Lebowski Fest Organizers Tell Us The Real Walter Sobchak Story And More

As much as you think you know about The Big Lebowski, and I thought I knew a lot, you’ll almost certainly discover something new at Lebowski Fest. Some of the things I learned this year were that when The Dude calls the big Lebowski a “human paraquat,” paraquat refers to an herbicide that was often sprayed on marijuana fields in the 1970s. In essence, The Dude is saying he’s a buzzkill.

In talking to Lebowski Fest co-founder Will Russell (pictured above left) and “bagman” Tyler Gill (above right, in the cat shirt), I also learned about two of the other guys Walter Sobchak was based on in addition to being based on John Milius (like I said, I thought I knew a lot). And good luck stumping them on trivia, they even knew the location where The Dude’s landlord holds his dance quintet (Crane Jackson’s Fountain Street Theater).

Believe it or not, Lebowski Fest has been going on for 15 years, ever since Russell and his co-founder Scott Shuffitt had a bolt of inspiration during an ass piercing at a tattoo festival, where they were selling t-shirts. “We were like, ‘They can have this weird tattoo convention, why can’t we have a Big Lebowski convention?'” Russell says.

Gill came onboard about five years ago, and according to Russell, is essential. Like a lot of Achievers — which is what you call people who attend Lebowski Fest — Russell had an unfulfilling job and The Big Lebowski always cheered him up. But whereas for many, The Dude is a temporary escape, an internal rebellion from a careerist society, for Russell it became its own career. After 15 years of putting on Lebowski Fests all over the world, I figured he and Tyler must’ve “seen some shit,” in the parlance of our times. They did not disappoint. They told me all about the real Walter Sobchak, what white Russians look like on the way out, and the Lebowski Fest’s white whale, Sam Elliott.

I see you’re enjoying this nice White Russian on a nice warm day.

Gill: Oh, yeah. You know what they say, dairy on hot days is the way to go.

Is running Lebowski Fest a full-time job?

Russell: I wouldn’t call it a job exactly.

Gill: Yeah. I wouldn’t either. It’s what I do with most of my time, but, you know.

Do you have non-Lebowski Fest jobs?

Gill: I do a shift here and there in a bar. I bartend on the side a little bit.

Russell: I’m unemployed.

Did you have different jobs pre-Lebowski Fest?

Russell: I did, yes. I used to work in a cubicle where my nickname was Bottom Rung. I was miserable. I would listen to angry music all day and build websites. I got really fat and sad. Then, back in 2003, we started Lebowski Fest and Spin magazine picked up the event and put it in their events guide. I decided to quit the Bottom Rung job and give Lebowski Fest everything I had, and 15 years later, we’re still rolling. It’s been a good thing.

What made you want to do Lebowski Fest and what made you think that you could pull it off?

Russell: It was just a joke, actually. We didn’t think it was going to be a whole thing. We were sitting around quoting lines of dialogue from the movie at this tattoo convention where we were selling t-shirts. These guys next to us joined in and started quoting with us, and we realized that there were other people that were equally obsessed with this movie. The tattoo convention was kind of baffling, they had people suspending from their… uh… ass piercings, I think it was.

Yeah, that’s the technical term, I believe.

Gill: Ass piercing.

Russell: We were like, “They can have this weird tattoo convention, why can’t we have a Big Lebowski convention?” We were like, “Yeah. Let’s have a bowling alley. We’ll have costume contests and trivia contests and show the movie.” We rented this dirt cheap, it was actually a Baptist-owned bowling alley that had big signs that said, “No cussing,” “No alcohol.” We thought that 10, 15 people would show up, and one hundred and fifty people came out for the first one. Then, the next year we had 1200 people. When we took it on the road, to Las Vegas… 15 years later, we’ve done over 30 cities in the last 15 years.

What’s the biggest Lebowski Fest that you’ve ever had?

Russell: The biggest one we ever did was with My Morning Jacket. There was about three thousand people there. The whole band was in costume, Jim James was dressed as The Dude and Patrick Hallahan was dressed as Walter. It was three thousand people on the waterfront. That’s great.

Where’s the furthest one away? Where’s the furthest flung Lebowski Fest?

