Blending elements of a cross-country travelogue and a chronicle of the grassroots effort to bolster the use of biofuel, JJ Beck and Joey Carey’s “Greasy Rider” provides a number of faces for a political idea. The film is available to watch in its entirety, courtesy of SnagFilms.
Writers/Directors: Joey Carey and JJ Beck
The full film is available free on
SnagFilms (and at the end of this article). This interview with Joey Carey is part of a series of SnagFilm filmmaker profiles that will be featured weekly on indieWIRE.
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of Indiewire.]
Your movie: In 140 characters or less, what’s it about?
GREASY RIDER chronicles a cross-country road trip powered by vegetable oil in a 1981 Mercedes-Benz.
OK: Now tell us what it’s really about.
Picture a cross-country road trip powered by vegetable oil in a 1981 Mercedes-Benz. Greasy Rider follows the two filmmakers, Joey Carey and JJ Beck, as they meet with fellow Greasecar drivers, friends, and critics. Traveling as far south as New Orleans and as far north as Seattle, the car is fueled by used cooking grease collected at restaurants along the way.
Interviews include Morgan Freeman who is opening up a Biodiesel plant in Mississippi. Political analyst Noam Chomsky, ‘You’re supposed to believe we would have liberated Iraq even if its main product was pickles,’ appears along side Yoko Ono, ‘This whole world is now ruled by corporations and their greed,’ and Tommy Chong, ‘You guys figured it out. You got your little bio-car, and there you go.’ Additional interviews include the founders of the four major vegetable oil conversion kit companies, Greasecar, Greasel, Neoteric, and Frybrid, as they discuss the reality of vegetable oil as a fuel.
The heat is felt in this political documentary as America’s energy consumption continues to grow. With gas prices on the rise and the reality of global warming setting in, Greasy Rider points to vegetable oil as one part of the solution to our energy problems.
So tell us about yourself. What’s your background? Why did you want to make movies?
I grew up in Woodstock, NY, where my father, documentary filmmaker Tobe Carey, (CATSKILL MTN HOUSE, DEEP WATER, STANLEY’S HOUSE) worked in his editing studio upstairs, so i’ve always been surround by film. I began to study film seriously while working with Cuban film editor Nelson Rodriguez (MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, LUCIA) in Havana, Cuba, where I made the short documentary SEARCHING FOR TUPAC. I later produced and directed GREASY RIDER, a documentary about vegetable oil as fuel, which premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in 2006.
In 2008 I co-founded Sundial Pictures with Stefan Nowicki, and have since helped produce PARIAH, LITTLE BIRDS, JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, 28 HOTEL ROOMS, ART MACHINE, AND LIARS ALL. I also co-directed and co-edited a concert film of IGGY & THE STOOGES performance of RAW POWER.
Film is a form of expression, and can be a tool for education as well as a means of entertaining audiences. My goal is to combine education and entertainment on screen. My motivation to make movies began with documentary filmmaking for the purpose of education, although in the past three years I’ve worked in a variety of positions on narrative feature films.
I have a desire to tell stories which I think are important and which people need to know. That’s the underlying reason for me to be work on a film in the first place, though I don’t limit myself to only working on one kind of film. I like comedies and thrillers, as well as dramas and documentaries.
What inspired you to make this movie?
I first learned about vegetable oil as a fuel from an old friend who had started a biofuels station in Oberlin, OH. I told myself that I wanted the first car I ever owned to run on an alternative fuel. I still have the car and it still runs on vegetable oil.
The idea to drive cross-country and make a documentary came about when I was talking with JJ Beck, the co-director and co-producer, about what we wanted to do that coming summer. We eventually landed on the idea to buy an old diesel car together, convert it to run on vegetable oil, and drive it around the country. We ended up getting all the parts for the conversion donated by the company Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems, and installed the kit with the help of Daryl Beck, aka The Grease Wrench.
Our idea was to contact people who were using grease as a fuel in different parts of the country and meet with them during our trip. We wanted to create a network of individuals who were using grease, so as to increase the viability of vegetable oil as an accessible alternative fuel. We often spoke of building a movement, with Greasecars as the starting point for larger lifestyle changes towards increasing our sustainability. That was the motivation. We weren’t that successful in building a movement, but we did get a pretty good film out of it, and some great stories from the trip.
What was your single biggest challenge in developing or producing it?
The first step was to find an affordable car. JJ Beck and I literally split the cost of purchasing the car, with part of it being paid for by a loan I took out. The next problem was getting the parts to convert the car. Justin Carven, who founded Greasecar, ended up supporting the film by donating all the parts necessary for the conversion. We could not have made this film without his help.
Once we were on the road, finding grease to use was often a problem. Because of how the vegetable oil system works, we were also able to run the car on diesel if we couldn’t find grease, but we wanted to run on grease as much as possible. There were many times when we spent hours driving around random towns, searching behind restaurants for barrels of grease that we could pump out of. Often we found some, but there were some times when we had to fill up on diesel in order to make it to our next location in time for a scheduled interview.
Another problem we had was the fact that we were driving around in a car from 1981. Not only did we break down numerous times, but just finding the parts for a 1981 Mercedes in the middle of the country was tough. We spent a few nights sleeping on the floor of garages, camping out, or in motels.
What do you think SnagFilms audiences will respond to most in your movie?
People tend to like the interviews with Morgan Freeman and Noam Chomsky a lot. When we set off on our trip, we had no idea we were going to meet any of the celebrities that ended up in the film. Things just fell into place as the trip progressed and by the end of it all, we had some real star power to back us up.
We were literally just two guys who went on a road trip with a camera, and some how ended up with all these well known people in the film. We even did a ton of interviews that didn’t make it into the film, with people like Wavy Gravy, Bob Gruen, Ed Sanders, Paul Krassner, Stew Albert, to name a few… there’s a whole other film there about 60’s counter culture if I ever find the time to edit something together.
It was quite amazing to see how accessible some of these people were, and how willing they were to support a film about alternative energy and forward thinking. This film is an example that you can do something, and that once you start, you’ll find all kinds of people who’ll support you along the way.
Were any specific films inspirational to you while making the movie?
I remember watching SHERMAN’S MARCH before going on the road trip, but I wouldn’t say that GREASY RIDER was influenced by it very much. If I were able to go back and make the film again, I would include a lot more of our personal story and travels like, Ross McElwee does in SHERMAN’S MARCH.
The decision to exclude most of our personal story from GREASY RIDER was a conscious decision at the time, I just look back at the film now and feel like it’s missing that narrative.
Future projects in the pipeline? Tell us!
We have a lot of projects going on at Sundial Pictures right now. We’re about to go into production on a feature length thriller that’s shooting outside of Baton Rouge, LA and are in the process of finishing a thriller called LIARS ALL which we shot last spring. We’re also finishing up two documentaries, one which deals with environmental activism and the other about the internet and the digital age of communication. We’re hoping for a strong showing at film festivals this winter and spring.
Sundial also has a variety of projects in development ranging from a comedic drama, to an off beat love story, and a coming-of-age story.
I’m also in production on a documentary about the community organizing group ACORN, and am directing and editing a film with rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen, which covers all the stories behind his photos of John Lennon.