Interview: Directors Andrei Bowden-Schwartz & Sam Jones Talk Red White & Wasted

Mudding documentary Red, White & Wasted hits VOD this Tuesday (September 22nd) and we published a review for its release in Drive-Ins and Virtual Cinemas a few weeks back. Now in anticipation for its wider release, Brandon sat down with filmmakers Andrei Bowden-Schwartz and Sam Jones to discuss the film, mudding, the people and what it all says about America as a whole. 

I really loved the film, guys. I thought it was such a fascinating look at something I, like many I’m sure, had no idea even existed. So that leads me into my first question, how did you guys discover Mudding Culture?

Sam Jones: “Well, we are not super experienced mudders, unlike what some people might assume. We knew nothing about it, we encountered mudding online. We found some grainy YouTube video of mud events and mud bogs and we were super fascinated by the footage. And then in trying to research we found that there was very little, especially in 2015, written about mudding. No professional mudding videos. Nothing really thoughtful out there at all. So we decided the best way to learn more was to grab a camera and go to some of these mud events and try to see for ourselves what it was all about. 

“Once we got to our first event we realized pretty quickly ‘oh! There’s something here. We gotta go deeper here. We gotta keep coming back and figure out what we have on our hands here.’”

I can absolutely see how that would be exciting, the discovery of all of that. Especially when you get to the Redneck Yacht Club. I’ve never seen anything like that. I had vague ideas of what I thought mudding was but I had no idea that that’s what it entailed. 

Andrei Bowden-Schwartz: “Well, I think for most people, it doesn’t entail that, you know? I think it’s important to get across that for most people, mudding, at least in the collective imagination is just like taking your truck out in the mud. Kind of just like ‘we found a little spot off the side of the road and we’re gonna go tear it up and have some fun.’

“But Florida is Florida and everything can get pretty crazy and built up down there. They have a very unique ‘Disney-fication’ of mudding there that drew us in for sure.”

Speaking to that, since you guys were a lot like me and didn’t know much about it going in, how forthcoming were people initially? Were they suspicious of motivations or anything? Or were they open immediately?

SJ: “Honestly, it was a lot easier than we had initially expected. I think at first we were like ‘I don’t know, are people gonna trust us? We’re from the North, here with this big camera, are we gonna be able to get access?’ and I think people were actually really open with us kind of from the jump. 

“I think the challenge that we faced was maintaining some of the relationships or finding ways to go even deeper over time. Because once people got over the initial excitement of ‘some documentarians with a big camera care about me?’, once that novelty wore off maybe it was a little harder. But at these big events, everyone is having a good time, everyone is drinking. Most people there feel safe and comfortable in this homogeneous cultural space where they look around and see a bunch of other people like them. They don’t feel threatened by us and they’re happy to say why they’re there, what they love about mudding, what their political views are...and just to be very clear about it, we were outsiders but we were two white dudes and I think that that was especially instrumental in gaining trust and access.”

Right. And I think one thing your film gets across really well is that the more you talk to people, the more you realize that many people aren’t your enemy and that people are just people. Once you get into a conversation with someone it’s easier to open up. To that point, were you surprised by how forthcoming people were with their views and racism? There were many moments where someone would say something horrifically racist and then they would immediately backtrack with “well, I know that’s wrong.” Was that surprising? Did you ever feel like that they were almost trying to reckon with themselves on some level?

ABS: “I think to a certain degree, everybody deals with...let’s say a version of reckoning. I mean when you talk with people individually, you have experiences like you just described. They can say the most horribly offensive things that you’ve ever heard and then backtrack to a point where they say ‘I know that’s racist. That makes me sound like a stupid redneck, I didn’t really mean it uh, but I kinda do.’ And that was very common. So that kind of gives you the idea that people are what they are but they also want to be heard and understood and there’s a camera in their face. So they want to sort of perform their identity and personality for us to a certain extent. I think it definitely surprised us in the beginning (things that people said) but at a certain point it sort of became expected and we came to understand that people were going to say these things. And saying them, knowing that on an intellectual level it’s wrong but they would also say it without any real shame. 

