Chop & Steele is a documentary that gives thanks for strengths
Director Ben Steinbauer’s latest, Chop & Steele, is “a feature-length comedy documentary about childhood friends turned professional comedians.” For fans of underground video and weird things like Everything Is Terrible!, the Found Footage Festival and Steinbauer’s previous film, Winnebago Man, keeps alive a treasure trove of forgotten VHS detritus scoured from thrift stores and yard sales.
However, Chop & Steele is about more than just the art of finding and curating videos by Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett. It’s also the tale of what happens when this pair take to the airwaves and infiltrate morning news shows with a series of pranks and find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit. As much a story of friendship as it is one of perseverance, Chop & Steele has a surprising amount of heart for a movie that features grown men stomping wicker baskets.
The documentary screens at Liberty Hall on Thursday, Sept. 15, and we met with director Steinbauer and director of photography Priest Fontaine Batten (both University of Kansas alums), as well as Found Footage Festival’s Prueher, to discuss the film and how college towns made this all possible.
The Pitch: Priest and Ben, you’re both KU alums. Did you know each other during your time at KU?
Ben Steinbauer: I knew Priest back in the day. Priest is a hard guy not to know. It’s like being with the mayor anytime you hang out with Priest. He was renowned for these epic parties he would throw that he would plan for weeks in advance. One, in particular, I always referenced was when he buried a bunch of TV sets in the backyard, and he had these video installations.
I remember thinking at the party, after being probably like, six or seven Leinenkugels in, “I can’t believe the amount of effort that went into this college party.” I think there were multiple wardrobe changes, and he was DJing, and those are all things that you can expect to see Sept. 15.
Priest Fontaine Batten: Yeah. I remember the cops came, and I finally gave a tour, and they were so impressed. They’re like, “You know what? We’re gonna just leave this party alone. We’ve got a lot of noise complaints, but you put too much effort into this party, so we’re gonna let it go.”
From what I remember, we started watching KU games together. And I just remember thinking, “These are the nicest folks from Oklahoma. These are the nicest, smartest people in town. I love these guys. I wanna be friends for life.”
And then, I’ve just been admiring Ben’s work from afar. Winnebago Man, obviously, blew my mind, so this is a dream come true after all these years to finally, you know, collaborate on something. I’ve been doing my thing in New York, so it’s nice to like connect on this project.
This movie also marks Ben working with Nick again, as you’d previously worked with him and Joe Pickett on Winnebago Man.
Nick Prueher: When Ben approached us and said, “Hey, I’m making a movie about the angry RV guy,” we were kinda like, “Well, we’ve tried to track him down. Good luck.” Ben took the insane step of hiring a private investigator to find him. It never occurred to us. We were like, “This kid’s onto something.” I mean, Ben’s like two years younger than us, but this kid’s got this moxie, I tell you.
We were impressed, most of all, that Ben was able to infuse the documentary with something that we lack, which is heart. So, when we were in the midst of a lawsuit, and we were discussing with Ben, it just seemed like, “Hey, maybe this is a good opportunity for you to document this crazy time where our careers were in the balance.” That was the genesis of the movie.
Ben Steinbauer: Nick and Joe and I have been friends ever since Winnebago Man. I had been following their career, and they would come through Austin and play a show at the Drafthouse, and we would meet up for drinks afterward or something. We just stayed in touch. I was really fascinated by the morning show pranks, and then, when the lawsuit happened, I think you guys reached out to me right as the lawsuit was filed, essentially. And that was the beginning of the movie.
That was when I was like, “Okay, the pranks actually now have some stakes, and there’s some real substance here, and I have no idea what’s gonna happen as a result.” For a long time, it looked as if it might be something where they were gonna pull one last big prank or they were gonna go up against the man in some form or fashion, but what ended up happening was a lot more organic and truer and sweeter than anything that was like a Borat, or a Yes Man sort of approach.
Nick said that you gave them heart, which was something they lacked, but Chop & Steele really demonstrates the heart between you and Joe’s relationship and the way you approach this stuff, Nick.
Nick Prueher: Yeah. It’s just such a natural thing since Joe and I have known each other since we were 10 years old. We don’t think about our relationship or what we do or anything, and the documentary almost forced us to take a step back and be like, “Oh yeah, it is kind of weird to have a career with your childhood friend,” and “How do we navigate this?” We just don’t think about it, so it forced us—annoyingly—to deal with that for the first time.
The movie shows your friendship, but what’s also fascinating about this documentary is that Priest and Ben met at KU, and then you and Joe met at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. It seems like a very nice bit of synchronicity in all of the relationships between the people who made this movie.
Nick Prueher: Yeah. That is true, too. Maybe it’s not this way at KU, but at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, we didn’t go to UW Madison, which is like the big state school, so other weirdos went to college with us, but you could do something ridiculous or dumb or start up an intentionally bad break dancing group and actually make some waves.
If we had gone to NYU or Madison, even, it would’ve been sort of considered pat, but we could actually try out some dumb ideas with very low stakes.
I think a lot of our creativity and the genesis for the Found Footage Festival really took fruition in college because there just wasn’t a lot to do in our college town at the time.
Ben, you said you came to this project because you liked the idea of there being stakes. Those stakes unfold on camera, and they’re big—both legally and personally. How did you all, as a very intimate group of folks making this movie, deal with the stress generated by the whole thing?
Ben Steinbauer: It was very similar to Winnebago Man in that way where I sincerely didn’t know what the ending was, and those are my favorite kind of films to make and watch. I love taking the audience on a ride and feeling as if you’re in it with the filmmakers, and that it’s really just unfolding in front of you. That’s how the film was made.
We had lots of calls over many years about where the guys were in their relationship and in their careers, and as I said, there were these ideas: maybe they would go and pull these more high-profile pranks and purposely go out and poke the bear and try to get sued again, and that could be the movie. Or were they actually gonna break up? There was just a whole lot of uncertainty around the film all the time.
A good example of that is the Howie Mandel interview. That was literally the last thing that we shot. Right up until the end, when he was sitting down in that interview, we didn’t know what he was gonna say. We didn’t know if he knew why we were there. We didn’t know if he was aware of Nick and Joe. We didn’t know if he would threaten to sue us because we were filming backstage at America’s Got Talent, you know?
Those sort of unknowns are very stressful during production, but I’m lucky enough to have started a production company with my friends, with Berndt Mader, who’s a co-director on the movie, and then I get to work with people like Priest and Nick and Joe, and it gives me the ability to work really small and scrappy, but be able to take creative risks like this. I think it shows in the movie.
I think it’s a unique way to do things. It’s not the most lucrative way in the world to do it, and probably not the smartest approach, but I think in this case, it definitely worked out.
Chop & Steele screens at Liberty Hall on Thursday, Sept. 14, with a performance of the Found Footage Festival following. Details on that event here.