Today’s Guest: Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell, co-founders, Lebowski Fest, co-authors, I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You
There are a lot of famous uses of the word dude in pop culture. Sean Penn, as Spicoli, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High comes to mind. Or Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Party on, dude, indeed.
Or there’s the landscape guy I saw this morning parked at the Quickmart who had Palm Dude sloppily stenciled on the side of his pick-up truck.
But none of those three rises to the level of the Dude, Jeff Bridges, star of one of the craziest, most-layered Coen Brothers films ever, The Big Lebowski.
If you’re not already a fan of the 1998 movie, you want to go out and rent it when we’re done with this edition of Mr. Media. And if you’re already a Lebowski dude yourself, you’re gonna enjoy today’s guests, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, founders of Lebowski Fest and authors of the new book, I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski.
You can LISTEN to this interview by clicking the audio player above!
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: So I’m a late-comer to the whole Lebowski thing. A buddy of mine, Jim Doten, college friend for almost thirty years is going to call in and have some questions for you, but he’s been after me for years to see the movie and get into this. I don’t know. It just never grabbed me, but then he told me about the book. I went out. I watched the movie. I think I sort of get it, but I’m really hoping you guys can tell me how in the hell did I become a Lebowski?
WILL RUSSELL: How many times have you seen it?
ANDELMAN: One and a half.
RUSSELL: Oh, so you need an additional one and a half times. For me, it took three.
SCOTT SHUFFITT: Maybe a White Russian in there, too would help.
ANDELMAN: For people who might be listening who don’t get how this became a whole big cult and a movement, what’s the basic plot to the movie?
RUSSELL: It’s basically a case of mistaken identity. The main character, played by Jeff Bridges, he calls himself “The Dude,” he basically gets confused for a millionaire, and some thugs come to his house, and they urinate on his rug. And then they realize that they have the wrong guy, and all sorts of madness ensues when The Dude tries to get compensated for his rug. He runs into a band of roving nihilists, some porn stars, a kidnapping, a ransom hand-off, and he basically drinks nine or ten white Russians throughout the film to try to keep his mind limber to solve the crime. It’s basically like a Raymond Chandler-type mystery except they’ve got, instead of like the sure-footed detective, they’ve got kind of this bumbling stoner played by Jeff Bridges, and then John Goodman is his hot-headed Vietnam vet buddy. And it’s just a really funny movie.
ANDELMAN: How did it become this mythological movie? It’s gone way beyond your average whodunit or comedy or even a buddy film.
SHUFFITT: Man, that’s a good question. I don’t even know that I know. To the best of my knowledge, it’s just a film that a lot of people enjoy, and I think that a lot of people can relate to the characters. And I think that a lot of people want to be Dude-esque and just take it easy. It was written very, very well. It’s a really good comedy. It’s shot really well. The imagery is beautiful. So I guess you add all those things together, and we end up with what we have now, which is…
RUSSELL: …out of control.
ANDELMAN: And Scott, how do you define “Dude-esque”?
SHUFFITT: Just wanting to take it easy and relax and have a bubble bath and have a Caucasian every once in a while and enjoy the simple things in life like your rug and that sort of thing.
SHUFFITT: Yeah, bowling.
ANDELMAN: Bowling. Let’s talk about bowling. Where does Dick Nixon and bowling fit into all this?
RUSSELL: That was actually a publicity shot that was shot in the basement of the White House, and Nixon’s PR people wanted to kind of warm Nixon up to the people, and they thought, “Hey, let’s get him bowling and that way, the common man can relate to him.” I don’t think he was actually a very good bowler. I think that was simply just a publicity shot to try to make Nixon seem a little more likable. I don’t think it worked, though.
ANDELMAN: Looking back on history, I think you’re probably right about that.
RUSSELL: I think maybe W should come out with a bowling picture. Maybe that might help things for him a little bit, you think?
ANDELMAN: I think that would help you guys promote, but I don’t think it would help him any.
RUSSELL: Yeah, I don’t think there’s much that can help him at this point.
