Ben Steinbauer is an award-winning film, television, and commercial director. Michael Moore called his debut feature documentary Winnebago Man “one of the funniest documentaries ever made!” and Roger Ebert named it one of his favorite films of 2010. His new comedy documentary, Chop & Steele, premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently on a tour of Alamo Drafthouse theaters around the country. Steinbauer was named “one of Texas’ best directors” by Texas Monthly and is co-owner of the Emmy-award winning production company The Bear. (Photo by David Bukstein.)
I was lying in a hospital bed, in a gown, staring up at a hard, overhead fluorescent light. There was music playing that was totally inappropriate for the situation – “Tonight’s the Night” by Rod Stewart. Nurses were coming in and out of the room. They were nice, but they were strangers and each one asked me basic questions about my medical history. Then I was wheeled into the back and the doctor began the examination to determine if I had colon cancer. They had never said the C word, but they wanted to take a look in case it was “something else.” We all knew what that “something else” meant.
That’s when I realized I was going to die. It could be in 50 minutes or 50 years, but whenever it was, it would be a lot like this – lying in a hospital, looking into bright lights, surrounded by strangers. And then it came to me … the only three things that were important with the time I had left. 1. To be the best father I can to my daughter, Poppy. 2. To be the best husband to my wife, Katie. 3. To make films that reflect my values and make me laugh. Boom. Boom. Boom. They came as quickly and easily as that. There was no reflecting, second-guessing or contemplating. Those three things were what mattered to me.
Come to find out I didn’t have colon cancer. I have Crohn’s disease, which is totally manageable with the proper diet, medication and lifestyle change. As a result, I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been. Crohn’s is an auto-immune disorder and there’s no way to identify exactly what causes it, but the top three triggers are stress, emotional strain and sudden lifestyle change. I had just been through all three.
The world was in the middle of a global pandemic and I had just found out that the film I had been making for the last year was being shelved. Plus, we’d had our daughter two years before and as a result my wife hadn’t gone back to work. Money was tight and my production company was on the ropes. It was a stressful time.
At the end of 2019, our friends at a high-profile production company in Hollywood, known for making iconic comedies, came to us and said they were starting a documentary division. Their first project was on Kid Rock and they wanted a comedic portrait of him that was tonally similar to my first movie, Winnebago Man. Not being a fan of Kid Rock’s music or his politics, I didn’t want to get involved. But my business partner, Berndt Mader, convinced me to reconsider and suggested we co-direct so we could cut in half the amount of time we would each spend on the road with who we assumed would be a problematic character. Besides, there was already a budget and we would get to work with our very funny friends to make something that could be really interesting. We don’t usually co-direct, but the idea of splitting the duties and figuring it out as a team was attractive.
We flew to Nashville and met with Kid Rock. Walking in, I thought he would be abrasive, rude and dismissive, but he was the opposite. He was charming, funny and totally unpretentious. I liked him right away, which surprised me. He has the special qualities of a star, who can make you feel right at home while also letting you know he’s in charge. After a few hours, we got the green light, shook hands and agreed to make a movie together. That was February of 2020. We flew back home and saw on the news there was a new virus in China. I remember someone offering me hand sanitizer on the flight back, which was unusual.
Then March 2020 happened and the world shut down. The film was supposed to be about Kid Rock releasing his last album, going on his last tour and then retiring. The closing shot was going to be of him stepping out on stage to begin his final tour. Now Covid had disrupted all of those plans. So we started filming right away to capture the uniqueness of the moment. The resulting film was a portrait of an artist in turmoil. Kid Rock was dealing with the fallout of his political affiliations, while trying to go out on a high note. Quickly, it became a tough but fair look at a polarizing celebrity who was taking a stand and suffering the consequences. After Trump lost and Biden was elected, the movie ends with Kid Rock saying he was going to step back, shut his mouth and be less political. There’s a sense that if a guy like him can grow and change, then there’s hope for all of us.
We flew back to Nashville and showed it to him. He laughed and cried and when the lights came on, he hugged us, saying, “I didn’t know you guys were this good!” His manager said we were 90 percent of the way finished and both Live Nation, which financed the film, and our friends’ Hollywood production company loved it. The agents were talking about a Sundance premiere and I felt on top of the world. Then June rolled around, which is Pride month, and Kid Rock got drunk and went to a friend’s concert. He got up on stage to do a duet and when people in the audience pulled out their phones, he said, “You fucking faggots with your iPhones out …” That went all over TMZ, and our friends’ Hollywood production company took their name off the movie. The whole thing collapsed and Live Nation confiscated the footage.
The fact that Berndt and I had made a movie that threaded a needle by treating a contentious figure in an even-handed way, while also being laugh-out-loud funny, was something I was truly proud of. And I was looking forward to sharing the movie with audiences and having lots of conversations about how to treat divisive characters. When that was taken away, due to something stupid our subject did, which was out of our control, it was a blow.
At that point, I had been working on Chop & Steele largely by myself for about three-and-a-half years. I had met the film’s subjects, professional pranksters Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher, while making Winnebago Man and had been looking for an opportunity to make a movie about them. When they got sued by a television company for fraud (for pretending to be an exercise duo called Chop and Steele), I started filming their story, but hadn’t been able to find the ending yet. The film was shaping up to be a story about the relationship between two best friends, who almost break up, but then realize they are stronger together than apart. Joe and Nick have been performing roughly as long as Berndt and I have owned our production company and their love-hate relationship closely mirrors ours. So after the heartbreak of the Kid Rock movie, and my cancer scare which made me think in terms of how I would remember things on my deathbed, I invited Berndt to co-direct Chop & Steele with me. What could be better than two best friends directing a film together about two best friends?
Together we were able to finish the film in about six months and we used a lot of the same team from the Kid Rock movie, namely Alex MacKenzie as a writer and editor, Janice Woods as producer and Curtis Heath as our composer. We got accepted to Tribeca and had the experience of walking the red carpet and premiering a movie at a major festival. Plus, we got a theatrical release and now have a film that audiences will actually see.
Chop & Steele is not the big-budget splash our agents hoped for, but it’s better in the sense that it was a project that originated with me and the people around me and reflects the values I care most about – making your friends laugh and realizing we’re stronger together than apart. Over the years, I’ve had lots of near misses, and got close to making big-budget movies with people I didn’t know. What I’ve come to realize is that the best projects are the ones close to my heart, that I make with the people I care most about. Chop & Steele became like the documentary version of I Love You Man, both onscreen and off, and I think the relationships behind the camera influenced the one on screen. Ultimately, I hope audiences get as much out of the story of friendship and the important things in life – as told through two grown men peeing their pants on national television – as I did making it.
All images courtesy Ben Steinbauer.