Tuesday, July 21, 2009

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.”

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