Look, we're not trying to scam anybody here, man, but Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, two urban achievers from Louisville, are throwing their fourth NYC Lebowski Fest this weekend and, well, they'd love it if you would come and give them notes. (Also, tomorrow's already the tenth.) If any of what you just read was confusing, don't worry, it just means you need to rent the Coen brothers' masterpiece The Big Lebowski again. Released ten years ago to general critical disdain, the astonishingly nuanced Chandleresque romp has gone on to become an incessantly quoted cult classic.
In fact, Russell and Shuffitt got the idea to start the festival when a spontaneous crowd gathered to swap quotes during a tattoo convention in 2002. Held in cities nationwide, the two-night Lebowski Fest features live music (Jeff Bridges himself appeared with his band at one L.A. fest), a screening of the film, a costume and trivia contest and, of course, bowling. This year's New York what-have-you takes place at Irving Plaza on Saturday night and at the new Lucky Strike lanes on Sunday night—the latter event is sold out but a limited number of tickets will be sold at the door. We recently spoke with Russell about their plans for this year's fest, their recently published book about The Big Lebowski, and who the hell Walter is talking to.
How many times have you watched The Big Lebowski? To be honest, more than I can remember. And what's interesting is that it still makes me laugh out loud; somehow it still cheers me up every time I see it.
It didn’t do very well in the box office when it came out but over time it found its audience. What is it about the film that you think resonates with people? That’s a tough question. I think different people have different answers to that, but a lot of it is that people just really like the Dude, the role Jeff Bridges played so well. He’s such a likable guy, a decent guy who isn’t caught up in the rat race and isn’t all about materialism and achievement and vanity. He’s just kind of content being who he is, having a beat up old '70s car, taking bubble baths, and bowling with his buddies. Kind of a refreshing person to see as a movie hero, if you will. He’s no Superman. He can’t even dodge a coffee mug being thrown at his head by the sheriff of Malibu, much less a bullet.
My favorite scenes and dialogue keep changing over time. Can you pinpoint a favorite scene or exchange of dialogue? I have that same experience. When I first started watching the movie, my favorite lines were the more prominent or famous lines like "Mark it zero!" "Over the line!" "The Dude abides." That kind of stuff. But as I watch it over and over again there have been different lines that really get me every time. Like when Walter’s ranting on about how he’s gonna stay and finish his coffee. I just love that because he’s so angry and he so clearly cannot enjoy his coffee.
And even things that aren’t dialogue, like when Bridges starts to squeal when they throw the marmot in the bathtub, that kills me. Or when he wrecks his car into the dumpster; I could watch that over and over again. It’s hard to pick a favorite line or scene because it does change over time. I really love the opening scene when they are all sitting around in the bowling alley talking about how they peed on the Dude’s rug. I don’t know; it just really does it for me. I think it’s because I know the characters so well and it just fills me with joy. What can I say?
Is there any scene or any moment in the film that you’re not satisfied with? I don’t think so.
I have one. There’s one shot when the nihilists are fighting and that tall nihilist is shouting, "I fuck you! I fuck you!" That's the only thing that's never worked for me. [Laughs.] That really cracks me up for some reason. I don’t know. It does seem strange; it doesn’t really make any sense. But there’s something funny about some lanky nihilist yelling, "I fuck you, I fuck you." It kind of points to the absurdity of the nihilists; they were really trying to get the money but they just didn’t have much to inform in the way of wits or anything.
The title of your book is I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski. But the line in the movie is actually "So, you're a Lebowski, I'm a Lebowski..." Did you fuck this up? [Laughs] I know! We’re a bunch of fucking amateurs, man. That was pointed out to us as we were writing the book and we were just like, “Fuck it, we can’t be worried about that.” It gets the point across. One of the funny things about writing the book is that we have received tons of emails about little mistakes we’ve made. If we make even one little mistake, we are hearing about it all the time. So we’re hoping we can redeem ourselves with a second edition or a revised edition. One particular bit of trivia we got wrong is we didn’t get the human paraquat reference. I guess we’re all too young; we weren’t around when paraquat was used to destroy marijuana crop fields. We just knew it was an herbicide, so we didn’t really get the true meaning of the joke and we didn’t include that and we get reminders all the time about what that word means.
So with all this, the book and the festival, have you guys been able to quit your day jobs? We actually have other things that we do. I’ve got a store that I run in town, a T-shirt shop, everyone's got other things. It’s not a job exactly. We get pretty busy right around fest time but it’s just one of the things that we do.
The new 10th anniversary DVD has something about the Lebowski Fest? Yeah, it’s got about a fifteen-minute segment from a documentary coming out called The Achievers.
Did you have any role in the documentary other than being the subject of it, in a way? I was just the subject in it. This guy named Eddie Chung found us way back in 2004 when we went to Las Vegas for the first time and he was like, “Hey, I want to bring my camera and show up and film some stuff.” And that was fine with us. He’s followed us to pretty much every event we did after that first out of town event in Las Vegas, and it took him about five years to gather all the footage. It was really funny because he really became one of the achievers. He could hold a camera and a drink and a cigarette and film all at the same time. He would party harder than any of the fans and we were like, “He’s never going to finish this thing; there’s no way that he’s gonna get this done.” And low and behold not only did he get it done but he got it on the DVD.
Does this mean you’ve had any further contact with the Coens? No, they took care of all that themselves. They negotiated all that stuff from their production company. We didn’t have anything to do with it. They still won’t talk to us. We think they’re probably afraid of us, we’re all a little too into their movie. One thing we found out is that when the Coens are finished with a movie, they like to move on, not think about it any more and just do the next thing. We have not moved on; we’re living in the fucking past. We’re still talking about The Big Lebowski. I imagine they are sick of getting questions about it.
