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‘Drunk Bus’ makes a stop this weekend in Rochester

May 28, 2021

Charlie Tahan is the driver in 'Drunk Bus.'
Credit Provided

The unnamed co-star of “Drunk Bus,” now showing at The Little Theatre, is Rochester.

The film’s co-directors, John Carlucci and Brandon LaGanke, and producer Eric Hollenbeck are back in town this weekend, a reunion with the city that served as a stand-in for Kent, Ohio, the setting for their film with an indie vibe. 

“Drunk Bus” smells like something that could develop a cult following: The story of a bus driver who ferries hard-partying college students to and from the town’s bars and other alcohol-driven appointments.

The filmmakers have a meet-and-greet 1 p.m. Saturday at Record Archive, with giveaways and free tickets. Then at 3:15 p.m. Sunday, after having been dark throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the screen at The Little Theatre 1 lights up once again with a special showing of “Drunk Bus,” followed by a question-and-answer session.

Carlucci and LaGanke spent a little less than three weeks here in March 2019 while filming. They sampled the city’s whiskey and hung out with some of Rochester’s best rock bands, Joywave and KOPPS.

All of this fell together for 101 minutes of quirky cinema. “Drunk Bus” won the Best Narrative Feature Award at the 2020 San Diego International Film Festival.

“As we spent more and more time there, we really fell in love with it,” LaGanke says of Rochester. 

Even early in their pre-production, when a blizzard hit the city. “John and I had the great idea of, let’s do some, let’s get some whiskey out, and let’s go for a walk. And we just walked, I mean, like four or five hours.”

The city’s landmarks are scattered throughout the film. World Wide News on St. Paul Street is costumed up a bit to make it appear that it is in Kent, renamed World Wide Food. Rochester Institute of Technology sits in for Kent State University. And, of course, most Rochesterians will recognize the piles of snow that build up in the city’s parking lots over the course of winter.

It was Hollenbeck, a native of Elmira, who suggested that the film location be shifted to Rochester.

“He was like, ‘Well guys, listen, I know what you’re going for, having lived in Ohio,’ ” Carlucci says. “ ‘But, I know Rochester, and I know it can double for Kent, or any part of Ohio pretty much. Just trust me on this.’ ”

Despite their reservations -- they were insistent on filming in Kent -- Carlucci and LaGanke agreed on a scouting mission to Rochester.

“We’re like, ‘OK, that’ll work, that’ll work,’ ” Carlucci says. “ ‘OK, we’ll do it.’ ”

Rochester’s tax incentive for filmmakers was a help.

“But most importantly,” Carlucci says, “what sold the deal for Rochester were our beloved friends in Joywave and KOPPS. Because we’d known those guys for a long time. It really meant we got to hang with them more often than we normally get to.”

That goes back to the earlier careers of Carlucci and LaGanke, making videos. They met Joywave frontman Daniel Armbruster in 2005, when he appeared in Big Data’s “Dangerous” video. Then they did a couple of videos for Joywave and KOPPS, and short films for outlets such as the comedy website “Funny Or Die.”

Then it was time for them to make their first feature-length movie. What was it they saw in Rochester?

“Kinda drab, you know?” LaGanke says.

But for reality’s sake, drab’s not a bad thing.

“Drab is another word for normal,” he says. “Kind of Middle America, what people are used to seeing.”

“Common,” Carlucci adds.

“There’s something very beautiful and powerful,” he says, “about things being filmed during the winter, that a lot of people don’t get to see, or have to fake.

“Being able to capture that authentically was very important. It kind of sets the tone of the story. You know, this kind of depressing, dark, vampiric lifestyle that Michael is accustomed to.”

Michael is the film’s main character, the campus bus driver played by Charlie Tahan. It’s Michael who pilots the bus in an endless loop through the town; a metaphor, if we’ve ever heard one, for someone unsure of where life is going.

LaGanke draws this from life experience. He actually was a campus bus driver at Kent State. His security guard on those rides, a tattooed Samoan American named Pineapple Tangaroa, reprises his own real-life role in the film.

Real Rochester for Carlucci and LaGanke meant becoming regulars at The Spirit Room and Tapas 177. Breakfast many mornings at Fifth Frame Brewing (the coffee, not the beer). Dinner at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (Tangaroa is a big wing man). Record Archive was one of LaGanke’s favorite spots in the city, a good place to nerd out on music and films, he says. 

And they had a deluxe suite at the Holiday Inn Riverside. “We had a lot of parties up there,” LaGanke says. “Not only our cast and crew, but the Joywave guys and everyone we knew in Rochester. Including their friends.”

“The other thing about Rochester was it’s a very cinematic town,” Carlucci says. “And on that scout that Brandon mentioned, and even just other scouts going around, it has parts that can feel like Brooklyn, parts that feel European. The Xerox building is still one of my favorite buildings of all time. I love that brutalist architecture.

“We got to go scout the Kodak plant, and that was kind of like seeing ‘Alien 3’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ and old Detroit ‘RoboCop.’ ”

Tickets for Sunday’s showing at The Little are available at thelittle.org/drunk-bus/.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.