BACKFIRES, BREAKDOWNS, BLOWOUTS
RYAN STEVEN GREEN
Interview by Chris Karman
In 2007, director Ryan Steven Green and his cohorts, David Torstenson and Charlie Pecoraro, set out to document what seemed like a feasible challenge: Torstenson had recently purchased a VW bus and needed to drive it from Tulsa, OK back to its new home in Los Angeles. This turned out to be a greater undertaking than expected, but with the help of an enigmatic network of VW enthusiasts, The Croc, as it’s been deemed, is finally home in L.A five years later. I recently had the privilege to sit down with Ryan and discuss the resulting feature film Circle the Wagen; how it was conceived, where it’s ended up, and what role the feature serves in the ongoing documentary narrative.
Chris Karman: So let’s start with the clichés, get those out of the way. Can you give readers a brief synopsis of what Circle the Wagen is to you?
Ryan Green: Circle the Wagen is my first feature documentary. I entered into it in February 2007 having no clue what I was in for. It’s become a season in life rather than just a project. For instance, I now own a 1968 Volkswagen Squareback and have attended numerous conventions and gatherings that I never had prior to working on this film.
CK: What was your initial inspiration for the film?
RG: I myself did not actually come up with it. My two good friends, Dave and Charlie, approached me with the idea. Dave is an adventurous type and rather than buy a plane ticket from New York to Los Angeles, he wanted to buy a VW bus and drive it down Route 66. So when he got back to LA, having failed to get the bus back (he abandoned it in Tulsa, OK. after twenty hours of ownership) he and Charlie came to me asking if a rescue attempt of the bus would make for a viable documentary. They presented to me their findings on the multitude of vintage VW clubs and organizations all across the country. It seemed like a good idea. So it was really just accepting the invitation to adventure. And literally four weeks after that first meeting we were on the road shooting the documentary.
CK: So when you set out on the road initially, did you expect you would finish the film in one fell swoop?
RG: I can’t recall if I expected to finish shooting the film in that initial two-week roadtrip. It was in my mind that there was a possibility we could. But as the days wore on it became increasingly evident that it wasn’t going to happen—for the primary reason that the bus simply would not run. At some point we realized that, short of putting it on a flatbed, the bus just wasn’t going to make it all the way to Los Angeles. Somewhat ironically, had it run reliably the whole way, it wouldn’t have made for a good film at all. It was through the constant breakdowns that our story was revealed.
CK: Did you have any idea if you would have the support needed to complete the documentary? Or was it more of a crap shoot?
RG: It was a bit of a crap shoot. But, before we left on that initial roadtrip we made a ton of phone calls to folks all along Route 66, folks who are listed on a website called A.I.R.S. (Aircooled Interstate Rescue Squad). We got a lot of confirmations and enthusiasm, so it seemed that even if the Croc didn’t run—which it didn’t—we’d still be okay. And what ended up happening once we were on the road is that those people who we had contacted then brought their friends, and it became even bigger than we had initially conceived.
CK: A typical non-VW driver such as myself is completely oblivious to the VW subculture as portrayed in your film. How extensive and organized is this community?
RG: Very extensive. In terms of organization, locally there are various levels of organization from the monthly club meeting, to annual rallies, to very large regional, national, and even international conventions and shows—some of the biggest of which happen in Southern California. It’s not as if everybody in the scene knows everyone else. There are definitely a few “tentpoles” of the community that everybody knows—Everett Barnes, founder of thesamba.com, for example.
CK: What an enigma!
RG: It was an enigma to us! That’s why we believed we could bring the Croc home safely. We did meet with some skepticism on that initial trip. You can imagine, total strangers are calling out of the blue saying, “Hey, we might be breaking down in your neighborhood, and we’re shooting a documentary about it. Will you help us and will you be in our film?” But as soon as they came out and met us there were no more reservations about what we were all about.
CK: Were they able to get the Croc running?
RG: So, first of all, there are two roadtrips we’re talking about here. There is the 2007 trip, the one we have been talking about thus far, wherein we picked up the Croc in Tulsa. It broke down literally every day, sometimes multiple times a day, so we only got as far as Tucumcari, NM where we left it in the safe keeping of Bill Kinder, then-owner of the historic Blue Swallow Motel. It took four years before we made the second trip, in Jan. 2011, to get the Croc from Tucumcari the rest of the way to LA. Failure on that trip was not an option. So did they get it running? Yes. Every time there was a blowout, the folks we met along the road were able to get the Croc back up and running. But invariably it was only a matter of time before it would breakdown once again. All sorts of things were fixed in the Croc, but nobody could seem to figure out exactly what its core issue was, nor why it seemed so intent upon dying.
CK: What characterizes the images you captured on these two trips?
RG: For the most part everything we rolled camera on—with the community, with the people, at events—was so exciting, so beautiful for many different reasons; partly because the vehicles themselves are so beautiful, mostly because the personalities are so beautiful, so helpful, so eager to make a new friend. That’s what sticks out to me.
CK: With the rise of documentaries in recent years, do you feel like there are certain clichés within the genre, and how do they relate to Circle the Wagen?
RG: I am very happy about the recent viability of documentary as a genre. As a documentary filmmaker I want to be taught by the subject I am shooting. I want to know from the outset that I have made a minimum of pre-judgments about the subject matter and that it will tell me everything I need to know. It is then my job to decipher from what I have gathered what the story is. I feel an unfortunate trend in documentary right now is the exact opposite—the filmmaker has made up his or her mind long before the camera starts rolling and has something to teach. The filmmaking process is then nothing but seeking out those images or interviews that will most effectively deliver the message. From where I’m standing that’s not a documentary.
CK: What role do you think your feature plays in the ongoing documentary narrative?
RG: In the documentary landscape, I feel Circle the Wagen is a bit of an anomaly in that it is unapologetically optimistic. There’s a place for documentaries that strive to shock the western mind out its warm cocoon of wealth and prosperity. For me, personally, I can’t work in that vein simply because it’s hard enough to live in an optimistic way to then add messages that cause even more frustration with the state of life on earth. I want to affirm life on earth. I want to show the best that we have to offer. I want to say there are good things despite all the evils we see around us. And I don’t deny the evils exist, I just want… I just want to make you smile. It’s as simple as that.
CK: What is it like, working on a film for so long?
RG: In any project-based job, you end up living with your work for a season. Whether it’s as short as a commercial—which I am working on right now for the next five weeks—or the short film I worked on all of last year, it is consuming during that time. Your thoughts, your energy, your creativity are all going towards this one project. So when it comes to an end there is always an accompanying sense of grieving.Circle the Wagen, being the largest project I have ever worked on in any capacity, is definitely heavier in that way.
CK: What is something you take away from this film that you had no idea you were in for?
RG: There are lessons about filmmaking that will be applied to the next one and the one after that. There are some personal lessons that I’ve learned about who I am, how I operate, what I do well, and what I can do better. There are friendships that were solid before this whole thing began that have grown even more so as a result of having worked on this film. There are new friends that have come as a result. But perhaps more than anything else I take from this film is just that—my first feature film. This is it. This is the one. No matter what I do for the rest of my life this will always be my first feature. It’s not what I expected, it’s not what I believed I was signing up for, but I’m damn proud of it.
Follow Circle the Wagen on Twitter.
Chris Karman is a musician and music critic. He writes reviews and conducts interviews for Treble, an online music zine.
Check out more Film Courage content on crowdfunding here.