Imagine if the Ford Bronco had a pitchman who rivaled Burt Reynolds. This is the essence of John Bronco, a mockumentary starring Walton Goggins in the title role.
“I couldn’t believe this story hadn’t been made before. I didn’t know if [John Bronco] was or wasn’t real,” Goggins says, his wry smile practically jumping out of the phone. “Once I got the call, I told myself, ‘I’m going to jump at this chance.’”
John Bronco, which premieres Thursday on Hulu, follows the rise and fall of a good ol’ boy who finds notoriety by accident. While director Jake Szymanski is known in part for his HBO specials Tour de Pharmacy and 7 Days in Hell, which draw heavily from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series for inspiration, John Bronco is comparable to Winnebago Man, a documentary focused on a profane RV salesman from the 1980s, and Netflix’s Wild Wild Country about the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s cult in Oregon.
The premise of John Bronco is that Szymanski has unearthed (fake) footage that had been forgotten and then finds the man in the commercials years after the height of his fame. Just as there were personalities that captivated America for decades before YouTube, the Bronco was another popular relic “everybody was talking about in the late ’60s, and no one knows about it anymore,” Szymanski says.
In summer 2019, Szymanski began collaborating on John Bronco with producer Marc Gilbar, who was no stranger to mixing brands and mockumentary-style footage. Gilbar previously helmed Pepsi’s Uncle Drew campaign, where Kyrie Irving dresses as a granddad and schools young’uns. Szymanski also had experience working on commercials, including a run of Old Milwaukee ads with Will Ferrell. John Bronco wouldn’t be branded content, however; it would be about the (make-believe) man who lived in a pre-internet era and inspired an iconic brand.
“A lot of people tend to forget some prominent figures that lived before 1996. They fall in the nooks and crannies of history,” Gilbar says. “John Bronco was one of those characters—a real throwback.”
Timing for John Bronco was key. First, Gilbar saw Ford was bringing back the Bronco, then the producer wondered whether there was a way to tie the vehicle’s relaunch to a story about “a guy who came out of nowhere and became synonymous with the brand.” After initial meetings with Szymanski, Ford granted the production team access to their archives, giving the idea needed background and authenticity to anchor John Bronco’s roller-coaster ride. Szymanski could cherry-pick what they wanted to highlight then insert their own spokesperson—a Marlboro Man for the sporty SUV, so to speak.
“We saw old advertisements for the original Broncos, and a lot of these early films don’t exist anywhere except in a cold room in Michigan at the Ford archives,” Szymanski says. “We definitely used a lot of that footage and stayed in that world. That’s the way we wanted to approach it.”
Those old Bronco commercials represented decades of style and pop culture trends. In thinking about who could fill John Bronco’s shoes as easily in the ’60s as he could in 2020, Szymanski and Gilbar had one actor in mind: Walton Goggins.
“[Goggins] was absolutely the immediate person on the wish list,” Szymanski says. “He’s an American treasure. He smells like apple pie, and his smile is like a sunrise.”
For the uninitiated, Goggins played coveted dramatic roles like Boyd Crowder in Justified and Shane Vendrell in The Shield before becoming Danny McBride’s partner in crime as Lee Russell in Vice Principals and Baby Billy Freeman in The Righteous Gemstones. In film, Goggins has landed big roles too, in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, and Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Most of these roles are treacherous villains, but Goggins’s charm makes you nearly forget these characters’ lowly intentions. He says he’s attracted to such complicated people.
“I try to tell their story without judging it,” Goggins says. “I feel like I’ve had a toe in this world a long time and seen it a certain way. There’s not a relationship in any one of our lives at any given moment during the day that isn’t fraught with drama on some level or infused with happiness and joy. We vacillate between those two states.”
Though his more recent work in The Righteous Gemstones and as the single dad on The Unicorn is full of comedic gold, Goggins still doesn’t think of himself as funny. He works by the script, and “if it happens to be infused with humor, then that’s what the story dictates.”
John Bronco is another classic, complicated Goggins character: a blue-collar man trying to tame and maintain his stardom. Even at his lowest, most embarrassing point, it’s hard not to root for (and laugh at) Bronco. Another reason we want someone like Bronco to win is because Goggins roots for these characters, too: “I genuinely love every single person that I’ve been given the opportunity to play. I just spend time looking at the world from their point of view.”
