Interview with The Dude, Jeff Dowd
Interview Date: 10/18/2005
To cult movie fans, Jeff Dowd’s greatest accomplishment will likely forever be the fact that he’s credited as being the inspiration for the character of The Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” (For the record, it only requires a few moments worth of conversation with him to determine that Jeff Bridges really nailed the impression of Dowd’s voice.) There’s a lot more to Dowd than The Dude, however. His movie career spans decades, and he’s had his hand in many classic films, from “Gandhi” to “War Games.” Dowd spoke with Bullz-Eye about some of those flicks, his upcoming book, and the special edition of “Lebowski” that’s just hit stores. He also makes twice as many references to Huey Lewis than your average interview subject, and, as you’ll read, performs an act of coolness that confirms that he truly is...The Dude.
Jeff Dowd: Hey, Will, how are ya...?
Bullz-Eye: Pretty good, Jeff; how are you?
JD: Where are you?
BE: I am in Chesapeake, Virginia.
BE: And where are you today?
JD: I’m out in California.
BE: Good enough.
JD: Chesapeake, Virginia. Where’s that, exactly...?
BE: That is right next door to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
BE: Pretty close to the water, anyway.
JD: So you’re an East Coast beach guy.
BE: The palest one you’ve ever seen.
JD: (Laughs) So what can I do for you?
BE: Well, I understand that, unlike “Fargo,” which was purportedly based on a true story, I guess you were more or less the inspiration for “The Big Lebowski.”
JD: Well, the character, anyway. I mean, I knew Joel and Ethan (Coen) quite well; I got to know them during “Blood Simple,” and I think they wanted to do some kind of buddy movie, and they thought the character of what they thought I might’ve been like back in the ‘70s would be a good departure point...to put ‘em in there with Walter (played by John Goodman), a guy who would get him in a lot of trouble all the time, as often happens, whether it’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “Lethal Weapon” or “Some Like It Hot” or, y’know, any buddy movie where, like, one guy’s getting another guy in trouble.
BE: How did you come across the Coens? I know you met them in ’81, but how did that actually come to pass...?
JD: I actually met ‘em indirectly because of Robert Redford. An investor in “Blood Simple” happened to be in Sundance, when we were starting the Sundance Institute, and he said, “Hey, I put some money into this, what should I do?” And Redford took him over to introduce him to me on the lawn of this mountain up there in Utah. A couple of months later, I met Joel and Ethan Coen back in New York City, when I went back there for the New York Film Festival. I happened to be at 20th Century Fox that day with a film called “Heart Like A Wheel,” and, because I was in New York, I happened to have a jacket and a tie on, which you do in New York sometimes. So I was at the Fox offices, and they came in, and they’re kind looking real grubby, as Joel and Ethan Coen tend to look – especially back then – and chain-smoking cigarettes and unshaven and all that, and I’m looking like the suit from Fox! And they’re kinda telling me about this movie that’s in post-production, and you can imagine trying to pitch “Blood Simple.” “Oh, yeah, this dead guy gets dragged across a field, and, then...” Well, anyhow, we left, and I kinda sensed, “Well, that’s the end of that,” and I think they did, too, even though I was trying to humor them, because the setting was so weird. Fortunately, by chance, I ran into them down in the Village that night on the street. I had a leather jacket on, and we chatted for a couple of minutes. And, even more karmically, two hours later, I’m in a party in the East Village in some loft, and there they are there! So now we’re having a couple of drinks, and so we said, “Okay, there’s something going on here.” And they showed me the movie a couple of months later, and the minute you saw that movie...y’know, there’s certain movies where you’re five or ten minutes into them and you go, “Wow, I’m dealing with some real filmmakers here!” And you could tell that just by the choices they made in the acting and the cutting and everything. So I ended up helping them sell “Blood Simple,” which, I’ll just say parenthetically, was turned down 3 times by every distributor until we finally got it in front of an audience. Well, we had actually shown it to a couple of audiences, but we finally got a distributor to see it in front of an audience at the Toronto Film Festival, and, all of a sudden, the black humor started to work. I mean, if you sit alone in a screening room or watch it on a tape, then it really doesn’t work as well, because you think it’s a little weird to laugh at certain things, but, in the comfort of 800 people in a dark room, people tend to start to laugh at the places they’re supposed to laugh and get it a little more. So, then, we had a minor little bidding war, and the rest is history!