“So then it becomes a question that’s bigger than anyone saying something offensive but more of a question of ‘what is the culture and society that teaches people to say these things in the first place and enables them without repercussions?’ and even further, one that teaches them to perform these aspects of their personality. So when you get to the Redneck Yacht Club, what you’re really seeing is kind of a closed circuit. Kind of a special place where everybody is encouraged to perform the most heightened version of their identity which may not be even that closely related to who you are in your normal day-to-day life but it’s certainly a part of who you are in your heart.”

SJ: “I just wanted to add, in light of your question, I totally agree with what Andrei is saying. Something we really found, and this may be obvious, when we were shooting this movie (2015-2019), everyone we were filming no matter how objectionable or hateful their views may be, everyone knows being racist is bad. That racism is bad. So most of these people we spoke with had some racist views, at least many of them did. And they’re aware of that.

“So what they’re struggling with is ‘I know racism is bad but I also have these views or these attitudes inside me.’ And maybe they don’t necessarily have the tools to deal with that and that can be very ugly. And I don’t want to make excuses for anybody but we intentionally didn’t want have any ‘gotcha’ moments. We have footage of people saying way worse things than what’s on camera. But we never wanted to feel like we were dunking on anyone with a ‘gotcha! You said a horrible thing!’ We intentionally chose moments where people say something that is racist but they’re aware of that and give them the opportunity to try to think that out...Anyway that’s all to say that that was very intentional on our part. To show this level of awareness and these conflicts and contradictions within people. Because these aren’t cartoon constructs but rather complex, three-dimensional people.”

ABS: “We also found that it was more interesting for us, as filmmakers, to imagine ourselves as viewers and to see people say something they acknowledge rather than record it and be done. It’s way more interesting to see people sort of struggle but say it anyway than it is to say “gotcha.” Because at a certain point watching the film, you get it. There’s racist shit in the world. Got it. The information has been delivered. So now, what more can you say about it?

(Image courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

I think that’s what makes your film so compelling. Because there’s this push/pull and if you watch a trailer or read the description, you go into it thinking you know these people. But when you watch this film, these people go beyond their stereotypes. That kind of brings me to Video Pat (the film’s ostensible star). Focusing on him is brilliant because he’s such a disarming presence, he doesn’t fit many stereotypes. So how did you meet him? What brought you to him?

SJ: “So we started on our ‘casting’ process by going to these huge mud events and we didn’t meet Pat at one of those. We met someone from Orlando and we were like ‘There’s mudding in Orlando?’ and she was like ‘yeah we got this place called Swamp Ghost. I work at a bank but every weekend, I go out to Swamp Ghost and go mudding. It’s super cool and it’s right by Sea World.’ So we had to go check it out. So we went to Orlando and there, we met Pat in some of the ‘last days of Swamp Ghost.’ 

“He was a pretty shy guy but once we got him to let us visit his house, he started pulling out all of his old tapes and pretty immediately opened up about how his wife left him because he wouldn’t stop going to the mud hole. It was pretty quickly clear that he was a compelling character.”

I was so surprised by him and centering the film on him creates a tough dynamic because I think a lot of people on the left, including myself, have a bit of an exhaustion about things depicting the “disaffected white, working class.” And I think a lot of people like me find it difficult to sit in those feelings of empathizing with someone who you disagree with so entirely. You could’ve focused on anyone that fit a stereotype but the fact that you didn’t is endlessly compelling. I think it’s important to force people to sit with their feelings even if they don’t want to. 

ABS: “Well, I’m glad that you said that and that you had that experience and that you were uncomfortable because that was why we made the movie to be honest. We didn’t make the movie to...well rather why we made it was to take this unique lens or experience and use it to function as a mirror for the viewers. To use it and say ‘These are relatable people’ to the viewers we knew we were going to get: privileged white people who go to film festivals and watch documentaries and stuff like a large part of why we made the movie was to speak to the audience and say ‘You see yourself here don’t you? You need to think about that.’ 