In fall 2019, Goggins had a quick two-weekend window to shoot John Bronco. To capture four decades of the character’s style during a few 12-hour days, the actor brought in Quentin Tarantino’s makeup artist, Jake Garber, adding even more realism. Goggins approximates that there were “100 costume changes” in one day. During an intense moment on set, as the hair and makeup team would prepare for the next scene, they told Goggins that they had a five-minute turnaround, and the actor remembers giving a little side-eye to such a notion.
“I’m like, ‘Five minutes? What the fuck are you talking about?’” Goggins says. “We’re going from the ’60s to the ’90s. We’re gonna need maybe 30 minutes.’”
Goggins calls this a privileged complaint. Part of his love of telling these stories is doing the research. Outside of the costumes and makeup, he watched “a lot of Sharky’s Machine and Burt Reynolds.”
With Goggins in the driver’s seat, the rest of the cast wish list fell into place. A Milkwaukee-born Bucks fan, Szymanski had to have Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, who was no stranger to being a spokesperson. The list also included Bo Derek, Dennis Quaid, and motor-mouthed pitchman John Moschitta Jr., most famous for his MicroMachine commercials in the 1980s and ’90s. Everyone was game to appear in John Bronco.
“We got really lucky that people responded to the idea,” Szymanski says, suggesting his early work at Funny or Die taught him a key lesson for projects like this. “You’d be surprised who would be down to have fun for a day. It’s not a grueling task to sit in a chair for an hour and make people laugh.”
Former longtime SNL cast member Tim Meadows would play Bronco’s manager, Donovan Piggot. For the role of archivist Daniel Stacks, Szymanski called Tim Baltz, a Righteous Gemstones regular and the play-by-play announcer from Szymanski’s AT&T commercials.
“Showing up, seeing all the materials, and realizing what access they had … that made me think, ‘Oh, this plus Walton plus Jake’s expertise in this field is going to make it very tight,’” Baltz says. “I had the same thought reading the script that I bet a lot of people will have watching it: ‘Is this real? Is this based on a real person?’”
In any shoot, the biggest aspect of filming is getting enough footage. At the same time, Szymanski wanted to stay true to the cinema verité style he studied with pioneering documentarian Albert Maysles in 2002. Though there was a script and beats to hit, Szymanski made sure to catch natural action and improvisation. That style allowed him to capture some of the less planned-out moments, including a commercial re-creation where quarterback Doug Flutie (from archived footage) chucks a ball at John Bronco’s face.
“We had to hit [Goggins] with a football,” Szymanski says. “You never would have had a closer shot of that on purpose. That’s an accidental capture in a wide shot. It’s supposed to get blurrier the more you push in on it.”
Szymanski remembers the bit required a lot of trust between him and Goggins. At first, the director had to prepare Goggins with a few warm-up hits, then make sure Goggins didn’t look as if he was preparing to get hit in the face.
“[Goggins] was like, ‘Hey man, so how are we going to do this?’ And I was like, ‘Are you comfortable with us just throwing this football at your face?’” Szymanski recalls, laughing. “And Walton was like, ‘Well, yeah, I guess I am. Try not to mess up my face too much though.’ I think we did three or four takes of that.”
Another natural moment came during the shoot for a ’70s-style commercial that goes awry when someone off-screen tries to throw a frisbee at John Bronco. In the movie, the shoot ends with Bronco yelling, “I don’t catch frisbees,” before picking up a nearby cooler and tossing it.
As much as Gilbar credits Goggins for his off-the-cuff reactions, those types of cringe-inducing scenes are core to Szymanski’s belief on how a documentary should look and feel.
One of Szymanski’s pet peeves is when a mockumentary clearly looks like a fake documentary and lacks authenticity. “I’m very big on trying to shoot stuff and only use footage that they would have been able to get in a documentary,” he says.
Another level to the cinema verité style revolves around capturing improvisation. Szymanski wouldn’t say how much of John Bronco was improvised, but because of strong personalities in the movie, he’s willing to let the camera roll for extended periods of time, he says, “to find a way to let [actors] shine and explore the characters a little bit more than you can ever fully do on the page.”
Having previously worked with Baltz, Szymanski could shoot in a looser, one-on-one dynamic with the Second City vet for eight hours to capture what was needed. By the end of filming, “There was probably two to three hours of improv in there that we didn’t use,” Baltz says. “That’s where you want to be in every shoot.”
