bill bodkin interviews Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, the creators of Lebowski Fest, a celebration of all things related to the Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski …
“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.”
Released in 1998 on the heels of their Academy Award-nominated masterpiece Fargo, The Coen Brothers unleashed The Big Lebowski, a psychedelic film noir set in the early ’90s, on the mainstream American film audience. The response was … not so great. Grossing only $17 million (with a $15 million budget), Lebowski was considered a disappointment at the box office. However, some 13 years later, the film has not only gone on to find cult success but it has become a pop-culture phenomenon.
This phenomenon can be attributed, in many ways, to the work of two natives of Louisville, Ky.: Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, diehard Lebowski fans and the founders of Lebowski Fest — a celebration of all things Lebowski. The two have taken the idea of celebrating their favorite film with fellow fans at a local Kentucky bowling alley (with a few Caucasians and Oat Sodas served up) for a few frames and a screening of the film to bringing the festival to cities all around the country with cast members (including The Dude himself, Jeff Bridges), national headlining musicians and celebrities coming out and joining fellow “achievers” in celebration of the film.
These two have taken the film’s cult status and raised it to a whole other level, but that’s just, like, our opinion, man.
This year’s festival is this weekend in Columbus, Ohio.
Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin, a dedicated achiever (nickname for a Lebowski fan), spoke with Russell and Shuffitt about life, Lebowski and what have you.
Pre-Fest Questions …
Pop-Break: Can you remember the first time you saw The Big Lebowski and what you thought of it?
Will Russell: My dad recommended it to me, and I saw it in 1998 in the theater. I was actually kind of indifferent to it the first time I saw it. It was the third time that I saw it that I found myself falling in love with it. It gets better with each viewing.
Scott Shuffitt: It was in a unique setting … my friends and I were on our way to a concert, the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. We stopped to pick some folks up and they were kickin’ it, having some drink with the TV. It just happened that Lebowski was on TV. I had never seen it, so I had no frame of reference what the movie was about. What was unique was the scene that was playing was when The Dude is walking into an art studio and this lady comes flying in, naked, [throwing paint on a canvas]. I was like, ‘What in the hell is this?’ I didn’t get to watch the whole movie. Later on, Bill Green [who does all the artwork for Lebowski Fest] bought me the VHS for Christmas. When I got the part [at the art studio], I realized this was the movie I saw on the way to the concert. Pretty far out.
PB: Here’s more of a loaded question: What is it about this film that you love so much?
WR: The characters are hilarious and the dialogue is endlessly quotable. I love that it still makes me laugh even though I’ve seen it over 100 times.
SS: I’ve always like Coen Brothers comedies, especially Raising Arizona. [I love their] ability to create great scenes, dialogue and then take this amazing actor [Jeff Bridges] and its taken to a whole other level. I also really love [cinematographer] Roger Deakins’ shots in the movie, too. There was a period of time when the movie stayed in my VCR for many months.
PB: Since you’ve seen this film so many times, you must have a favorite minor character. Who is it?
WR: Brandt is amazing. Yes, Yes.
SS: Brandt is amazing. Jesus, too, but he’s not really a supporting character. I have a fondness for a lot of the supporting characters. Marty the Landlord, I talked with him when we were writing the book [I'm A Lebowski, You're A Lebowski].
PB: This might be impossible, but what is your one favorite line to quote from the film?
WR: It changes all the time. ‘I’m sorry, I wasnt listening’ has been a big one lately.
The Fest And Its History …
PB: In your book, there’s a quote from the Coens — ‘They have neither our blessing or our curse.’ How have the Brothers reacted to Lebowski Fest, and since the book’s printing, have they given you their blessing?
WR: That is the only official word we’ve ever had from the Brothers.
SS: No, we haven’t heard anything personally. We have been in contact with their people … they did lend us the marmot, though. But beyond that, we haven’t heard from them.
PB: For those who love the film, but have never been to a Lebowski Fest, walk us through the event.
SS: It’s usually a two-night event. The first night we have a local band, something fun, and then we screen the film. The secod night, we’re at the bowling alley and that’s where the Fest really happens. We have bowling, trivia contest, White Russians, costume contests.
WR: The first day is a screening of the movie with hundreds of fellow fans drinking White Russians and quoting lines. There’s usually a band that plays and a good time is had by all. The next day is the Bowling Party, which includes unlimited bowling, amazing costumes, trivia and other contests. A lot of people taking pictures and making friends from the common love of the movie.
PB: Is Lebowski Fest your full-time job?
SS: It’s not. Will has a retail store [in the Louisville, Ky., area] and I do stuff here and there. I actually have a feature length documentary on the importance of independent music stores called Brick And Mortar And Love. [I was inspired by] our local record store Near Ectasty, which has been around for 25 years. We found out last year it might have to close. [So I shot the film] to inform the public about it [the importance of indie music stores].
PB: After years of successful LF’s in Louisville, did the demand for Fests in other states surprise you?
WR: We were very surprised to discover just how many Achievers like us were out there, and it’s awesome to go to other cities and hang out with fellow fans.