BE: And you’ve maintained the friendship with them over the years...?
JD: Yeah! I mean, they’re not the most social of guys in a lot of ways...not to say that they’re not very friendly guys, but they don’t hang a lot, so to speak. But, yeah, we see each other from time to time...I’ll be in New York or they’ll be in L.A. or we’ll be at a film festival or an event and have drinks or dinner or whatever.
BE: You mentioned Redford and Sundance; my understanding is that you had a hand in the creation of the Sundance Institute. Is that right?
JD: Well, I was one of the early people there when it was first started, yeah, very much so, both in terms of, uh... (Drifts off into thought for a moment) I helped put together a conference about the future of what the indie world might be like, and we got about fifty people who came. I shouldn’t say a conference; it was more of a gathering. And we talked about, as Roger Ebert would say, how we would make independent films fashionable, like foreign films were when we were going to college. And I think, twenty years later, it’s fair to say we succeeded, and that world, that movement, whatever you want to call it, has grown, y’know, a lot. And I’m very much involved – always and still, even as recently as an hour ago – in the dramaturging of scripts, which is really the basis of cinema...and the thought was that we were all seeing independent movies that had great vision but weren’t quite working, from people throughout the United States. Not just in Hollywood, but they might be in New York City, Seattle, or wherever. Montana, maybe. And we were saying, “Geez, if we could only help those people...!” And I didn’t put it in a patronizing way, but it was more like, “How many times have you been in a movie and seen a movie and gone, ‘God, if they’d only done this!’” And we were having that feeling with these independent movies, and so Redford’s thought was, “Well, gee, if we could bring together the best of Hollywood, some of the best writers – the Waldo Salts (“Midnight Cowboy”) and guys like that – and some of the best directors, and put ‘em with these people before they make their movie...and in the sense that the Eugene O’Neil Center does theater stuff, we could do that with movies and people could have a chance to reflect on things before they shoot, and, therefore, they could be better movies. That was the thought of the Sundance Institute, and I was fortunate enough to be there to participate in those early meetings and the structure and to be there the first year. In this book I’ve written...well, which I’m almost finished with...”The Dude Abides”...there’s a really great chapter about Sundance. Really funny. And interesting.
BE: And that’s actually a perfect segueway, because I wanted to ask you about your book. I’ve heard that, at many of your public appearances, you’re doing readings from the still-unreleased book.
JD: Well, I’m starting to do that. I’m going to be in Boston in a few weeks, and I’ll be doing that at (Boston University), but I’m not really doing it that much until I...well, like, there are some chapters that are unto themselves, but I need about a month and a half or two months to finish all the editing of the book, and, then, after that, I’m gonna be doing big tours and reads and all that. And more than that, there’ll be Reading Parties with The Dude, the whole nine yards. It’ll be a whole lot of fun.
BE: Do you have a scheduled release date yet?
JD: Most ambitiously, it’ll be in the spring, but, most likely, next fall. I mean, if I was doing nothing else, it could be next spring, but I’ll be working on other people’s movies, you know, and movies I’ve worked on previously. I wish I was in Italy or on some island somewhere, so I could finish it. I’m sure, as a writer, you know. You’ve had that feeling yourself.
BE: Oh, yes. I’ve got a whole lot less time these days. I’ve got a newborn daughter.
JD: There you go. And congratulations. I have two of them, and the day will come when your life is reduced to being a taxicab driver for a teenager...one who doesn’t have wheels yet, and you’re kind of glad that she doesn’t!
BE: So you talked about working with movies right now. What pies do you have your finger in at the moment?
