The Dude Abides: The Cult of The Big Lebowski
After winning Oscars for their 1996 film Fargo, the Coen brothers followed their highest box office earner at the time with the quirky comedy The Big Lebowski. It starred Jeff Bridges as an aging hippie/bowling enthusiast named Jeffrey Lebowski, better known as The Dude, who finds himself entangled in a case of mistaken identity that has "lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what have yous" with his misfit friends (played by John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) after his rug is peed on. Written with Bridges, Goodman, Buscemi and co-stars John Turturro and Sam Elliott in mind for the roles they play, the Coens say the inspiration for the film came from their love of Raymond Chandler novels, noirs like The Big Sleep, and the handful of colorful people they knew out in Los Angeles. Namely, their Blood Simple producers rep Jeff Dowd, who along with his hippie demeanor has had the Dude nickname for most of his life.
Though its foul-mouthed dialogue left audiences in stitches (to use the parlance of our times), when it opened in March of '98 the film confused even the most diehard Coens fans and became a box office disappointment.
As years past and the film made its way on DVD, you could find groups in corners of bars and bowling allies trading their favorite lines as they sipped White Russians. And as quickly as you could scream Shomer Shabbos!, the film had taken on a cult following which has spawned midnight screenings, a religion known as Dudeism (not kidding, www.dudeism.com) and the successful Lebowski Fest, created by Louisville, Kentucky natives Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, who are also the authors of I'm A Lebowski, You're A Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You (Bloomsbury). Covering the fandom surrounding the film, the book is filled with everything from tips on how to Dudeify your life – like, making sure your car has Credence tapes and In-N-Out Burger wrappers in it at all times and securing your home by nailing a two-by-four near your front door – interviews from name cast members all the way down to the guy who played Smokey and the other girl in Logjammin', to highlighting the Achievers (and proud we are of all them): people who are so obsessed with the film that calling them fans is an insult.
With Universal releasing a special 10th Anniversary DVD this month (complete with bowling ball packaging), we decided to talk to Russell and Shuffitt about the film, its growing popularity, and what have you.
It's been ten years since the release of The Big Lebowski, why has the film built such a rabid cult following?
Russell: We still haven't figured that out.
Shuffitt: Actually, I have an answer. [pause] Because it's the greatest film ever made.
Well, I'll just move on to my next question...
Russell: [laughs] Actually, it's such a great movie that's so quotable and its got such great characters. It's one of those movies that you can watch over and over and over again and it's still a great time.
And that's how you guys got the idea to create Lebowski Fest, after trading memorable lines from the film?
Shuffitt: Yeah. It's kind of like the secret language of Lebowski. If you're hanging out at a bar and you sit down and say, "Two oat sodas, Gary," and the dude next to you chuckles a little bit then you know he's a fan of The Big Lebowski. It's a community thing, it's one thing that brings people together.
Russell: Yeah, the Achievers are everywhere and I think part of the appeal of the movie is that not everybody gets it. A lot of people watch the movie and say "I don't get this, this is not any good." And we just shrug and say, "I'm sorry you're an amateur."
They are not an Achiever.
Russell: You have failed to achieve even in the modest task that was your charge. But it's cool like that. It's good to know that not everyone is into it but there are people that get the movie and probably get you.
Do you guys remember the first time you saw the film?
Shuffitt: I didn't see it until it came out on video. I was a Coens fan. I was a huge fan of Raising Arizona, but Bill Green, the guy who does all of our art work, he saw Lebowski in the theater and said, "Dude, you need to check this movie out," so I think he actually bought it for me as a Christmas gift and I saw it and I said "Yeah, this is my kind of movie." It stayed in my VCR for probably a year and a half and that's basically all I watched.
Russell: I saw it at a little theater in Louisville, it wasn't the weekend it came out, I think my dad recommended it to me and I remember I liked it alright but I was just like okay, that was kind of interesting but I didn't really have any passionate feelings about it necessarily. It was only the third time that I saw it when I was like "Wow, this is the funniest movie I've ever seen in my life." I think it takes a few times because the first time a lot of people watch it they get caught up in the plot and none of that stuff really matters.
