Rebecca Bernard
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The People’s Car: A Conversation with ‘The Bug Movie’ Director Damon Ristau

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5 out of 5 stars rating

Bug Movie PosterGenre: Documentary
Directors/Producer: Damon Ristau
Publisher: Chassy Media
Publication Date: December 13, 2016
Subjects: Ewan McGregor, Randy Carlson, Jason Torchinsky, Andrea Hiott, Tory Alonzo, Jason Willenbrock, Daniel Liedtke, Heini Wanzke, Corky Lord, Jerry Lord
Website: http://chassymedia.com

This month, I had the great opportunity to view a new documentary, The Bug: Life and Times of the People’s Car (which is also known simply as The Bug Movie) before it becomes available this week. As the title would suggest, the film is all about the history of the Volkswagen Beetle, from its birth in Germany and its unfortunate ties to Nazism, through the Summer of Love, the New Bug, and Dieselgate. Beyond the simple history of the vehicle, director Damon Ristau infuses the documentary with a look into the lives of several Beetle collectors and what the car means to each of them. Rather than being a simple piece of cinematic fluff that just praises everything about the VW Beetle while ignoring its flaws, The Bug Movie manages to both wax poetic about this iconic car and discuss the hard facts about where it has been and where it is going.

The Bug Movie Official TrailerPre-order your copy now and get $2 off: https://chassymedia.com/product/the-bug/

Posted by The Bug Movie on Wednesday, November 30, 2016

There is something in The Bug Movie for everyone. Car history buffs will be happy to see a good, uncensored look at the VW Beetle’s unique past and the winding road it drove to get where it is today. Fans of tearjerker movies and feel-good news will love the the story of the Lord family and their rusted VW Bug, and the casual viewer will recognize actor Ewan McGregor and appreciate the history of Beetles in his life (and the snapshots of young Ewan with the iconic cars). This documentary is sure to grab you, and everyone you know, by the eyeballs and suck you in.

Ewen McGregor in Damon Ristau's 'The Bug'

“Do you really need a reason to watch this movie?”

After viewing the film, I sat down on a call with Damon Ristau to talk about The Bug Movie and Volkswagen overall. Based in Missoula, Montana, his previous credits as a director include The Best Bar in America and another Volkswagon tribute, The Bus. Ristau was inspired to create The Bug: Life and Times of the People’s Car because it seemed like a natural follow-up to a documentary about the iconic VW Bus.

When I asked which classic VW model he preferred between the two, he danced around the question like a good parent when asked which of their children is the favorite. For the record, Ristau likes both vehicles because he was surrounded by older VWs when he was growing up, and his first vehicle was a 1968 VW bus that he restored with his dad (which should give you a bit of a hint as to his [understandable] preference). He also said that as he grew older and had kids, he wanted them to be around cars like those he remembered from his own childhood.

The VW Bus and VW Beetle might seem to be an odd couple, as they are often mentioned together but look to only really be united by their shared badge. While the Bus is built for utility (it can be anything from a camper to a work van) and the Beetle is built more “like a go-cart,” as Ristau says, both cars are perfect project cars. Whether the owner bought it new in its heyday or as a used clunker today, the engineering behind both is so simple that they can be easily worked on without a professional garage. This, coupled with its initial lower price, is what made the Beetle a true car of the people and helped make mass mobility possible around the world.

Damon Ristau's 'The Bug'

The Lord Family Beetle

The documentary follows the story of the Lord family and enthusiast Jason Willenbrock as it tells the history of the Bug. The Lord family is currently led by its matriarch Corky Lord, whose husband loved restoring old cars. He bought a Beetle to start working on, but he passed away before he could move beyond ordering new parts.

That’s where Jason Willenbrock comes in, helping rescue the rusting Beetle from its resting place beside the Lord house and restoring it in his garage. It was one of my favorite parts of the documentary, and Damon Ristau agreed with me. He thought it was important to show the story as both a narrative about the love put in to a single vehicle, but also to show that Willenbrock managed to completely restore the VW Beetle at his home without the plethora of tools and equipment that would be needed to do anything on a more modern vehicle.

Inevitably, as in the film, our talk turned to the current Dieselgate scandal engulfing everything about the brand. Ristau and I both agree that the scandal probably would not have an effect on the classic VW vehicles, as they were built in an era when VW was more about making a practical, affordable car that could be easily maintained. Ristau talked about how the sameness of each model of the Beetle ensured that there was no obsolescence of older cars, because owners knew parts would be available regardless of model year.

VW built on the success of the Beetle and the Bus and made the move toward bigger and better cars (and technology), and Ristau and his interviewees’ opinions seem to be that Dieselgate happened in large part because the company lost sight of what made them successful in the first place. The hope of these fans is that VW takes a step back, remembers where it came from, and hopefully starts to build more consumer-friendly vehicles to regain their trust.

Damon Ristau's 'The Bug'

Randy Carlson, Ewan McGregor, and Tory Alonzo

From Hollywood stars like Ewan McGregor and the original Herbie VW Beetle owned by historian and collector Tory Alonzo, to famous faces in the VW world like Jason Torchinsky (Associate Editor of Jalopnik) to Randy Carlson (of OldBug.org), the film gets both the technical point of view and the emotional perspective just right. Damon Ristau raised the funds for this film using Kickstarter, and he said that it motivated him to build the project up and plan it out before he presented it online to possible supporters, ensuring that the documentary had a real direction.

Using Kickstarter also allows him to remain independent while still being accountable to the backers. Contacts made through the Kickstarter, like Tory Alonzo, and cold calls helped Ristau meet the right people in the VW Beetle community to get the interviews to make the film a true look at the VW Beetle by the people and for the people.

Damon Ristau's 'The Bug'

The New VW Beetle parked next to Jason Torchinsky’s classic Beetle

To close out our call, I asked Ristau which VW Beetle he would want most in his personal collection. Since he lives in Montana, the convertible isn’t very practical, but he would like to own a ragtop Beetle from the era of the double rear windows in the 1950s. It’s the perfect choice, and hopefully VW will begin to recognize that it’s cars like that its fans want, not ones with hashtags for names (looking at you, #PinkBeetle).

2017 #PinkBeetle

Just say no to hashtags as car names


The Bug: Life and Times of the People’s Car is available on Chassy.com, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other digital platforms.

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  • Rebecca BernardEditor

    A Dayton native, Rebecca got her start blogging at the curiously named Harlac's Tongue while studying abroad in the UK. She loves tooling around town with her Ford Focus named Jerome to the song they're playing on the radio. On any given weekend, you can find her with her camera at area festivals, concerts, and car shows, shopping at flea markets, or taking an adventure on the open road. See more articles by Rebecca.