JD: Well, I’m in involved in a grown-up version of Huck Finn...Huckleberry Finn...kind of a re-imagining of it which we’re developing that’s more along the lines of Twain and very, very relevant to today. There’s a great script that we’re taking out there right now to put together called “Ghost Country,” which is about a Vietnam vet, kind of haunted by the past, goes back to Vietnam, where, amongst other things, his brother was a long-range reconnaissance guy, and the brother and his lost patrol have reappeared. It’s very much a thriller, an incredible page-turner, but it’s very deep and a great, great script; it’s just gonna be a great movie. And I’m involved in...well, basically, all the different ones I’m involved in are kind of deep-end-of-the-pool stuff and really good...movies that should be fairly commercial, but they have a lot of...well, they’re actors movies, lemme just put it that way. So it’s really good stuff. And I’m writing one called “Nifty,” about what’s possible in the world today. Rather than wait around for politicians and hope they’re gonna do something, why not put it out in a movie? And rather than just having apocalyptical movies...which I think are cautionary tales; like, “Dr. Strangelove” or “The Terminator” are important and wonderful...it’d be nice to have a movie that shows what’s possible tomorrow afternoon. It’s very ambitious, and I’m working with Preston Sturges, Jr., on that. It’s called “Nifty.” That’s a phenomenally ambitious script, but it’s good. It’s really good.
BE: Talking of politics, I hear you’re very big on the film, “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.”
JD: Yeah, I thought it was a very remarkable movie, both for the times and who Kerry was before he unfortunately became a politician... not that he’s not much more capable in my mind than our current president. But he certainly isn’t quite the man he was at the time he was in Vietnam. It’s a very, very interesting story, and, despite what the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth trying to say that he didn’t deserve all of that stuff, the movie speaks to the reality of what really happens. There’s no doubt that he was a captain and his men were in very perilous situations numerous times, and one of the most dangerous things you could do in Vietnam at the time was be in a swift boat...and, then, to watch these guys have an anti-war conscience was very powerful. And I related to it personally because, when I was 17, many of my best friends became Marines and went to Vietnam...and I was ready to do the same thing, and, had I been a year older, I would’ve done it, too. But I didn’t, nor did any of their young brothers, because we got the word back from these guys, saying, “Don’t go! This war isn’t what we thought it was!” So I can personally relate to Kerry’s own change of views about what it meant to be a patriot. Initially, it meant signing up to go to Vietnam, and, later, it meant vigorously opposing it, which I ended up doing, too...and going to jail for! And that’s one of the reasons I related a lot to that movie, because I knew there was a truth of a whole generation in there, regardless of what Karl Rowe and the Swift Boat organization are trying to do with their character assassination.
Representative monitoring interview: Hey, Will, I’m gonna have to jump in! We’ve only got one more moment left, and, uh, did you want to talk about “The Big Lebowski”? Did you have any questions about the DVD at all?
BE: (Stunned) Uh, yeah, of course...
JD: (Laughing) Yeah, we were kinda drifting off into the Sundance there...
BE: With “The Big Lebowski,” I guess the New York LebowskiFest is right around the corner... (Writer’s note: in fact, it was actually October 21st and 22nd)
JD: Yeah, that’s a gas; anyone who likes the movie will like that...but lemme just tell you something about the DVD.
