Hell on Wheels ... and Weed
Bob Ray takes the show on the road
It's just after noon on a sunny summer day in Berkeley, Calif., and Bob Ray, fresh and rested after the previous night's four-hour drive down from Chico, is admiring his host's breeze-rippled backyard field of legally cultivated marijuana.
"It's overgrowing everywhere," says Ray. "It's awesome."
And all too fitting for the director of the legendary stonercore, '99 Austin snapshot Rock Opera and the ferociously entertaining Roller Derby doc Hell on Wheels. At the moment, though, Ray is midway through the West Coast leg of the 22-city Down & Dirty Austin Film Tour, screening both Hell and his newest River City cinematic provocation, Total Badass, which chronicles the life and times of infamous Austinite Chad Holt, publisher of and profane mouthpiece for local music rag Whoopsy!, onetime South by Southwest swindler (he was busted for counterfeit wristbands), and – as Ray's online tour diary succinctly details – "wild man-about-town, social deviant, musical/stunt performer, sex addict, Guinea pig enthusiast, writer-publisher, father, weed dealing felon and local maniac."
Microbudgeted indie film distribution is going through a flux-y kind of hit-or-miss stage right now, with video-on-demand, Netflix, and the perpetual uncertainty of a festival pickup or random encounter with the ever-mysterious Gods of Chance Distro – Ray mentions Will Ferrell's championing of Jody Hill's microindie The Foot Fist Way as an example of the latter – all attracting and/or recoiling from scads of fresh indie product like boozed-up hipsters at a way-afterhours Vice magazine soiree. The bottom line being, barring Sundance glory or improbable YouTube/Vimeo megahits, it's a helluva time to get your cash-poor, narrative-rich labor of cinematic love seen, much less released.
Ray's solution? Punk-rock it, dude. Old school. City to city, prebooked, utilizing past contacts and far-flung ex-Austinite friends (cf "Field of Weed" guy). And so far, it's working.
"It's been pretty damn fun so far," says Ray. "Attendance has been hit-or-miss, depending on the press. One thing I'm finding out is that a lot of papers don't have film writers anymore. They just use wire services, which pretty much sucks ass because how do we get the advance coverage we need? It's not like the old days, when I did essentially the same thing nine years ago with Rock Opera. It's a little trickier now."
Audience numbers may be holding double-digit-steady, but as a seat-of-the-pants film tour like this goes, Ray's remarkably upbeat. And it's not just because he's standing in the middle of an urban cannabis plantation at the moment.
"The reaction to Total Badass has been really good, with the exception of some old people who somehow wandered into a film called Total Badass and were offended by it. That was in Victoria [British Columbia], and the Victoria National Film Festival helped promote us, so I guess this older couple were just on the mailing list and failed to read the fine print: 'This movie is filled with drugs, pornographic material, and obnoxious humor.'
"When we screen it for the crowd that it's meant for – Seattle is a perfect example – it goes over great. Seattle was just busting up laughing, in from the get-go, even to the point where they were rolling in the aisles during the CrashToons we screened beforehand."
There's something delectably Kerouac about two guys on the road to everywhere, jammed in a small car, blitzkrieging town after town with 90-minute, 24 frames-per-second hell-lights of purebred Austin indie-liciousness. Everything could go right. Anything could go wrong. Shit happens, daily.
"I had to leave Chad behind in Portland when I went into Canada," recalls Ray, "because, you know, he's a convicted felon. We could've got him in, but we'd have to leave the border guys a $450 'deposit,' which you don't get back. Everywhere else on the planet they call that a 'bribe,' not a 'deposit.' But not in Canada."
Despite the tour's "Down & Dirty" dubbing, Ray and Holt are actually green-speeding their way through purple mountains' majesty. In a Prius.
"Yeah, I bought it off of Craigslist, and it gets 45 miles to the gallon," laughs Ray, "so in terms of breaking even, that's good. It's surely not helping my street cred, but it's a solid ride, and, you know, we've got weed in there, Chad is blazingly doing crimes across the country, and the number one goal on this tour is to not go to jail. And Priuses totally do not attract cops. Knock on wood."
Or weed. Or whatever. Pass go, collect $200, do not go to jail. It's the microbudget indie filmmaker mantra in the age of self-distribution. And Ray's got it nailed. (Holt, chiming in, admits: "Honestly, I've been so fucked up I can't remember a single question from any of our Q&As. But I have gotten nailed a few times." Wink, wink.)
"The tour's making $65 to $100 at every screening, and so we're basically in the black," says Ray. "I bought 1,000 DVDs, which is the minimum you can get, and we're selling a few of those at every gig. I think, at this point, the tour's really building momentum. I guess the pinnacle will be Los Angeles in about another week. We've got three screenings there. One's at USC in the George Lucas building, one's at the Steven Spielberg Theatre at the Egyptian, and the other is at the Echo Park Film Center."
Maybe, if they're lucky, Lucas or Spielberg will swing by, fall for the onscreen antics of the ultracharismatic hell-monkey that is Chad Holt, and pull a Foot Fist Way-style renegade pickup on Total Badass.
Or maybe they'll just make it back home in one piece with no jail time. Either way, they win.
Bob Ray's Down & Dirty Austin Film Tour continues through the month, ending Aug. 19 in Austin with a screening of Total Badass at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Bob Ray and Chad Holt will be in attendance. View their tour blog at www.crashcamfilms.wordpress.com.