In the documentary “Circle the Wagen,” Dave Torstenson buys his dream car, a 1972 Volkswagen bus (later named “The Croc”) on eBay. Though it is beat up, he makes the trip out to Iowa to pick it up and drive it back home to California. After abandoning it once in a failed attempt, Dave tries again, this time bringing his friend Charlie Pecoraro and enlisting in the help of fellow Volkswagen owners along Route 66 who have volunteered mechanical and other types of help to get the bus to its rightful home. I had the chance to speak with Dave, Charlie and director Ryan Steven Green at Austin Film Festival about their experience with “The Croc,” the process of making the film, and the goodwill of fellow VW owners.
Dave, I’m sure there were plenty of busses from all around the country available when you were looking on eBay. What about “The Croc” really spoke to you?
Dave: I think the fact that it was $800 dollars, which was within my budget at that point. I like that the owner had a 100 percent rating on eBay, so I thought, “Well, this guy is a trustworthy guy. Who cares if he’s in Iowa and who cares if the bus is rusted out and crunched in the back?” I mean, what could go wrong?
Ryan: 100 percent out of three sales. (laughs)
I don’t remember it being touched on in the film, but how did “The Croc” get its name?
Dave: When I won the eBay auction, I was on an Elton John kick. This was November of 2006 and “Crocodile Rock” was the song that was playing when the eBay auction went through and I was declared the winner. I figured, “Well you know what, ‘Crocodile Rock’…I’m gonna call this ‘The Croc.’” I definitely knew the shape the bus was in and it was probably going to be a crock. I expanded on the name eventually because I’m just a nerd like that. I decided to call it Crocodile Rockford Jobs. I added the Jobs surname as a homage to Steve Jobs. I was working at Apple Computer at the time and he was a bit of a personal hero for me. In the years since, we actually discovered that Steve Jobs had sold his first Volkswagen bus, presumably his only Volkswagen bus, to finance the first Apple computer. We thought it was this delicious irony that 30 years later, I’d be selling Apple computers to buy my first Volkswagen bus.
At what point did any of you know that there was a film here, other than just this story of you taking a car and getting it home?
Dave: I won the auction in November of 2006 and I attempted the first road trip in it on New Years Eve 2006, and abandoned it January 2, 2007. Then about a month later, I moved in with Charlie and we got to talking and that’s kind of where he got really fascinated with the Volkswagen subculture.
Charlie: I was very shocked that strangers would help each other just because they have the same type of car. At the time I was driving a Buick Regal and if someone were to call me out of the blue and say, “Hey Charlie, I’m stuck. I’m driving a Regal.” I’d be like, “Uh, I don’t know. Who are you?” There’s no allegiance to the Buick Regal brand.
Dave: And I had explained to him that along the way, in my attempts to see what I could possibly to do maybe salvage this vehicle as I realized it was going to break down and was not going to make it to L.A., I discovered this Volkswagen subculture – this list online you can call. So we were driving around in his car in Santa Monica and Charlie said, “That would be fascinating.” We had talked about what it might look like to possibly go back and have a little handheld camera, just a silly little home video-type thing.
Charlie: What cinched it for me was that it was so vast, yet so unknown. That to me sounded like the perfect crossroads for a niche-interest documentary people would be fascinated by. How could this be so big and yet we didn’t know?
Were you all aware of this community that would come and help when you started making the film? Was the initial plan to try to get home with the aid of them?
Dave: Yeah, initially it started off as a social experiment. I had discovered in having had broken down on my own and doing all this research on the internet the list and that’s when we started talking about it. In those five weeks that we went from concept to on the road, we reached out. We hit up a bunch of these guys on the list. We just cold called these dudes out of the blue and said, “Hey…”
Charlie: “Hey, we might be breaking down in your neck of the woods in the next three or four weeks…”
Dave: “Also, we may have a camera in tow, no big deal, just ignore it…”
Ryan: “We’re shooting a movie about it, I hope that’s OK.”
Charlie: They were all very enthusiastic. They’d say, “Yeah, yeah sure!” So we said, “Hey, we’re gonna be rolling into town” and more often than not we were stopping because we were broke down. So they were like, “Alright, we’ll come help you and see what we can do.” There were a series of repair scenes and we certainly had our share of difficulties.
And did you get a sense from talking to them what shape your bus was in compared to the others?
Dave: (Laughs) It was funny because there was the warm sentimentality of, “Aw, little beater bus.” Then there was a guy in Amarillo who was like, “I’d crush busses that were in better shape than this.” So fairly early on we got schooled in just what we were working with. As Charlie says at some point in the film, it definitely wasn’t bequeathed to us with a full stack.
In the four years between your second and third attempt to get “The Croc” back to L.A., was there any point where you thought it would just stay at the Blue Swallow Inn forever and live in infamy there?
