Documentaries are either made by people who are interested in or directly involved with the communities or issues they portray. An outsider looking in may have more credible objectivity, but they may also tire from discussing their film. An insider, on the other hand, would consistently, enthusiastically comment on their work, but risk alienating an audience less familiar with the film’s subject matter. Sean Porter is in the second category of filmmakers. His documentary “dubbed,” a tribute to Volkswagen modifying and racing culture, demonstrates his esteem for his muse without estranging potential viewers. This interview began as informal emails exchanged for me to find out more information about dubbed. I expected succinct responses; what I received was better than short, sweet, and to the point. Articulate, thorough, and amusing, Porter’s words prompted me to formulate a few proper questions so that I could gain more insights into and possibly get a few anecdotes about his experience making his film.
How many days did you spend filming “dubbed” and how hot did it get?
Principal photography for “dubbed” happened down in Buttonwillow, California during one of the largest VW shows on the west coast. I think at one point I heard someone say they were happy it wasn’t as hot as the previous years—this time only getting into the 110’s. Sunscreen and water were the crutches of the film. The event itself was two full days with a large pre-party the night of the first day. Within those 48hrs we captured 48hrs of material. At any given time we had up to 7 video cameras running at different locations following different characters simultaneously capturing events that eventually interwove with each other. My crews had to be incessantly mobile and ready to work in tandem or split up depending on what was happening around them. My steadicam operator, Wing Gee, flew his custom full-body rig for over 6hrs continuously throughout the night of the party, sometimes even having to run back fully loaded to get another tape or battery if no one else was around. Combined with the 15hrs of interviews we completed as a second unit previous to the event, the majority battle of the film was simply resolving the story from almost 3 days (straight viewing) worth of material.
Are you a Volkswagen fan as well or did you meet/know some people who are, therefore contributing to your decision to make “dubbed”?
As far as my involvement with VW’s go, I hope my relationship transpired a little to the screen. I met many of the people featured in the film when VW’s slowly took over my life and consumed me for 5 years… it was definitely a love/hate relationship and after so long I finally had to merge my artistic tendencies with my obsession with the damn things. Luckily, shortly after the event my Scirocco (actually stripped to the shell in the background of Shannon’s interviews being prepped for the show, which was one week following the taping) met with some engine and body damage; I was finally pushed over the edge and sold it. The film, now 8 months later, has become a sort of sad memento for many of the VW enthusiasts in the area. Shannon’s very well known red turbo Scirocco was stolen only weeks after the film was completed and the title credits feature the fabrication of a one-of-a-kind turbo 16v motor, which ceased when the owner (coincidentally the steadicam operator) ran out of resources and consequently motivation. Most of the major enthusiasts featured in the film (besides Shawn Meze & the ‘Potters’) have sadly moved on from the VW’s, but every time we get together we can’t help but remember.
In what sense of “move on” do you mean? Moved on to other hobbies or other kinds of cars?
It was more like a slow drift, but for some reason, this particular event really ended up being a kind of last straw for many of my characters. Not that the event was bad or ruined their experience, but it marked a point of departure. For some that departure was deliberate, and for some it was completely forced. In the Shannon Fenton’s case, although he complained about the car a lot, it was very much apart of his life and he would have never rid himself of that car. Unfortunately when it was taken from him, he removed himself from the scene all together. When someone takes away something that took years and years of hard work, patience, friendships, blood, sweat and plenty of tears – you just can’t jump back in. When that car was stolen, his passion for dubs was stripped just as bare as the devastated chassis we recovered. Others, like Wing, had full intention of completing his car but simply ran out of time and money. It was far less personal, but still a big hit when he was forced to sell everything he had built up just to feed himself. I, on the other hand, was just plain done. I had spent an unbelievable amount of time and money on the car, and like everyone else, it contained the passion and hard work of everyone else in the community. I had just spent 8 months completing on-off custom body work and preparing the car for a brand new paint job, rushing to get the car completed by the show. Just a month or so after the show I was test driving the car after some modifications to the engine. Within 4 miles of the shop the motor let go. Blowing the motor I had very recently built was enough of a shock, but to seal the deal, while we were towing the car back to the shop, a strap got caught under a wheel and ripped a section of fiberglass right off the front of the car. I simply couldn’t sustain the damage and knew I wouldn’t have the money to repair it. Instead of holding out I decided it would be best to simply let it go and leave my car obsession behind. For me personally, in the long run, it wasn’t so much about the end product or ‘result,’ but rather the journey, friends and experience I gained through the process. For what I learned, my experience was cheaper than my college degree and pretty damn equivalent in terms of applicable knowledge gained. I guess what I meant by moving on was really simply exiting and entering chapters of our lives. Dubs were a very extended, personal phase I suppose.
How did the Volkswagen slowly take over your life?
