Ben Steinbauer by Pamela Cohn

YouTube starlet Jack Rebney, a.k.a. the Winnebago Man, faces a second round of national exposure–this time with a bit more cheer.

Winnebago

Ben Steinbauer and Jack Rebney.

Director Ben Steinbauer makes his feature-directing debut with Winnebago Man, a small film about to launch big. A mild-mannered and exceedingly polite man, Steinbauer teaches film at the University of Texas in Austin. He first discovered Jack Rebney, a.k.a. the Winnebago Man, in 2002, when a friend shared with him a collection of underground videos on a beat-up VHS tape. On the tape was a blurry outtake reel featuring a middle-aged RV salesman having a meltdown while shooting a sales video for Winnebago Industries–frustrated, overheated, and barking expletives on camera.

The piece resonated deeply with Steinbauer on many levels, and he decided to go in search of Rebney to find out what happened to him. Thus, his adventure began. It was one that would lead him to many surprising discoveries, and one that would enable him to make this side-splitting and deeply moving feature documentary.

I’ve run into Ben and his production team, Joel Heller and Malcolm Pullinger, several times on the festival circuit over the past year, and they have always shared their war stories with me about trying to find and sign with the right distributor. Shortly after the film’s debut at the South by Southwest Film Festival in the spring of 2009, it became apparent to the filmmakers that theirs could be a strong contender for a successful theatrical run.

This summer, general audiences will have a chance to meet the mysterious and singular Jack Rebney, and learn his fascinating story. I chatted with Ben via phone from his home in Austin, Texas about the film’s imminent release, courtesy of Kino International, and his profound relationship with the cranky subject of his film.

Pamela Cohn First of all, congratulations on the absolutely fantastic title sequence. I love it.

Ben Steinbauer I love it, too. A very talented artist named Brandon Thomas put that together for us. One of my producers and co-writer, Malcolm Pullinger, was instrumental in finding the wonderful images of vintage RVs from old camping books and catalogues, even finding a few on Flickr. Then, coincidentally, there is this photographer named Grant Hamilton who is a Polaroid aficionado and uses really old Polaroid cameras to take very close-up, beautiful, slick graphic design-based photos of stripes from the sides of Winnebago vehicles. That’s what you see, all these layered and inter-cut images together.

PC I know you and your team have thought very deeply and strategically about the distribution scenario for this film. You’ve taken your time, not rushed into anything, waited for the appropriate deal and the appropriate distributor. Also, you spent time allowing a lot of breathing room into your relationship with Jack Rebney during production as he was deciding whether or not he was going to let you in. So I see just a tremendous amount of care on everyone’s part from the very beginning. You even go so far as to ask reviewers that are writing about the film to “Please help us save the surprises for future audiences by not revealing the specifics of the storyline after Ben’s first trip to the cabin.”

This is not really something you see that often—there’s usually an implicit “ask,” if you will, but rarely an explicit one. Why, specifically, is this so important to you that you bothered to state that at the very top of your press kit?

BS What I’ve noticed when we show this film, is that the most profound thing audiences respond to is the sense that they’re along with me for this ride I’m taking, the adventure to make the movie. It’s very linear, the way it’s put together, and so there is this kind of rollercoaster effect for people who are watching it for the first time. To answer your question, we really do want to protect these twists and turns in the plot, the unexpected ups and downs that are funny and poignant and revealing. Maybe it could be true that if you did know all the things that happen, the film would still work, but we’ve been showing this film now for 14 months, a bit over a year, all over the world, and no matter where we are, every single audience reacts very similarly.

There is this outpouring of empathy for Jack and his situation. There’s something that happens between seeing the original Winnebago Man clip and the journey to find him and the process of really getting to know him, watching him struggle and come to terms with this unwanted notoriety. It really affects people emotionally. So, it goes beyond the question of are we laughing at him or with him. It becomes a scenario where people are responding to him in an intimate way, cheesy though that may sound.

People come up after the screenings and they’re not commenting on what a buffoon Jack is, or what have you. They’re saying that Jack reminds them of their grandmother or their uncle or their dad, their best friend. There’s often a deep connection that gets made for many. So I think that, more than anything, has made me and Malcolm and Joel really protective about the way in which we want an audience to experience this film.

PC We lucky folks who get to go to festival premieres see that all the time—the unmitigated way one can come to a film one knows nothing about. We’re so bombarded with “commentary” that it’s so great to come to something really fresh like that. I was in the house in Toronto at Hot Docs at your international premiere last year and I cannot remember when I saw a reaction like that, particularly to a documentary. It was like being at a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, an absolute blast. I don’t blame you at all for wanting to try and duplicate that with your public audiences. When you have a movie-going experience like that, you’re on the phone to all your friends telling them to go see it.

