The Ristau brothers
Is Missoula ready for an indigenous, independent film industry? Damon and Eric Ristau of Firewater Film Company think so. In fact, the 30-something brothers are betting on it.
The Ristaus devoted a year of their lives and mortgaged their future to write, film and produce a feature length movie, “The Best Bar in America.”
The “Best Bar in America” is a story about a guy named Sanders who has writer’s block and loses his wife. He finds the bottle while searching for the best bar in America. He travels around the west meeting interesting people and finds his muse in the form of the burned-out Northway, a bandit named Tex and America’s best barmaid, Eden. There is some drinking, some driving, some fighting and some fooling around. In short, stuff happens and Sanders finds himself.
The Ristau brothers hired local acting talent and shot on locations in famous Montana watering holes and in the barren deserts of Utah. The movie was shot on a shoestring — and a short one at that. “We broke the cardinal rule of independent film making about half way through,” Damon said. “That rule is to use other people’s money and never use your credit cards.”
David Ackroyd on bike
The movie finances went dry early on. It ran way over budget and way over time. It was an expensive education, but Damon said it was worth it.
Modern digital photography allows independent film makers to be low-cost without being low-budget. Fifty years ago, low-budget equaled low quality; consider Ed Wood’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” In 1992, Robert Rodriguez set the standard for low-cost when he shot “El Mariachi” for $7,000.
A professional digital video camera are fairly inexpensive and computers offer nearly unlimited storage. The Ristaus shot 230 hours of video and used two desktop computers to edit the finished movie down to 90 minutes.
Neither brother received any formal film training. They grew up in rural eastern Washington and went to high school in Spokane. Eric taught himself the art of film making and photography. He started work as a radio deejay when he was 14. Damon graduated from the environmental studies program at the University of Montana in 2003 and never left Missoula. Eric moved back to Missoula after a stint in Salt Lake City and Park City. “Missoula is a great place to make films,” he said.
Eric and Damon wrote a bare-bones script that was inspired by some of Damon’s motorcycle trips in the desert. The Ristaus had met an old man named Northway at the Oxford Bar in Missoula. He was homeless and living in his van. They invited him to sleep on their couch for a few weeks. “He was almost like a grandfather figure to us. He was an amazing guy,” Damon said.
Northway is played by David Ackroyd, a distinguished 68-year-old charactor actor who lives in Whitefish. “We knew about David Ackroyd,” Damon said. “He had a history of working on TV and Hollywood— perfect for Northway.”
They found the Sanders character, Andrew Rizzo, by chance. A neighbor told him that “a hell of a talented actor from New York” lived across the street.
“We approached Andrew Rizzo. He was interested but needed to see a script before he would commit,” Eric said. “Heck, they all wanted to see a script before they would commit.” Damon said.
Rizzo said he sold himself to the Ristau brothers. Then they re-wrote the script to accentuate Rizzo’s natural comedic abilities.
Eric met the third male actor, Greg Collett, in a bar in Salt Lake City. The two connected through a mutual interest in the environment. Greg played Tex — a devil-may-care sleezy bank robber, although he is quite the opposite in real life. Greg and his girlfriend Loni Workman (the official crew photographer and Sportsman Bar floozy character) “were really dedicated,” Eric said. Greg and Loni moved to Missoula on their own dime, and they spent the fall in a cheap apartment in the Stensrud building.
Sander’s love interest in the movie, Eden, was played by Lee McAfee, 22. She was in a short film called “Career Opportunities in Poetry.” McAfee lives in Missoula and sings professionally. Ackroyd described her as beautiful and having a great voice. The Ristaus offered their actors a back-end pay deal. When the brothers sell the movie, they will pay their actors a percentage. Rizzo said he did not have a contract. It was a handshake deal. Damon paid Ackroyd’s expenses but no salary up front.
Rizzo said everything about the movie “was made manifest. Every time we had a problem, the solution manifested itself” and the movie lurched forward. The pieces fell into place when they had to. Eric said, “Serendipity and synchronicity were important. There were lots of both with this movie.”
The Ristaus are making a statement about the Montana bar culture. Northway extols the mythic Golden Circle of bars in the headwaters where there are more bars than churches and the residents admire and respect their drunks the way tribal societies respect their shamans. When you look at the movie trailer, you see a modern western where the cowboys traded their horses for a motorcycle and sidecar.
