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.
Dread Central: We hear the next project you’re working on is Gator Green.
Jim VanBebber: Yeah, that will be screening with all the screenings of The Manson Family. It’s fifteen minutes long, and it’s designed to help me raise money for the feature. Everything is sort of in the works. But it definitely shows… it gives the vibe of what the film is. It’s a sequence from the middle of the script. All real gators, you know; no CGI for that endeavor.
Dread Central: I do know that Gator Green is loosely based on Joe Ball, another infamous killer…
Jim VanBebber: That was the kickoff, I think. I saw the little mini-documentary that Todd Wieneke did. I don’t know if it made the final release of Dark Sky’s DVD of Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive. So I guess that’s what Tobe was working with, and you know, it’s just a great old story. Joe Ball, in Texas, had an alligator pit, tossing waitresses and stuff. This one is a Vietnam veteran; he comes in and illegally takes over an alligator farm and gets his veteran friends in there, and he’s just nuts and he lives very badly and he’s all screwed up and kills a lot of people. It’s a throwback drive-in movie. I make no apologies about it. The Manson Family is a serious, important film. Gator Green is a candy bar, but an entertaining one. I love movies like Pigs, Eaten Alive, so it seemed like the thing to do.
Dread Central: Can you talk about your interest in the genre?
Jim VanBebber: Yeah, it was the Famous Monsters of Filmland; it was available there on the bookshelves and the magazine shelves, and I just became obsessed. I grew up watching a great horror host called Doctor Creep who hosted “Shock Theater” on a Dayton television station. I just grew up with monster movies and started going to R-rated movies in the Seventies; even though I was under age, they didn’t care. Just, you know, great, great cinema when it’s well done or fun when it’s not even well done. I like horror films.
Dread Central: Your films take a very grim point of view, which I love. Where does that come from? Is it something that you saw in older films and said, “I want to create something like that!”?
Jim VanBebber: I think it was growing up and going to movies in the Seventies because the heroes were anti-heroes, and they usually died. Look at the ending of Vanishing Point or Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. Plus the matter of Taxi Driver or Rolling Thunder, these grim fogs, Willard… it’s great fucking shit, but it’s all pretty grim. It’s not happy endings. Is Willard even a hero? Well, yes and no, you know? You end up rooting for him like hell, but his own rats get him at the end.
Dread Central: Can you talk a little bit about your classic film Deadbeat at Dawn? Just how that came about. We’re discussing grindhouse films, and it seems so appropriate, like a time capsule.
Jim VanBebber: Well, I was in film school, and Evil Dead came out. Saw it in ’83, ’84, something like that; and me and Mike King and Marcelo [Jim’s collaborators] said, “Fuck this; let’s make a feature.” So we incorporated ourselves and raised money, but that was an ongoing thing; we never had the entire budget raised. It was just something you could show at a drive-in. It was the end of the Eighties, and the Eighties were chock-full of Chuck Norris films, and Stallone and Steven Seagal, and I was like, “Let’s do a gritty version of one of those things with fantastical street gangs and get a lot of drugs in it, in pitiful locations, and just make it.” It was grimy but still an action film. It was just going for broke, you know?
Dread Central: I saw on line that you did all your own martial arts in Deadbeat at Dawn.
Jim VanBebber: Karate… yeah, I studied for two years with Sifu Mustapha [Kenyatta] in Dayton, but before that I was screwing around on my own. Two years of formal training, and I was like, “Okay, I’m good enough for camera.” I don’t think I’ll be entering any championship tournaments or anything. At least it’s neat instead of having to deal with stunt doubles. We couldn’t afford them anyways.
Dread Central: I feel you did a good job.
Jim VanBebber: Thank you.
Dread Central: When we look at cinema today, with everyone trying to go for the jugular and horror being so popular and you can buy Evil Dead II T-shirts at the mall—what do you feel is missing in the genre? Do you feel that exploitation cinema is alive? I feel other countries offer it, but America is way too slick in its product.
Jim VanBebber: Yeah, I can’t say I’m too jazzed with what I’ve seen with the red band trailer of Evil Dead. I mean, it’s almost like it’s too slick. It looks… you can almost tell it’s New Zealand, those New Zealand crews, and it’s fucking slick and taking itself too fucking seriously. I thought Django Unchained was a great exploitation flick.
Dread Central: That was a great film, yes. It was more grindhouse than his previous attempt in the film Grindhouse.
Jim VanBebber: That’s what I thought. Yeah, that just seemed like some nutty Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature. You know, if they want to make grindhouse, you have to give those guys $300,000.00 a piece, and say go for it.
Dread Central: It was sort of missing that raw, outsider art point of view.
Jim VanBebber: Yeah, it’s hard for films like that to get a multiplex distribution. At best they’re going to show up at these little art theaters, and thankfully there are still some across the country. I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen with Gator Green so we’ll keep the budget low, and at worst, we’re looking at Blu-ray and video on demand. I mean, the market is changing for sure. It’s just constantly been in flux since I started. I was making Deadbeat at Dawn for drive-ins, and when I was finished, drive-ins were gone. That was pitiful.
Dread Central: As an independent filmmaker, who do you make it for? Is it not the cineplexes, the iPhones, the iPads? There’s a lot of noise out there, so much great stuff, but it’s hard to find the independent voice sometimes. Even the big budget films disappear into the noise–they’re gone in two weeks. It’s not about longevity anymore.
Jim VanBebber: Yeah, that’s true.
Dread Central: How do you stay heard, Mr. Jim VanBebber?
Jim VanBebber: You don’t worry about it. It’s just that when something is finished, if you have a reason to be heard in the theatrical run, that’s great, and the Gator Green short will turn people on to what I’m doing, and it’s not like I want to be heard again until I have a finished print of Gator Green.
Dread Central: When do you think we’ll be expecting to see it?
Jim VanBebber: Well, I would sure like to see that whole process happen in a year and a half or so.
Dread Central: Do you still shoot on film because you’re an old-school guy?
Jim VanBebber: Yeah, absolutely. We shot Gator Green on Fuji stock, 16mm.
Dread Central: 16? Nice.
Jim VanBebber: Yeah, Fuji has great greens and blues, really good for shooting in Florida. It just made sense because of the landscape.
Dread Central: Other than Gator Green, do you have other scripts written or other movies in mind?
Jim VanBebber: Oh, sure, I’m sitting on a ton of scripts–massive youthful Al Capone flick, this robbery flick, this crazy car chase, I’ve got a bunch.
Dread Central: Excellent. We look forward to seeing The Manson Family in theaters.
The Manson Family delivers an uncompromising, brutal vision of the collapse of the “Love Generation.” On a ranch outside of LA the hippie dream is perverting into something evil. What was once an oasis of free love and acid trips has become ground zero for a madman’s paranoid visions. An average group of kids, the “Family,” become engulfed in a delusional world where torment and slaughter are considered the path to righteousness. The Manson Family is a dizzying, rapid-fire vision of the sex and violence that unifies the misguided group and, at the direction of their leader, ends in a brutal spree leaving seven people dead in 48 hours.
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