JD: It’s very likely that, from all the people I’ve met around the world...I don’t just mean at LebowskiFests, but just in a general social context...that most people, like records in the old days, have probably scratched to hell their DVD of “Lebowski” and probably need another one, anyway. There’s this collector’s edition that I happened to get a few days early, before it hits the streets, and I thought it was a gas. Watching the interviews with Joel and Ethan Coen, and this edition comes with coasters to put drinks on and everything, one with Donnie saying, “I am the walrus,” and one saying, “Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage there,” and stuff like that. And there’s a bowling towel. It’s a fun little thing. But what I think is interesting about it is that this movie brings so much pleasure to people in a world where so many of us have to put on a mask everyday to go to work and be somebody that we’re not. And it helps us relax. It’s a hell of a present to give to a friend who, during the day, has to be a little more uptight than they actually are. My friend Huey Lewis would say, “I want a new drug.” Well, in a certain sense, “The Big Lebowski” is one. If you go on my website, JeffDowd.com, there’s a letter from a New York fireman who was a 9/11 fireman and suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for months; it was just a terrible situation, and he tried therapy and drugs...and then, one day, he picked up a copy of “The Big Lebowski” that he had sitting on a shelf. And he put it in, and, for the first time in months, he started to smile again...and, then, laugh again. And his wife sat there and talked to me and said, “This is what brought him back as a husband and father, and thank you for being in some way a part of this ‘Big Lebowski’ thing.” And, so, I think that’s...for a movie that, on many levels, is just a lot of fun, let’s not underestimate how important fun is in this world, y’know, and having fun with your friends is. And I think that’s kind of why this movie endures in so many ways. It’s almost like an album that has not just one or two good songs on it but 15 good songs on it. It’s just like you put on an album to hear those songs again; it’s great to watch the movie again.
BE: And I guess this has now become my last question: since the word got out that you were kind of the inspiration for “The Dude,” do you ever get tired of the endless stream of questions that I’m sure you now get, where it’s, “Is this part you? Is this part you? Is this part you?”
JD: No, because it comes with the gift that Joel and Ethan laying a gift on me, which is that most people are very favorably inclined to be friendly toward me, which is, in this world, a wonderful thing. In a world where we all put up our guards, to have strangers walk up to you and automatically be friendly...and not in a Hollywood star kind of way, but in a you’ve-known-them-for-years kind of way, or like we have mutual friends or something. Like, “Hey, aren’t you a buddy of Joe’s?” It’s, like, “Hey, you’re the Dude!” It’s a different thing. So having to answer a few questions, to answer your question, yeah, physically, it’s got me at 110%. In terms of the story, yeah, some of the stuff is true, Like Seattle 7 and the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). But, no, I was never a roadie for Metallica...although, ironically, I ended up working on their movie this year: “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” But the story is Joel and Ethan’s imagination, as always: a Raymond Chandler story on acid, in L.A., about two buddies and their friends. And they stuck in what they thought I was like in that thing, partially because they liked to riff on my name...the whole “dude, dude, dudearino.” They’d always get on the phone and go, “Dude, dude, dudearino,” and stuff like that. I think that was part of the whole thing...
BE: Okay, well, I guess...
JD: And, hey, look, sorry about the short time on this...
BE: Yeah, it was a little faster than I thought it would be...but I guess the final thing is, does the Dude abide?
JD: The Dude abides.
As we’re saying our goodbyes, Dowd asks if I’d mind sending him a copy of the piece once it’s done; he gives me his E-mail address, sheepishly admitting that “TheDude@aol.com was long gone by the time I got online.” As it turned out, I had a few questions left that I hadn’t been able to ask Dowd...so I took advantage of having his E-mail address and dropped him a line. I asked him if, provided he had the opportunity, he’d mind dropping me back a quick reply...and, if he didn’t have the time, then no problem and thanks for the chance to talk to him earlier.
About an hour later, the phone rings.
It’s The Dude.
“Man, I’ll be glad to answer your questions,” he says, “but I’d just rather do it over the phone than write ‘em in an E-mail.”
Unfortunately, at the moment he calls, my 11-week-old daughter begins to cry.
Dowd asks, “Hey, is this a bad time? Do you want me to call you back?”
Over her cries for food, I thank him and ask if he can just give me 10 or 15 minutes to give her a bottle. He says, “No problem, I’ll call you back,” and is gracious enough to give me 20.
JD: Hey, man.
BE: Hey. Seriously, thanks for calling in the first place, let alone calling me back. You totally didn’t have to do that, but I really appreciate it. She’s calmed down now. Sorry about that.