“It’s not as if racism or misogyny or all of these things exist only in Florida. I mean, New York has the most segregated school system in the country. While we do not want to condone the actions of anyone and while we’re not trying to ‘Red Pill’ anyone by saying ‘we got you!’ in a different context, we’re also saying ‘these aren’t just their issues. We have those issues too.’ These things don’t happen in a vacuum. These trends are neither accidental nor are they unique. So the kind of viewing experience that you describe, where you’re able to peer behind the top most layer of the movie to see something that speaks to you on a deeper level, we want that to happen where people are forced to confront themselves while they watch the movie. And not just point the finger, which we thought would be too easy...but to also point it back at yourself and say ‘well I don’t know about you but I don’t know about me either.’”

I think Americans, especially, have a tough time with films that aren’t didactic. They want to know who the good guy is, who the bad guy is and with Video Pat, he’s not an inherently bad person. He’s often the friendliest person, it’s disarming! 

I wanted to ask though, in terms inspiration, I’m sure you pulled from many different things, but one thing I noticed was the overwhelming presence of Disney. It reminded me so much of The Florida Project, through imagery and conversations and this corporate entity literally eating people. So was that an inspiration? And what other inspirations did you pull from while making this?

SJ: I think on some level that Florida Project was. It came out at some point during the process of making the film. I think we saw that and we saw a lot of truth in that film. And like yes! This is a world that we know and have been filming in. We certainly liked that movie quite a lot. But I don’t think it was a big touchstone but it’s a movie I have a lot of respect for. I mean it takes place in a lot of ways in the same world, it’s just a slightly different part of it.

“I think a lot of our inspirations, speaking for myself, were character-driven documentaries of people who were, let’s say, on the margins. What comes to mind immediately for me is Dragonslayer, the documentary about skateboarding and American Movie, perhaps obvious but a real reference. And one of editors, Barry Polterman, cut American Movie, so there’s definitely some overlap there...also that great Errol Morris documentary, Vernon, Florida was another big one.”

ABS: “There are a lot of references to pull from. I think, just to go back to the reason that there are similarities to our film and The Florida Project is not so much because we liked the movie so much but because that they both capture something that’s true about these communities. 

“It’s like the Wall Street of Orlando. Their main economy is this one thing and life is affected by it. I think that The Florida Project is a very good movie that really goes somewhere deep into the lives of its characters and that’s why you pick up on how their lives are affected by the Big Behemoth next door. But hopefully the reasons could be the same for our movie too. Once you go deep enough, it’s all right there.”

The score really jumped out to me. Seeing that it was Brooke & Will Blair, did you reach out to them specifically because of their work on films like Blue Ruin or Green Room? Were you trying to capture a similar tone?

SJ: “I’m certainly a big fan of the work they did on those films...In a way, it was less specifically about the scores that they had done but more that they showed an ability to take on different sounds and kind of mutate their sounds. In listening to their work, I didn’t feel like every score sounds the same. I found that they were able to shift their aesthetics and their instrumentation and their style for the project in a way that we thought was really important. Also, we liked that they work in a team very intimately and the way that we do and that they had a spirit of experimentation that we were open to.

“We really threw a ton of references at them and really challenged them in some ways on the score. I don’t know whether it comes across or not but they were able to do cool stuff where we were like ‘we really want some crazy sounding percussions’ and they would send us a video of like, they went down to a basement and collected a bunch of metal pipes and animal skulls and were drumming on those to get the right sounds. We really wanted the score to feel, in a lot places, like Pat’s life and referencing (metal) scrapping. We wanted it to be patched together and a little janky and everything kind of assembled. We didn’t want the instruments sounding clean or right or expected.”

Have any of the people that you interviewed, like Pat specifically or anyone in general, seen the film? Or have they reached out and been excited or upset seeing themselves on camera? 