Russell: London and Edinburgh, however you say that place in Scotland. We went overseas back in 2009 I think it was, back when we wrote our book. It was very bizarre because it was the same thing that we always see, people dressed as Walter and The Dude in the bathrobe, they’d be like, “The Dude abides.” They had this strange accent, it was surreal.

What is the most messed up thing that you’ve ever seen at a Lebowski Fest?

Gill: Oh, God. I don’t know.

Russell: The most messed up thing, I would have to say would be the projectile vomiting of White Russian white vomit.

Gill: Which is a regular thing.

Russell: It’s messed up every time it happens, and it happens every time.

I’m surprised that you’re able to still drink a White Russian despite, I’m sure, having at least a few bad experiences.

Gill: Oh, yeah. I’ve personally never projectile vomited White Russians, but being around that smell, it’ll get you.

If you had to stereotype your typical Achiever, what are they like?

Russell: They’re my favorite people in the world. They’re smart, they get The Big Lebowski‘s sense of irony.

Gill: They’re usually into all kinds of different pop culture too, which we kind of are as well.

Russell: They’re a little bit nerdy, but they still like to have a good time and drink and go bowling. The Achievers are awesome.

Who are some of the other minor characters or figures from the movie that you’ve had at a Lebowski Fest?

Russell: We’ve had most of the actors. This year we’ve got Jim Hoosier who plays The Jesus’ bowling buddy, Liam, who shakes his belly and turns his ball. [His belly is much smaller and his hair a little greyer now, but his enthusiasm for ball polishing hasn’t waned a bit. -ed.] He was our very first celebrity guest that we had, back in 2004. I remember he emailed us and he was like, “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of me, but I was in the movie.” We were like, “Yeah, we’ve heard of you!” He showed up there thinking it was going to be no big deal, but people were worshiping him, autographs, everything. He’s actually not an actor. He’s just a regular guy that answered an ad to be an extra. He’s here this year. We’ve had him a lot of years and he’s a big favorite.

We’ve had the family waitress, Lu Elrod, she’s a really sweet old Southern lady. Jack Kehler, the landlord that does the dance quintet. Who else have we had?

Gill: Let’s see. Who’s the guy that smashes up The Dude’s car?

Russell: Oh, yes. The angry Corvette owner.

Gill: That’s how he’s credited in the film. When you did New York that time, you had…

Russell: Yeah. We did a cast reunion when the Blu-ray came out. We had Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Julianne Moore. T Bone Burnett, who did the soundtrack, was there too. That was amazing.

Have you ever had any memorable turn downs of people that you’ve tried to get?

Russell: Sam Elliott has been very elusive, but that kind of fits because he’s The Stranger. He’s this mystic character, the narrator. One day he’ll just roll in with the tumbleweeds I think.

Gill: I think he’s been quoted by the press as saying that we haven’t invited him.

Russell: Yeah. I remember that. Sam, if you’re listening, come on down to Lebowski Fest.

What is it about The Big Lebowski that makes people want to come to a festival dedicated to it?

Gill: I don’t know, man. That’s a tough question, but I get it all the time.

Russell: I’ve been asked that question a lot of times as well, and I never know how to answer it. I think that different people see different things in the movie. I know for me, the first thing I really fell in love with which, by the way, took me three times watching it before I really was into it, but the dialogue is so hilarious. They repeat almost every phrase in the movie, I started to notice. I’ve seen the movie over a hundred times and I’m still noticing new things. I think the characters are amazing, The Dude is just so cool and Walter is hilarious.

Gill: Their relationship too, those two main characters. The Dude is this super laid back character and Walter’s kind of his polar opposite, but they still have this loving relationship. The Dude’s so laid back but Walter drives him so crazy that he’s always just screaming at him. I don’t know. I think that those actors and the writing for that movie was just magic.

Do you consider it a bowling movie?

Russell: Yeah. When somebody asks me, “What’s Lebowski Fest?” And they’ve never heard The Big Lebowski, I say, “It’s a bowling comedy.” That’s the standard answer for amateurs.

Is it your favorite bowling movie?

