Sometimes you’ve just got to be at the right place at the right time and for Steve Glew, a machinist from Michigan, that was Slovenia in 1994. As he recounts in “The Pez Outlaw” – and is even nudged to reenact under the shroud of night by co-directors Amy Bandolin Storkel and Bryan Storkel – there was treasure in the former Yugoslavia that only he could see when he was handed a bag that might’ve looked like plastic tchotkes to most, but appeared as gold to him. Undoubtedly, the same feeling washed over the Storkels when they sat down with Glew in Lansing to talk about his brilliant but unassuming scheme to bring prosperity back home to his family farm, moving from being a collector of rare Pez dispensers made available only in Europe to recreating the molds out of his house to start producing them illegally in the States.
“I’ve been waiting to tell this story for 20 years,” Glew tells the filmmakers mere moments into “The Pez Outlaw,” and in some ways, he already has, being an early adopter of the Internet who chronicled many of his exploits on his personal blog. Being online during those wild wild west days of the Web also gave Glew insight into the giant marketplace there was for Pez dispensers and how many were held back from U.S. distribution due to licensing deals and other quirks on the part of the Pez Company and its president Scott McWhinnie, who sought to protect exclusivity at all costs. Seeing himself as a great liberator, Glew put down the Tom Clancy novels he would read while passing the time at his day job to insert himself directly into international intrigue, sneaking into Pez Headquarters abroad to observe production methods and scouring Europe for dispensers to bring back to the U.S.
The stakes might be significantly lower that most globe-trotting mysteries, but the Storkels rarely make it feel that way as they elevate Glew to the level of a Jack Ryan or James Bond, albeit with a far different fashion sense, and chronicle the real chaos he sewed in the tight-knit global community of Pez collectors as bootlegs flooded the market and Glew made a mint. However, “The Pez Outlaw” isn’t only an entertaining caper of transatlantic proportions, but a compelling profile of Glew, once a shy and lonely kid who only began to take a greater interest in the world when he began collecting cereal boxes and has his horizons broadened by Pez dispensers, only to have what was once a hobby become an all-consuming enterprise that threatens to take him down completely.
While some of the film’s subjects such as the Austrian-based collector Johann Patek may wonder aloud why the Storkels would devote such time and energy to Glew, audiences at such festivals as SXSW and Seattle have rewarded such faith when as “The Pez Outlaw” has built a reputation as a major crowdpleaser and with the film arriving in theaters and on digital this week, the directing duo spoke about how making something they’d want to see themselves during the most dire days of the pandemic drove their interest in such a fun and adventurous tale, all that went into recreating the more unbelievable scenes in Glew’s life and the satisfaction that has come from being able to see him finally feel seen.
How did this come about?
Amy Bandlien Storkel: We were looking for our next story and ithe pandemic had just started, so we were all in lockdown. We had just delivered a movie that was darker and we just needed something fun and happy and inspiring and hopeful. We first started reading Steve’s blog, and this had been on our list as something to follow up on and when we first contacted Steve and started talking to him, it just became really clear that this was going to be our next story, especially when we first went out to meet him and Kathy and the family in Michigan.
I imagine Steve’s reputation preceded him, but does anything surprise you when you first meet him?
Bryan Storkel: One of the biggest surprises was just how important his life became in the story. We went out to meet with him on his farm and we started talking to him. There was some time where I was talking to Steve by myself and Amy was in the other room talking to Kathy and I came out and later she’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to tell you the story she just told me.” Kathy had told Amy all those lines about when they first met and [how it was] lust at first sight and their sex life, things where we’re like, “Kathy, you know we’re going to have to interview you, right?” And Kathy was like, “Yeah, I know, I know.” That was one of the biggest surprises was how big their love story became in the film and how sweet and endearing their relationship was.
Did you know the scope of it from the start?
Amy Bandlien Storkel: We had a bit of an idea, but when we were first getting everything from Steve’s perspective, we kept thinking, “There’s no way that the Pezident — the president of Pez, like [Steve] was saying, even remembers Steve. He can’t be as big of a deal as Steve thinks he was in this guy’s life.” But as we started talking to more people, it turns out he actually was, and every time, we would learn more tidbits of information that would confirm it, which is crazy.
Bryan Storkel: The funny thing was we like to write out an outline before we start filming and we hadn’t met Johann yet and we wrote this outline with some sort of Austrian narrator in mind that would walk us into their little gnome house and start telling us this story. We met Johann for the first time on a Zoom call and he was running around his house with his shirt off just showing us everything in his house and he was so excited and his accent was so deep and wonderful and we just knew immediately we had to go visit him. Once we got there, we were in his main house and he was like, “Oh, let me take you to my little cottage.” And it was exactly what we had pictured with this little garden with all of his magical things hanging from the trees and the way the sun was hitting the building when we got there, it was just perfect. It was exactly what we had written, so that was a fun surprise.
