Will Russell founded Lebowski Fest out of Louisville, Kentucky in 2002. Meant to be just a fun night of bowling, drinking and quoting lines from the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski among friends, it soon blossomed into a full fledged festival that finds Russell and Co. traveling across the country.
The Lebowski Fest arrives in San Francisco on Oct. 11 at Mezzanine with the Extra-Action Marching Band and a special movie screening. A bowling party follows on Oct. 12 at Classic Bowling Center in Daly City.
We talked to Russell about Lebowski Fest’s creation, how the film became such a cult phenomenon and trying on The Dude’s infamous jelly sandals.
What Is Lebowski Fest?
Lebowskifest is a traveling fan festival relating to all things of the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski. It involves usually two events, there’s a movie party where we have bands play and show the film and then a bowling party, which is kind of a unruly evening of costume contests, bowling, white Russians, trivia contests and what have you. Usually Friday night is the movie party where we watch the movie and Saturday we become the movie.
In San Francisco there’s a great band called Extra-Action Marching Band, a full size marching band—scantily clad—banging on the drums and marching through the crowd before we screen the movie.
What led you to create this in the first place?
Well, I was obsessed with the movie and me and a few buddies, we were in a really bad band and band practice would always turn into just us sitting around quoting the movie and not practicing much. One day, me and a friend of mine were selling T-shirts at this really weird tattoo convention, quoting lines from the movie to pass the time. These guys next to us who we had never met before joined in and started quoting with us, and we realized that we were not alone in our love—or some would say obsession—with The Big Lebowski.
We looked around this tattoo convention, where we were out of our element, and we just kinda shook our heads and thought, you know, if they can have this weird tattoo convention we should have a Big Lebowski convention.
What do you think it is about The Big Lebowski that’s made it such a cultural phenomenon?
You know, that’s the million dollar question and one I’m not able to answer very well because I think different people see different things in this movie. It’s just this incredibly amazingly funny movie, first of all, and I think that people just really love The Dude. He’s such a cool, genuine person who isn’t caught up in the rat race or trying to achieve.
You know, all The Dude ever wants is his rug back and he just wants to go bowling with his buddies and take a bubble bath and smoke a joint and he’s OK with that. He’s a loser by most standards but he’s kind of a good anti-hero.
It also has a killer soundtrack with lots of Creedence. It’s one of those weird movies most people, including myself, they don’t really like it the first time they see it. I was kind of indifferent to it because people come to that movie, like all other movies, where you focus on the plot and the plot is so intricate and confusing, and ultimately unimportant. But after a few viewings —on the third viewing is typically when it happens; that’s when it happened for me—I just fell in love with it.
It’s interesting because when it was released, it wasn’t thought of as a great movie.
I think it did fail commercially at the box office. Titanic was out at that time, sucking down all the box office sales, and it was on the heels of Fargo, which they had won an Oscar for, so there were all these expectations and all the critics just kind of dismissed it as just a mess.
That is a requirement for a movie to be a cult movie, it has to fail commercially. It has to initially flop, and then it was kind of picked up later by a group of fans. Of course, it’s the first cult movie of the Internet age and that has a lot do about why Lebowski Fest struck such a resonant chord and why it became so big so quickly.Because it’s a niche, people would search for The Big Lebowski and they’d see something called Lebowski Fest, and they would immediately be like “that sounds great. I have to do that.” We are fortunate.
Do you have any single favorite memory from a Lebowski Fest?
I’ve have several, but I think my all-time favorite is when Jeff Bridges first came to a Lebowski Fest in Los Angeles in 2005. He was super cool, he brought his band and he wore his jelly sandals that he wears in the movie. Those belong to him and are from his personal wardrobe.
We were all sitting in the backstage area after he played and I asked him about his jellies, and he was telling me he bought them on the set of White Squall, which is a boating movie and it was filmed in China or somewhere. They’re good shoes for working in water. He was like “What size shoe do you wear?” and I was like “11?” and he’s like “Here man, try it on,” and he threw his jelly across the room. I took my shoe off to put my foot in the jelly and he stopped me and he said “No man, I want you to take your sock off to actually get the full effect here.” So I took my sock off and stepped into The Dude’s jelly and I immediately felt a sense of calm overtake me and the spirit of The Dude filled me. That was a definite high point for me.
Is there anything you’re excited about in San Francisco this year?
I’m definitely excited about the Extra-Action Marching Band. They played before and they are really, really fun. I mean it’s about as exciting of a live performance as you can hope to see. We haven’t’ been there since, I think, 2008, or 2009 was the last time, so we’re really excited to be back in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful town.
What’s your favorite line or scene from the film?
Oh man, it changes all the time. Initially it was the more obvious ones like “this aggression will not stand, man” or “I can get you a toe.” I really like the “enjoyin’ my coffee” part where Walter gets really, really furious and he demands to stay in the diner and finish, and enjoy, his coffee. But he is so clearly not enjoying that moment because he is so filled with rage. I also like the last “shut the fuck up, Donny” that happens in the theater. Like, he loses control. He actually embarrasses himself, it’s like the only time that happens, and tries to cover his face with the brochure.
What’s really been cracking me up lately is when the nihilists throw the marmet in the bathtub and Jeff Bridges throws the joint at it and starts squealing and thrashing around. Those high pitched squeals that Jeff just does in that scene are hilarious to me. So, I guess my favorite current audio from that movie is The Dude’s squealing when they throw the marmet in his bathtub.
Tickets for Lebowski Fest San Francisco, which takes place October 11 and 12, can be bought via the fest’s official website.