Having worked on Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones with McBride, David Gordon Green, and Jody Hill, Goggins also has improv chops. On John Bronco, however, he wanted to make sure such tangents were at the service of the story.
“You use [improv] as a way of understanding what’s on the page,” Goggins says. “More often than not, you come back to what’s on the page. There’s improvisations in John Bronco, for sure, 100 percent. But the story [Szymanski] wanted to tell was so good that you don’t need to do that.”
One more-planned aspect to John Bronco is a bonus for Goggins’s fans—the actor breaks out in song. Like he did on the accidental hit “Misbehavin’” from The Righteous Gemstones, Goggins shows off his musical talents on the songs “Mama Named Me Bronco” and “The Ballad of John Bronco.” But Goggins laughs off the idea that he could release an album.
“My son certainly doesn’t think I’m a singer, because he turns off the radio whenever I’m singing a song. I don’t think of myself as a musician, but I did pick up the guitar about 20 years ago,” Goggins says. “I like both songs. It’s hard to say which I prefer. [Baby] Billy doesn’t really drive. He dances. John Bronco doesn’t dance. He drives.”
After filming wrapped, Szymanski worked with Andrew Fitzgerald (Documentary Now!, I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson) on the edit. A month became “two or three times that,” Szymanski says. At the last moment, Quaid supplied more gravitas on the voiceover. By early 2020, John Bronco was nearly complete when the director received word that the movie was accepted at Tribeca Film Festival. The world had different plans, however, with the arrival of the pandemic. A coming-out party in April became a cause for concern as Szymanski, the cast, and crew wondered, “When are people going to see this now?”
Down in Charleston, South Carolina, Baltz was working on the second season of The Righteous Gemstones when Goggins texted him a poster and news about John Bronco getting into Tribeca. Baltz still couldn’t believe John Bronco would be released, and he started making plans to go to New York. Two days later, production on Gemstones was shut down and postponed.
A theatrical setting and debut at Tribeca would have been ideal, but Goggins says he knew “we’d find a way for people to see it.” Gilbar noticed the uptick in popularity at drive-ins and began booking screenings at smaller festivals in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and Buena Vista, Colorado. The latter was specifically catered to Bronco owners, with a screening of Smokey and the Bandit following John Bronco.
“I remember watching that first ad, thinking, ‘Wait a minute, was this real?’” Baltz says. “I hope I’m not coming off like too much of an idiot, because I was in the thing, and even afterwards, I was like, ‘Is it real?’”
More virtual screenings were lined up for press, Goggins’s fans, and Bronco enthusiasts, and all were met with positive reactions. In figuring out the best avenue to reach wider audiences, John Bronco landed in Hulu’s hands.
As John Bronco debuts, there’s hope for even more of the pitchman’s story in the future. Gilbar compares the character to an unfrozen caveman. The producer wants to see how Bronco fits in the world in 2020 and what he’ll do next, and Szymanski agrees.
“John Bronco was a guy who took a lot of airtime and has a lot of stories over a lot of years,” the director says. “I don’t think we necessarily touched on all of it in the 40 minutes we were able to put out there.”
For now, Bronco represents an offline time, “a reminder of how simple life used to be,” Baltz says, adding that it’s difficult for him to pick his favorite period of John Bronco’s life. Goggins, on the other hand, wastes no time picking out his favorite era—the ’70s, at the height of Bronco’s ascendance, complete with a big mustache and cut-off jeans, when Bronco had an attitude about him.
“We all have our moment,” Goggins says. “What’s the moment? Is it in your 30s? Is it 35 to 45? What is that time when you’re at the microphone? For John, that microphone coincided with the ’70s, and what a fucking awesome time, what a fun time to have that be your era, your decade.”
Goggins isn’t wrong. John Bronco did have a swagger about him in the ’70s, but he maintains that strut, no matter the time period or surrounding difficulties, and still lights up the screen. Baltz describes it as a perfect combination of character arc and actor.
“John Bronco is this character that came out of nowhere and becomes really famous and doesn’t stop being himself,” Baltz says. “That’s very true to who Walton is in real life.”
Matthew Sigur is a writer, comedian, and musician based in Chicago.