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'The Big Lebowski' Saved This Guy's Life

Will Russell was depressed, homeless, and down on his luck until he came up with the idea to start a festival for "The Big Lebowski" fans. Since this, his life has been on the upswing.

by Julia Prescott
Apr 29 2015, 4:00am

All photos courtesy of Will Russell

By all accounts, Will Russell should already be dead. Twenty years ago, Russell was homeless and alone. Seven years later, he slogged through a depression so thick he could barely make it through daily life. "My nickname was bottom rung," he told me. "I was bottom rung. I lived on $551 a month for eight years. I was working in a cubicle, I was on disability, I was really fat, and I would cry every day."

Then in 2002, a major shift occurred. Russell, who was working a tattoo convention in Kentucky, started quoting The Big Lebowski to pass the time. Soon enough, everyone was joining in on the fun. Seeing other people who loved the movie like he did sparked an idea: What if there was an event where Achievers (Lebowski fans) could gather together and celebrate the film together? Lebowski Fest was born.

Much to Russell's surprise, the fest was popular right out of the gate. He and his buddies only expected around 20 Dudes, but what they got was well into the triple digits. Then Spin magazine featured the event in its "19 Events You Can't Afford to Miss This Summer" spread. Right next to Lollapalooza and Snoop Dogg, there it was, plain as day: "Bowl with Jesus." Russell's life was forever changed.

For the past 13 years, Russell has been bringing Achievers together across all 50 states, and even internationally (the British version of the fest, "The Dude Abides" takes place in London). He's traveled the world, co-written a book ( I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski), inspired a documentary (The Achievers), and encouraged a new religion (Dudeism, a.k.a. the Church of the Latter-Day Dude). I caught up with Russell to hear about what he's been up to lately: dealing with his depression, learning to be a father, and, most recently, building a theme park in Cave City, Kentucky.

VICE: Did you have any idea when you started the Lebowski Fest that it would get so popular?
Will Russell: No, absolutely not. Basically, we started it on a lark as a joke. I knew about the bowling alley because I was on a service committee for AA, and we had rented out this bowling alley for a benefit for an event called "Sober Vets." It was a Baptist-run bowling alley and they had all these signs at the door that said stuff like, "No cussing, no drinking, all of denominations welcome for fellowship and Christian bowling." And another sign that literally said, "Please read all the signs."

It was like $300 to rent out the whole thing. To have unlimited bowling, that's like the backbones of the Lebowski Fest event—the bowling party. So we came up with the idea and we were like, "OK, wouldn't it be cool if like 20 people that we knew showed up?" I think we charged $7. And much to our delight, 150 people came out. A hundred and fifty. I couldn't believe it.

And it's only gotten bigger after that first one.
Right, we thought "one and done," but we did it the next year at the Rose Bowl and it was much bigger—700 capacity and we could serve White Russians and we could cuss! We moved the screening of the movie to a proper movie theater and we reached out to Jeff Dowd, who is someone who the character of "The Dude" is very very loosely based on. Very loosely—in name only I would say, maybe a little bit with the body language.

So it was like June, a month before the second Lebowski Fest. But we're fucking amateurs, we didn't know what we were doing. And then I got a call from Scott [Shepid] and he was like, "Dude. You're not gonna believe this. Fucking Spin magazine, we're in it." I said, "What do you mean?" "Dude. On the cover it says, 'Summer Events Guide, 19 Events you can't miss.' There's Lollapalooza, there's this Christina Aguilera tour, and then 'Big Lebowski Whathaveyoufest.'" And then all of a sudden we were in the shitstorm of attention and demand. And our tickets sold out in like two hours.

How did that change things for you?
That article came out and I got to a point where I could say, "Take this job and shove it up your ass! I'm gonna go out and work for myself and I'm gonna give Lebowski Fest everything I have." I gave it everything I had—and it worked.

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It sounds like the Lebowski Fest saved your life, but I'm sure it's also saved a lot of other people too. Other people who've felt similarly like outcasts and just finding a culture and a community that can accept them.
Well, the Achievers are the most wonderful group of people I've ever known. It's such a great pleasure and privilege to be a steward of this event where I get to travel to various cities around the country, even overseas and be with people who are like me—who understand me, and have felt disenfranchised, outcasts, and now we are family. We're a tribe, if you will. Like last night, we went to this guy's house who won "Best Walter" at the Fest, who runs a brewery. His logo's like rhe Dude or something. And he's so fucking nice. It's just like, "God dammit. The Achievers are just so fucking nice."