Russell: It’s my favorite movie of all time. It’s an amazing movie. I still don’t understand how it gets better every time. I have this deep fear that one day, I’m not going to like the movie. Every time I see it, it cheers me up, it makes me laugh out loud. It’s like listening to your favorite record, you know what song is coming up next, you can’t wait to see The Dude.

Gill: It’s good every time.

I’ve always said it’s like your favorite album, and your favorite song changes every time you listen to it. You find different scenes that you enjoy.

Russell: Exactly.

How would you characterize The Dude’s life philosophy?

Russell: “Fuck it. Let’s go bowling.”

Gill: Yeah. “Fuck it.” I think “The Dude abides” kind of sums that up, like, “Whatever.” You know. The Dude doesn’t give a shit.

Do you subscribe to it? Does it help you in your daily life?

Gill: Yeah. I do a lot.

Russell: He does.

Gill: I kind of just have a… I’ve almost got a nihilistic attitude. The Dude has some of that too. He’s like a good nihilist.

Russell: Yeah. I think part of the appeal of The Dude is that he is not ambitious in any way. Our world is so geared towards capitalism, rising to the top and making money and all this stuff. The Dude is just content to take a bubble bath and go bowling with his friends and do a J.

Have you met the real Jeff Dowd? How would you compare the real life Jeff Dowd to The Dude in the movie?

Russell: We have met Jeff Dowd many times. He came to Louisville way back in 2003 for the second annual fest. I remember talking to him for the first time and being like, “Oh my God. He sounds just like Jeff Bridges in the movie.” The same kind of stammering, he just talks like The Dude. The body language is really similar. Then, the back story, him being a member of The Seattle Seven, drinking White Russians and bowling, that’s all based on Jeff’s life. Then, there are some differences from The Dude and Jeff Dowd as well.

I’ve known several people who have a theory that Jeff Dowd is both The Dude and Walter, who I know is based on John Milius. Do you think there’s any credence to that theory?

Gill: “Creedence.”

I didn’t do that on purpose.

Russell: I don’t know. I don’t see much of Walter in Jeff Dowd. Walter is actually based on…

Gill: There’s chaos in Jeff Dowd, so maybe, if you’re thinking on those terms, but it’s not necessarily like Walter. He’s just a chaotic dude sometimes.

Russell: Walter is based on three guys, John Milius, and then there’s the real Walter who was this mercenary. That story about the homework being found in the stolen car and then going to the house with the homework in a baggie and grilling the kid, that’s a real story that really happened with the real life Walter and this guy named Peter Exline. He came up with the phrase, “It really ties the room together.” He invited the Coen brothers to his house one time and he kept saying that and laughing over and over again. There’s a lot of real life people that the Coen brothers used in the movie.

Gill: Didn’t Peter Exline tell us that story of Larry’s homework?

Russell: Jake Freeman is the real [kid]’s name. We called that guy, we looked him up. We were like, “Have you ever seen that scene in The Big Lebowski with the homework?” And he was like, “Yeah.” “Did you know that’s based on you?” He was like, “What?” We’ve had him at the fest too. He claims he did not steal the car, but we think he stole it.

Editor’s Note: The basic story behind this is that Peter Exline was Universal exec who had greenlit Raising Arizona. It was Exline who would frequently brag about a rug that “really tied the room together.” Exline in turn, would tell the Coens stories of his eccentric friend, Lewis Abernathy, a screenwriter who moonlighted as a private detective. It turns out, perhaps the definitive account of the Larry Sellers homework story was written by our friend, Brian Abrams.

Until recently, Abernathy, a gentle giant of a man, has been working a lot and lying low. He does the occasional film treatment for James Cameron, the Academy Award-winning director of Titanic. Last year, however, Abernathy came out of his shell and agreed to appear as the guest of honor at the annual touring Lebowski Fest when it hit Austin.

How he got involved with Tinsel Town is, no kidding, like a scene from a cult comedy.

In the 1990s, Abernathy was living on the Left Coast, dabbling in screenwriting and moonlighting as a private investigator. One of his friends was a Universal Pictures exec, Peter Exline, the guy who’d greenlighted the Coen brothers’ breakout cult hit, Raising Arizona. After getting divorced and splitting with Universal, Exline bought a lime-green ’66 Firebird, moved out of his house and into a modest Westwood apartment, and, naturally, went about decorating his home the only way a bachelor knows how: cheaply.

