Tuesday, July 21, 2009
By 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.
By JAMIE KELLY -
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.”
Story from: http://www.missoulanews.com/index.cfm?do=listings.entertainment&nav=Arts
|It’s About the Journey |
| Cast of characters brings Best Bar in America to big screen |
| By: Skylar Browning |
|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.”
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.