ANDELMAN: I want to bring in a very good friend of mine, Jim Doten. Jim has been a friend for almost thirty years. We were college freshmen together and have stayed pals, and he is the one who, for years, has been trying to turn me on to The Dude and told me about your book, and I’ve asked Jim to come in. He’s calling in from Miami, and I’ve asked him to come on. I know he’s got some questions. Jim, are you there?
JIM DOTEN: I’m there. Good day to you, too, sirs.
RUSSELL: Good day to you.
DOTEN: You guys are my heroes here.
RUSSELL: Oh, what’s a hero? C’mon now.
]DOTEN: I really enjoy what you’re doing. We get onto the website whenever we can to check it out. We’re on your mailing list. Tell me how the Lebowkski Fest came about.
SHUFFITT: Actually, Will and I were selling some t-shirts at this really, really lame tattoo convention. No one was there so everybody was just bored to tears. We started going through lines from the film and before we knew it, the people next to us were going through the lines. The person across the hall was, “Hey, did you know this about The Big Lebowski?” And in that moment, we kind of realized that there was this little community, and one of us said, “If they can put on this lame tattoo convention, why can’t we put on a Lebowski convention?” We grabbed a thing of Post-It notes and took down a couple of lines, and that is basically what Lebowski Fest became and still is.
RUSSELL: It was just born out of boredom. And then we realized that we weren’t alone in our obsession of this movie, and it was like this great realization. It was like oh, awesome, there’s others out there. So, yeah, we just did it as a joke. We thought maybe 20 of our friends would show up maybe, not that we had that many friends. It ended up like we had about 150 people show up from different states, and we couldn’t believe it. We just kept going with it. As a matter of luck and I think with the help of the internet, I think it’s been able to grow. Now we’ve done Lebowski Fests all over the country and even overseas. Pretty wild.
ANDELMAN: Did you guys ever worry that you would be confused for Star Trek fans?
RUSSELL: Yeah, we often kind of get compared to Star Trek fans with a qualifier. It’s like a Star Trek convention but not as many geeks or more bowling and more drinking. We’re cool with that. We’re all kind of nerds at heart. To obsess about anything is a little bit nerdy. They are kindred spirits, the Trekkies.
DOTEN: We like to think of ourselves as cool nerds, if those two words fit together.
RUSSELL: These days they do, yeah.
ANDELMAN: Why do you think you took to Lebowski? Jim and I were talking last night, and I said, for me, it probably would’ve been Caddyshack, perhaps, that I would’ve had the same kind of connection.
DOTEN: …or Animal House.
ANDELMAN: Or Animal House, yeah.
RUSSELL: Yeah, it’s strange. It’s like you can’t really describe why you fall in love with something, but when I first saw The Big Lebowski, I just thought it was okay. I didn’t really get it. And then I ended up seeing it a couple more times, and then on the third watching, it just hit me how hilarious it was. The first time you watch it you kind of get caught up in this whole who-dun-it and who peed on whose rug, and all that stuff doesn’t really matter. It’s about the characters. The dialogue is really funny and quotable. I just found myself just loving these lines and always quoting them with friends. Still to this day, it just cracks me up. I’ve seen it over a hundred times, and I can still put it in, and it’ll make me laugh out loud.
DOTEN: Absolutely. When you’re having a bad day, you put on The Big Lebowski.
DOTEN: It totally shifts your way of being.
RUSSELL: Donny, Walter, and The Dude are there for ya.
SHUFFITT: That’s right.
DOTEN: I have a question for you all. Are you employed?
SHUFFITT: What day is this?
RUSSELL: We try not to work too hard.
DOTEN: Is this full-time for ya?
SHUFFITT: We do other things. I’ve had a little store in Louisville, but we do work a lot on this, getting the Lebowski Fest together. When it comes time to do one, there’s a lot of planning and stuff. We kind of spread it out. We try not to work in shifts or anything.
RUSSELL: That’s right.
DOTEN: Okay. Working in shifts. That’s a line, Bob.
ANDELMAN: I know. I know.
DOTEN: It went over his head. We got to initiate him.
ANDELMAN: I have to watch another one and a half times, I guess.
