Dude Knows Movies
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.