The synopsis for Drunk Bus, a feature film by Greenpoint directors Ghost + Cow, reads: “A directionless, young campus bus driver and a charismatic Samoan, punk rock security guard named Pineapple form an unlikely kinship as they navigate the unpredictable late shift debacle known as the ‘drunk bus’, and together break out of the endless loop into a world of uncertainty, excitement and incredibly poor decision-making.”
The ‘drunk bus’ is not just a figure of someone’s imagination for the sake of cinematic inspiration though. Brandon LaGanke, one half of directorial duo Ghost + Cow - the other half being John Carlucci - actually drove said inebriated bus when he was at college, attending Kent State University in Ohio in the early noughties. It involved overnight driving shifts, shipping drinkers around their hometown. The personal attachments to this story only begin there, with Brandon drawing upon his drunk bus experiences to bring this film to life, right down to the casting of his bus security guard - a non-actor - as the security guard in the film.
It was set for premiere at SXSW, which couldn’t take place due to the coronavirus. To give it a small spot in the limelight in the meantime, Addison Capper chatted with Brandon and John, aka Ghost + Cow.
NB: There is no trailer online right now so the below interview will have to be enough to whet your appetite for the time being!
LBB> When did you first get involved in Drunk Bus? What was it about the project that made you keen to take the project on?
BRANDON> I actually drove the Drunk Bus back in college while going to Kent State University in Ohio from 2001-2005. So the story is sort of autobiographical. Haha. It was a really weird route starting around 10pm and ending around 3am. I didn’t see light very often and took late classes. The characters that got on the bus always made me think that it would make for a really interesting movie. So when I left college, moved to NYC and became a filmmaker, I told my partner John about this unique job and we started riffing on what the story could be.
JOHN> We loved the idea of telling a contained story. The bus is essentially a moving set that represents our character’s world. For the most part, a world where characters are constantly entering and exiting the set, and in a way, taking the idea of a stage play. Within that, we knew we could get crafty with a lot of filmmaking techniques to give subtext to our character. The costumes, the lighting, even the sound design of the bus, could all be used to create Michael’s world, who is the most important seed to our story. The more we brainstormed the more excited we got about how we could craft this vehicle (pun not intended ha!) being our first feature film. And the story started coming together.
BRANDON> So, we hooked up with our writer, Chris Molinaro, and the three of us collaborated on the screenplay. Even more interesting is the co-lead, Pineapple, who plays the lead character’s security guard, was my actual security guard at Kent, so he’s actually playing himself too!
JOHN> Which was another aspect that made us want to take it on. Making the decision to have one of our two leads be a non-actor. It was a process that would really challenge our directing skills, and in the end I’m really glad we did.
LBB> Summarise Drunk Bus for us! Not just the narrative but also the style. What genre does it sit within?
BRANDON> Our elevator pitch for a long time was ‘Clerks on a bus’. Based in Kent, Ohio in 2006, Drunk Bus is about a guy named Michael, (Charlie Tahan) who’s sort of stuck in a rut six months after graduating. He drives this peculiar route affectionately dubbed by the students as ‘The Drunk Bus’, which takes kids from the campus to the bars downtown. His world is turned upside down when he gets a text from his ex saying that she’ll be coming back to town in a week, and that she wants to see him. Throughout the movie, he obsesses over this text. After getting punched by a rowdy passenger, the bus service assigns a security guard who is a large punk rock Somoan with facial tats. Pineapple becomes Michael’s sage, showing him everything he missed in college.
The style is a major part of the narrative. The movie takes place during the dead of winter and at night. 98% of the movie takes place at night, actually. We created a very drab world that’s both depressing and beautiful at the same time, but it perfectly parallels Michael’s character and what he’s going through. He is stuck in a metaphorical loop, so from how we art directed it, lit it and directed our actors, we wanted to make sure audiences felt stuck with him; making the cinematography claustrophobic in a way.
I think it crosses genres, really. It’s a dark comedy, or ‘dramedy’, as they say, but we shot it like a horror film. We chose our favourite DP, Luke McCoubrey, for that purpose. He had just made a fantastic genre movie called The Clovehitch Killer, and he had a perfect vision for the film. Read about that here
We wanted the darkness to help create a sense of authenticity within a completely ridiculous setting. We think this has created a really attractive and memorable juxtaposition throughout the movie. And when that last scene happens - no spoilers - it makes it all worth it.
