By John Lyons Murphy on 27th September 2011
This week’s case study is a follow-up/drill-down into the USA Character Project. USA and their Social Publicist, Emily Garvey of 360i, put me in touch with acclaimed filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig. Jeff directed the award-winning and truly excellent feature documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston (2006) and, more recently, the USA Character Project short documentary The Dude. As way of a little background, The Dude is the true story behind the fanatically beloved Jeff Bridges character, “The Dude”, in the Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski. Here is the film. Give it a watch. It’s top notch filmmaking and top notch storytelling.
Now, here are some excerpts from my call with Emily and Jeff (who are both, incidentally, super nice and super smart people).
John Murphy: How did the project come about and how did you get involved?
Jeff Feuerzeig: Well, I’m repped over at RSA Films, and I get a call – yes I got a call from the exec producer, and he said that they’re going to be doing about eight short films – USA Network. Now, USA Network is a network and they need programming. So why shouldn’t networks be commissioning documentaries? And they said it was called “The Character Project.” And that could loosely mean whatever it means to me. And being a documentarian who catalogs, you know, “characters,” I made a list of probably 20-something people that I think are really interesting that I’d like to make a short documentary about. It was a great list, people from all walks of life. Some were musicians, some were artists, maybe some were, you know, writers or authors, journalists, people like that who were interesting to me and characters that have a story. And my number one was The Dude. I’ve known the Dude since – God, the year I got out of college. And the Dude was my very first Hollywood meeting, believe it or not? The real Dude. In 1987 indie film was very much in its early years of Spike Lee and Jarmusch and John Sayles. Anyway – so the Dude – there was an indie film book, and it was – I think it was called “Off Hollywood: Case Histories From the Front Lines of Independent Cinema” or something like that, and John Sayles credited Jeff Dowd, the Dude, for the success of his first film, The Return of the Secaucus Seven. And when I graduated from film school, I had a screenplay, and I reached out to the only person I knew to reach out to, the Dude, because of this book.
Flash forward to a month later, and I’m on an airplane from New York to Los Angeles and I end up in Venice Beach on the boardwalk. It’s not really a boardwalk. It’s like an asphalt walk. And the Dude was living in this dilapidated beach shack right on the beach, and I’m waiting for him. And about ten minutes go by and I’m watching all these people jogging and rollerblading. And the Dude – he rolls up on roller blades, and he’s wearing this really hideous Hawaiian shirt, and he’s like this gigantic totally overweight behemoth with frizzy hair, and he’s got the knee pads and white tube socks and these tight little shiny shorts which made it look like he was smuggling grapes. And like, that’s the Dude.
And he takes me upstairs to his ramshackle office/apartment, because it’s both, and I’m telling you, man, the place is filled with screenplays. I mean literally stacks of screenplays wall-to-wall. The place is just a mess, totally disgusting. It’s like – a mattress on the floor, and the Dude just lives like he’s just out of college, but he’s just – but he’s really, he’s far – he’s many, many years from not being in college you know? And he starts ruffling through all the screenplays and he finds my screenplay. And I’m absolutely convinced that he had not read the screenplay yet, okay? And he starts waving my screenplay in my face. And he spits when he talks. He’s kind of like this actor, Avery Schreiber. I don’t know if you remember him from the ’70s. And he’s spitting all over me as he’s yelling at me. And he’s telling me – he said, “You are the new Cassavetes! You will make films no matter what!” He’s… I’m the new Cassavetes, right? So anyway – it was sort of like a rite of passage in indie film back then – it was like baptism by Dude. You know – to be spit on by the Dude. And the Dude and I never did work together, but I never forgot him. And he had this partner named Jamie Willett, who’s a fantastic guy. And he was actually the person who read the screenplays and who partnered with the Dude, and they ended up producing films, like Zebrahead and FernGully: The Last Rainforest. A lot of people don’t know this. And you’re not going to learn this in my 18-minute film, but what you do get in the film is that the Dude is a serious cat. And that’s important.
So, back to the story. We all submitted treatments and obviously I wanted to do a documentary about the Dude because we remained friends all these years. And we would run into each other at film festivals and things like that, and I knew a lot about his history that fans of The Big Lebowski would never know. They only really know that one little clue that was in the movie – the Seattle Seven, the one line. I felt that the Dude had just enough notoriety and fame for people to want to check in on this subject as opposed to an unknown character. And the Dude had, of course, the myth of being “the Dude” from the Coen brothers film, and he goes around very proudly being the real Dude, and he’s made sort of a half-life out of that fame as well. That was interesting.
But the Dude also has this really heavy back story of being an anti-war activist during Vietnam and having gone to prison over his beliefs and trying to stop the war. So I thought that’d be a really fascinating story. And then of course the Dude got out of prison and is front and central at the birth of the independent film movement up in Seattle and then helped to start Sundance. And very few people know that the Dude helped start Sundance with Redford. So I thought that was a really interesting story as well. And I submitted this treatment, and came up with a structure and how it would work in 18 minutes. And they were really interested in going to a Lebowski Festival, which, as I learned, they’re happening all the time around the country. And I thought that would be a lot of fun, because the Dude does attend the Lebowski Festivals, and that’d be a fun portion of the film as well as the history lesson. My concept really was – man meets myth and myth meets man – plus a story within a story. And they green lit it.