Dave: There was a while there where I thought, “Well, maybe Bill’s just going to sell it off and we’ll be done with it.”
Charlie: It was pretty soul-crushing actually, because we desperately wanted to make this film and you don’t want to fabricate the ending to a documentary. So when you’re making a documentary that’s in real time, you don’t know what turns life is going to take. Dave started getting offers to teach around the world. How’s he going to turn that down as a 20-something? It’s a great opportunity. And yet, there was something unfinished in his life which is also the meta perspective of if this bus doesn’t get back we’re not sure if we can finish the film either. So they all kind of fueled each other.
To sort of piggyback off that idea, Dave, there’s a running theme about you starting projects and not finishing them. How much did that factor in to not only getting the bus back but finishing the film?
Dave: Very instrumental. To be honest, I don’t think I would have gone back to rescue the bus had we not shot the film. And so, there was that symbiotic relationship where the film needed the road trip and the road trip needed the film. When you see us at the end of the film and I’m reflecting on it and you see me getting visibly choked up at the prospects…it’s just a sense of contentment. I think in that moment I’m speaking as much about it as a filmmaker as I was as a guy who bought a bus on eBay and is trying to cross the country. That was kind of a through line that we did kind of discover. Ryan realized probably about halfway through the process of making this film that there was an emotional hook that was needed. He was the one to spot it and say, “Dave, that’s your story.”
Charlie, I couldn’t help but notice that any time there was a mechanical problem, you were either standing in the back or nowhere to be found. So for all of you, including Charlie, how important was Charlie’s role in the trip as far as offering support or a moral boost?
Charlie: Well, first and foremost, we’re great friends. We’ve had adventures before this and we’ll have adventures after this. I was there as a friend, co-piloting with Dave on his journey. I had no vested interest in Volkswagen or cars in particular. I’m not a gearhead, but I’m a people head. I’m a culture head, adventure head. So I didn’t have anything to offer mechanically, but any other way which I could support, whether it be gathering around strangers or creating some sort of sense of rally, I felt particularly useful in that regard.
Dave: I would definitely say for me, thinking in terms of who would make a great road trip buddy, this guy is second to none. He brings people in and he’s very warm and very inviting. He creates this great atmosphere and it’s just a lot of fun. In my mind, just to sit in a bus and share an adventure with this guy was the overarching thing.
Ryan: I challenge you to find two men who are easier to fall in love with than these two.
One thing I noticed was there seemed to be a refusal to be towed at any point. Was that a set rule that you guys had or would it be seen as a loss if you towed it?
Dave: The closest we’d get to an actual tow is when they would rope the bus and the guy in the pick up would come and tow it. That was the initial rules I think, right? We had kind of this set of rules like, “Here’s the things we don’t want to do.” We want to rely on the goodwill of the Volkswagen community at all costs.
Charlie: I mean, tow it to where? We couldn’t ever afford to have it towed back to California so if we needed to have it towed to a shop or something then it’s really not like any other car. It’s the community that we’re exploring, so that worked nearly every time either via phone call or someone actually coming out.
Ryan: I don’t remember it being a rule that we made, nor do I ever remember it really crossing our minds to have it towed, but when the bus was left at the Blue Swallow I think it was part of the conversation. I think we explored that possibility, but at the time we’re young, we’ve only been shooting for nine days or whatever and it’s like, “Well, even if we have to leave it we can come back. We can pick it up. Even if it’s six months from now we can play it in the film as if there’s no gap.”
What about the community in general? How was it compared to your expectations? You knew you had people that would come out and help but obviously they go above and beyond. So what were the expectations versus what you found?
Charlie: All we really had were profiles on paper. Matter of fact, you can display a little bit of personality and it was amazing what you could conjure about each of these people depending on what they had to offer – some internet and phone, some had tools and parts, some had a space for you to bring your bus and camp in the driveway, some let you crash on the couch. Also interesting was the type of beer they would accept [as payment] – thick and chewy, light and crispy. So based on these very abbreviated profiles, Dave and I went through every one along Route 66 and individually gave them a number 1 thru 10. We ranked them. Who would be the most interesting people to be on screen? So if I give someone a seven, he gives someone a five, we have a cumulative of 12 and then we would just go through it and…
Dave: We’d call our 20s first.
Charlie: Each one of these people was so fleshed out and full of personality, quirk. Ryan calls these people “salt of the earth.”
Ryan: Salt of the earth, man. That’s the term right there.
Charlie: You’d want to have a beer with any one these people. Unless you really start getting into busses, they’re not gonna bore you with that shit. I mean, they’ll get excited. If the conversation goes that way they’ll talk to no end. But even the three of us who aren’t really gearheads, there are much worse people up there to talk about other things that are interesting. Great people.
