Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Best Bar" Directors interviewed on Montana PBS

Listen to Montana Evening Edition

Sally Mauk interviews Eric and Damon Ristau about their new film on KUFM :

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Interview with "The Dude" about Best Bar

Dude Knows Movies

dudeBy JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian

Few characters in American film are as unforgettable as The Dude.
More than a decade after Joel and Ethan Coen introduced the white-Russian-gulping hippie slacker in 1998’s “The Big Lebowski,” The Dude has more than abided: Dude’s become immortal.
Played by a porked-up Jeff Bridges, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, coasting through life on a constant pot-and-vodka buzz, is the center stooge in this box-office flop, an absurdist comedy in which a kidnapping-for-ransom plot is a mere footnote to the subjects of bowling, porn, Saddam Hussein, bowling, feminist art, V.I. Lenin, interior rugs, bowling, nihilism and a little show called “Branded.”
“Lebowski” made cult status before the popcorn got swept up.
Devotees know The Dude is a real person, a hippie activist-turned film marketer who helped the Coen Brothers launch their careers with “Blood Simple” in 1985. And that much of what has been immortalized by Jeff Bridges is the reality of Jeff Dowd.
But what they probably don’t know is that The Dude doesn’t much like bowling, only occasionally sips a white Russian, has slept on Monte Dolack’s couch and is helping two Missoula filmmakers in the same way he helped the Coen Brothers – by believing in good independent film.
Dowd, film producer, marketer and jack of all trades, will be in Missoula on Friday during a test screening of “The Best Bar in America,” a new film by Damon and Eric Ristau.
This is what The Dude does for a living. Surely you’ve heard of “Gandhi,” “Chariots of Fire,” “The Blair Witch Project” and “Kissing Jessica Stein.”
“This,” said Dowd, reached at his Los Angeles office, “is absolutely deserving – a worthy endeavor.”

Jamie Kelly: So, has The Dude ever drunk white Russians in Montana?
Jeff Dowd: If I did, it would have been on New Year’s Eve (in the early 1980s). It might have been the Oxford, or Charlie B’s. Whatever it was, it was minus 52 degrees. I was at a ranch and it was so cold that all these elk had come down off the hills. When I say “some,” I mean, like, 5,000 of them. So we shot them and field-dressed them, just like Sarah Palin.

How did you come to find out about Eric and Damon Ristau’s movie?
They just called me up on the phone. I meet people in various ways, at film festivals, or here in L.A. They sent me the film. ... Three or four things attracted me to it, one being working with brothers. But I also have some friends from Missoula, Monte Dolack. You know him?

What sort of talent do you see in these guys?
I think Eric and Damon are major talents. I think it’s remarkable what they’ve done on a tiny budget. … What the film really is, is a relationship film. It’s a film about one person fighting himself, with the help of Northway (played by David Ackroyd). It’s also very much about relationships between men and women. I was really hit and moved by it.

How many movies come across your desk over the course of a year?
I get about 20 or some calls a week, and about half of them, by the end of the call, I can deduce whether or not I’m right for them. In this case, I was very impressed by a lot of things. But to start, bars are the McGuffin in the film, like in “The Maltese Falcon.” (A “McGuffin” is a plot device in film – usually an object – that is used to move the story forward, like the contents of the suitcase in “Pulp Fiction.”) Second, a lot of people have surrogate fathers, mentors, big brothers, and the role that Northway plays is that kind of role. It’s mythologically important.

What will your role be with “The Best Bar in America” from here on out?
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the problem with a film is not with acting, directing or cinematography, but story. … In this case, I’ve come aboard and in post-production I’ll help them get qualitative research screenings. You know, the people in America, they all have Ph.D’s in advertising, daytime TV, nighttime TV, movies. They’re experts. They’re not studio heads. Who do you think owns those 200 million DVD players in America? It’s the people. I’m a big believer in those people at research screenings.

Where will you be doing these screenings for “The Best Bar in America?”
Anywhere. Doesn’t matter. Today, we can have a digital version in somebody’s living room in an instant. It can be with strangers, filmmakers, friends or all of the above. Now Friday at the Wilma, that’s not really a test-screening. We’re just going to discover it. My hope is that this film will indeed find an audience, if it gets compelling word of mouth. ... I’m trying to help them now sell the film, get it out there.

