Andrew Muscato is the producer of The Greatest Beer Run Ever, directed by Peter Farrelly and starring Zac Efron and Russell Crowe. He began his career producing numerous critically acclaimed feature documentaries such as Ballplayer: Pelotero, and Schooled: The Price of College Sports. He has produced and directed short documentaries for VICE, and The Athletic, and was co-Executive Producer of MSNBC’s political documentary series American Swamp. Andrew recently directed the Bill Murray concert documentary, New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization, an Official Selection of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. He is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts. (Image courtesy Apple.)
A similar kind of hubris and naiveté required to bring beer to your friends fighting in a war is required to get a movie made. In both instances, you have to believe in what you’re doing (no matter how many people tell you you’re crazy), put your head down and do it. That’s probably one reason I was attracted to Chickie Donohue’s story in the first place. I have an affinity for characters – especially real people – who persevere despite the odds being stacked against them. Perhaps it’s because I like to think I am one of them. And maybe I am. On September 30, my eight-year journey to bring The Greatest Beer Run Ever to the big screen (and Apple TV+) comes to an end. Like Chickie Donohue, succeeding in my mission required some blind luck, but looking back, key decisions and plenty of patience kept the project going, even when I thought it was over.
I had been producing and directing documentaries for several years by the time one of my friends, longtime New York Daily News reporter Joanna Molloy, told me the story about Chickie Donohue’s “beer run” to Vietnam. This was back in April 2014, at a Starbucks on the Upper East Side. Breaking into narrative filmmaking had always been on my mind, but that day, my only motive was checking up on a friend. Joanna was leaving the newspaper after decades in the business. “So,” I curiously asked her, “what was the best story that you never wrote about?”
Joanna told me about this guy Chickie, from the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan. During the Vietnam War, Inwood had lost more young men serving in Vietnam than any other neighborhood in New York City. Compelled by grief, Chickie snuck his way into Vietnam. He trekked over mountains and through jungles to find his friends. With a beer from back home, he thanked them for their service (decades before that phrase became a cliché).
Joanna explained that this was the favorite urban legend told by the bartender at her and her reporter friends’ favorite hangout on 42nd Street. For whatever reason, no one had written about Chickie’s beer run, but Joanna intended to change that by turning it into a book. She explained to me how she had tracked down Chickie and the friends he delivered beer to in Vietnam. They were all still alive, and had photos and documents to prove it happened. My immediate reaction was, “This should be a movie.” In addition to the cinematic images the story conjures, at its heart, Chickie’s story is a universal one about friendship and community. It’s also something that anyone who has ever been taken out of their comfort zone should relate to and appreciate. But having never made a period war movie before, let alone a movie with a script, where do you begin? Make a documentary, of course.
I had been in the business long enough to know that the odds of writing the screenplay myself on spec and actually getting someone to read it – let alone agree to finance it – were slim. So what if we made a short documentary to get people’s attention? That, paired with the book Joanna planned to co-write with Chickie, seemed like a solid proof of concept for a movie. I would reunite the guys (at a bar, of course), film them telling the story, cut it together and let the internet do its thing.
The short, titled The Greatest Beer Run Ever, was posted on YouTube on November 11, 2015 – Veterans Day. Blogs reposted it. For a moment, it even climbed to the top of Reddit. It wasn’t long before I was on the water bottle tour of various Hollywood production companies, meeting development executive after development executive. When Joanna and Chickie finished their book manuscript, I optioned the movie rights. Everything was falling into place. The plan had worked. Except, for one reason or another (“It’s too expensive,” “It’s not expensive enough,” “We just made Tropic Thunder,” etc.), no one actually wanted to make the movie.
It would be two long years before the project took a giant leap forward. In that time, it sat on the back burner, and the burner wasn’t even lit. However, it was during that stretch that I came away with two important realizations. First, that I should appreciate each milestone of the journey. Even if the movie never got made, at least I had a documentary I was proud of. The short affected the lives of the guys in it. They had been re-introduced into each other’s lives, were feted by various veterans groups, and now had a video to share with their families. In the process, I came away from all of it with a bunch of new friends myself, as I got to know them and their spouses. If it all stopped there, I still had a lot more to show for my efforts than if I’d written that screenplay instead. The second realization was that even when I wasn’t hustling the movie, YouTube was hustling for me.