Ryan: The first major interview we had was with a character that’s throughout the film, Pete Sottnik. We show up in his yard, and he’s got all these Volkswagens everywhere. There’s this moment in the footage where we show up to this first thing, Dave and Charlie are shooting the breeze with Pete and Pete says, “Why don’t we fire up ‘The Croc’ and we’ll see what’s going on here?” And so Dave hops in, fires up “The Croc” and [Pete] is down on the ground and listening and he says, “Alright, kill it.” Dave gets out and Pete’s like, “Your heater box isn’t even attached to the engine. It’s not even attached.” In other words, this car is a complete piece of shit. There’s a moment in the footage, and it passes by so fast, but when you’re looking at every single frame, you catch these things. Pete looks up at the camera, essentially looks at me and….I froze that frame so many times just looking at Pete’s face and wondering…in his mind right now, this is it. This is the tipping point. Either these guys are out of here and we’ve got nothing or Pete is in and all of our troubles are over and we’re making a film. And Pete, at that moment decides, “Let’s give it a shot! What could go wrong? Let’s do it!” He’s in. I feel like that was the most convincing anybody needed the entire trip. It felt like everybody was willing, able, friendly, overjoyed to be a part of it. That’s salt of the earth. What kind of people do this? Salt of the earth.
Dave: You talk to [these people] on the phone and it’s a five minute phone call where they’re like, “You’re gonna do what?” You can’t really gauge someone over the phone. It was interesting how they went above and beyond. Pete could have easily said, “Well, I recommend going to Dynabug and I’ll give you a list of the things you’re going to need.” Instead, he takes it one step further. He says, “Actually, there’s a Tulsa Volkswagen club meeting in like a couple hours. Why don’t we go there? I’ll introduce you to those guys and then we’ll go to their parts place afterwards and they’ll fix it up there.” It really was amazing how the individual members in the community really did introduce us into the subculture at large.
I know there’s a point in the movie where you’re about to leave it at the Blue Swallow and you mention that maybe it will become an urban legend, and then it did. What was that like?
Dave: It was pretty surreal to realize that this bus, this mistake that I made a couple years prior by buying this thing on eBay is now getting…
Charlie: I found a painting online. That’s how long it was there. Someone did an oil painting and the bus is in there.
Dave: It’s a pretty amazing thing. People from all over the world showed up. I don’t know how much of the story that Bill told people. I’d be curious to ask how much of that story got shared.
Ryan: We have these four years where the bus is sitting, and if we leave the bus and six months go by, the way that appears in the film is nothing happens. It never got left. Four years go by, these guys are older and they look different. The bus is older, the mural is all faded, the Blue Swallow is shut down, Bill is no longer there. There’s no way to fake anymore, that expanse in time. And yet, I didn’t do any shooting. …so how do I tell the story of this gap of four years that’s gone by? I thought, “We had a couple friends that took pictures of themselves with ‘The Croc’ during that time and e-mailed them and said “hey! We stopped in Tucumcari, here’s me with ‘The Croc’” …so I thought if our friends did that, then other people must have done that. So I went to Flickr and Volkswagen groups and any site I could think of and just did searches. I came up with over 70 photos taken by complete strangers. I contacted each and every one of them, told them what I was doing and asked if I could use their photos in the film. Everybody except for one said yeah. So that middle section is made up of photographs taken by complete strangers, while the bus is sitting there and they are passing through on their travels. It’s very cool.
Ryan, was it difficult being Dave’s friend and being the filmmaker in the sense that you’re watching him struggle mightily against all of this stuff, and yet you know you’re getting great footage and your film is going to be better because of it?
Ryan: One time I shot a travel show and I found myself in Tasmania in a pen five feet away from half a dozen Tasmanian devils eating a wallaby carcass and somehow I was able to stay there for 30 minutes in a crouch, with my camera, with the smell, and the gnawing and the crunching of bones until every scrap of that wallaby was gone. It’s only after you exit the pen that the nausea hits. I guess what I’m getting at is when you’re behind a camera, you’re the most isolated man in the world. It doesn’t matter where you are. What you’re looking at in the camera is not reality. It’s the screen on the camera. It’s what I love and hate about filmmaking. You’re a participant, but you’re also really not. You’re seeing it through technology. It’s why I don’t do Twitter. It’s why I don’t do Facebook. I don’t answer the phone. I want to be here, with you, talking instead. With Dave, there’s a riveting scene that involves gasoline and it takes place over a prolonged amount of time. Again, I’m in a crouch, in a puddle of gasoline and Dave is under there and in moments like that you do have a sense of like…I’m not thinking about it right now because I’m making a movie but this is probably really dangerous. Then when it’s all over, you step away and you’re like, “That was really dangerous.” I don’t know how many more times I want to put Dave through that kind of stuff. There was a breakdown on I-40, a six-lane freeway. And it’s like…any crew who is not wielding a camera, get the hell off the freeway, get the RV off the freeway. I told our DP, “You do not have to shoot this, get out of danger.” So there are moments like that, but I trust Dave and Charlie and they’re only going to make choices that they feel comfortable with. So if it’s somebody I know a little bit less, maybe I’m more guarded. But with these guys, we were in this together. So to the extent you’re willing to go, I’ll follow you there.