Abernathy recalls that Exline put down a rug that “really [tied] the room together,” a line The Dude delivers near the beginning of Lebowski.

Not long after the move, Exline’s car was stolen. Abernathy, putting his P.I. skills to work, tried to help his friend track down the vehicle. About a week later, Exline got the call: His car was in the police pound.

Exline “asked the cops if they had any leads,” Abernathy said. “While the cops were making fun of him, I went through the car. The insides were filled with McDonald’s hamburger wrappers, and I found two eighth-grade history textbooks,” one of which, Abernathy said, had a piece of homework inside with a student’s name on it. “[Exline] wanted closure,” Abernathy recalls. “He wanted to confront the kid.”

In a scene resembling the confrontation that begins The Big Lebowski, the two vigilantes placed the homework and one of the wrappers in evidence bags, put on suits, and drove to the alleged culprit’s house, a dump that, like in the movie, was home to a ruined soul; Abernathy thinks the man may have been a casualty of the McCarthy-era witch hunts. “On the wall were all of these awards for screenplays,” Abernathy recalled. “The guy was lying on a hospital bed with an oxygen tank hooked up.”

The kid whose name was on the homework was also there. Abernathy lectured him. “I told him he better had read those textbooks and do his homework — clearly, he wasn’t going to make it as a crook.”

What do you think happened to The Dude between the time that he offered the Port Huron Statement in 1991? How did he go from prominent anti-war protester to being buddies with a guy like Walter?

Russell: That’s very interesting.

Gill: I think The Dude was probably a pretty lazy activist.

Russell: I think that the thing with Walter is The Dude is so cool and laid back that he actually can tolerate a guy like Walter. I don’t think a lot of people… I don’t think I could hang out with Walter.

What is the best costume that you’ve seen at a Lebowski Fest so far?

Russell: We have seen some good ones. We’ve done almost 80 of these things and we still see new costumes. People come as lines of dialogue or obscure references.

Gill: “World of pain” was good.

Russell: Oh, the world of pain was amazing.

Gill: The guy came in a globe, and it was like a hammer swinging at his head.

Russell: We had to take the doors off the bowling alley to get that world of pain in here. All night long he walked around with the…

Gill: That one guy came as the bathroom floor, which was not necessarily good, it was very heavy. He was laying down and letting people stand on him for pictures.

Russell: I’ve seen an iron lung before, that was impressive. Bowling in the iron lung, that’s not easy. The Achievers are an impressive lot.

You guys are from Louisville, what should we do while we’re here?

Gill: The best things to do in Louisville involve food and booze.

Those are things that I like to do.

Russell: There’s a few good neighborhoods, like the Highlands is a really cool neighborhood, lots of cool independent shops and coffee shops and bars and local restaurants.

Gill: Cave Hill Cemetery, you can visit Colonel Sanders’ grave.

Russell: And Muhammad Ali’s grave. Same place. When you get there, just follow the yellow line, it takes you to Colonel Sanders’ grave.

Gill: You know, in case you want to go graving.

Have you made any relationships through Lebowski Fest and/or The Big Lebowski?

Russell: Yes.

Gill: Oh, yeah. The Achievers, so many of them have been around for longer than I have. They come to every one. A lot of those guys are good friends of mine now, and yours.

Russell: We have people that have met at Lebowski Fest and got married.

Gill: There was The Dude wedding, it wasn’t at the fest but they come to the fest. They did a whole Lebowski themed wedding. That was fucking interesting.

How frequently do you have them?

Russell: Five or six a year, typically. We’ve slowed down a little bit this year but we’ll come back strong next year.

Gill: We’re picking it up this coming year.

Russell: It’s just great to go to these awesome cities and hang out with other Achievers. It’s a lot of fun.

Has there been a peak Lebowski Fest year? Have you gotten there yet?

Gill: I think we’ve got some things on the horizon that could be a new kind of high.

Russell: New shit is going to come to light soon. Certain information, you know, you’re not privy to all the new shit. It’s a lot of fun.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.