to next year and like. It had to be a current enough song and be modern in production, in terms of the way the music is produced, and I think Black Eyed Peas is kind of unique in the way they produce their music, and I think they’re great at the way they produce their songs and their songs sound current – it’s not a sound you heard then. That was one aspect of it. The other aspect of it was that it was a good enough song to last a while. I think it’s a genuinely good song that will last a long time.

Q: You chose the radio edit.
Pink: What?

Q: You chose the radio version. Instead of “Let’s Get Retarded.” How come?
Pink: That’s a great question. I hadn’t really thought about it. I don’t know. I guess to me thematically it didn’t matter. The music’s the same. And with that particular song I didn’t need to make a comment about knowing the original track was this and that in order to make it a giant hit on the radio they changed the words so they didn’t offend half the population. It just wasn’t relevant to the scene. But some music is relevant, and it has to back what you’re doing.

Hot Tub Time Machine opens this Friday, March 26th.