Dave: And it’s funny too because in the scenes where awful things are happening to me, you’re like, “Ah, this sucks! This is awful! I hate my life right now!” But in the back of your mind, as a producer and as a filmmaker, you’re like, “Oh, I pray to God they are getting this on camera because this is golden.” That was kind of the dual minds I’d have in those moments.
Ryan: It’s a huge conversation in the documentary. To what extent does the presence of the camera affect peoples performances.
It seems like that’s a question for any documentary really.
Ryan: Yeah. So for my work, I try to be as hands off as I possibly can be. Let it roll. Let them do their thing and just make sure the camera continues to roll. I hold to myself pretty stringent ethics, trying to make sure what I am presenting is as true to what happened as possible. Knowing of course that a documentary is a manipulation. It’s not reality. It’s a presentation of reality. So I still try to be very hands off when shooting.
What has the response been from this community after seeing the film?
Charlie: Very, very positive. People have told is in Q&As that they relate to Dave’s story. Some people say that Dave had more patience than they had. They would have lit a match and let it kaboom. We’ve won three awards at festivals, so critically we’re doing pretty well. I got another request to show the movie from Alaska and one from Seattle, one from Tulsa. We played Orlando last week. We’re trying to find a way to quench that. I think that’s really just the beginning. I think a lot of the vintage communities have heard of it, especially the ones that are more connected online, but I think it’s gonna grow more and more in the coming year.
Dave: They’ve really embraced it. My fear in presenting this film was the idea that I’m an outsider trying to get into this subculture and not doing so in the wisest of manners. There are a million better ways I could have become a Volkswagen owner. And yet at the end of these screenings, people have come up and said, “Yeah, you’re one of us. You may not think so. You may question that at times but you really are. “
Charlie: Baptism by fire.
Dave: They go up to Charlie and say, “Do you want to get in on this, too?”
And did you?
Charlie: I’ve been working on it. Neither one of us have space where we can work on a bus. We both have apartments. And I don’t have the income right now; maybe after the film if the film does well. But I am looking forward to getting one. I had no skin in the game before. I had never even been in a bus. But now, having this experience, I’ve really come to love the experience of traveling in busses.
This is obviously a love letter to Volkswagens and that community, but is any part of this almost like a cautionary tale for those who want to buy vintage cars?
Dave: That’s a great question.
Ryan: No. The answer is no. Next question.
Dave: Yeah. I think we celebrate that even in a naïve, idealistic outlook on things, there’s still community to be had. Even in the worst of decisions that you may make.
Charlie: The answer is people have come away from the screening both wanting a bus and not wanting a bus. So really, we certainly didn’t have the intent. It really is a love letter to the community and the charisma of the bus. So people take away a vast spectrum of responses.
Ryan: People who know that I drive a squareback ask about Volkswagens and I tell anybody who asks me, “Don’t do it,” at least not as a daily driver. And mine runs well. In six years, it has broken down four times. From Pasadena to Santa Monica, it’s like crossing the country in a covered wagon. Every bump, every crack, every cigarette butt that’s flicked out the window, you feel. You don’t pass anybody. It’s an education, for sure, but it’s not for everybody.
Finally, in the end of the film you do see what becomes of “The Croc” immediately afterwards, and I know I saw on your Kickstarter page that one of the incentives was to own “The Croc,” but you didn’t get rid of that. So what is the current state of “The Croc?”
Dave: “The Croc” is living up the life of a movie star. A couple weeks before the world premiere in Albuquerque, there was an article done on us in Orange County and the owner of the Volkswagen dealership in Orange County read this article and got in touch with us and basically said, “I’d love to maybe babysit ‘The Croc’ in the showroom floor in our Volkswagen Capistrano. So if you take a trip to San Juan Capistrano, you can see it. Like I was saying before, to me, that’s just the most mindblowing thing to think this stupid purchase I made seven years ago is now sitting in the dealership for the worlds largest car company. We’ll see what happens after, but we want to keep it around. To me, it’s a bizarre and mindblowing ending, at least for now.
“Circle the Wagen” screened as a part of Austin Film Festival 2013.
For more Austin Film Festival Coverage, click here.