Sometimes, there’s a man: A conversation with Lebowski Fest co-organizer Scott Shuffitt
Beginning as a relatively small gathering of Louisville, Kentucky super-fans of the 1998 Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski, the now-annual Lebowski Fest has grown into a jellies-and-bathrobe-clad phenomenon. The celebration of all things “Dude” and “Walter” (and, to a lesser extent, “Donny”) is a two-day event where attendees (or “Achievers,” in the film’s parlance) can match wits over Lebowski trivia, dress as their favorite characters or props, and throw a few rocks at a local bowling alley. Oh, and watch The Big Lebowski and pound plenty of White Russians, of course.
Before Lebowski Fest lands in Milwaukee this weekend, The A.V. Club had a good—and thorough—conversation with co-organizer Scott Shuffitt about meeting Jeff Bridges, suffering through boring tattoo conventions, and bringing the fest to a city already rich in bowling history.
The A.V. Club: How sick of The Big Lebowski are you by now?
Scott Shuffitt: [Laughs.] Sick of it? That hasn’t happened yet.
AVC: Everyone knows the film took a few years to catch on with audiences. Did it appeal to you right away? Do you remember the first time you saw it?
SS: I was watching Kingpin a lot at the time, and I was like, “Oh man, this is the best movie ever.” So I was into those bowling movies. Then [festival co-organizer] Bill [Green] saw The Big Lebowski, and he was like, “Dude, you have to check out this movie!” I was like, “I haven’t heard about it. Don’t know anything about it.” Sometime after that, me and a small group of friends were heading up to a music festival in Indiana, and we stopped at a hotel to pick some people up. They were watching it on the TV in the hotel room, and it was the scene where The Dude is walking into Maude’s art studio. With no other reference at all, just to see that scene, I was like, “What the hell is this?”
AVC: Run us through the genesis of Lebowski Fest. It was hatched at a tattoo convention in 2002, correct?
SS: I had a small retail store in Louisville, and from time to time I would go out and vend at various things: concerts, raves, tattoo conventions. Will Russell, the other founding Dude, used to consign t-shirts at my store. So we were hanging out at this convention. It was in a Holiday Inn ballroom, and they’ve got the local rock station piped in over the PA. It was absolutely terrible. No one was there. The only people who were there were vendors. So Will and I started going though lines from the film, and before we knew it, the dude next to us was like, “Did you know this about The Big Lebowski?” And then the people across the hall started chiming in. I suddenly had this little moment: If they can put on this terrible tattoo convention, why can’t we put on a Lebowski convention?
AVC: What was the first festival like?
SS: We found this really inexpensive bowling center on the shitty side of town. We did it as a joke and expected a small group of friends to show up, but 125 people showed up from all over the country. It was amazing.
AVC: Has the basic itinerary for the fest changed much over the years?
SS: The formula is that we screen the film the first night, and we have a band or two. The next night, the official party takes place at a bowling alley, and that’s when we have a trivia contest, a costume contest, and all that stuff.
AVC: My Morning Jacket played at one of fests a few years ago, right?
SS: Yeah, absolutely. Besides having Jeff Bridges show up [at a 2005 festival in L.A.], that was definitely a high point. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was Bridges showing up a surprise, or was it planned out ahead of time?
SS: No, we knew about it in advance. I was hanging out in our office, and Jeff Bridges called our office. I could hear the voice, and I was like, “Wow. Surely Jeff Bridges is not calling our office.” He was like, “I know you guys are coming to L.A., and I’d really like to make an appearance, but it’s the kind of thing that I can’t commit to.” So we were like, “If you want to come out and see how you feel about it, we won’t mention it to anyone.” And we really didn’t. We didn’t tell anyone until they closed the curtain, Jeff and his band came out, and Will got up on stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, you know, Jeff Bridges.”
AVC: When you asked for the Coen brothers’ blessing before writing your book, I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski, they replied with a letter that read, “You have neither our blessing nor our curse.” Has that been their only contact with you?
SS: We had some contact with them before then. We didn’t sit down and have dinner with them or anything, but someone e-mailed us a link to an auction that was on eBay. It was a benefit auction for a prop from the film, and the prop was called “Marmot On A Stick.” If you remember in the film when Jeff Bridges is taking his bubble bath and the Nihilists come in and drop the marmot in the bathtub, this was the marmot—it was on a drill head. So we saw this and we were like, “This is amazing! Is there any chance we could rent it from you just to show at the fest?” They ended up getting back to us, and they let us borrow it. We had to pay for the shipping, and they wanted a couple posters and t-shirts.
AVC: The movie has spawned an entire cottage industry, including the whole “Dudeism” religion. Are you and the Dudeism folks aware of each other?
SS: We know the dude who put it together, and he’s been to a couple of our events. “The Dudely Lama.” He’s a totally cool dude. He’s very Dude-like. Maybe not in the slacker sense of the term, but kind of in the Zen way. He takes it easy, you know?
AVC: Have you personally accepted the Dude philosophy into your life?
SS: I don’t buy into his complete philosophy, but one thing that I try to remember is to just take it easy. Honestly, it’s one of those things where you set yourself on this path, and you start getting uptight about who knows what. You remember that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean that much.
AVC: Up until a few years ago, the Milwaukee area was home to the U.S. Bowling Congress headquarters. Anything special planned for this bowling-rich city?
SS: [Laughs.] Yes, absolutely. No, not really. Jeff “The Dude” Dowd is one of the people the Coen brothers based the character of The Dude on, and one of his quotes that I really like is that the Achievers are better drinkers than they are bowlers. So we’ll come out and have some White Russians, but don’t expect us to bowl any 300 games.