John Murphy: Nice, nice. Did you actually – when RSA had the sort of call for three months, did you know about the Character Project? Had you already seen sort of the USA brand of “Characters Welcome” thing?
Jeff Feuerzeig: You know, it’s funny. I didn’t really know that much about it. I went online and looked it up. And the way it came about was that the year before, they had brought in a group of very well-known still photographers. So the Character Project, the way it was presented to me, was stills of characters and now they were trying to do a motion picture version. The idea of the Character Project is pretty cool, because it’s open-ended. And let’s face it. If you’re going to watch a documentary about someone, it helps if the person is really interesting. Point a camera at Mark Borchardt from American Movie, point a camera at R. Crumb. Point a camera at Daniel Johnston. There’s a reason these people work as documentaries that are memorable. Jeff Dowd certainly fit the bill. Not only was he a classic American “character” – he literally was a character in a film. And at the same time, he’s a really brilliant, well-spoken amazing guy. And when he tells you the history of Vietnam and his involvement, it’s some very serious shit. The Dude is the real deal. He’s not a clown. And this film isn’t necessarily branded content. I suppose they’re selling the USA Network perhaps. But they’re doing it so subtly – what else would you tune in to USA Network for than to watch programming?
Emily Garvey: Jeff, actually I have a quick question. I thought it was so interesting, you know, with the seven or eight other filmmakers, that everyone came back with something so different. What’s your take on kind of how the project came together as a whole?
Jeff Feuerzeig: Well I thought it was really cool that it wasn’t necessarily eight documentaries. There were three documentaries but they were all very different. One was a verite’ film. One was more of a portrait. Really different stylistically. The beautiful thing about documentary filmmaking is there are many different flavors. You know, I do a different thing than the other filmmakers do. And I enjoy watching other people’s work. So, yes, I just thought it was very well rounded. Absolutely. If I were USA, I would continue doing more of these. I mean, why not right? And they also were really amazing to work with. I handed in my treatment and we talked about it once and they just sent me off to go do my thing. There was not this – layers of meetings and, “How are you going to shoot this?” And that’s how I make my other documentaries. I’m on my own, thinking on my feet. What a great way to work.
John Murphy: That’s incredible.
Jeff Feuerzeig: Maybe that’s the secret ingredient to this, that it’s a filmmaker’s series. They wanted films by filmmakers – so the hands-off approach is a good idea. And they had very good notes, when we were in the edit. They were really thoughtful, and it was a great collaboration in the end. But they definitely “let me do my thing,” which is great.
John Murphy: Did you ever get from USA or from anywhere else, did you ever get any indication of, you know, as far as – creatively, I think The Dude is a huge success. Did you ever get any sort of indication of what their goals were for views or anything else? As far as sort of measurable… if I’m a network guy, how am I measuring the success?
Jeff Feuerzeig: I wasn’t privy to it. I mean, they did something very out of the box that was really interesting. They clearly didn’t do this for how many clicks on a Web site. Did you see some of the articles? They built these mobile theaters in – what do you call? Shipping containers. They dropped one in LA, they did one in – I’m not sure how many they did. They did quite a few. So I went to one on Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach. And it was bright colored green. It said, “The USA Network Character Project,” on it. You should Google up a couple of the articles on the shipping containers, because that’s how they made the big splash. They got tons of press off the shipping containers, and basically by dropping these mobile theaters in neighborhoods, you know, in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, etc., the branding took place by making the viewing experience something owned by USA Network. It’s like a quirky, cool, new idea to take this material off the Web page and put it out there in the public space. And people walking by are like, “Oh, my God, what’s that?” “Oh hey, would you like to go see a short film or two or three? You can hang out and see as few or as many as you want.” And they’d line up and they go in and they just sit inside a shipping container and watch the film. So I think they were trying to create more of like – “a happening.”
John Murphy: Right.
Jeff Feuerzeig: And I think that was really cool, and I have no idea what the click-through was on their Web site. Obviously people watched them and they promoted them with ads everywhere, but I think it was a big branding thing on a different level. And that was quite innovative. That was my perspective on it. I think it had a bigger branding agenda without the films having to be, you know, all USA-centric. I think they have a different strategy and I think it certainly keeps the films pure and no doubt more watchable to an audience that doesn’t want to be sold anything and it keeps their agenda pure as well.
Jeff’s next documentary, The Real Rocky, premieres on ESPN on October 25th. It’s about the fighter, Chuck Wepner, who inspired the Rocky films. You can watch a bit of Jeff talking about Chuck and the phenomenon at ESPN. ESPN has been making some really cool films of late. So ESPN together with Jeff should be a knock out. (Wow, bad bad pun. Please still watch!)
Case Studies In Social Storytelling is a weekly feature examining past successes and failures in the world of Social Storytelling. It is published each Tuesday.