JOHN> We also kept up the idea of repetition and being stuck in a loop by repeating shots and their framing so they would create a familiar context to the audience. But there is something to be said about the artistic ‘style’ of this film. That’s one of the great things about working in this medium, is that it gives you the opportunity to curate a giant visual art exhibit of different artists letting you create your own style. Aside from Luke, we gathered a group of artist friends and family from all over the world, making them architects in this world that became ‘Drunk Bus’. All of FY Bob’s artwork came from a painter named Dan Krupin in Brooklyn. All of Michael’s Polaroids came from a band called Solid Gold in Minneapolis - they’re also on the soundtrack. Our soundtrack became an awesome mixtape made mostly of the artists we’ve either shot or made videos for. Her Space Holiday, Har Mar Superstar, Yip Deceiver, a band from Norway called Datsun. The original score is made up of three composers we’ve worked with for years. Alan Wilkis (Big Data) out of Brooklyn, Jimmy Stofer and Nathaniel Eras both out of LA. Nathaniel came to set to record sounds of the bus to be used in the score and sound design, which was really cool. We also dropped Easter eggs throughout, from a lot of our previous work. Creating our own subtext, our own worlds is the Ghost + Cow style.
Brandon + John
LBB> What are your favourite elements of this story?
BRANDON> It was probably the bus. That thing became our stage, our home, our Millennium Falcon. We had to find the perfect bus and we literally found one the night before shooting. We purchased about four of them. We gutted it and transformed it into a shootable bus. I love shot listing and figuring out camera angles, blocking and anything technical related to how the narrative is told, so working with the bus was my favourite part. The 12-degree (Fahrenheit) night exterior shooting… not so much.
JOHN> I love that this story has heart and that it leaves you thinking about our main character. When you choose to make a comedy dealing with young adults or teenagers, you can choose to tell it with a saccharin tone or a bittersweet tone. We wanted to give Drunk Bus a more realistic style, and to us that means bittersweet. Yes it has whacky moments, but it also has a balance of trials and hard truths that we all go through in our youth. John Hughes was a master at this and his movies were a huge influence to the both of us. I also love that we were able to work in a water balloon launcher because that was pretty much my whole extracurricular college life.
LBB> Judging by the synopsis, it sounds like a very character driven story. Is that right? Tell us about the protagonists.
BRANDON> Yes, it’s very character driven. There are so many unique characters in this story. And there’s really only one antagonist which is Todd, the bully kid who had sex with Michael’s ex. Michael, the main protagonist, is a kid who just can’t move onto the next phase of his life, and can’t make a decision. It’s a character I think a lot of people will be able to relate to. There’s this weird time after college once you’re thrown out into the world, not sure what to do and where to go.
The most important protagonists for me in the story are also the most unlikely ones in the beginning of the film. A few are Devo Ted, which is a sassy drug dealer who sells stuff on ebay and is a massive DEVO fan (fun fact, DEVO started their band in Kent), and Fuck You Bob. He’s this really old, ex-art professor from the ‘70s who has stayed around town and only says two words to people: Fuck You. These characters are important because they serve as examples of people in Michael’s world who have never left Kent.
JOHN> Yes, definitely character driven. A good strong character is always important, but we knew in the early stages that Michael and Pineapple were going to be center stage because, as aforementioned, the movie is somewhat designed like a stage play. This gave us the opportunity to enrich our characters with more screen time; more backstory, more banter. But what really took our characters to the next level was our cast. Selling the relationship between Michael and Pineapple was crucial or the movie would fall flat. Charlie and Pineapple had instant, palpable chemistry. They would even hang out together on the days we weren’t shooting them. Pineapple kind of became a surrogate father and was actually looking out for Charlie. It was actually kind of magical and sweet.
LBB> From an aesthetic and style point of view, where did you look for inspiration?
BRANDON> There was so much inspiration for this film. There’s a lot of layers to it. First off, the world was inspired by Kent, Ohio. We needed a drab, frozen world that felt small but also inviting. Like a little terrible place you never want to leave. We shot in Rochester, New York with our producer, Eric Hollenbeck, so we took cues from the real Kent location. We scouted Kent many times and we even brought our writer, Chris, to Kent to ride the real drunk bus prior to writing the screenplay. We took inspiration from the real wardrobe, logos and iconography of the Campus Bus Service in Kent. A lot of the inspiration in the characters came from real people. Pineapple was a real person and we found his old punk jacket that he used to wear. Small details like a bandana that he used to wear around his left boot were implemented. We worked very closely with our production designer, Carmen Navis, and costume designer, Shawna Foley, to bring in unique elements from my experiences in Kent and John’s.