VW’s are much like any other addiction. You don’t know you are in trouble until it’s too late. I was at the end of high school at the time it happened. I had been driving around in my dad’s old Acura Legend. He told me to sell it because at the time even a 91 Acura had decently high insurance. He told me to go find something cheaper that could get me around. It was the first car I saw for sale in my neighborhood. It was black. It was small. It looked cool. I couldn’t pronounce the name on badge, so I went home and typed ‘Scirocco’ into the search bar. That was my fatal mistake. From there on out I would spend hours browsing the many web pages and groups spanning the globe featuring the cars and owners who would eventually become the roots of my inspiration. It was the community that sucked me in more than anything. It was a completely new notion to me that 100’s of people around the world were all connected through one small little 80’s German car. Upon finally acquiring the little black Scirocco, I immediately began researching all the modifications that were possible. I joined the groups, listened to what they had to say and starting learning all I could. I’ll never forget the first ‘tech day’ I attended in Issaquah, where a dozen or so Scirocco guys got together and worked on their rides. Immediately I was brought into the group; they all looked my car over and told me what I needed to do. I was a sponge. Suddenly I was learning about engine displacement, induction, and ignition. More specifically, I was learning how to enhance them to improve the car’s performance beyond its original capacity. By the 3rd month I owned the car, I was knee deep in my first engine swap, facilitated by another Scirocco nut, in his garage. These cars just bred instant camaraderie. Of course, after a long and painful experience the motor was finally put back together, and on its maiden voyage back home from Tacoma, the bolt plugging the oil drain hole gave way, dumping all my oil out onto the freeway and subsequently killed the motor. The next swap was in my garage, all by myself. The rest is a long history of too much money and too much time, but it all followed the same principle: The car was just a vehicle, literally, to access the community; it wasn’t the addiction. The people and the fascination were the addiction.
If Japanese cars customized to be faster, more aggressive, and more aesthetically fetching are “tricked out,” would a Volkswagen that undergoes a similar transformation be “dubbed”?
As far as I know it’s not a reference to modifying VW’s. Most folks I know just call it modifying or “modding,” and that goes for all car cultures. “Tricked-out” usually applies to the “Fast and the Furious” culture of tuners who go for the show element. I don’t think there are any official terms, since it will vary from group to group. It’d be safe to say anyone ‘pimping’ out their Civic is probably more into the image than the craft. I settled on ‘dubbed’ for a title because it referenced ‘dub’ (a slang Word for Volkswagens) and the more regular definition of dubbing/copying something (as in making ‘dubs’). The film had no color correction done and didn’t have any effects applied to it, so ‘dubbed’ seemed appropriate.
From what the people featured in your documentary said, racing and customizing VW’s have stayed out of the clutches of mainstream culture. Would you prefer things to stay that way? How would you react if someone decided to make a “Fast and Furious” of German cars?
In terms of VW’s entering the mainstream, I can’t really help but let it happen. With the newer generation of cars becoming so popular these days, it was just a matter of time before they started showing up to big import shows with the latest graphics and neon. Luckily, my heart was never with the newer cars—and the older ones are either in the wrecking yard or in the grasps of the hard-core enthusiasts who couldn’t care less about popular culture. For me, again, it’s not really about the cars themselves as much as it is about the people. VW’s have entered the mainstream and with that have spawned a whole new generation of modifiers who care more about the latest wings and bolt-ons than aesthetic taste and quality craftsmanship. But regardless of what is happening now, the older cars retain the older generation of folks who still care, and their sensibilities are as well preserved as their cars. That is something that can’t be taken away. It can certainly be clouded and disfigured by popular culture and the media, but never dissolved. It’s funny you mention “Fast & the Furious” – a VW Jetta was one of the star cars! I heard a great story about that car too. It was auctioned off for a ridiculous amount of money to some TV star. One would expect it to be at least slightly modified since it was in the movie – but no, it just had a big wing with some rims. I heard it was an automatic (which means automatically slow) and retained the original stock 2.0L 8v!
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? How does that compare with what you want to be now or what you’re doing now?
I actually find this question to be quite entertaining. I always ask the same thing to other people because it seems like when you are kid you haven’t quite figured out the world yet and your mind is so innocent and pure that you just say what you really feel with no consideration for reality. A couple years ago I was at my parents’ house helping them move and going through old boxes full of little odds and ends from my childhood. I found this book that must have been from the 2nd or 3rd grade where everyone in class drew a picture of him/herself, wrote down their favorite color and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Looking through all the kids’ answers I saw all those great responses we always think about as kids: a firefighter, an astronaut, a basketball player. I had to stop and wonder who, if any of them, were actually doing what they had wanted to do all this time ago. When I found mine, I was surprised at what I had written, before I had found myself at all: an artist or an engineer. I guess I’m doing ok.