What percentage of The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” is the real Dude?
Let me put it this way: The body language is
110 percent. My friend was watching the movie and he didn’t know anything about it. And about three minutes in, he said, ‘Dude? That’s Jeff Dowd.’ ” Now, let’s take the white Russians. Yes, there was a time, post-Watergate, where the activism kind of died down. We were doing a lot of imbibing and drinking, and one of my drinks for a while was a white Russian. But the reason (the Coen Brothers) went with a white Russian is because there are probably 10 sight gags you can do with one. They got a lot of mileage out of that.

Is the real Dude as lazy as the “Lebowski” Dude?
I’m a very big political activist, very much an independent film guy, involved in production, post-production, development, marketing. But I do like to kick back and I know how to turn off the phone.

Can you explain the cult of “The Big Lebowski”?
On the most basic level, it’s a feel-good movie. You know you’re going to feel good after watching it. ... One day a man came up and hugged me and said, “You saved my life. The movie saved my life.” He was going to work on 9/11 (a firefighter) and ended up staying at Ground Zero the whole time. He told me he’d seen lots of people expire in front of him, but never by jumping out a window. He was suffering post-traumatic stress, a basket case. … “Then I saw it on top of my TV,” he told me. “A copy of ‘The Big Lebowski.’ And for the first time in six months, I started to laugh.”
You know what else people like? That The Dude speaks his mind. He tells it like it is. In a world where so many of us have to put on masks, The Dude is the one guy who can tell it like it is.

What’s your bowling average?
I’m not really a bowler. I did bowl 280 recently. But that was over three games.
(Dowd then explains in detail why he thinks the Coen Brothers set much of the film in a bowling alley. It involves drinking after a day of shooting the Coen Brothers’ first feature film “Blood Simple.”)

How has “The Big Lebowski” affected your life?
It’s really a great gift (the Coen Brothers) gave me. They didn’t even know it. I’m often at events around these big stars, like the L.A. Film Festival, Cannes. … It’s erased the intimidation factor. And then there are military guys, doctors, doesn’t matter. They instantly feel like I’m an old friend. “Can I buy you a white Russian?” And when they do that, they know what that’s going to mean is I’m going to hang out with them for the next few minutes, and we’re going to talk.
In Missoula, I’m going to be chuckling it up with people, hearing their stories. And I know I’ll come away with a few friends.

If you had a pet marmot, what would you name it?
Schenectady. … No, Merkin. My special lady friend here says Merkin.

Missoulian Article

Local filmmakers take a shot with ‘Best Bar in America’


Eric and Damon Ristau like drinking.

But it’s not really the booze. It’s the boozers.

The Missoula filmmakers love the old bars, the real bars, the Montana bars, the out-of-the-way dives filled with alcoholics and drifters and bar stool philosophers and the other assorted flavors of humanity you’ll find in those places.

“The diveier, the better,” said Eric. “Real people.”

Damon, too, knows them well. In 2001, he and some buddies took a motorcycle trip to Mexico, “drinking, riding and camping” and stopping at every last-stand watering hole they could find.

“Some of the shenanigans I witnessed, I thought would make a great film,” he said.

If you will it, it is no dream.

The Ristaus, co-owners of Missoula’s Firewater Film Co., are wrapping up the production on “The Best Bar in America,” a love letter to all those bar folks – but one in particular, a now-deceased homeless veteran the brothers befriended in 2001.

Entirely written, produced, filmed, directed and financed by the brothers, “The Best Bar” is as far from Hollywood’s movie machine as movies get.

The brothers had been talking about making this movie for seven years. Last year, Damon Ristau left his job as director of the Big Sky

Documentary Film Festival and threw all his time at it.

“We just decided it was time to write it and do it,” he said.

Script in hand, the Ristaus enlisted local actors (Andrew Rizzo, Lee McAfee, Gregory Collet) and one veteran television and screen actor, David Ackroyd, who shares the lead with Rizzo.

The soundtrack is almost all local, featuring the music of Russ Nasset, Shane Clouse and Stomping Ground, Wolf Redboy, Eden Atwood and Ryan “Schmed” Maynes, among others.

Armed with a single Panasonic HVX-200 high-def camera, the Ristaus and their tiny entourage hit the road last September, covering 8,000 miles in Utah, Idaho and Montana, and going through “two cases of Wild Turkey” during filming.

Now 95 percent complete, “The Best Bar in America” is getting a special test screening on July 17 at the Wilma.

Sanders (Andrew Rizzo) is touring the West on his BMW cycle to pen a bar guide.

