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.