If you ask the filmmaking team of “Circle the Wagen” to pick their favorite color of a VW bus, they’ve got an easy answer and it isn’t baby blue like the one they traveled across the country in themselves.
“Split-pea green,” says Charlie Pecoraro, without any hesitation. “Because [two with that color] probably saved us twice now.”
That probably isn’t how Pecoraro, Dave Torstenson and director Ryan Steven Green imagined how things would go when Dave fulfilled a longtime fantasy of owning his own Volkswagen bus and his friends from college thought there might be a movie in it. Then again, if there weren’t a few bumps along the road, there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell in “Circle the Wagen,” which charts Dave and Charlie’s drive from Tulsa to Los Angeles over the course of five years, a journey exacerbated by some unexpected detours.
While more than a few involve the unsound mechanics of the Croc, the 1972 bus with a busted backend that Dave procured on eBay, there are just as many that arrive as pleasant surprises as Dave and Charlie find themselves aided on the side of the road by the proud members of the A.I.R.S. List, a national network made up of fellow WV owners who think nothing of driving out to help each other out of a jam. Along the way, Dave and Charlie meet artists who use VW parts for sculptures and mechanics who show them the art of maintaining their vehicle — there’s such a thing as a “bus whisperer.” Yet it isn’t long before the trip becomes just as much about Dave fine-tuning the life he wants after crossing the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena (the trio’s intended finish line) as it about the vehicle, taking “Circle the Wagen” on a turn towards something more poignant.
Shortly after Pecoraro, Torstenson and Green got back on the road once more to unveil the film this weekend at the Austin Film Festival, the three talked about the evolution of “Circle the Wagen” from an ultimate Volkswagen film to something surprisingly personal, becoming part of the VW community, and Charlie’s love of fortune cookies.
You’re shown wearing USC sweatshirts in the film. Is it safe to assume all three of you met as film students?
Ryan: Charles and I did the film.
Dave: I was in broadcast journalism.
Charlie: We were all friends. We all met as freshmen. We were all part of a fraternity together. We just had four years of rabble rousing and being idiots.
Ryan: We decided to prolong that phase of our lives.
Charlie: Prolong the idiocy, yes. Dave had spent almost three years playing music and enjoying the fruits that New York has to offer [after college] and said, “I’m going to go back to California and give it a shot.” That’s where he rejoined us. He moved into my apartment, which had an opening and chaos ensued.
Obviously, the story of how the road trip came about is onscreen, but how did you decide to make a movie out of it?
Charlie: Dave was public transpo-ing it in LA and that stinks, so one day, we were saying, “Hey, maybe we can go on some adventure. We should go on a road trip.” It wouldn’t be our first and Dave told me about the this huge underground network [of VW bus owners]. I thought, wow, people actually help each other out without knowing each other, and they stay to help each other? That is encouraging. People might want to know about that. It’s so vast, but yet unknown. What if we showed that? It could be a really good documentary. It was a scary thing to undertake at first, so we waited it out for a week…
Ryan: Four or five days.
Dave: What basically happened is I left the bus in Tulsa with my then-girlfriend’s dad. His plan was to sell it and three weeks later, we came across the idea.
It was this gut check moment of “Hey, do you want to do this?” We both were like “Yes, okay, let’s do this”. We called Phil [the dad], and said “Hold on to the bus, we’re coming back for it.” We called up Ryan, and we said “We’re shooting this documentary and he was like “I’m in.” It’s pretty amazing that it was February 1st when we came up with the idea, and we were on the road in Tulsa come March 6th.
Which is why there’s no footage of the woman cackling as you were leaving Des Moines with the bus knowing that she had sold you a lemon because Ryan wasn’t filming yet.
Ryan: In the narrated version, that scene will be there. No, it was funny. One of the questions I get asked is how did you come up with the idea to do this film? In this case, Dave was already [living this]. The initial trip from Des Moines to Tulsa that Dave took by himself, there was no plan, no conversation, no documentary – there was no nothing. [He said,] I bought a car, I’m driving it to LA, end of story. The car had other ideas obviously.
After spending some time apart from Dave, was it interesting to reunite with him at a different place than he perhaps was at college?
Charlie: We have a history of buddy-ism. We realized that we worked well on adventures together, just pranks, hijinks. We both share a love of Los Angeles’ food scene. Dave made up a Cheap Eats food map in college. We had sparks and similar interests, so the thought of going on the road together sounded like magic.
Dave: And in college, you’re limited by what you’re able to do with time and money and not necessarily having a full-time job. We knew each other in the context of …
Dave: Yes. We’re going to school, just doing our thing. We’re kind of idiots in this bubble. No real ramifications. It was interesting for me to move back, and there was a certain naïveté and idealism that we still carried, where we [thought], What could go wrong? Let’s just give this a shot.
Charlie: We were all just 26 and it’s not so much of a hill in college. We talked about a lot of ideas that never got off the docks. That’s why we took a couple days and said, “Hey, by the way, are you still serious about that idea?” [And Ryan and Dave] were like, “Are we still crazy enough to … ?” Because we had never done a feature. We hadn’t had the much experience with putting things on film, except for making shorts, so we said yes, let’s take a leap.
Ryan: It’s the kind of idea that it’s the right time and place. If this idea came right now, I would not do it, but I would probably at least find somebody who may be interested, somebody younger. I’m married at this point, so that’s one thing, but it’s the kind of thing where guys in their mid-twenties say yes, this is a great idea, we have to totally go for this.
