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THE MODESTO BEE
GASHOLE: Film drills Big Oil lifeblood of car culture
Turlocker, partner look at gas prices, alternative fuels
By MARIJKE ROWLAND

What are two nice Republicans doing making a movie about the sordid state of the oil industry?

Turlock resident and actor Scott D. Roberts and his filmmaking partner, Jeremy Wagener, are the unlikely men behind the new documentary "GasHole." Narrated by "The O.C." and "American Beauty" actor Peter Gallagher, the film chronicles the history of oil prices and alternative fuels.

"Look, you're not going to have to peel me off a tree anytime soon," said Roberts, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Turlock. "I'm not a tree hugger, but we should all be able to drive what we drive and get 200 mpg. I think after people see this movie, they will be shocked."

The film, which Roberts and Wagener co-wrote, directed and produced, will have its world première Friday at Turlock Community Theatre.

The première kicks off a nearly 50-city cross-country tour of the film. A portion of the proceeds from screenings will go to charitable organizations -- most associated with environmental causes -- in the cities.

The idea started two and a half years ago when gas prices were at a then-high of $2.20 and a letter to the editor in The Bee sparked Roberts' interest.

Manteca resident K.D. Kunde wrote of a Buick Roadmaster he saw come to the Crows Landing Naval Airfield in the 1940s that its inventor claimed was water-injected and could get 100 miles per gallon.

The inventor said he became a millionaire by selling the patent to Shell Oil Co., but one of the conditions was he could not make any more.

"His story was jaw-dropping," Roberts said.

So Roberts called his friend Wagener, an L.A.-based writer/director, and said he might have a great idea for a movie. The two began researching it and tracked down Kunde, who tells his story in the film.

From there, the filmmakers went in search of the elusive patent sold to Shell. They found one from 1946 registered to a man who lived 20 miles outside of Modesto; they thought it could be the invention in question. They brought the design to an engineer, who agreed that it might be able to improve fuel economy.

From there, the documentary took off.

"One door opened two doors, which became three doors," Roberts said. "So that's how it started, wondering what other patents were out there and why we didn't know about them."

Wagener said he and Roberts came at the project from a filmmaker's perspective. It is the first documentary for both men, who met in 1999 while making Wagener's directorial debut, "Chicks, Man," in which Roberts acted.

"I thought ('GasHole') sounded like a great story," Wagener said. "Neither Scott nor I started out that socially motivated. Our intention wasn't to fight the big business. We are storytellers and this seemed like a good story."

Kunde's story led them to find other documented cases of fuel-saving inventions that never have seen the light of day. They include Texas inventor Tom Ogle's 100-mpg vapor fuel system and Shell's own internal 1977 publication "Fuel Economy of the Gasoline Engine," which shows that Shell engineers were able to achieve 149.95 mpg on a 1947 Studebaker.

"When we started the film, gas prices were around $2.50 and we thought, 'Wow, gas prices are so expensive. This is really timely!' " Wagener said. "Little did we know ..."

They traveled across the country, filming in Washington, D.C., Texas, Arizona, Nebraska and California. They interviewed historians, engineers, scientists, inventors, alternative-fuel producers and consumers, legislators and government officials.

No representatives from the oil companies would comment on film.

The documentary is told through a combination of interviews, archival footage, congressional hearings, news reports and computer animation.

Gallagher was suggested by "O.C." co-star Melinda Clarke, a friend of Roberts'. Gallagher, an advocate of alternative fuels, agreed and recorded his narration in two days.

Featured among the film's close to 30 interviews are former "Dawson's Creek" actor and biodiesel consumer Joshua Jackson, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-NY, who chaired the House Science Committee from 2001 until his retirement in 2007.

Getting both conservative and liberal voices in the documentary was important for Roberts and Wagener. While the film's idea may seem left-leaning, Roberts said it crosses all political affiliations.

"I've never seen a Republican pump or a Democratic pump," he said. "We all go to the same place. We all use the same pump."

Still, as the research and filming went on, both men found themselves becoming more passionate about alternative fuels and conservation.

"We'd keep hearing these stories and it was like, we have to do something about it," Wagener said. "We're not blaming the oil companies for making money. We don't think they shouldn't be making record profits. We just think the way they're doing it has so many detrimental effects on the environment and the economy. It's not a liberal or conservative idea; there is right and there is wrong."

During filming, Roberts switched from a big truck to a more fuel-efficient Honda Civic. But making the documentary had even more impact on both men's lives than expected.

Aside from a small outside start-up investment, the documentary was self-financed. The men used their own money and credit cards to pay for everything from equipment to travel.

"If I knew beforehand I'd almost lose my house to foreclosure and not get paid for two years, I'm not sure I'd be like, 'Yeah, let's do it,' " Roberts said.

Still, now that the movie is finished, both men are determined to see that it is released properly. Instead of seeking a major distribution deal upfront, they are launching the film with their grass-roots cross-country tour. Each screening will include a Q&A and afterparty.

"The reason we're talking it on tour is that once people see the movie, they are so excited about it, they want to talk about it," Wagener said. "We want to have conversations about it. We want to get people thinking about what they can do locally to solve these problems."

The film ends on an upbeat note with discussion of what consumers can do to help solve the problem. These range from using alternative fuels like hydrogen, biodiesel and ethanol to demanding answers from the government and oil companies.

"This is the greatest country in the world," Roberts said. "We put people on the moon. And you're telling me we can't come up with a better way?"

Bee entertainment writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrow land@modbee.com or 578-2284.