Jim VanBebber Talks The Manson Family, Gator Green, and True 70's Style Grindhouse Cinema
A true grindhouse maverick who hates happy endings, Jim VanBebber has made a name for himself in the world of low-budget, independent exploitation cinema as a writer/director and sometimes actor.
Since his first feature, Deadbeat at Dawn (1988), his gritty, outlaw style of filmmaking has generated films that are unapologetic in their realism and singular in their vision.
In 2004 VanBebber took on Charlie Manson. Shot over four years, The Manson Family is a documentary-style (though semi-fictional) look at the Manson cult filled with lurid sex, shocking violence and murderous flower power. For its 10th anniversary The Manson Family is being unleashed nationwide complete with VanBebber's Kickstarter-fueled short Gator Green (get theater listings here). A special edition Blu-ray release will follow on May 7th by Severin Films, which will include the short and a documentary on the making of The Manson Family, entitled The VanBebber Family.
Jim recently took time to speak with Dread Central about Manson, Gator Green and true 70's grindhouse cinema.
Dread Central: What is the plot of The Manson Family for our readers who haven’t seen it yet?
Jim VanBebber: Well, it’s basically an experimental sort of mock-documentary. It’s a strange film to “genre-fy,” but it basically tells the story of the Manson Family from probably around late ’67 to up to their infamous murder spree. It pretty much ends there. It would make a great double feature with the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter because that covers the trial pretty much, and it does a great job of that, so if you watch those two films together, you've got your Manson 101.
Dread Central: How did you find your Charlie for your film--it’s hard to follow Steve Railsback…
Jim VanBebber: Well, we really didn’t want to go that route. I mean, Railsback is great, but it’s sort of a one-note performance, and he’s just huffing and puffing like a mad dog. Yeah, it works for the film, but it’s sort of… who would follow someone like that? So we took a calmer approach. It was a guy I knew from film school, Marcelo Games.
Dread Central: What about him is Manson-esque?
Jim VanBebber: It was just when we decided to make the film, he had the look, and I knew he could act, and he knew filmmaking, and it was really an easy fit.
Dread Central: What is the fascination with Charles Manson? A lot of counter-culture people find him fascinating--the man, the icon that manipulates the masses and takes on Hollywood with infamous results.
Jim VanBebber: Well, he definitely has a footprint in American criminal history. I guess because he’s been so unrepentant and has such a crazy style and vocabulary, charisma, what have you, that he’s folklore; he’s last century’s Billy the Kid. It’s strange. It’s something I think we acknowledge in the film and give lip service to that phenomenon.
Dread Central: How did the screenplay come about?
Jim VanBebber: Well, you know, at first [when] I decided to do this, I said to a friend of mine, an actor and a writer, Mark Gillespie, “Take a crack at it,” and gave him research materials that I had at that point. He wrote a script that I threw out but kept the structure, which is that the old defendants, the Family in jail, were talking to a reporter, like Geraldo Rivera, telling the story that way, because you can get a lot of exposition across in that fashion, and it’s a style I like. Bob Fosse used it really well in Lenny and All That Jazz, definitely Star 80. You know, make people tell the story and then show what they are talking about. Then it grew, the film moved on, the actual shooting was spread over four years, so I would get more and more research materials, either from old magazines or tapes or books or whatever, and adjust things; and I think through all that I cobbled together at least as much truth as I could. I mean, no one will know for sure.
Dread Central: What did your four years of research uncover?
Jim VanBebber: Well, I think something that had been missing and not really discussed, especially by Bugliosi, the prosecutor, was the importance of Bobby Beausoleil, him stabbing Gary I mean. I really believe that Manson instructed the girls. It’s not certain if the girls came up with it and he approved, they were making a copycat killing, so that Bobby would get released from jail. That’s one. I don’t know; it’s a power packed, dense film. It depends on how much you know about the case. I think the film works if you don’t know that much about the case.
Dread Central: How did it finally make its way to Blu-ray?
Jim VanBebber: Well, the final producers who stepped in to get the film finished the way I wanted it finished--I mean, I had a lot of offers to dump it on DVD, and I wanted a 35 blow-up and a good 5.1 surround sound mix -- finally met David Gregory and his partner in England, and those guys came on board. So it’s been ten years. We were with Dark Sky [Films] out of MPI for the DVD, and they were great to us, but Carl [Daft] and David [Gregory] also [ran] the DVD company with John Cregan called Severin. So you know, they called me up, and we knew we had to find a new home for it, and he was like, "What do you think about Severin?" David and Carl were also going the extra distance by looking at this cross-country theatrical run, which is very exciting, and that’s going to be a 35 print in all of those theaters.
Dread Central: How has it played to audiences in the past?
Jim VanBebber: I think it shocks them.
Dread Central: Which is hard to do, right, nowadays?
Jim VanBebber: This is true. I mean, it depends. Some of these screams that are coming… I mean, you’ll have hardcore war fans, beer-drinkers, go in there and treat it like a football game, but discussing the film and it's got this cold rep, I guess. Yeah, right off the bat I think people were shocked. And if they haven’t seen it, I hope it does shock because it’s a shocking subject. Wouldn’t want to put the kid gloves on for this one.