How did this evolve from the initial idea?
Ryan: We talked about this being the Volkswagen documentary to end all Volkswagen documentaries. We’ll be in Germany. We’ll be in Mexico. We’ll be in Brazil. We’ll be in Japan. This will be it, like no other Volkswagen documentary will ever be made. Yet from what we had shot [during those] nine days on the road from Tulsa to Tucumcari, the more I just kept realizing no, what our film is is this man, his story, this car, and where it talks about circling the wagons [during the Frontier era, which became the film’s introductory scene], that’s what our film is. Let’s only do things that will help that story be as good as it can be.
Charlie: Keep the focus really narrow where they got a personal story as opposed to historical. There is a little history in it, but it wasn’t about the history as much as the experience of having a bus.
Dave: Right, and we set out to make this [right after] “Supersize Me,” had just come out, and “Little Miss Sunshine” and the Pixar movie “Cars.” When we started, we were looking at it from the perspective of this Morgan Spurlock style. I’m going to present myself as the host and explore this subject. That would be a guiding light in the first couple of years, but it was a couple years in that Ryan said “Actually, Dave, this is your personal story,” which was interesting for me to go from being the active storyteller in the film to being the subject. An earlier version of the film that was 12 minutes we’d had a couple years prior actually shows us going out and exploring some of these Volkswagen meet-ups and these car shows. I was actually interacting and doing man on the street interviews. In the end, it didn’t really serve the overarching purpose of the story.
Ryan: The funny thing is in a way, that the original [idea] of the Volkswagen film to end all Volkswagen films, we achieved by going small because at least in the way that the Volkswagen community had responded to the film, they’ve never seen anything like this. They’ve never seen a Volkswagen film done by a filmmaker. It embodies what it’s like to be a Volkswagen owner.
You talk about how many years it took you and while I don’t want to spoil the film, there’s a moment where Dave’s future and the future of the film are put in jeopardy and you all take a break. What was it like to come back from that?
Charlie: Hard. It was four years between we left the bus and saw the bus again, but after we left the bus, we shot for what? A year and a half, with the LA Auto shows. We didn’t know how to really progress. We weren’t sure we’d really get the bus back.
Dave: It goes back to that thing where initially, the road trip was dependent on the film initially. Without the film, that bus would’ve gotten sold and I wouldn’t really have thought twice about it. Now, with this film, [everything] hinged on us getting this bus back to LA or at least attempt to. The motive really was we want to make this film. The road trip, we wanted to catch that as well, so that started off as the motivator a couple years in. We ran out of steam metaphorically.
Charlie: It’s was kind of meta because accomplishing the bus back to California became tied with finishing the film too. It was like getting the film back to California.
Ryan: The road trip and the film, at some point, became the same thing. If we don’t finish the road trip we don’t finish the film … and we’ve got nothing.
Charlie: Then Dave’s life took a turn and he said, “Hey fellas, I need to pursue some opportunities here because this is a dry lake bed right now.” There was a lot of time that went by where we tried to get some progress and hit walls. It’s first-time filmmaking. But things circled back in. Dave said, “Now might be a good time to give this another shot.” We scrimped our pennies together and took that drive out there to New Mexico.
Ryan: In January.
Charlie: Very cold. We got a lot of those cats [we met before] back together. They made a trip back out because they wanted to see this happen too, both for their Volkswagen interests and [because] shoot, they’re in a movie. It’s not quite as romantic for an audience, but there were reasons outside of the burning desire to get the bus back. That was definitely a part of it, the romance of it, but there was the practicality that a film was being made and an investment had been made. There was that satisfaction as well.
Coming back to California, there’s a fortune cookie message on the dashboard, which I won’t reveal here, but is there a story behind it?
Charlie: I save all my fortunes. I think God’s preached to me through fortune cookies.
Dave: [laughs] In Chinese.
Charlie: I just take them very seriously for some reason. During the second road trip, we went out for Chinese food in the middle of …
Dave: It was Albuquerque.
Charlie: That message came along, and I was like wow because we were like, “Man, we’re going to do it.” We were all full of enthusiasm and hopes and we were running on fumes. We got that and it was like yes, God is blessing this trip.
At the end, Dave’s obviously changed to some degree where he’s no longer the person who made the rash decision to buy a VW bus and say as much in so many words, yet you’ve obviously been embraced by the VW community. Did you feel like you had become a part of it?
Dave: Definitely from a practical outside looking in standpoint, it makes sense. I wouldn’t have a place to work on the bus. They wouldn’t let me park it at the complex [where I live]. But it is an interesting thing going to different screenings [of the film] and having people coming up afterwards and saying, “Thank you for sharing this story because man, your story is our story. We’ve all been under that bus when it’s pissing gas on you, where something’s falling off, and it’s just falling apart. You have no idea what’s going on, and you’re calling friends asking for help.” I looked at all that and thought [while looking at myself], man, this is some clown who’s an outsider trying to break into this [VW community] and the community members are saying, “No, man, you are one of us.”
It’s been very gratifying. It’s very cool to recognize even a guy with no mechanical abilities can potentially learn a thing or two. And I think if I had a little bit more disposable income, I’d go back and buy another bus that is actually in working order. At some point, I’ll save up some money and actually do it right.