DOTEN: One and a half times. And then if you don’t like it, then you probably will never like it.
ANDELMAN: Well, I liked it the first time.
DOTEN: Oh, okay.
ANDELMAN: I was sorry that I’ve wasted all these years not getting in on it.
DOTEN: Not achieving.
ANDELMAN: Not achieving.
RUSSELL: Absolutely. It’s never too late, though.
ANDELMAN: Tell me about achievers. Who is an achiever? What is an achiever?
RUSSELL: Achiever: that’s the preferred nomenclature for a fan of The Big Lebowski, kind of like a Deadhead is a Grateful Dead fan. We came up with achiever, which comes from the movie The Little Lebowski Urban Achievers and proud we are of all them. So, yeah, we’ve got these t-shirts. They just say achiever across the front. And people will get their achiever shirts, and then they’ll take their picture wearing their achiever shirt from all different parts of the country and the world. Send them into the website, lebowskifest.com, and we’ve got this gallery of two hundred pictures. It’s just amazing. We’ve got soldiers in Iraq wearing their achiever shirts.
SHUFFITT: Taj Mahal, the North Pole…
RUSSELL: …Toledo, Ohio, all the exotic places.
SHUFFITT: Standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona.
RUSSELL: Winslow, Arizona. Yeah. Hating the Eagles.
ANDELMAN: Does the movie translate to other languages well? Have you met a lot of folks who, maybe English is not their native language, who have this obsession?
RUSSELL: Yeah. When we went to London, we had this whole group from all over Europe. We had someone who was dressed as the Jesus, John Turturro’s character. He was from France. We had the stranger who was from Greece, and they were hilarious. They were all just having such a good time, and they were quoting the line in their funny accents. The Scottish fans are really wild and rambunctious, and they’re just like “The Dude a-bides!” They were just quoting all these lines in their funny accents, and it’s crazy to just experience all these people from all over the world who really relate to the movie.
ANDELMAN: Are you ever critical of the movie? Do you ever sit down and go, “That was stupid.” Stupid in a movie sense not just stupid in it’s a funny movie stupid?
RUSSELL: Not really. To us, it’s just like such an every little bit. There’s even mistakes like people have catalogued on IMDB, like different mess-ups. Like you see the dog get into the car, but it never gets out or whatever it is. It’s those little things that we love just as much. It’s like every single frame is precious. Yeah, I’ve never felt anything bad about it.
SHUFFITT: With so much fantastic content, how could you criticize it? When The Dude runs his car into the dumpster, to me, that is pure genius.
ANDELMAN: Is this the most perfect movie ever made?
RUSSELL: Absolutely. Sorry, Citizen Kane. The Big Lebowski takes the cake in my world.
ANDELMAN: Are you guys fans of any other Coen Brothers movies?
RUSSELL: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Raising Arizona is right up there with my favorites of all time.
SHUFFITT: If it would’ve been in a bowling alley, we’d probably be having a different festival.
RUSSELL: Oh yeah. I love Fargo. That new one, No Country for Old Men, was awesome. They’re so good at what they do. They’ve done a couple kind of stinkers lately, but for the most part, I really love their stuff, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou. And the thing is about their movies is you can watch them so many times over and over. At least I can.
DOTEN: You can always pick up something new.
RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah. It’s amazing. You just sit back, and it’s always entertaining for me to watch one of their movies.
ANDELMAN: Let me ask all three of you. Jim, you’re included in this. You’ve watched the movie so many times, and you focus on every moment, every image, and every word. What’s been your favorite Easter egg over the years? What have you found that you were like wow?
SHUFFITT: One thing that I found, not too long ago actually, probably on viewing 93 or something, was the fact that there’s a scene where The Dude has met up with The Big Lebowski, who is married to the trophy wife who has been kidnapped. The kidnappers have sent him a severed toe. The Big Lebowski says to The Dude, “If you don’t fix this situation, I’m gonna see that whatever happens to Bunny happens to you tenfold.” And then in the next scene, we start off looking at The Dude’s toes as they are sticking out of a bubble bath. So I’m taking that to his tenfold. When I saw that, it just really blew me away.
