Interview: Andrew Morgan And Nick Nummerdor Invite You To Go Vannin’ At The Patio Theater

By Jessica Mlinaric in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 13, 2013 7:20PM

Little Cabin Films

“You can't do in a car what you can do in a van,” explains one subject in Vannin’ - A Documentary. In the 1970’s, custom vans were a vessel of rock ‘n’ roll and the open road lifestyle. The heavy rolling road warriors are making a comeback, but Chicago filmmakers Andrew Morgan and Nick Nummerdor were surprised to discover that van culture never actually died.

The film explores custom vans and their hardcore enthusiasts, with a full-length sneak preview screening at the Patio Theater (6008 W. Irving Park Rd.) this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. with a discussion to follow. Vannin’ rolls inside the 40th National Truck-In, an annual private event that celebrates vanning, and uncovers the dedicated group who has kept van culture revving for over four decades. The film is set to a heavy hitting soundtrack that includes Chicago’s Heavy Times. Chicagoist spoke with the filmmakers about the staying power of van culture and how Vannin’ is like punk rock.

Chicagoist: When did you start making films together?

Nick Nummerdor: We’ve been doing video together since middle school. It started with skateboard videos as kids to making short films in high school and then both of us pursuing film school at Columbia College. I studied documentary and Andrew studied cinematography.

C: How did you discover the vanning community?

Andrew Morgan: I have a ’73 Dodge van and that was sort of our in. I got heavily into how to fix it up. I’d get online to find tips and was like holy shit there’s a whole bizarre awesome culture here. That was nice because we were able to show up as van enthusiasts not just voyeurs. People could see our genuine interest in it so they weren’t so skeptical about what we were trying to do.

C: I wondered because in the trailer it said nationals was closed to the public, but everyone seemed so enthusiastic about talking to you.

AM: We were so fascinated by it and I think they could see our genuine interest. It wasn’t about going in and making fun of it. It was about hearing their stories from the ‘70s and the history of everything. We were like, “Yeah tell me about that weird party.” Just because it’s fascinating stuff.

NN: We had posted about wanting to film some stuff but it didn’t gain any traction. Then someone was like, “You’ve got to go meet Howard Furtak.” He’s out in the west suburbs and the club that he’s a member of, Midwest Vans Limited, was the largest club in the nation at the height of the van craze.

So we met up with Howard and had drinks with him all night. Hours later he posted, “These guys are cool.” He gave us the A-Okay, and once we were cool with Howard we were invited to their truck-in.

AM: I think it was important for this group as a whole to have that endorsement from someone they trust. One thing about them that has endured since the ’80s is they are literally the outcasts of the automotive world. They’re constantly ridiculed for their taste in cars and ridiculed for the way that they customize them. They put their guard up because they’ve been burned many times in online articles.

C: A lot of younger people are getting into vannin’ including you two. What is it about that culture that’s appealing?

AM: I think it’s just the cyclical nature of everything. Everything old is new again at some point. Vannin’ is really into ‘70s music and culture, so when you see one of these relics it screams that. Plus you don’t see a lot of them so there’s something niche and interesting about that.

NN: If you start looking into it you’ll find all of a sudden a picture of twenty custom vans in the parking lot of a Led Zeppelin show. Man, I was born a couple decades too late [laughs]. I wish I was at the Black Sabbath show in ’77 with my Dodge and all my buddies caravanning down to Indianapolis or whatever.

AM: In regards to young people getting into it, you see that in biker culture too. The chopper thing has become huge in the last decade. It’s hand-in-hand with that. You talk to some guys who are at the forefront of newer van media, there’s a guy named Matt Grayson who runs Rolling Heavy magazine, who were really into bikes. Matt says in our film, “I was into bikes and thought it would be cool to have an awesome vehicle to haul my bike in.”

C: So you made some friends?

NN: I’d say I have a whole new network of friends who are all twice my age, really.

AM: One thing we learned about the culture is that they pride themselves on their welcoming attitude to all different kinds of people.

C: Since they’re the automotive outcasts they’re more welcoming to everyone?

AM: They don’t make judgments, which I think is a great thing about vanners as a group. You can go in there and be into whatever, but they think it’s cool that you’re there and you have the common interest of the van.

NN: You can bring your mom’s Aerostar or your Uncle Dan’s rust bucket, or you can have a chopped, shortened fat tire van and you’re gonna be treated the same. They’re excited to meet you. They’ll share food and drinks. It’s all about the social aspect of it. It’s like a camping thing versus sitting in a parking lot at a hot rod show. Everyone’s cooking for each other and inviting each other over to their camps. I’ve never seen anything like it, it’s been fun.