Serendipity played its part in finding the right vehicle for the heroes to ride. Damon was walking home from work on New Years Day, when a guy passes him on a bike with a home-made sidecar. He started running down Higgins Avenue in Missoula, trying to follow him. Then two Russian sidecar bikes rode past. “This was a sign that the movie would happen,” he said.
At the Silver Dollar Bar near St. Regis, Mont., Damon saw a customized 1960 BMW with a sidecar The owner, nicknamed Peeper, was gracious enough to let the men use the motorcycle in the movie. Peeper loaned the bike to the Ristaus and Rizzo with the admonition, “Of course, I will make a tobacco pouch out of your scrotums if you wreck this bike.” He also loaned them a trailer and some Snoopy hats for the movie.
Serendipity led the movie crew to Ingomar, Mont., and the Jersey Lilly bar, where the stage was set for Sanders’ first confrontation with his boozy future.
Tim Huffman, owner of Crystal Video in Missoula and a consummate videophile.
The Ristaus transported Rizzo, Ackroyd, Tim Huffman, Big Daddy and Monique Lanier 500 miles east to this town of 13 residents. Huffman was cast as the cowboy bartender at the Lilly, but the hippy-haired 300-pounder did not have a cowboy hat. “In Ingomar, we mentioned to a hand at the bar that we needed a hat,” Tim recounted. “He goes out to his truck and pulls one out of the snow in the back.” The cowboy wore out the hat and threw it in the truck about two years ago. Huffman slapped the floppy Stetson against his leg and cut out the hat band. “It was still not big enough so we stretched it over the steaming coffee pot until it was big enough to go around my big skull. It was the greasiest, most manure-stained hat ever. It looked and best of all, I got to keep it. I’ll wear it on the red carpet at Sundance.”
The Ingomar trip as a lesson in budget filmmaking. “We should have taken Rizzo and the bike out there for an exterior shot and filmed the rest closer to home,” Damon said. It was an expensive business lesson. The Ristaus ran up a $900 bar bill after only three days.
A lot of the movie was unscripted because the actors improvised and some things happened by chance. The film crew would walk into a bar and announce that they were shooting a movie. Some of the bar patrons agreed to be extras and a few had speaking parts. Sometimes the scenes were fresh and authentic and sometimes the extras were too drunk to remember what to say.
Ackroyd said the script was only an outline of the movie. “Movie-making is much more about showing than telling,” he said. “That's why great novels often make dreadful movies and vice-versa. While film is certainly the director’s medium, a film script is often a blank slate for actors. Look at “Rebel Without a Cause.” Not to compare any of us with James Dean, but that script is not much without him. As Burt Reynolds always says, “Don't say it if you can show it.”
During production, Eric ran the camera and Damon usually organized the activities. He emphisized that the brothers did everything together. “Eric and I co-directed the film, as well as co-wrote, co-produced, and co-edited.”
The Ristaus used local musicians and original music for the sound track. Damon edited his half of the movie in a cluttered garage between shelves, skis and a Schwinn bike. Two flat screens stand on a desk and book shelves are stacked with books about film and the movie industry. Eric edited his half at home and the brothers combined the segments in the garage.
“It’s cool finding talented people in Missoula. Since we started, we found lots of people who could have been or should have been in the movie.”
If given the choice between commercial success and artistic success, Damon would rather the movie be an artistic success. “If the story we told comes across to the audience and if the actors are happy with their work, then the movie is a success,” he said.
Of course he wants to sell the movie for big bucks so that he can pay back all those karmic debts.
Rizzo knew from the first day that the movie would be beautiful to see. Eric “really knows how to frame a shot,” he said. It was a very ambitious script. Some professionals told the Ristaus that they couldn’t do the movie for less than $15 million, but they shot it with “no budget and no time.”
Firewater Films will submit the movie to numerous film festivals this year and to the Sundance Film Festival in January. “We are not banking on Sundance to sell our film,” Damon said. “Getting into Sundance itself is a long shot, [but it] would be the IDEAL situation. Gotta dream big, right?”
On the Web: www.bestbarinamerica.com