DOTEN: When you watch the movie, there is a lot of foreshadowing…
DOTEN: …throughout the whole movie so you have to sort of follow it. That’s why you have to watch it so many times is to go back, and then you can see where it’s leading next. You can anticipate the next scene. For me, I’d have to say John Goodman’s character. There’s so many I’m like I don’t know where we’d begin, so many scenes, but the one in the end where they’re doing the eulogy for Donny up on the mountain, and he lets the ashes go. The ashes are in a Folgers can because they didn’t want to spend $180 for an urn. So they went to Ralph’s, which is another reference in the movie, and he lets the ashes go. He does his litany on Vietnam and everything that didn’t have to do with Donny, and he turns around, and the ashes are all over The Dude. That was one of my favorite parts of the movie.
RUSSELL: I always get surprised by the recycled dialogue. It seems like every single phrase in that movie or word is repeated at least once, and they just slip it in at all these strange places, like the word “abide.” The big tagline is “The Dude abides,” and The Big Lebowski, at one point, says, “I will not abide another toe.” And they talk about the achievers, and then The Big Lebowski says, “I went out and achieved anyway even though somebody took my legs in Korea.” There are all these little phrases that are just used over and over again. It’s just amazing because I’ll watch it, and I’ll find a new one. It seems like every few times I watch it I’m like, “Wow. It’s just really brilliant how they do that. I have no idea how the Coen Brothers do all that.”
SHUFFITT: Cause they’re geniuses, Will. That’s why.
RUSSELL: Oh yeah. That’s right. I forgot.
DOTEN: The attention to detail. There’s amazing attention to detail in the movie. Most directors, I don’t think, come anywhere near that.
ANDELMAN: Guys, I want to step in here and tell you we’ve got a call.
SUNNY: Hi, this is Sunny.
SUNNY: Hi. I love “The Great Lebowski.” I absolutely adore that movie, and it is one of my favorites. It’s in my film library, which means I really love it since I only have about 20 movies in my film library. I have watched it over and over again, and I’m amazed that you have a book totally devoted to it.
RUSSELL: Yeah, so are we.
SUNNY: My favorite line…
RUSSELL: Is this a great country or what?
SUNNY: It’s wonderful. What a country, huh? Anyway, my favorite line in the whole thing, it just cracks me up every time, is when they’re shoving him into the limousine, and he has his White Russian, of course, in his hand, and he goes, “Wait, I have a beverage here!” Not concerned about himself. Somebody’s kidnapping him and all this stuff. He’s concerned that he won’t spill his beverage.
RUSSELL: Oh yeah. He has his priorities straight.
SHUFFITT: That’s right.
SUNNY: Of course, he does. And so that is my favorite. That’s, of course, the scene where they’re putting the ashes, throwing the ashes into the ocean, and then it comes back at him. That, of course, can’t be beat. But anyway, I just love it also, and I was shocked. How did you guys get on writing a book about it?
RUSSELL: We got a call from somebody, and he’s like I think there needs to be a Big Lebowski fan book and what better people to write it than you all who are so obsessed with it. And we’re like well, we’re not really writers, and he’s like oh, it doesn’t matter. We tried to assemble as much information about the movie as we possibly could. We interviewed the actors. We interviewed the inspirations for the characters. We had a locations guide. It was a really collaborative effort. We tried to kind of pool as many resources as possible to kind of have the definitive guide to this movie to try to do it justice. And I want to say that this is the one case where the book is not as good as the movie. Usually, you hear people say the book is better than the movie. However, that’s not true in this case. What are you gonna do?
SHUFFITT: It does, however, have some really nice photographs that were taken by Jeff Bridges.
RUSSELL: Oh yeah, behind the scenes. Those are awesome.
SHUFFITT: …which are awesome. Absolutely. And he wrote the forward as well.
SUNNY: How nice of him.
RUSSELL: Yeah. He’s completely cool, and it is very cool that he wrote that for us.
ANDELMAN: Sunny, I just want to say thank you very much for calling in. Appreciate it.
