It took Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn, My Sweet Satan) over 15 years to get his movie The Manson Family made. Most of the problems centered around financing and post-production. But when tackling a subject as controversial and divisive as Manson and his mad, memorable clan of crazies, Van Bebber faced an even bigger hurdle - the horrible truth of those shocking, sensationalized crimes. So the director made a very brave decision. He would not shy away from the sex and violence, but instead, try to portray them as accurately and as aggressively as possible. The result is one of the most intense and telling versions of the Tate-LaBianca crimes ever created, a film that focuses on both the killers and the victims with the same, unsentimental eye.
Perhaps this explains why the film itself, coming to DVD at the end of April from MPI, is also such a lightning rod of reactions. Many have dismissed it as the most gratuitous of exploitation extremes. Others have argued that it is a misunderstood masterwork, years ahead of its time in both style and substance. DVD Talk had a chance to speak with the director, getting his insight into the ongoing debate, as well as to learn a little about the creation of this incendiary epic. Along the way, Van Bebber touched on the importance of music in the Manson myth, the TV movie Helter Skelter and his own thespian shortcomings.
DVD Talk: The Manson Family appears destined to be a movie many people will misunderstand. But when viewed in the context of the real history, it really required such a thorough, unapologetic approach, correct?
JVB: Right. I mean, the subject matter for this film...when I was a kid, I would never have thought I would have directed in a million years. And it wasn't even my idea to start with. But once it got going, I said, "Look man, if we're going to document this, let's document it." So I didn't take any shortcuts.
DVD Talk: What brought you to this project, and why did you approach it the way you did?
JVB: Well, we started with an idea...Mike King came up with the idea to make a quick exploitation film and cash in on a video release, and turn a quick buck. But once I got into it... I mean Mike had written a script. It had a nice structure of interviews taking care of a lot of exposition. But once I started reading - I was finishing Deadbeat at Dawn at the time - once I really started reading everything I had gathered, I said "Mark. Oh my god. Wait a minute." And I just started writing. I mean, we had shoots, we had cast people gathered. It was paid for. So I went into it as much as I could...and I think I knew that we weren't just gonna get it. But I kept that to myself. I felt that this was history - recent history - a dark page of American history. So I wanted to do the best job I could...not just making some crap movie.
DVD Talk: And yet there are a lot of critics who complain about the sex and violence in the film. But that's the point, isn't it?
JVB: Absolutely. Look, if you're going to tell this story, why shortcut the truth? This story is NC-17. Life is not all R rated. Life is not a PG-13. And certainly, if you're going to discuss these guys and tell the truth, it's obviously going to be NC-17.
DVD Talk: Still, you can hear people saying "well, he's just doing it for a marketing hook - or he wants to appeal to the gorehounds..."
JVB: Exactly. Look, all I can tell them is read the text. Actually, they should congratulate me on how much I restrained myself.
DVD Talk: Is (the sex and violence) perhaps one of the reasons why, 37 years later, we are still fascinated by this case?
JVB: Probably. I mean, it was so appalling. We've had Jim Jones...the Heaven's Gate cult...we've had David Koresh...but just for the sheer insanity...and the sex and the drug use...and I mean, you know, it's the late 60s. It's Hollywood. And I mean, you know, Manson did rub shoulders with a lot of people: Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Dennis Wilson. And so it gets pretty crazy. He was smart...and talented. I really wish Terry Melcher had given him his shot (laughs). Maybe this film would have never been made.
DVD Talk: You do use a lot of Manson's music in the film. Was this a conscious choice on you part, hoping people would see the connection you're talking about?
JVB: Well, you know, once I delved into that part of his personality, I felt compelled because music is such a huge part of Charles Manson's life and his following. It was sort of his pixie dust over people. So I had to represent it in the film. And it took a huge bit of detective work finding out who really owned the copyright.
DVD Talk: You also made the conscious choice to downplay the circus-like and infamy aspects of Manson's case, trying to portray the entire dynamic from a very individual standpoint, even going so far as to downplay the celebrity of the victims...
JVB: Absolutely. I mean, at the point when I started shooting, I looked at the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter with Steve Railsback...and as good as that film was, Railsback lapsed into the snarling, psychotic portrayal - you know, beady eyes. Me and Marcelo (Games) who played Charles Manson, talked about it. I mean, maybe he got this way sometimes...but if he was that way all the time, nobody would have followed him. He had to have charisma, understanding, and patience and some fatherly aspects. I tried to give it some kind of balance.