PB: You’ve had some major bands like My Morning Jacket and They Might Be Giants headline your show. How did you get these bands to headline the fests, especially since they did so early on in the Fest’s history?
WR: They were way into the movie, so they were able to make it work for us. MMJ played the whole show in costume!
SS: We had this band called Blue Goat War — it was more of a concept band. I don’t how seriously we took it, but it was fun to play in. We opened for My Morning Jacket twice Louisville, so we knew the band. We found out they were fans of Lebowski, so we all said, ‘Yeah let’s do this!’ That was an event that showcased Louisville. There’s a misconception about Kentucky; we have a decent art and music scene. They [MMJ] really brought the party. The concert was held at an outdoor venue right by the river, no one really played there. There was a baseball game going on during the show, and they set off fireworks at the end of the game [which the audience could see going off behind the band during the show]. They even dressed up as characters! As for TMB, that was a little more typical how that happened. Will is a big fan and we reached out to them.
PB: Speaking of bands, you get a lot of local acts to perform at Lebowski Fest. How do you go about booking them?
SS: It all depends. Specifically for our Tampa Fest, the promotional company we work with makes a suggestion. We just want bands that are fun, high-energy and quirky. In New York, we have had this band Hair Supply — The Metal Air Supply Tribute Band perform. We want music that’s upbeat and entertaining. We’re certainly not bringing in Celine Dion.
PB: Who are some of the biggest celebrity “achievers” that have attended Fests?
WR: The guy who played Chunk in the Goonies, actor Michael Rappaport and John Flansburgh from TMBG have all attended the fest as fans.
PB: Through the years, you’ve had many cast members appear at Lebowski Fest. Are there any cast members that are on your “wish list” to appear at a Fest?
WR: John Goodman! Any cast member is always a hit. Maybe one day Turturro will put on his purple jumpsuit and roll a few. That creep can roll, man.
SS: Without a question, Flea. I’m all about the rock ‘n’ roll. It’d be very cool.
PB: Jeff Bridges appeared at the 2005 Lebowski Fest in Los Angeles. How much of The Dude was acting and how much of it was Jeff Bridges being himself? Also, as fans of the movie, how was the experience of meeting The Dude himself?
WR: He was The Dude in every way. Just as cool as you would hope he would be and even more. He wore his jellies, which are actually his shoes. It was amazing meeting him and marks one of the high points of doing Lebowski Fest. He even let me wear one of his jellies, but insisted I take off my sock first.
SS: Having him at the event was amazing. He actually called our office to confirm to be there — it was random. We had talked with his PR people through e-mail, and he called. It was a complete shock. It was like, ‘Hey, it’s Jeff Bridges,’ and we were like, ‘Get the fuck out.’ He asked us to keep it on the DL, just in case he couldn’t make it out. But he did, and it was a super-great surprise for everyone.
He is very Dude-like, most of the good parts of The Dude, though — not the unemployed, writing a 69-cent check for a half-gallon of 1/2 and 1/2. He’s more of the taking it easy, abiding Dude. He’s got it down. He even wore some of the wardrobe.
PB: At every Fest, you have a costume contest. What have some of the most memorable been?
WR: The costumes are my favorite part of the fest. Memorable ones are interpretations of dialogue like ‘World of pain,’ ‘Does the pope shit in the woods,’ ‘beaver picture’ — you can imagine where it goes from there.
SS: There’s this guy Vaughn Edward Jett who’s been down with us for a while. When we have a Fest in Louisville, he goes all out. One of his best was ‘The Pope Shitting in the Woods.’ He had a pope costume and then he built a set that was 5 feet high, 4 feet wide and like 3 feet deep. He sat all night on this toliet [surrounded by a forest]. Another great one was ‘A World of Pain.’ It was such a big costume, we had to take the doors off the bowling alley [entrance] to get it in. It a globe costume with a pull lever and when you pull the lever, a hammer hits his head.
We’ve had lots of Maudes, Dudes, Walters, the man in black pajamas, buddies in the muck and 3000 years if beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax.
PB: Do you ever get tired of watching the movie?
WR: Amazingly, no. I dont know how to explain that.
SS: It’s still a really great movie. I actually just watched it again Tuesday, [and] I laughed as hard as I ever had.
Upcoming Fests …
PB: Will the Fest in Columbus be any different?
WR: I hear Columbus knows how to party and we are excited about our first Fest in Ohio.
PB: Where else are you looking to do Fests this year?
WR: We have the big 10th Annual Lebowski Fest coming up in Louisville in July. We are working in shifts to make it special. [Also look for Lebowski Fest in Philadelphia in early June 2011].
PB: And finally, what do you think of Tara Reid’s comments about her filming The Big Lebowski 2?
WR: That was hilarious. She took the media for the proverbial ride. A sequel would be a travesty in my opinion. The Big Lebowski is sacred scripture, man!
SS: It’s pretty funny. Someone sent us an e-mail about it when it first came out. Man, I didn’t consider it a reliable source. It was very pretty, though. People were trippin’ out.