RUSSELL: Take her easy, Sunny.
SUNNY: Okay. Thank you. Bye.
ANDELMAN: Bye-bye. Guys, tell me about Jeff Bridges and how he feels about all this. Obviously, he wrote the forward to the book. He’s also got a message posted on your site this week about his new movie. It seems like he’s taken to the attention pretty well.
RUSSELL: He loves it, man. It’s really cool. He actually came to a Lebowski Fest out in L.A. one time. I don’t even know the words to describe it. A lot of his wardrobe in that movie came from his own closet so he wore his Jelly sandals that he wears in the movie. He wore those that night, and he brought his band. He plays music. Nobody knew he was there. It was a surprise. Right before we showed the movie, I got up on the microphone. I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t believe the words that are about to come out of my mouth, but please welcome Jeff Bridges!” And the place just exploded like I thought the roof was gonna fly off the Knitting Factory that night, and it was just amazing. And he’s so cool. He’s just as cool as you’d hope he would be.
RUSSELL: …and really down to earth. He’s very Dude-like. He’s very laid back and kind of talks like in the movie. And he’s been such a great supporter of this, and he’s just such a cool guy.
ANDELMAN: Let’s give the book a little plug here. And by the way, I want to point out that there are actually four guys credited on the book. In addition to Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, who are on the phone with us, Bill Green and Ben Peskoe are also co-authors of the book. Tell folks a little about the book, if they haven’t seen it. And particularly anyone who’s listening to this and has gotten this far with us is no doubt a fan of The Big Lebowski. So tell folks a little bit about what’s in it. It’s a lot of interviews and a lot of photos, but what else is in it? What’s most special about the book to you guys?
SHUFFITT: I think the thing that’s really special about it is just that it’s such a collection of information about the film. Like you said, there are interviews with the actors – John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman and more. We did interviews with the folks that the Coen Brothers based the characters on, which is fantastic, one of them being Jake Freeman, who was the real Little Larry, which was a fantastic story. There is a minute-by-minute kind of thing that you can go along with with the DVD that points out little things, little trivial things. So it’s jam-packed with information, for sure.
RUSSELL: One of my favorite parts are the behind-the-scenes photos that Jeff Bridges took on the set. He’s got this big wide-angle camera, and they’re just great shots because you recognize the scene from seeing the movie so much, but it’s like such a different perspective. And it’s like the closest thing, I think, that we’ll ever get to like deleted scenes or extra footage cause, apparently, the Coen Brothers like to keep a real tight wrap on that kind of stuff. It’s just a great different perspective to the movie.
ANDELMAN: Jim, I’m gonna ask your question because I thought it was a good one, and I think I have the answer at the same time. We were talking last night, and Jim was wondering, “How do the Coen Brothers feel about all this?” And thumbing through the book, I saw that really the first page is actually a quote from them. It says, “They have neither our blessings nor our curse.” Have you guys had contact with them? How do they feel about you profiting from their work like this?
RUSSELL: The one official interaction we had was through their assistant. They let us borrow the prop marmot — or ferret, if you will — from the film. They had it stuffed and put in a glass case, and they let us borrow it for one of the Lebowski Fests in Louisville. And they asked for a couple Achiever shirts and a poster. I think the lending of the marmot was an unofficial thumbs-up, but yes, they won’t go on the record saying either way. I think they’re probably a little scared of us, which I can’t say I blame them, I guess.
DOTEN: Just a little.
RUSSELL: I would imagine they probably get a kick out of it cause it’s all pretty ridiculous.
DOTEN: You don’t have to license like, say, those bumper stickers you have online that you sell? They don’t say, “Hey, you’re using a line from there, you have to license it” or anything like that?
SHUFFITT: They haven’t given us their curse yet.
DOTEN: Okay. You haven’t gotten any form letter from their attorneys. Okay.
ANDELMAN: So I have to ask – dollar-wise, in the year 2007, what’s the ownership of all this worth to you guys?
RUSSELL: Who knows?
ANDELMAN: Oh, I think you guys know. I’m just asking if you’ll tell us.