That was made clear in September 2017 when Aimee Rivera, an executive at Skydance Media, introduced herself to me over the phone. (I would later learn that friends at a party had turned Aimee on to the YouTube short and the self-published book by Chickie and Joanna, also titled The Greatest Beer Run Ever.) Aimee was moved by Chickie’s story because her dad had served in Vietnam, but never spoke to her about his experiences. Although Beer Run would be a much smaller film than the Tom Cruise action flicks Skydance was known for, I learned that Aimee and Skydance President Don Granger were both attracted to the project for the same reasons I was: it’s an incredible true story about the triumph of friendship, and an opportunity to depict Vietnam soldiers as they were – kids plucked from their neighborhoods. Like me, Don and Aimee also didn’t see the movie as a broad comedy, or a sanctimonious drama either. The kicker was that Skydance had the money to finance not only the development, but also the movie itself. This was all too good to be true. My Hollywood bullshit detectors were blinking bright red, but no one else was coming to me to make this movie. Uncertain of where this ultimately was headed, I accepted Skydance’s offer to produce the film with them. They would go on to prove just how genuine their pitch was, but first we had to find a writer-director.
The search for a writer-director followed the same path as attaching a production company, only it happened at an accelerated pace. For several months, Skydance and I were reaching out to various writer-directors with no luck, until Peter Farrelly called. A friend of his had sent Peter the YouTube documentary. He was intrigued by the idea of telling a war story through a civilian’s perspective. Initially, Peter was not on our list. He was only known for studio comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Classics, sure, but not the tone we had in mind for our movie. But in November 2018, Peter had just released Green Book, a drama based on a true friendship that was filled with tender and light-hearted moments. I went back and noticed that even in Pete’s most outrageous comedies, at their core was humanity. They were imperfect characters with heart. Schlubs I wanted to root for and who I hoped would come out OK by the end of the movie. Which reminded me of Chickie. Our audience has to cheer him on his journey – otherwise what’s the point? Also, many of Peter’s movies have a road trip element (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, Green Book) and The Greatest Beer Run Ever is the ultimate road trip.
When the team at Skydance and I met Peter Farrelly, he explained how he grew up in a large Irish-American family and could relate to Chickie and his group of friends. Finding collaborators who connect with the material on a personal level is crucial – and it’s even better if they find you. That deep connection is what keeps people invested when times get rough. That was important, because when the Covid pandemic hit, it looked like the whole project would fall apart.
By 2020, Peter and his co-writers Brian Currie and Pete Jones delivered an enthralling screenplay. We had a crew, and we were putting our cast together. On one hand, I was reminding myself to appreciate even making it this far. But that was a rough consolation when we had to bring our crew home from New Zealand that summer. I was a few days from flying there myself before the plug got pulled. It was probably a month before I could bring myself to even unpack my suitcase. I was in shock that a project could evaporate so quickly. But then again, the pandemic upended everything, everywhere. Even though we planned to shoot in Covid-free New Zealand, Covid was everywhere else. Our distributor, a traditional movie studio, backed out, and we couldn’t find anyone to take their place. Skydance wasn’t in the business of making independent films, and they weren’t going to start during a global pandemic. We all made a plan to revisit the project after the holidays, which I worried was a polite way of saying, “It’s over.” Pandemic or not, everything can end when a project goes lifeless. New projects can swoop in and snatch up your key collaborators for themselves. Ultimately, this is where the personal convictions that drove me, Peter and Skydance to make this movie in the first place kept the project afloat.
Nevertheless, I kept in regular touch with Skydance during this dead period – probably to the point of annoyance. But I didn’t want out of sight to become out of mind. And with Peter, I tried to remain a steady voice of optimism. Even though I had never made a movie before, nobody had made a movie during a pandemic, either. We were all in it together. At one point I wrote Peter an email which was as much for my own peace of mind as it was for his. In it, I wrote:
“I know that there’s going to come a moment in the future where something truly great happens, and we say to each other, ‘This wouldn’t have happened if we had made the film in 2020.’”
Through my adult life, I have discovered that unexpected bad can lead to unexpected good. You just have to be open and receptive to it. So I truly meant what I wrote to Peter, I just didn’t know how it would materialize.
We took that downtime to re-evaluate our casting decisions, and in that time Zac Efron emerged. He had read the script during the pandemic, and like everyone on the project who came before him, he genuinely wanted to get this movie made and play Chickie. Today, I can’t imagine any other actor in the role. Nor can I imagine what the New Zealand version of this movie would have even looked like.
The delay allowed us to film in Southeast Asia and the United States, per our pre-pandemic plan. Russell Crowe and Bill Murray also joined the project in that time. True to their word, Skydance took the project back out to distributors in the winter of 2021, and we landed at the right spot with Apple TV+. Although they have only been in the streaming business a few years, Apple has carved out a space for uplifting stories – like CODA and Ted Lasso – that champion the good in all of us. The Greatest Beer Run Ever fits perfectly among those titles. Through the bumps during production and beyond, the lessons I learned trying to get the movie made have served me well: savor each moment, have patience and embrace the setbacks. Like Chickie, I have come out of this experience wiser and better for having gone through it all.
Featured image, showing Andrew Muscato during the making of The Greatest Beer Run Ever with writer Pete Jones, courtesy Apple.