JOHN> Brandon mentioned the Millenium Falcon earlier, and for me that was truth. I have always been inspired by the aesthetics of Star Wars, and particularly The Empire Strikes Back. I felt like DRUNK BUS is similar to Empire in that you essentially have four characters cruising around in a beat up vehicle on a ‘frozen planet’. But I mentioned John Hughes, Brandon mentioned ‘Clerks’; these are all influences. There’s one influence however, a movie that has a major influence over DRUNK BUS, AND our relationship, and that is one of the most important movies in cinematic history. ‘Better Off Dead’.
LBB> What was the production process like? How did you bring this to life?
BRANDON> It was insane! In production, they always say don’t film babies and animals. I can confidently add ‘busses and snow’ to that list. We went on a mission to shoot a moving bus during the dead of winter in upstate New York on a very low budget with an actor who didn’t have a driver’s license prior to this film. It was HARD to say the least. We also didn’t realise until we got into hard prep that we were shooting an action film. Like a comedy version of Speed. Haha.
JOHN> Man, this whole thing was a challenge. Like Brandon said, vehicles and snow. The bus would shut down, we would get freezing temperatures… sometimes freezing rain… most of our shoot days were overnights. Between a brutal winter and our schedule, I honestly think I saw the actual sun once in two-and-a-half months. No lie. We were nocturnal winter vampires. But I'm not complaining, I actually liked it. Anyways, you could say this production started five years ago when the script was done. We’ve been pushing this boulder up a hill for a long time. It had different investors, a different cast, different crew. Bringing this to life took perseverance and commitment. We knew we had something good, and we knew it had to be made.
LBB> On top of all that - ha - what were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
BRANDON> Related to the above question, the hardest part was shooting the bus. But we created, I think, a genius way to shoot it and it completely saved our production. We shot the majority of the days on a stage. But the stage we wanted to use wasn’t big enough. We couldn’t fit the bus in there, so we found a storage facility that housed cars during the winter. We pulled the bus in, replaced the lights with our own, popped out windows and the front windshield and basically created our own ‘poor man’s process’. This was crucial since it was like 10 degrees outside. One of our producers and visual effects supervisor, Steven Illous, created a rear-projection system for one side of the bus. It was so realistic that it was a little disorienting when standing inside the stationary bus. Our DP, Luke McCoubrey, created a circular rigg of Astera lights that would chase along the side of the bus to fabricate passing street lights and oncoming traffic. It was really quite impressive and no viewer has yet to comment on its authenticity - even though we shot like 90% of all bus interiors on that stage. The next challenging part, and this needed a fantastic AD staff, led by Brian O’Sullivan and scripty person, was dividing the bus interiors with the exteriors. It’s actually very complicated but we did it. The late night scheduling and fun technical graphs in our hotel room was exhilarating.
JOHN> The first component was getting this thing funded. We thought it was going to be a studio or film investors but it ended up being a bunch of friends I went to highschool with. It was a hail mary pass. But another one that I mentioned earlier was casting a non-actor as one of our leads. Pineapple was attached from the beginning so for five years we started working with him almost immediately. We couldn’t substitute this guy, he was just too original to replace. So we went through the whole script and changed his dialogue to a vernacular that was more natural to him, we would do script reads over video chat, we sent him to acting classes given by Marco Perella (Boyhood) down in Austin. But as I said, we welcomed the challenge. We’d been directing for nearly a decade, but the ultimate test is taking a non-actor and creating a character with them; getting a performance out of them. We quickly learned what he needed on set, how to work with him, how to communicate. It was really awesome. It’s something we knew that by the end of the picture would give us better directing chops, and again, I'm so glad we did it.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
BRANDON> Last thing I’ll say is, even though our film didn’t get its premiere at SXSW, we are currently talking with a lot of distributors and hope to bring Drunk Bus to a living room near you soon! So please check out our website, drunkbusmovie.com
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JOHN> Yeah! We are so proud of this movie. Proud of our cast, proud of our amazing crew. We had a great family on this show and we’re so glad we were able to carry all of these people across the finish line and showcase everyone’s hard work. And as Brandon said: Plug plug plug! Twitter! Facebook! Instagram! @drunkbusmovie!