- Let freedom ride. (Photo: Courtesy of The Bus movie)
How did a post-World War II German utility vehicle evolve into an American icon that signifies freedom and the open road? One U.S. filmmaker wants to tell us, and his name is Damon Ristau of Missoula, Montana's Firewater Film Company. He has spent the last couple years putting together a documentary called The Bus, which examines the history, life, and culture surrounding the iconic Volkswagen bus. He raised more than $25,000 to film the project through Kickstarter and began his journey into the eccentric. How can one capture the strange magic of the VW on film? How to qualify what the bus even means? As Ristau puts it: "Let's be honest — they're hippie vans, right?" The VW ranked among our most famous buses in history back in August.
I caught up with Ristau and now present the following Q&A on The Bus. Here's a taste of what to expect — and of what motivated this Montana filmmaker to journey down the rabbit hole of the VW.
- (Photo: Damon Ristau)
TBD On Foot: What distinguishes the VW bus from all the rest? Why devote a movie to this type of bus?
Damon Ristau: These vehicles have a certain charm that other vehicles somehow lack. The VW bus has become a cultural icon representing a powerful set of ideas and experiences, mostly centered around the freedom to go and do what you please. It enabled people to hit the road self-sufficiently.
It's difficult to nail down exactly what it is about them, but people are attracted to the vehicle's practical design, quirky nature, and initially their economy (not so much now). Not to mention that they just look cool and are completely different than every other vehicle on the road. They are also easy to work on, which was attractive to the DIYers.
On Foot: When did you realize you wanted to make a movie about it?
Ristau: Three years ago I was looking for a new film project. I had just purchased a 1985 Westfalia, and driving it around brought back so many great memories from my childhood. It dawned on me that telling the story of the vehicle could be a fun way for me launch into my next project and could be a good excuse to take some epic road trips.
On Foot: Tell me a little about how you approached the filming for the movie. What’s the story you tried to tell?
Ristau: I've tried to stay true to classic cinéma vérité-style filmmaking, so I end up spending a lot of time with the folks I'm filming. I've fallen completely down the rabbit hole with this film. While making it, I've met so many incredible people that I now consider to be great friends. The story of the vehicle come to life with the words of the people who drive them everyday.
On Foot: Was funding difficult? You guys raised more than $25,000 on Kickstarter, I noticed, which is rather impressive.
Ristau: It is never easy to convince people to give you money for a project that only exists in your mind, but this film has been less strenuous to find funding. Kickstarter was a godsend. The VW community rallied hard for the film and we ultimately hit our goal. We're currently in our last round of fundraising to finish the film on time.
(Continue reading the Q&A with Damon Ristau after the jump)
On Foot: One theme that resonates in the trailer is how much the VW is connected with a sense of freedom. Why do you think that is?
Ristau: The bus is very tightly associated with the hippie movement during the late 1960s. It was in the right place at the right time to become a representation of an era. It enabled and inspired people to become more independent and self-reliant. It boils down to the fact that you can carry everyone and everything you need to live well while traveling. And if something breaks, you most likely can fix it.
On Foot: Tell me a little about your own experience with the VW. Did you own one?
Ristau: Some of my first memories are associated with VW buses. My parents had several different buses when I was growing up, and they joke that I was conceived in one. We were always camping and traveling somewhere.
I remember napping in the pop-top bed, looking down at the sink, thinking that a sink in a car was pretty cool. I also remember getting my hand slammed in the slider door. These experiences have stuck with me. Now I have kids, and we spend a lot of time traveling and camping in our bus.
On Foot: Is a particular type of person drawn to the VW?
Ristau: I don't necessarily think there is a particular personality-type drawn to old VWs, but the vehicles do demand patience and some mechanical knowledge to keep going. You have to really want to own and drive a bus, particularly with the older models.
On Foot: How do people react when they see a VW bus?
Ristau: It seems that nearly everyone has a VW bus story. When you're driving around in a bus, people are constantly waving and smiling at you.
When you pull up to the gas station, people want to tell you about the bus they used to have or the one they took a ride in: "My friend had one, my Grandpa had one. We broke down in this little town and met these people…" It goes on an on. I have a great scene in the film where people are talking about their bus stories. It's really fantastic how this vehicle brings folks together.
On Foot: What was the most interesting thing you learned when working on the project? Any random historical tidbits that stood out to you about how this bus evolved into an American icon?
Ristau: The irony of the story is fascinating to me. Just the fact that a post-World War II German utility vehicle became the poster child for freedom around the world. Lets be honest — they're hippie vans, right?
On Foot: So what’s the status of The Bus documentary now? How is all that coming along?
Ristau: Nothing happens too quickly with low-budget filmmaking, but I'm hoping to be finished by Christmas. I'll enter it in a few film festivals, it will be broadcast on The Documentary Channel, then we'll put it on dvd.
Read more about Ristau's documentary on its website here.