AM: The van is really a vessel to get you to a really awesome celebration and party. It’s more of a vehicle to get you to go have a good time than a flashy fast car. They don’t handle like a race car, obviously. If you go too fast you’re gonna tip over, so I guess the vanners found a way to exploit the awesome aspects of the vehicle.

C: What are some crazy customizations you’ve seen?

AM: Everything under the sun. The wildest thing I can think of is a guy had installed fish bowls into his van and had live goldfish in there. There was an insane one this year at the nationals in Ohio. It was not my favorite but it was decked out with lights and I think there was a stripper pole in there. It was totally over the top. Someone put a lot of work into LED lighting and other stuff.

C: Were there any big surprises once you guys started digging into van culture and meeting people?

NN: I guess I was surprised at how fun it was and how welcoming everyone was. I went into it as a documentary filmmaker. Then we went to that first truck-in, the Midwest Vans 38th annual Memorial Day truck-in. They have been throwing the party for 38 years. We rolled in and opened the doors to the van and there were people greeting us and shaking our hands.

AM: I went into it with an inkling of the history, but what was surprising was realizing the impact that five or six short years had on the automotive world. We get into in the film, but vanners label themselves as the 2% and that’s a story. It was interesting to find archival type stuff. There were articles in Rolling Stone from 1979 that literally have pictures of the people that are in our film. It was national news coverage at the time, which was surprising.

NN: Those early national parties had like 6,000 vans and 20,000 people. It was like they were throwing their own Bonnaroo but with custom van culture. Everyone shows up in a van and people are just partying their asses off.

AM: It’s worth covering because custom vans were everywhere and now they’re nowhere. They were designed as utility vehicles for hauling drywall or something so they ended up getting beat to hell and scrapped. They’re pretty rare at this point.

NN: In the ‘70s there was a van day at Disneyland. They would give you a discount if you showed up in your van. We found this picture of Goofy and Mickey hanging out of a van.

AM: It’s just a testament to how mainstream it was for a while. It’s true you can’t do in a car what you can do in a van. A great line from the film is when a guy says in regards to his van, “This is my summer home and it’s always been.” This is a guy who’s been doing it for 40-plus years and I thought that was an awesome way of putting in a nutshell why a van is unique over a corvette.

C: Do you see a lot of women vanning on their own?

AM: There’s all different kinds of vanners, gender and race. We actually showcase a single woman vanner. I think maybe in the ‘70s it was more geared towards men just because of the way American culture was. It’s changed with the times; they’ve evolved with everybody else.

NN: If women don’t own their own vans then they’re putting on the events. It’s a very DIY culture where they make their own t-shirts, magnets, patches, event fliers. Each club is almost like a punk rock band trying to spread the gospel. Like a punk rock show, you wouldn’t know it is there unless you’re in the scene.

C: Why are the big shows closed to the public?

AM: They usually have a day open to the public, but the nature of what they’re doing isn’t just a car show. It’s a party and people want to be able to party in a comfortable atmosphere. If you’re a vanner and you’re accepted into that culture and have proven your mettle, you’re trusted. Once you open it to the public, the atmosphere becomes a lot different in terms of “now we have to lock our vans.” There’s thousands of dollars of van work in these things and people just leave their keys. I leave my wallet and keys on my dash the entire weekend I’m at one of these things. They want to be among their own. The public can come, you just have to have a van and pay the money to get in the gates and give it a try.

C: After three years of working on this film why are you excited to finally let people see it?

NN: I think it’s somewhat heartwarming. We went out of our way to not talk about creeper vans and present people in a positive light. They could be the neighbor down the road from your parents’ house. Nice people with a rich cultural history. I think if anything people shouldn’t take the film too seriously. It’s a riot; you should just have a fun time.

AM: It’s been such a trip. I don’t know if we’ll ever run into a situation where there’s this ultra-supportive built-in audience that really wants to see it succeed. We did our best to try to make a film that represents them for who they are. Everybody’s weird, every culture has weird things, but we chose not to exploit it. Vanners haven’t had an outlet for getting their story told since the late ‘70s for the most part, so if we can facilitate them telling some of these awesome stories that we’ve enjoyed hearing so much, mission accomplished.

Tickets to the screening are $5 (cash only) available at the Patio Theater box office.

Vannin' - A Documentary trailer from Little Cabin Films on Vimeo.