Along the way, he keeps bumping into Northway (David Ackroyd), a wizened bar sage who eventually joins Sanders on his journey, occupying the BMW’s sidecar. Northway’s character is based on Richard Northway, a homeless veteran the Ristaus befriended and sheltered in 2001, and who later died in Helena.

In the film, Northway gets an idea. If you want a place with good bars, he tells Sanders, head north to Three Rivers, Montana, a town with “more bars than churches.”

Three Rivers. If you’re thinking Clark Fork, Blackfoot and Bitterroot, you’re correct. The town is not-so-loosely based on Missoula.

Told through the narrative voice of Sanders, “The Best Bar in America” is a journey of self-destruction, rebirth and self-discovery along the road to Three Rivers.

“He (Sanders) loses it all – his job, his wife, his life, and then gains it back in a different and better way,” said Damon, asked to summarize the plot.

Adultery, crime, drunkenness are his undoing, all born out of the bars he’s writing about.

Bars, in fact, serve as the primary backdrop for most of the film. More than 50 taverns and bars appear in the film in interior and exterior scenes and shot, many of which Missoulians will recognize.

Charlie B’s. The Oxford. The Lumberjack Saloon. Harold’s Club. Al’s and Vic’s. The Elbow Room.

That’s just a sampling of the joints the Ristaus visited. One of the movie’s pivotal scenes takes place in the Sip ’n’ Dip, the Great Falls landmark that is home to swimming mermaids.

All the footage amounts to “a semi-fictional tapestry” of Montana that is, on the whole, fairly accurate (Missoulians will get a guffaw when the main characters enter Montana from the south on the Going-to-the-Sun Road).

The multiple terabytes of raw film are now assembled. In their garage-turned-studio, the Ristaus are now doing “final tweaks” on the film. Still, they stressed that when it’s shown on July 17, it will not be complete.

“We’re going to tell people, ‘Hey, this isn’t done yet,’ ” said Eric.

The Dude likes it, man.

Call him “Duder” or “El Duderino,” but either way Jeff Dowd – the real-life inspiration for the white-Russian-sucking slacker in “The Big Lebowski” – is a fan of “The Best Bar in America.”

In fact, Dowd, a marketing consultant and film producer in Los Angeles who met the Ristaus on the set of “Blood Simple”, believes in the film so much that he’s offering his services as the film’s marketer and assistant producer.

“He told us that he’d been to a lot of bars, and a lot of bars in Montana specifically,” said Eric.

Dowd’s involvement was a huge surprise, given his ties to the Academy Award-winning (Joel and Ethan) Coen Brothers, who wrote “The Big Lebowski” around Dowd’s zany, anti-establishment, slacker personality.

David Ackroyd’s presence also lends weight to the film, as does the post-production advice and talent of screenwriter and Missoula resident Roger Hedden.

But none of the star power matters if the film festivals don’t take a sip from “The Best Bar.”

After it’s complete, the Ristaus will shop “Best Bar” to Telluride, Sundance, South-by-Southwest and other major festivals.

It’s ambitious, to say the least.

They’d rather it be a critical and artistic success than a financial one.

“I want to gain an audience to be able to make another film,” said Damon. “This has been an amazing process. I can’t wait to do it again.”

Missoula Independent Article

Story from:

It’s About the Journey
Cast of characters brings Best Bar in America to big screen

By: Skylar Browning
Posted: 07/16/2009

Here’s the pitch: Two first-time Missoula filmmakers, brothers, decide to write, direct, finance and edit a non-linear feature-length film that’s essentially about self-discovery—and drinking. The cast consists of mostly unknown local talent, with the lead actor sporting a beard that looks like something Saddam Hussein grew in a spider hole. After filming, the brothers ask an established local playwright and screenwriter to be the project’s “godfather” and help them finish it because he knows what it’s like to write for Hollywood—and he knows drinking. Once the film’s mostly completed, the brothers convince “The Dude,” the real-life Hollywood personality who inspired the main character in The Big Lebowski, to sign on and try to sell the finished product to festivals and distributors. And then this crew—the first-time filmmakers, the unknown cast, the veteran screenwriter and The Dude—decides to host a rough cut screening at the Wilma Theatre, just to see how the whole thing flies. Now, is that something you might be interested in?

If you said yes—and, come on, who isn’t intrigued to see the outcome of all that?—then consider the fact that this pitch only covers the making of Eric and Damon Ristau’s debut feature, The Best Bar in America. On Friday, July 17, the brothers will screen an 85-minute rough cut of the almost-finished product in hopes of generating some positive word of mouth and taking their first step toward getting it to big screens across the country.