DVD Talk: Does it bother you then that people say, "Well, Van Bebber is just apologizing for Manson".
JVB: I can't say that it bothers me because I made the film and it's like a painting. I mean, you make it, you hang it up and you walk away from it. I'm already painting other pictures. It is heartening to hear people say they got it. There's forever going to be a contingent of people who will not look past the shocking aspects of the film, so what can I do? I can't do anything except make more films.
DVD Talk: But by dismissing this film, they also dismiss one of your major accomplishments. You bring back almost verbatim - visually - the style and look of the exploitation films from the 60s and 70s. Who were you're influences and what were you trying for?
JVB: To recreate a mindset with mock documentary footage. I sat down with Mike King and looked at a lot of old footage and determined it was shot on a certain stock, and so we did that. And then I scratched the film myself and sent it back to the lab. As far as a lot of directing techniques, lighting styles, I looked at films from that era that tried to create a mindset about drugs and LSD - films like The Trip, Easy Rider, Performance - the subversive art films of the late 60s and early 70s. I have definite echoes of that era for people who have seen the films from back then.
DVD Talk: As someone whose watched more than his fair share of exploitation films from that time, let me say you nailed it.
JVB: Why, thanks.
DVD Talk: Another important aspect of the film is the performances. How did you approach casting and how did you work with your actors?
JVB: Well, everyone pretty much had experience, either in short films or in theatrical productions. A lot of them came from Rice State University. A lot of the adults were local actors who were in local commercials. It was just a matter of choosing the right people. Really, I just started talking to people and seeing how they reacted...see if they had anything to add. If they didn't, OK. If they did, then we'd rehearse. We'd research. We had lots of group rehearsals. We'd get together. We'd play the (Beatles') White Album, and we understood what we were doing and we got into it. I always believe in making best friends with your cast. I love actors. And you should never, not like Hitchcock said, treat your actors like cattle. I mean, I'm an actor too.
DVD Talk: Indeed, you actually portrayed Bobby Beausoleil in the film. Does it make your job more difficult to both direct and act in a movie?
JVB: No, I don't think it made it more difficult. I think it helped the entire film. I gave people faith - the cast and actors. It gave the crew and everybody else confidence to see me switch from picking the next shot and the next lens and the next camera placement and dropping that and start acting. It's something I'm very comfortable with and it's something I've tried to hone. I think I'm TERRIBLE in Deadbeat at Dawn except for the physical stunts. I really didn't start to get comfortable until My Sweet Satan.
DVD Talk: We've spoken of the critical reaction...What's the fan reaction been like?
JVB: I don't know. It's kind of been 50/50. It seems like at any of the theatrical screenings I've attended, in most cases, it ends with complete silence. People just shuffle by me, heads down. And that's excellent. It means it's affected them. And then there is always someone who comes back and says how horrible it was, or how sick it was. And that's what I want to hear. I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't get it. But I really don't pay attention to that. I'm already on to the next thing.
DVD Talk: What is in the future for Jim Van Bebber? What's the next project?
JVB: Well, let's find out. It all depends on financing. I'm working on scripts. I have a lot of ideas. So let's see what catches fire. I've learned the hard way that when it comes to future productions not to shoot my mouth off.
DVD Talk: Indeed, on the DVD, there is a long 'Making-Of' documentary and it appears that there are a lot of painful memories associated with this production, especially in trying to complete it. In retrospect, is it still a painful period in your life or does the final product make it all worth while?
JVB: Well, I think the film turned out well. It affects people - some for better or for worse. Actually, I am very proud that it's got to the point where it has. I am pleased with the picture and the (DVD) presentation. On the happiness scale, I'll say I'm really satisfied.
DVD Talk: Finally, one last question. You yourself can manufacture a dream DVD. You pick the movie, the extras, etc. What would that disc be?
JVB: Gee, let me think. Something that really needs the deluxe treatment.... (pauses, thinks)...POOR WHITE TRASH! (Laughs), starring Tim Carey and Peter Graves. It was shot in 1957 under the title Bayou. They made this little B-movie about an architect who goes down to Arcadia, Louisiana in the 50s, he's trying to restructure the bayou and the Cajuns hate it. And somehow the film didn't make any money, and so M.A. Ripps shoots all this exploitation footage... nudity.... Peter Graves in a love scene... And so, it's the greatest movie ever made. I've got the Continental VHS version, but boy, that film needs the Criterion treatment ASAP.