In the book you have a lot of interviews with the cast, but why no Flea or David Thewlis or Peter Stormare? We tried to get everyone, actually. And we did get Peter Stormare; he’s in there and he gave a really good interview. I was really impressed with him; he was really funny. We tried to get everybody but we couldn’t get through to Flea or Thewlis. The big disappointment is that Steve Buscemi stonewalled us.
Yeah, I noticed you have a page where his interview would be but it was just the scattering of Donnie's ashes. Yeah, it’s sad, but he didn’t want to give us an interview. And then I later heard that he opened the book in a bookstore and when he saw that pretty much everyone else had done an interview he said he felt bad about it. He can make up for it if he wants to come to the fest though; we’re gonna be in New York.
Right, he lives in New York, as does Julianne Moore, as does John Turturro. Any of these people expected to show up? Nothing official yet, but they are all invited and I have sent out some invites. I haven’t heard anything back. Usually when someone on that level wants to show up it’ll be about the day before that we’ll hear about it. I mean it was like the day before when we found that maybe Jeff Bridges was coming, and then he showed up.
How did that feel? That was mind-blowing in every way. He was just as cool as you could hope he would be. He wore his jellies that he wore in the movie; those were actually his. He was just a super cool guy. I thought that the roof of the Knitting Factory was going to blow off when we introduced him. The crowd just lost their minds. I lost my mind.
What do you have in store for this NYC Fest? This will be our fourth event in New York and we managed to keep all the events in Manhattan this year. One of the big complaints we always got is that we always went bowling in Queens. People did not like to go to Queens to go bowling. We’re pretty stoked that we got the Lucky strike on 42nd Street; it's brand new. It’s going to be fun to see the Achievers take over that place. At Irving Plaza the night before, where we’re showing the movie, we’ve got some fine entertainment lined up. We’re gonna kick it off with Creedence Clearwater Revival Revival. Then this guy named Paul Green, who’s the inspiration for The School of Rock movie. He’s a big fan of the movie and he volunteered to dress up like the landlord and perform the dance cycle. So we’re gonna have a little reenactment there. And headlining the show will be Tragedy, the metal Tribute to the Bee Gees. That doesn’t make any sense but they’re totally awesome so we’re excited about having them.
Monty's dance cycle is performed to "Pictures at an Exhibition." So is Paul Green going to perform for forty-five minutes? [Laughs] No, we’re gonna have to limit it to about five minutes. I can imagine that would go over pretty well for about five minutes; anything more and he'd be in danger of having tomatoes thrown at him or something
When you screen the film at Irving Plaza, are there going to be seats? No, there will not be seats. It’s not really a typically movie screening; it’s more of a movie party, like there are lots of screaming along with the movie, dancing, and singing. Everybody there has pretty much seen the movie more times than they need to. So it’s more of a party with the movie playing. It’s a lot of fun to stand in a room with a thousand people and quote your favorite movie. But I will admit it’s tough to make it to the final scene standing there after a night of drinking white Russians. You've got to be in for the long haul.
Speaking of the movie, who do you think Walter is talking to? I think that Walter is talking to Donny, but I can see the other side of the argument. I can see both sides. It’s a tough issue. It’s like the pro-choice/pro-life thing. In my opinion, he is talking to Donny because he’s constantly telling Donny to shut the fuck up and Donny is constantly trying to butt in. And in that scene Donny is trying to jump in there and Walter's like, "Life does not stop and start at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit." It seems harsh but Walter is really harsh to Donny.
But to me, addressing Donny in that way would cross the line into another level of belligerence. I mean, sure, he tells Donny to shut the fuck up all the time, but I refuse to believe that Walter thinks Donny is a "miserable piece of shit." For him to call him that would contradict the brotherly camaraderie that's the subtext of their relationship. I mean, the guy dies in Walter's arms, and right before that he's very tender and sensitive with him. I see that point; I really do. They’re talking about how the big Lebowski was possibly going to interrupt league play and have them make the hand-off and all that stuff. And Walter does have serious animosity against the rich folk, as well he should.
Maybe it's that Walter himself at that point becomes a little unhinged and doesn’t even know who he’s angry at. It just becomes an all-purpose animosity. Yeah, I think sometimes it gets the best of him; he doesn’t know where he is, he’s consumed in rage.
John Turturro likes to talk about his idea for a spin-off movie that would star him as Jesus. What are your thoughts? Oh man, I think that would be awesome. Personally, I’m against a sequel but I’m for a spin-off. Especially with Turturro writing it. And the way that he describes it is really funny, so I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. But he has brought it up many times so I don’t think he’s joking. I don’t know! The Jesus only has six minutes of screen time maybe but yet he is so impactful. Everybody remembers The Jesus. I do think he deserves more. Not for a sit-com or anything, that might be too much but a spin-off, kind of like a Bad News Bears road movie with Jesus as the bus driver. And he’s trying to reform himself from his pederast ways.
I’m wondering about the movie and your personal life. Are you married? I have a special lady friend but I’m not married.
Is she as enamored with the movie as you are? [Laughs] No, she's not.
Is she ever like, "Cool it with the Lebowski lingo and stuff?" She's been very tolerant of it. She likes the movie and enjoys it, but usually close to fest time I’ll start quoting it a lot randomly. And whenever I say something that doesn’t make any sense or doesn’t follow the conversation she’ll just assume I’m quoting the movie. It’s a pretty safe assumption because sometimes I try to work in some dialogue and it just doesn’t fit. And she’ll just chalk it up to quoting The Big Lebowski. She’s been very tolerant and accepting. She still loves me despite my obsession with The Big Lebowski. That’s why she’s a keeper.