“A film has to be really great to succeed as an independent film,” says Jim Dowd, aka The Dude, who has a track record of producing successful small-budget project. “There are over 10,000 independently financed films sitting on a shelf right now that are going to get close to no theatrical [release], probably no DVD and very little cable. They may get some action on the Internet, but that’s it for most of them. There are exceptions, though, and I think the Ristaus have a shot to be an exception.”

Eric and Damon Ristau, 32 and 30, respectively, founded Firewater Film Co. two years ago, but have been working together professionally for six years. Both brothers bring film backgrounds to the company—Damon is the former director of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival; Eric worked in freelance film and radio—and started by shooting high-def footage for commercial clients. But feature films, and specifically The Best Bar in America, were always a part of their plan.

“It’s something we wanted to do from the start,” says Damon in his garage-turned-editing bay. “It’s a story we really wanted to tell, and something we thought we could do on a limited budget.”


he Best Bar in America follows Sanders (Andrew Rizzo, and his impressive beard), a writer documenting every watering hole in the West for a guidebook. Along the way, he falls for a mermaid (Lee McAfee) working at the Sip N Dip who’s trying to resurrect her family’s bar, and befriends Northway (David Ackroyd), a sage wanderer based on a real homeless veteran the Ristaus met in their own travels. Sanders also wrestles with a pending divorce, picks up a hitchhiker (Gregory Collet) who robs a casino and comes across countless other characters—cameos include author Jim Harrison and Crystal Video owner Tim Huffman—who populate the diviest bars of the West.

The Ristaus covered the cast and crews’ basic expenses—including copious amounts of Wild Turkey—but no one was paid. Ninety days of shooting in Idaho, Utah and Montana took over five months. With various overlapping storylines and hours of footage, the Ristaus’ original cut of the film spanned more than 150 minutes.

“It’s been a learning experience,” says Eric. “Fortunately, we overshot, and having too much material versus too little is a good problem to have.”

To edit down the film, the Ristaus asked local playwright and screenwriter Roger Hedden for assistance. Hedden, who wrote films like Hi-Life and Sleep With Me, jumped into the project, offering help with re-writes and tightening story arcs. The Ristaus and Hedden worked late hours—usually over a bottle of Jack Daniels—getting the film into its current form.

“He brought some objectivity to the project that Damon and I no longer had,” says Eric. “He was like the godfather in guiding us through things, and he fit right into the overall vibe of the movie.”

But the Ristaus realized that a finished film, even if it was good, wasn’t guaranteed to reach a screen outside of Missoula. On a whim, they called Dowd and asked for him to consider signing on with the film. The Dude, who has ties to Missoula—he calls Huey Lewis and Monte Dolack friends, and worked with Annick Smith to help launch the Sundance Film Festival—abided.

“I thought Damon and Eric did a phenomenal job of telling a non-linear story with some really great characters,” says Dowd, who will attend Friday’s screening. “If it can get compelling word of mouth, if people don’t just say it’s interesting—that’s another word for ‘I didn’t really like it, but I’ll cover my ass’—then it’s got a shot.”

Despite his support of the film, Dowd’s the first one to point out that indie films face a daunting challenge when it comes to ever making money. The Ristaus know that, as well, but consider themselves a little more battle tested after simply finishing the current version.

“It’s been pretty wild, to say the least,” says Damon. “But the important thing is that I think we’ve made—with a few changes still, but mostly made—a film that we’re ready to stand behind and be proud of.”
The Ristaus host a “work-in-progress screening” of The Best Bar in America Friday, July 17, at 7:30 PM at the Wilma Theatre. $5.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

New Paste Magazine Article

Photo by Loni Workman

Story from:

Filmmaker Brothers Discuss Search for The Best Bar in America

When fledgling filmmakers Damon and Eric Ristau put together their first feature, The Best Bar in America, they had their priorities more or less in order. “We set out to make a movie about one man’s journey—a very simple story that we think everyone can relate to on a certain level,” one brother offers.
“And we wanted to make a movie about bars,” the other adds later, almost as an interjection.

He wasn't kidding, at least not completely. To make the movie, a fictional story that follows the travels of a man who sets out to write a bar guidebook, they visited at least 65 bars in the West. Fifty or so made it into the film.

The result is a debut feature the brothers describe as "a labor of love." The Montana-based filmmakers, who run their own production company, Firewater Film Company, talk about the film with a mixture of enthusiasm and relief.