It is very cinematic, which you wouldn’t expect from a film about Pez dispensers. Did this lend itself naturally to such stylistic flourishes?
Amy Bandlien Storkel: We knew we wanted to do some recreation scenes. We have built this formula in our past few movies where we do all the interviews and some B-roll and edit for months and months and months until we have a really solid cut where we know exactly the story we’re telling and exactly what scenes we want to elevate and place into the film. When we were doing that, it was fun to be able to just lean into Steve’s version of the story, like if [his friend Mike]’s going to say that [Steve] discovered Pez “like it was a film noir scene,” then we’re going to go into film noir scene. If he’s going to say that being at the factory for the first time felt like Willy Wonka, then we’re going to lean into that. It was fun to be able to take that leeway that really came from Steve’s storytelling and his imagination.
Bryan Storkel: Because Steve was so active in his own storytelling from the beginning – he had been writing a blog for 20 years – and he had such vivid pictures of what these things should look like and was so excited about telling his story, we just wanted him to be a part of that as much as possible, so we decided, let’s try to have him play himself in the recreations. We had a lot of doubts as to whether it would actually work, but we did some tests early on and we shot one scene [where he] dyed his beard and had him play himself and it worked great. From then on, we were fully into that idea and we would present things to him and he would never say no to anything. He was just so eager to tell his story and to help out with whatever we needed, whether that meant staying up until four a.m., walking around the streets of fake Europe in Lansing, Michigan and carrying that heavy Pez bag all over.
Oh my gosh. Did Lansing actually end up serving as a fair amount of the locations? You would never know.
Bryan Storkel: Yeah, surprisingly we found a few locations in Lansing, Michigan that looked like Europe, but we also went to Austria twice to meet Johann and Gunther as well. During those times, there’s a couple scenes that there’s a stand-in for Steve because it was tough to travel over there during the pandemic, but we wanted to capture a little bit of bigger picture stuff with wide shots in Europe to really let it fit in.
Was there any directions that this went in that you might not have expected?
Amy Bandlien Storkel: Yeah, we always knew the general story, but there were a lot of surprising things, especially [how] we didn’t know if we were ever going to get a hold of Gunther, the guy that Steve accuses of being the inside man in the Pez factories in Europe, sneaking in Pez and selling him stuff. We never knew if we were going to find him or if he was even really the guy, but when we actually ended up getting a hold of him, we were not sure how we were going to bring it up. Gunther actually brought it up himself and talked about how Steve was always there buying product, so there were all these little details that we were really not sure of until we met and talked to more people and it became even more surprising of a story.
You had to buy at least some Pez dispensers yourself for the purposes of the film. Did you get a sense of what it was like being a collector firsthand?
Bryan Storkel: Yeah, it was really tough to find the original one that Steve had brought over because so many of them had been destroyed or they were just not still in the wrapper. Finding them in the original packaging [for] Steve’s big order towards the end of the film, those were really difficult to find. At the time he was getting rid of them at the end and he was selling them for a buck or two each and when we found them, it was like $25 to $50 range per item, so maybe if he had still held onto them, he would be making a fortune.
We didn’t buy many very high-priced Pez in general. One of the collectors Jim Blaine, who runs a convention in Michigan, loaned us a lot of his Pez for the scenes where you have large amounts of Pez in a bag and there was a moment where we were talking about burning a bunch of Pez for the movie.When we talked to collectors about that, there was a very strong instant reaction, even [about] the cheap ones, like “You can’t burn those. It’s sacrilegious.” So we didn’t actually burn any Pez. “No Pez were harmed in the making of this movie.” [laughs]
I’m relieved to hear it. And it must be a relief for you to have out in the world. What’s it been like to bring joy to people, including Steve, these last few months since its premiere at SXSW?
Amy Bandlien Storkel: We’re super excited to get the film out into the world. And it’s very meta. Steve’s dream is for people to know his story, so being part of the audience, watching the film and learning the story, it’s all part of the fulfillment of that dream, which is a really fun thing to do. At South By, it was really a good experience overall for Steve. It takes a lot for him to go out somewhere into the world and be the center of attention with a lot of people, but once he’s in that moment, he’s very present and he was able to really speak with a lot of people as a kind of mentor on the mental health side of things and also just really enjoyed being able to speak to his story and his journey, so it was fun.