From an attendee's perspective, part of the reason why I've kept coming is just meeting friendly strangers who welcome you in and are like, "Come bowl with us. Let's just do this!" I haven't found that anywhere else.
Yeah, if you're at Lebowski Fest, you're automatically accepted. Like, you go see Radiohead and thousands of people are watching five people—but at Lebowski Fest, it's not that at all. That's why we don't care if we get a big actor.

"I live in this universe of great things: I've got Lebowski Fest, I've got support now, I've got these people around me."

I want to talk about Funtown Mountain, your new theme park project. How does a normal guy just buy a theme park?
Well first of all, I wouldn't say that I could be classified as a "normal guy." I've done a lot of things that are abnormal. But three years ago, I was down in Cave City, Kentucky. I love Cave City—it's this great national park and it's supposed to be one of the biggest in the world. They have this area called Cave City. It's all souvenir shops and attractions; they have a dinosaur part, putt putt, alpine sleds, horseback riding, and WigWam Village, which is one of the oldest lodging facilities in the country. And it's beautiful. It's magical. So I went there about three years ago with a group and we were just running around. And then my friend turned to me and said, "Hey Will, did you notice this one part of it was for sale?" And I was like, "What?" And it was all over at that point.

From that moment, I have had in my mind that I was going to fulfill my dream of owning a roadside attraction. And that this was my chance. Cave City is one of my favorite places in the world—it's so inspirational—and then I had this idea of this Kentucky Mount Rushmore, and I was like, "Perfect. They've got the land in the Dinosaur World. We'll build this giant monument."

So then I came up with a business plan and we had funding and we were getting ready to purchase and right about this time I met a girl named Kate. In a cave. At a concert. And she loved Cave City too, and I took her down there and within a month we were sitting on a chairlift at Guntown Mountain and I asked her to marry me on the chairlift.

Oh man! What did she say?
She said yes. She moved in the next month and then quit her job and moved her cats in and then, four months in, she got pregnant. So, I was like, "OK, probably not gonna do this risky $5 million roadside attraction business plan right now. Gotta sell my pinball machine and my scooter and like grow up and become a father." So I did that, and I set that project down. And you know, I was terrified. Are you a parent?

No, no, I'm not a parent.
OK, well, it's fucking terrifying. And wonderful. All of a sudden, this little girl was here and nothing would ever be the same. Not even close.

So I live in this universe of great things: I've got Lebowski Fest, I've got these retail stores, I've got support now, I've got these people around me. That's all on like Planet Will. Then there's this other planet in another solar system that's way bigger and way better and way wonderful, and that's the Planet Stella. She's bound for such greatness. And everything I have is hers now—like when she's old enough, she's gonna own Lebowski Fest, and she's gonna own an amusement park called Funtown Mountain.

So it's all been up from there?
So this last year, 2014, I was diagnosed in January with melancholic depression—which is a depression so severe that medication can't touch it. I tried several different medications, all at once, and none of it would touch it. I was hospitalized after nine months; I was unable to recognize faces.

[At the hospital] they said, "Well, your brain has atrophied and your brain is essentially shutting down, and if we don't take action immediately, you're going to be completely useless to anyone. Your businesses will fail, your daughter will not have a father." So I said, "OK, what are my options?" And they said, "Electroshock therapy." So they take me down there and it was the scariest fucking thing I've ever done in my life. And they hook me up to these electrodes and they delivered electrical currents to my body where I fucking blew off the table and they gave me like 60-second shock nine times over the course of a week. And it worked!

In November, I went back to Cave City. I was alive again and I had an appetite and I could love again. And I went to the Caves and saw that everything was shut down. I was like, "Fuck. If nobody does something, this place is going to be gone in like ten years and Stella won't be owning a dime of it."

What did you do?
I looked around and all there was, was me. I remembered a year prior, I had been approached to buy Guntown Mountain and I said, "No way." I was so overwhelmed, and so out of it. So I called my real estate agent and I said, "Dude. What's going on with Guntown Mountain?" He said, "I'll look into it." Then I was like, "You know what? What about Funtown Mountain?" They've got that little music venue, we could have Will Oldham play up here. We could have bands from Nashville and Louisville.

Then he said, "Well, somebody already bought it—they don't wanna sell it. It'll take this much money. And then he said, "But they're throwing in the Haunted Hotel." And I said, "Oh my fucking God, that is like my favorite haunted attraction, ever."And he said, "And there's a gift shop." And I said, "Well, retail's easy. That'll be a money maker."

I started coming up with all these ideas and in 60 days, we had a business plan, we had a date with the Tourist Department to present to receive funding from the government, and we had a Facebook page that now has like over 40K followers in just over two months. And so it was just like from nothing to everything.

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