By C.R. Belgrave for Boston Compass
January 6, 2021
2020 was nuts. Luckily, one of the films that made me smile during some of the chaos was the debut feature of Paul Starkman (Project Runway, Top Chef), titled Wheels. Wheels is a well-written drama with great acting, music, and cinematography. Winner of multiple independent film awards, it shows Brooklyn as beautiful in black and white, using a score of chill hip hop and soul records, with a story led by believable and charismatic actors.
Arnstar (dancer, rapper, and actor) plays an aspiring hip hop DJ named Max a.k.a. DJ Maximillian, who besides dj-ing small events for a local criminal figure named Oscar (Kareem Savinon), and his abrasive henchman, Phil (J. Alphonse Nicholson, P-Valley), also works at a local market. Mentored by his friend Monty (Ioan Delice) who runs an independent radio station, Max hopes to get his own “wheels” while living with and taking care of his grandmother (Dorothi Fox) with the money he is able to make. Max isn’t perfect, he’s an underdog, and you want him to win.
Though focused on his dreams, Max can be distracted, and he is, both by a dance instructor named Liza (Shyrley Rodriguez, The Get Down), and the return of his long absent brother, Terry (Joshua Boone, Premature). Of the distractions, Terry’s return is the more dangerous, as the brothers’ mutual histories with Oscar threatens to derail both of their futures. Wheels is a smooth, well-paced and enjoyable independent feature that is available everywhere, including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, iTunes, Google Play, and other streaming services. You can also visit www.thewheelsfilm.com or follow @thewheelsfilm for more info.
Interview with Paul Starkman, director of Wheels by C.R. Belgrave
Hi Paul, it was great to watch your debut film, Wheels, and I enjoyed it a lot. The growing pains of a young Brooklyn DJ, looking for more visibility, and the return of his crime tempted older brother into his life are the axes on which Wheels, turns. What inspired you to write a story about a hip hop DJ in Brooklyn, trying to make his way? And why a DJ? And why Brooklyn?
PS: I’ve always wanted to make movies, since I was a kid. Hip Hop has always had a huge influence on me. I always loved how you can put on a song and immediately it can change your mood. Music can give you energy or take you places in your mind, out of where you might be. It’s extremely freeing. In the 90’s I would record my favorite DJ shows. Shows that would have the newest of the new like Stretch and Bobbito and wear out the tapes in my car in California where I was going to school. Then I would come back to New York and go listen to DJ’s I loved Like Bobbito and Rich Medina. I just loved how they would fill a room and put music together. I admired them, their abilities, and knowledge of music. I wanted to combine my passion for filmmaking and music. I love Rocky and NY films, underdog stories, coming of age stories. So I wrote Wheels. I am from Brooklyn, born and raised and I love it so much. All parts, the new, the old, the subways, the fact that it’s just a few stops from Manhattan. So I set the story here, the place I know.
A shot from Wheels—Max and his Grandma
The film was shot in black and white, and it looks amazing. Did you always know that you wanted it to be in black and white, or was it something that came to you at a later date? Films made nowadays that are in black and white are rare. What made you decide on the look of the film? Is there any film that inspired you visually?
PS: From the first inception of the movie to the final draft was over 20 years. Originally no, it was going to be color at the very beginning but through the years I decided I wanted to set Wheels in black and white. I wanted to use black and white and all the shades in between to put Max’s world somewhere else. Somewhere familiar and current but also create this cut out of Brooklyn that’s just his world. Where not all good people are good in all their actions and all bad people are bad in their actions. Grey makes up most of life and people. That’s where we mostly sit. Although Wheels is a coming-of-age film, it’s also a hip hop film. I didn’t want Wheels to fall into what you normally see, either gritty and drained color to look retro or old school and I didn’t want it to be glossy, that’s not where this is. I also love classic films like On the Waterfront and I wanted Wheels to have a classic feeling, the coverage, and the way it’s shot. We were able to use shadow and light to enhance certain moments allowing for the images to tell the story. Me and the DP Ariel Boles looked at films but also a lot of photographs by Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, and Gordon Parks for influence. Their use of light and exposure was our reference.