"In a nutshell, it’s about self-discovery: a man who’s on the road, and he’s more blind when the journey begins, and through him meeting a variety of different people and characters along the way, his eyes are opened to the world and kind of a better sense of himself,” Damon says. "It’s our first feature film co-directing together, and it was an experiment. And now, it’s pretty amazing that it’s almost done.”

The brothers plan to put a rough cut in front of a hometown audience next month, and they have begun to shop the movie around to festivals. In the meantime, check out the trailer below and follow blog updates on the movie here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cover of Mountain Gazette!

If you live in the mountain states pick up a copy of the April issue of Mountain Gazette! The legendary magazine tracked us down for the scoop on the film and gave us the cover! They did us right with a two-page spread showing off some of Loni Workman's great photos, and printed a few road weary pages of the original script. The feature also includes an email exchange between the editor, John Fayhee, and Damon Ristau. The spread is not yet online, but I'll try to post it when it makes its way into cyberspace. For now, here's the cover

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Post Production Madness

Over the last couple of months, since wrapping production, we've been holed up editing like madmen. Eric has set up his editing HQ in a converted woodshed up on Blue Mountain, and my post production digs are in my garage behind my house. This has been a long winter, but very productive indeed. Watching the film come together is quite possibly the most rewarding part of this entire process. Post is also MUCH less stressful than actual production. There are no more impossible logistics to pull off, no last minute preproduction and extras casting, no actors to direct , no waiting for the weather to change and no more Wild Turkey (thank God)! We have completed around 2/3 of the film and are very happy with what we are seeing and we're hoping to complete the rough cut by mid-March. We have also been working with a small group of wildly talented musicians who are creating a wicked soundtrack that will undoubtedly blow your mind.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Loni Workman

All photos by Loni Workman
Loni Workman, the film's official Still Photographer and Associate Producer, has been along for the ride since Day 1. She moved to Missoula in September for the production on her own dime and has tolerated our crankiness, disorganization and poverty. She gets paid in hugs and beers, and frequently Elisabeth and I "let" her babysit for us. Not only is she an extremely talented photographer, but she conquered her fear of water to become a fantastic Mermaid at the Sip N Dip (see earlier post), and let go of her public speaking fear when she played the part of the Bar Slut in a hilarious scene. Loni has proven herself to be a crazy-hard worker, top-notch drinker, music connoisseur, and most of all, a great friend. By the way she also happens to be the girlfriend of Gregory Collet (Tex)!

Here is an assortment of some of her fantastic pics:

Lights! Camera! Ackroyd!

David Ackroyd, who plays the wise old character "Northway" in the film, recently dedicated his weekly two-hour internet radio show, "Lights, Camera, Ackroyd," to his latest experience on the set of "The Best Bar in America." You can listen to his hilarious and detailed behind-the-scenes account of independent guerrilla filmmaking at its finest.

Click on David's photo to listen to his podcast.

David Ackroyd brings you Lights! Camera! Ackroyd! every Tuesday at 10 a.m.
David has spent over 40 years in the sometimes wonderful and sometimes really strange world known as "show biz." He's done everything from major features to low-budget films including his latest, "The Best Bar in America."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Montana Mermaids

Photos by Loni Workman and John Ansotegui. We recently returned from the famous Sip N Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Montana. Even though we talked to a ton of people about this place and were aware that GQ Magazine rated it as the #1 Bar in the world, nothing could quite prepare us for what we experienced. We shot for two days in the lounge, starting at 6 am and ending in the early afternoon. The wonderful management at the O'Haire Motor Inn (where the lounge is located) let us film in the bar outside business hours. Tim Huffman, (who plays a cowboy bartender in the beginning of the film) rented us SCUBA gear and built a giant bubbler out of PVC pipe and a scuba tank. Using our underwater housing, Eric recorded some amazing footage of our mermaids.

The Sip N Dip is an authentic tiki bar will bamboo walls and ceiling, the house drink is a blue-colored fish bowl that contains something like 10 shots of booze. Most evenings Piano Pat comes out and plays classic hits from the likes of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.

Here's the kicker. Behind the bar are two large windows that look underwater into the swimming pool. At 9pm the mermaids appear and the place gets packed, everyone drinking blue drinks, laughing and dancing to Piano Pat's tunes.

Several key scenes in the film happen at the Sip N Dip. Including the meeting of two the film's main characters: Sanders and Eden.

Check out the pics and youtube mermaid montage.