JD: Was it you who asked me the question about the bird flu?
BE: (Confused) About the what?
JD: The bird flu.
BE: Nooooo, that wasn’t me.
JD: Oh, it was somebody else, then. But the (rep monitoring the interviews) popped on the line real quick and asked, “What’s that all about?!?” But he was just asking about Bush and the bird flu and what I thought. So, anyway, you got a couple of other questions...?
BE: Yeah! One of ‘em that I meant to ask you when we were talking about films in general was, of all the films that you’ve worked on – and you’ve worked on stuff anywhere from “The Stunt Man” to “Desperately Seeking Susan” to “Chariots of Fire” – what’s your favorite that you’ve had a hand in?
JD: Well, that’s one of those “which child do you love more” questions, particularly when they’re so different. How do you compare “The Stunt Man” with Neil Young’s “Greendale”? “The Stunt Man” was a great experience, but hanging out with Neil Young and being on stage with my daughter, dressed up as a fireman, singing...what’s the chorus of “Greendale”? Oh, God, the chorus of the last song...that anthem at the end...I can’t remember the words right now. But, anyway, it was a great experience. God, there have been so many that I’ve liked. “Hoosiers”...I actually just finished a chapter about it in my book; it’s not really all that much about movies, but that was a great one, because it was a great experience and a great story. And then you’ve got movies that I was involved in producing, like “Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest,” which, as a father, you’ll understand...
BE: Actually, you know, I saw that in the theater on the weekend it opened! I was in college, it was a small town, and it was the only new movie that had opened that weekend, so I figured, “What the hell.” But I really liked it.
JD: Well, I started on that when we knew we were going to have a kid, and, by the time it was ready and we showed it, our child was 3 months old. (Pauses) Actually, I guess I started on it before we knew, but we’d been planning on having kids. The gestation on “Ferngully,” like any animated movies, is a couple of years. But that was a great feeling, knowing that you’re making a movie that’s gonna be for kids. So, you know, it’s really different...ah, y’know, I can’t say that I have a favorite, per se. I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many diverse artists doing so many different things. Hold on just a second, I’ve got call waiting here...
Just as Dowd goes off the line, my daughter starts crying...and is still crying when he comes back.
JD: Try Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
BE: (Laughs) Is that soothing for kids?
JD: I’d put it on continuous play on my CD player and rock my kids back to sleep.
BE: She’s actually been a Johnny Cash girl. I was very pleasantly surprised.
JD: Johnny Cash works really well, but “Let’s Stay Together” is a good one, because you can listen to it again and again. Though, of course, there’s quite a few Johnny songs you can listen to again and again, too. She must like “Folsom Prison Blues.”
BE: Um...”Ring of Fire,” she likes.
JD: Oh, I love the bridge on “Ring of Fire.” (Getting back on topic) You know, the documentaries, you get to come into a whole new world. One of the reasons I like working on a doc, it’s not like you do it for the money; in fact, for most of these indies, it’s more like a hobby. But you get exposed to a new world that you usually didn’t know that much about; you knew a little bit about it, but not that much about it, and it’s great. So whether it’s “Grass,” and suddenly you know about that world, or if it’s “Tom Dowd and the Language of Music,” which is a phenomenal movie, by the way, if you haven’t seen it. Have you seen that?
BE: No, I haven’t.
JD: Well, if you like music at all, it’s a really good...”phenomenal” is the wrong word, but...
BE: I’m a music critic as well, so...
JD: Check out “Tom Dowd.” He engineered and produced...engineered every Atlantic record from the time Ahmet (Ertegun) met him, which is everything from Coltrane to doing “Layla,” Aretha, and everything in-between. I mean, his discography is 55 pages long. It’s ridiculous! But it’s a great story, and the behind the scenes of music is amazing. Oh, and there’s no relation, by the way. But it’s amazing, because he was originally a physicist, and...well, I won’t spoil it for you, but if it wasn’t for the mob and some things that happened after that, he probably would’ve remained a physicist. (Hesitates) Well, the short of it is that, by the time he got back to Columbia, because he was part of the Manhattan Project...