Max and Liza at the bus stop.
From the very beginning of Wheels, the opening music made me think of a Shaft (1971) or a Super Fly (1972) kind of opening. Camera follows the lead character at a distance, in an urban landscape, typically a big city, setting the tone. The music is an introduction to this character and their world. Can you talk about the music of the film, and how easy or difficult it was to make the selections for the final cut? Was there any record you wished you could have used or kept?
PS: Thank you for the compliment. The music is a combination of score and music tracks by various artists. Both were meant to weave the feel of the film. I love the way DJ’s play parties. They mix up sounds from various eras to give you an overall feel to the night. I wanted to do that with the film. The highs, the lows all in one night, a ride. In the opening, I wanted to the audience to feel the energy of Brooklyn’s streets and feel Max racing the clock on his way to work. I wanted it to sound like a movie, a big sound, with live instruments. When composer Mario Grigorov and I got together for the Music he understood exactly what the film was and the world the characters inhabit. The rhythm of the streets and the shots.
We wanted it to give a nod to jazz, funk, and classic R & B, but also be in the present day. He was able to find the balance and breathe life into the world. Producer/Editor Neal Usatin and I decided on what tracks would be in the film. He has a keen sense of music, pace, and timing. For this we tried various tracks but usually the scene would speak to us and tell us if they worked or not. The rhythm, the emotion. I’m so thankful we were able to get the tracks that we have in the film. Some classic Philly Soul from Jamie Records as well as classic hip hop from Fever Records.
Max practicing in the booth.
Can you talk about the process of finding your cast? They all owned their roles, were new faces to me, and I want to see them in other projects. What was easy, what was difficult, but became easy in filling the necessary roles?
PS: I sent Zan Ludlum our casting director the screenplay. She read Wheels and was able to see the story and the world I was trying to create. She has an amazing ability to put together the right combination of actors. We were down to our last few days and had not found Max or Liza. Then Arnstar came in. He read the scenes and we were blown away. He was such a positive presence in the room, with conviction and vulnerability. He was Max. He’s a rapper and a dancer and his late father was an original member of the Rock Steady Crew. He has hip hop in his blood and is an entertainer through and through. Then we paired him up with different Lizas. When Arnstar and Shyrley Rodriguez did scenes together there was electricity. We knew instantly we had a match. Shyrley was on The Get Down at that time and we had to work around her schedule to make it happen. But she was Liza, there wasn’t a choice after her. A few years back I made a short film called The Tree. I knew, the incredible Al Thompson and Tuffy Questell. They were on board the moment I called. We shot Wheels in 2016. Now a lot of the new faces back then are series regulars or in movies or Broadway. Like Joshua Boone was just in Premature, a Sundance hit and on Broadway in Network. J. Alphonse Nicholson is now Lil Murda on P-Valley. You could see all of their skills and hard work back then so it’s no surprise they are where they are, doing what they love. One more note to add. I met Lee Quinones, star of Wild Style, on the subway 15 years ago. When I called him and sent him the script, he told me he knew Arnstar’s father. He was in. It was old school meeting New School creating this authentic New York film. Everyone enjoyed their experience, and we all keep in touch. Was a real family atmosphere between the actors.
Max and Liza in the booth.
What is the best part of having an award-winning debut feature film?
PS: Someone said to me that I didn’t get to vote on those awards. They were voted on by others and given out right. You can second guess yourself when putting out a piece of work, art, a movie. But now being on the other side, having made the film, I know that my story has touched people. You work so hard to make the film then you need to let it fly and take on a life of its own. I’m so proud of everyone that worked on it, acted in it, made the music for it, edited it, and helped bring it to life. I know that I can do it again and after learning so much I can expand my canvas and hone my skills to tell different stories. I feel like I’m part of a community I’ve always wanted to be in and can trust my inner voice to continue on!
Official Wheels Poster
Follow CR Belgrave @sous_rature1981