SJ: “Yeah, so we had our premiere at Tribeca. Once we had picture-locked the film before the premiere, I went down to show the film to Pat and his family. So, not everyone involved but Pat and his daughters, the core of the film, I sat in the room with them and watched the movie. I was very nervous about it, to be frank, but it went over really well. It was a very, very tense experience. We had to pause the movie a number of times to talk about and process things. There was crying, it was really emotionally intense. But they were very moved to see themselves represented on screen in a way they felt was honest. And they were very moved to see that we had delivered on our promise. It probably seemed pretty crazy that these guys would show up out of nowhere and be like ‘we’re interested in you and we want to make a movie about you.’

“They felt it was fair, they really liked it. There were a few moments where they did feel uncomfortable about things put in the movie, specifically some of the racist things they had said...but they didn’t feel cheated or anything like that...But I don’t know what the rest of the people on camera will say but I know that the family has seen the film and they really appreciated and enjoyed it.”

(Image courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

You captured a lot of people who intimated, almost excitedly, that they were preparing for an armed rebellion, especially in the interstitials. A lot pro-2nd Amendment adjacent talk. So I’m wondering, and no one could’ve predicted this, is it at all shocking to see just a few years later, what’s happening in response to protests in Portland or Wisconsin? Do you feel like, unintentionally, like the beginning of something was captured on film?

ABS: “It’s very hard to describe how I feel. On one hand, I’m not shocked at all...when a Trump caravan drives into Portland, waving their flags, that’s a very recognizable image. Sam and I have seen that a hundred thousand times. (It was) a daily experience when we were making the movie. When you see people carrying guns around, that’s totally normal too. We saw it a hundred times, we talked to people a hundred times about when they would use their gun. But at the same time I reserve the right to be shocked. Especially when people actually take it the level they’re taking it to, mostly because I think they’re being absolutely ridiculous, personally. I think it’s so childish, you know? To say ‘I’m gonna bring my gun to defend this gas station and the price that I pay could be somebody’s life.’ It’s not worth it. It’s not worth your life or anybody else’s. 

“I think it’s important not to be too complacent or jaded. You have to stay vigilant, even if it’s just in your mind. I think that’s been a lesson that I’ve had to remind myself during COVID and the lockdown. You can’t just let your brain turn to spaghetti, it’s bad for you and it’s bad for the people around you.” 

Ending on something a little lighter, did either of you attempt any mudding while you were there?

ABS: “Oh yeah!”

SJ: “If it’s possible, if you can leave aside some of the context, just the act of being in one of these trucks or four-wheelers and feeling hundreds of horsepower under you and you’re slamming through a pool of mud, is really fun and exhilarating. You’re with your friend and you’re drinking and on a certain level, a visceral level? I get it. And hopefully some of that, the impressive monster trucks that people build and ingenuity came through. A lot of it is just really fun. People bring their families out and there are some positive aspects to it, for sure. 

“But we couldn’t end there. We felt, in a lot of ways that it’s inextricably wrapped up in a larger culture that has a lot of darkness in it and violence and racist, sexist attitudes. But we did get to do a little mudding too...Quite frankly, it was a difficult film to make. It was physically exhausting to make and we basically moved to Florida for awhile. We didn’t really know anyone else there other than our subjects. So we definitely needed to blow off some steam.”

Speaking to that difficulty, there’s a moment in film where you and Pat are forced to leave by police or security for trespassing. Did that happen often?

SJ: “Multiple times. (laughs) We definitely got kicked out of a number of places.”

In some weird way, it feels like the last sort of outlaw culture in America.

SJ: “That’s certainly the way they see  themselves. They acknowledge it and talk about it ‘oh I got kicked out of here’ or ‘oh I was trespassing there!’...Chase (a subject in the film) has a little scene where he monologues about trespassing and being rebellious and tries to link off-roading and trespassing to the Civil War (laughs). Whether you buy that argument or not is up to you. But we did think it was an interesting argument to place in the film, particularly in context to him...Trying to find mud holes on the side of the road, under a Sea World sign, we certainly hope that there’s some slight degree of irony that comes across there.”

-Brandon Streussnig