Do you guys have favorite scenes?
Russell: All of them.
Shuffitt: One of my favorite parts is when the Dude has just left his check up at the doctor's office and he's cruising around and he's upbeat, smoking a jay and drinking and he sees that the Volkswagen is following him and that whole scene, he flicks the roach and it bounces off the window and drops in his lap and he's pouring the beer on his lap and drives into the dumpster. That whole thing, the way that Jeff was screaming.
Russell: It's funny, that's one of the very few moments in the movie where The Dude has this moment of joy where everything is alright, listening to the Credence and seems happy after all of this bad stuff has happened to him and then immediately, bam, into the dumpster.
And another scene that I really like is when he's in the bubble bath and he hears the message that his car has been recovered and he's happy for three seconds and then, bam, the Nihilists bust in. And then the marmot gets dropped in the tub and I love the way he screams. I remember we were able to borrow that marmot prop for an event and I was checking the scene to see if I could see this tube that was supposedly spinning the thing. I kept pausing it and just watching Jeff and hearing that scream and it was just killing me.
What's your favorite memory from Lebowski Fest?
Shuffitt: My favorite was the third annual event in Louisville. I see this dude dressed up as Moses and I'm like why the hell is there a dude dressed up as Moses? And then his buddy came up and he was dressed in a baseball uniform and it said Koufax on the back so they were a team and I thought this is so ridiculous. That's one of my favorites. And of course the top of the heap is when Jeff Bridges came to the event in L.A. with his band, not much can trump that.
Russell: That third annual fest when 3,000 years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax showed up was the first year we had live music and we got our favorite band to play, My Morning Jacket. The whole band dressed in costume. The lead singer was The Dude and the drummer was Walter and the bass player was The Jesus and the guitar player was Karl Hungus. And in the middle of their set, all of a sudden in back of them all these fireworks started going off and it turned out it was the baseball game down the street doing it but everyone was like "Wow, these Lebowski Fest guys, they really know what they are doing," so of course we took full credit for it. We've told people no pyrotechnics since that year.
Did you ever ask Bridges what he makes of this obsession that people have for the film and The Dude?
Russell: Yeah, he had a great line about it. After he played with his band, the guy who was filming a documentary called An Achiever's Story (which will be a bonus feature on the 10th anniversary DVD), asked Jeff, "What do you think about all this?" And Jeff was holding a drink and looked right into the camera and smiled in a very Dude like way and said, "It all seems like some kind of strange dream that I'm having." He loves it.
Because of all the F-bombs in the film, when it plays on TV most of the best lines are grossly overdubbed. What's your favorite line that's been altered for television?
Russell: My favorite overdub of all time is the "Do you see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass?" which was dubbed to "Do you see what happens when you find a stranger in the alps?" [laughs] Very creative. John Goodman said he thought the Coens wrote those overdubs.
Shuffitt: That would be mine, too. No other comes close to that one. [laughs] That was the work of a true genius.
When you interviewed John Turturro for your book he mentioned a spin-off film idea he has for The Jesus character.
Russell: Yeah. It's hard to tell if he was joking or not, but its titled The Second Coming and it follows The Jesus when he gets out of prison. He's mentioned it in other interviews but we have no idea if he's for real.
As far as I know the Coens have never spoken about the cult following the film has gotten. Have you guys been successful to speak to them?
Russell: No, not really. [laughs] I think they are probably afraid of the fandom. But when we wrote the book we got in touch with their people and asked if it was okay if we write this book and they had a one line response which was "You have neither our blessing nor our curse." So that's it. That's the official word from the Coens.
Shuffitt: I'll take that as an endorsement. But I've been told that when the Coens are done with a film they are really done with it.
Russell: We have not moved on.
Jason Guerrasio is the managing editor of Filmmaker Magazine and is known to make a helluva Caucasian.