BE: Oh, wow!
JD: ...they had rewritten the rules of physics, but, because of the Secrets Act and the Russians and all that stuff, they couldn’t tell people that they’d added four new elements to the periodic chart. And, so, he can’t even talk real physics with these guys because, the stuff they know, they’re living in the past in 1941, and he got frustrated, so that’s why he quit and became an engineer. Classic story. But it’s great stuff watching him working with these people – he was also a musician – and how he produced a lot of these records, too. And he’s sitting there with Clapton and Cream, and they’re stuck on “Sunshine of Your Love,” and he turns to Ginger Baker and says, “You know that backbeat you always hear on the cowboys and Indians movies, that whole BUM-bum-bum-bum-BUM-bum-bum-bum...? Why don’t you try that?” And, you know, there’s “Sunshine of Your Love”! It’s great! But, anyhow, you work on these different movies and get exposed to all these different characters and stories, and it’s a great thing to be part of. So I can’t say I have a favorite. The same thing’s kind of true even with other movies (I haven’t worked on). I don’t know whether I like “The Godfather” or “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “Once Upon A Time In The West” or “The Wild Bunch” most. Or “Some Like It Hot.” It’s hard to pick something like that. So that’s my non-answer answer. I’m not trying to do it for political reasons. It’s just, y’know, where I’m located. It’s like the ballplayer answer. “Oh, y’know, all the guys are great! It’s a team effort!” (Laughs)
BE: Okay, then, finally, my other question is this. You said in a quote that your book was kind of inspired by the quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “People want to hear about events as they wish they had happened, not as they did happen.” So...does that make your book fiction or non-fiction, or does it totally blur the line between the two?
JD: Well, they say if you’re an Irishman – and I’m part Irish – if you can’t add something to a story, you’re not much of an Irishman. Something along those lines. As my friend Huey Lewis would say, some of my lies are true. What was I reading the other day...? Oh, no, it was something I was watching. “Capote.” Have you seen that yet?
BE: Not yet.
JD: The whole point that Capote was making in...what was the name of the book?
BE: “In Cold Blood”?
JD: Yeah, “In Cold Blood.” The point he was making was how he was reinventing a new narrative form, which was literary non-fiction, I guess. I don’t remember how much he stretched it, but he made it a lot different. It’s...most of the book is all true, the people, events, and things that happen...but if I can make it a better story, I do. And if I can make it funnier, I do. And if I can combine things, I do. And if I can put a different character in a different place at a different time, but still has the essence of the character, but I need him now and want to put him over in that moment...it’s doing what you do in a story. Interestingly enough, if you ever tell a story to someone as opposed to write it...it’s a great exercise, by the way, that I use with people who are doing scripts...but just try telling the story to somebody. And you watch, you automatically start editing in your mind really quickly. And I mean really quickly. Almost instantaneously. And it’s kind of along those lines. Some of the stories are 100% true, but if some are only about 90% true, they’re much better stories because of that.
In a moment of almost perfect timing, the tape runs out just as Dowd finishes answering the question. Our conversation continues on for a few more minutes, however, as we talk about our kids. Dowd regales me with a story about how his daughter came up to him one day to see if he could pull some strings and get her onto the set for a movie that the members of N*Sync were filming (“On The Line”). “I guess she figured that, since I work in Hollywood, I know everybody,” says Dowd, “but, in this case, not only did I know a guy doing the film, he’d actually been over the house, so she knew him, too!” Cut to the set, where his daughter has her dream come true...but, in a moment of pure karmic bliss, Dowd does, too, when it turns out that they’re filming a performance by none other than...Al Green. And performing “Let’s Stay Together,” no less.
The experience, says Dowd, was “just really fucking excellent.”
After this conversation, I can totally relate.
There’s no question about it; Jeff Dowd truly is The Dude.