Here's the pitch: Two first-time Missoula filmmakers, brothers, decide to write, direct, finance and edit a non-linear feature-length film that's essentially about self-discovery—and drinking. The cast consists of mostly unknown local talent, with the lead actor sporting a beard that looks like something Saddam Hussein grew in a spider hole. After filming, the brothers ask an established local playwright and screenwriter to be the project's "godfather" and help them finish it because he knows what it's like to write for Hollywood—and he knows drinking. Once the film's mostly completed, the brothers convince "The Dude," the real-life Hollywood personality who inspired the main character in The Big Lebowski, to sign on and try to sell the finished product to festivals and distributors. And then this crew—the first-time filmmakers, the unknown cast, the veteran screenwriter and The Dude—decides to host a rough cut screening at the Wilma Theatre, just to see how the whole thing flies. Now, is that something you might be interested in?
If you said yes—and, come on, who isn't intrigued to see the outcome of all that?—then consider the fact that this pitch only covers the making of Eric and Damon Ristau's debut feature, The Best Bar in America. On Friday, July 17, the brothers will screen an 85-minute rough cut of the almost-finished product in hopes of generating some positive word of mouth and taking their first step toward getting it to big screens across the country.
"A film has to be really great to succeed as an independent film," says Jim Dowd, aka The Dude, who has a track record of producing successful small-budget project. "There are over 10,000 independently financed films sitting on a shelf right now that are going to get close to no theatrical [release], probably no DVD and very little cable. They may get some action on the Internet, but that's it for most of them. There are exceptions, though, and I think the Ristaus have a shot to be an exception."
Eric and Damon Ristau, 32 and 30, respectively, founded Firewater Film Co. two years ago, but have been working together professionally for six years. Both brothers bring film backgrounds to the company—Damon is the former director of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival; Eric worked in freelance film and radio—and started by shooting high-def footage for commercial clients. But feature films, and specifically The Best Bar in America, were always a part of their plan.
"It's something we wanted to do from the start," says Damon in his garage-turned-editing bay. "It's a story we really wanted to tell, and something we thought we could do on a limited budget."
The Best Bar in America follows Sanders (Andrew Rizzo, and his impressive beard), a writer documenting every watering hole in the West for a guidebook. Along the way, he falls for a mermaid (Lee McAfee) working at the Sip N Dip who's trying to resurrect her family's bar, and befriends Northway (David Ackroyd), a sage wanderer based on a real homeless veteran the Ristaus met in their own travels. Sanders also wrestles with a pending divorce, picks up a hitchhiker (Gregory Collet) who robs a casino and comes across countless other characters—cameos include author Jim Harrison and Crystal Video owner Tim Huffman—who populate the diviest bars of the West.
The Ristaus covered the cast and crews' basic expenses—including copious amounts of Wild Turkey—but no one was paid. Ninety days of shooting in Idaho, Utah and Montana took over five months. With various overlapping storylines and hours of footage, the Ristaus' original cut of the film spanned more than 150 minutes.
"It's been a learning experience," says Eric. "Fortunately, we overshot, and having too much material versus too little is a good problem to have."
To edit down the film, the Ristaus asked local playwright and screenwriter Roger Hedden for assistance. Hedden, who wrote films like Hi-Life and Sleep With Me, jumped into the project, offering help with re-writes and tightening story arcs. The Ristaus and Hedden worked late hours—usually over a bottle of Jack Daniels—getting the film into its current form.
"He brought some objectivity to the project that Damon and I no longer had," says Eric. "He was like the godfather in guiding us through things, and he fit right into the overall vibe of the movie."
But the Ristaus realized that a finished film, even if it was good, wasn't guaranteed to reach a screen outside of Missoula. On a whim, they called Dowd and asked for him to consider signing on with the film. The Dude, who has ties to Missoula—he calls Huey Lewis and Monte Dolack friends, and worked with Annick Smith to help launch the Sundance Film Festival—abided.
"I thought Damon and Eric did a phenomenal job of telling a non-linear story with some really great characters," says Dowd, who will attend Friday's screening. "If it can get compelling word of mouth, if people don't just say it's interesting—that's another word for 'I didn't really like it, but I'll cover my ass'—then it's got a shot."
Despite his support of the film, Dowd's the first one to point out that indie films face a daunting challenge when it comes to ever making money. The Ristaus know that, as well, but consider themselves a little more battle tested after simply finishing the current version.
"It's been pretty wild, to say the least," says Damon. "But the important thing is that I think we've made—with a few changes still, but mostly made—a film that we're ready to stand behind and be proud of."
The Ristaus host a "work-in-progress screening" of The Best Bar in America Friday, July 17, at 7:30 PM at the Wilma Theatre. $5.