RUSSELL: I think that it’s something that me and Scott kind of started this thing, and it’s just kind of way bigger than what we’re doing. It’s kind of this massive worldwide following of The Big Lebowski. There are a lot of midnight screenings that pop up around the country, and people getting together and dressing up in bathrobes like The Dude and going bowling. We just kind of opened the doors, and everybody else kind of has taken it from where we started.
DOTEN: Party central.
ANDELMAN: The Coen Brothers haven’t come after you for licensing, as Jim was asking, but what I wondered is what if you found other people putting on Lebowski Fests? Would you go after them?
SHUFFITT: Well, Lebowski Fest is just a term. We do feel like it’s a brand that we’ve created, and we ain’t gonna go after anybody. First and foremost, anybody who has watched The Big Lebowski 125 times ain’t gonna get off the couch unless the house is on fire, pretty much. But we do feel like just the term “Lebowski Fest,” we feel like that kind of does belong to us. Who knows?
RUSSELL: Yeah. If people want to have Big Lebowski parties or whatever, that’s totally cool. We love it, but it’s just we don’t want people to use “Lebowski Fest” just so people don’t get confused as to who’s doing what. We work hard to put on a good event, and we want it to be a certain way.
ANDELMAN: I asked you guys early in the conversation how you felt about the comparison to Star Trek fans. I thought of another one. This was probably something Jim planted in my mind – Rocky Horror Picture Show. Big Lebowski even has a big musical number in it. Is that a closer, fairer comparison?
RUSSELL: Sure. Rocky Horror is kind of the definitive cult movie. It was like the first one to really be a sensation.
SHUFFITT: Midnight screenings and all that.
RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah. And the dressing up and the rituals and all that stuff. So, yeah, we’re definitely in the same vein. We just don’t cross-dress quite as much.
SHUFFITT: When I was doing research for the book, one of the things that I found was that there is a group of people that do a Wizard of Oz — I don’t know if it’s like a fest, it’s probably more just like a little convention or something, but they’ve been doing that for like 50 years. So you don’t hear about it as much, but we are definitely not the first people to put on a gathering of people based around the love of a film.
RUSSELL: Going on all over.
ANDELMAN: I guess the next event is Chicago in March. Is that right?
RUSSELL: Yeah. We’ve got a Creedence cover band that’s gonna play.
ANDELMAN: If Fogerty’s out there touring, maybe you can just bring him in.
RUSSELL: Who’s that? Fogerty?
ANDELMAN: Fogerty, yeah.
RUSSELL: Fogerty’s a little pricey. We like the Creedence cover band. It helps us keep the ticket prices down.
ANDELMAN: I know Jim is actually thinking about coming up to Chicago in March for this — what will he find? Is it a one-day event? Is it two days? What kind of things are going on?
RUSSELL: It’s two days. The first night we have bands play like Creedence cover band and Chicago, and then we’ve got this beautiful, historic theater called the Portage Theater where we’re gonna screen the original 35 mm film print of The Big Lebowski. And this is actually the ten-year anniversary of the film’s release that weekend, March 7th, and then the next day, March 8th, is at a bowling alley, Waveland Bowl. And it’s just kind of madness like the world of Lebowski comes to life where people are running around in costume dressed as The Dude or nihilists.
DOTEN: What’s the wildest costume you guys have seen?
SHUFFITT: “A World of Pain,” which was this costume…It was in Louisville this past summer. He brought it in on the back of his truck and once he got to Louisville, he actually had to assemble it. He stayed in this thing all night, and it was on wheels, about five and a half foot tall. It was about five and a half foot wide, and it had these two levers on it that he operated from the inside. It looked like a huge globe, and he had these levers on the inside where he made an axe and a big hammer come down on the globe up on his head as it was sticking out of the top of this globe. And it was called “A World of Pain.” It was completely ridiculous and fantastic all at the same time.
DOTEN: Sounds like an acid flashback.
SHUFFITT: Yeah, no doubt.
ANDELMAN: Well, guys, in the immortal words of Walter, “Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling.”