BS We’ve had great word-of-mouth response, for sure. This is why it just made so much sense to go with a distributor like Kino. They’ve been around for a long time and have a really solid reputation. They work very closely with filmmakers. We felt like we wanted to share this experience as much as possible. Because they specialize in art films, smaller indies and films that represent a large cross-section, in general, it seemed like a good fit for us, and they were on board in wanting to do a national release.

PC I want to segue into talking about something that particularly struck me when I watched the film again. I don’t know why, but particularly the second time I watched Winnebago Man, I really fell in love with Jack’s best friend, Keith Gordon. Their dynamic is extraordinary, especially given Jack’s propensity for staying away from people, in general.

BS (laughter) I am so glad you said that! Keith does not get the attention he deserves.

PC Well, you have this very intimate friendship between these two men. There’s also a healthy dose of ambiguity as to just what kind of friendship, or history, they have, which I find really wonderful. But there’s no doubt that they have this incredible bond. We really see Jack soften when Keith is around.

What was really interesting is that as the story goes on, Jack starts treating you in the same way he treats Keith. He still knocks you around, but there’s love and respect there, grudging though it may be. He still thinks you’re a brat, but he’s taken a liking to you and, most importantly, has come to trust you. There are a lot of interesting and moving reverberations there.

BS That makes me happy that you noticed that connection and, honestly, it’s not really something I really have given a lot of thought to in any deep way. Keith, in a sense, was the key to this movie for me. Jack had been so burned on an international stage to a degree that few of us can fathom. I don’t even know if Jack necessarily recognized that when he was thinking about being involved in the project or sitting with us for an interview. He’s extremely distrustful of other people. Here’s a guy who has sequestered himself on top of a mountain. From the outside, it’s kind of a romantic notion. We all read Walden in high school. It seems like it’s this all-American thing to do, to go and be a hermit in the woods for a certain amount of time. But people don’t really do that.

Jack doesn’t want to be a part of the world. Keith Gordon gets almost exclusive access. So the fact that I share in some part of that and have become another lifeline to the world for Jack is an honor. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I take this friendship that has been created with Jack pretty seriously. And it’s a serious friendship you see portrayed in the film between Jack and Keith. In the film, we learn that Keith was destitute at one time but not much more than that is revealed. He did go into more specifics about the situation that brought them together but then asked us not to reveal them. But when he tells the story in the film about Jack giving him a place to stay, giving him clothes to wear and, literally, getting him off the streets, all that is true. Jack was the person who helped him.

Now that Jack has become a hermit and has lost his eyesight, Keith is re-paying that favor in a very knowing, serious manner. It’s not common to hear of two grown men that talk to one another on the phone for an hour or more every single day. I think Keith is the truest definition of a Mensch. He is paying that back. And it’s remarkable to see even more so because they both talk in the same flowery vernacular. When you get them together, it’s hilarious. It sounds like it’s scripted but it’s not; that’s how they really talk, this coded language that belongs to just the two of them.

PC And the crew who worked with Jack doing the Winnebago shoot? What did they have to do with the blooper clip? How did it get disseminated in the first place, and by whom? Was it them? Was Jack upset or angry with them about that?

Winnebago Man

A video still of Rebney’s infamous tirade.

BS When Jack first found out about the existence of the blooper clip, yes you could say he was upset with the crew, no question. He thought that the outtakes were “maliciously put together.” The truth is that the crew edited them together as an inside joke, but that joke soon moved up the ladder to the Winnebago executives who saw the clip and were “concerned.”

The crew maintains that Jack was fired although they are the first to admit that they don’t know the whole story. They were freelancers brought in specifically for the shoot and didn’t work full time for Winnebago. They had heard rumors that Jack was fired, and you hear Nick Dangeur [the director of the sales video] recount that they had to give statements to the vice president of Winnebago about the shoot. But none of them knew exactly what had happened as a result. And none of them have seen hide nor hair from Jack since the summer of 1988. Jack has always maintained that he was not fired. To the contrary, he completed the videos, and they were received with enthusiasm by the Winnebago executives.

I didn’t know what to make of the two conflicting stories until last month when Joel and I went to Winnebago Industries, in Forrest City, Iowa, to show them the documentary. They liked it a lot, thought it “surprisingly insightful and intriguing.” However, they also said that their “conservative, Midwest culture made it a little difficult for them to listen to portions of the film without cringing a bit at the colorful language.” But, we did walk out of there with a lot of Winnebago merchandise. I’m proud to say that I have a BBQ apron that says, “I’m a Happy Camper” on it. I can’t wait to see Jack wear one!

While there, we asked the people in the PR department about Jack and two out of the three of them remembered him from his time there in the late 80s. One woman remembered Jack as “a loud person” but that was it. None of them thought he had been fired or that there was any drama around his departure. In other words, the standing story from Winnebago Industries is that Jack was not fired but that he was an employee there until his contract ended.

The crew made copies of the tape for one another, and then showed them to friends, who made copies, who showed them to their friends who made copies and that is how the tape spread across the country before video sharing sites turned it into an international phenomenon.

PC The way in which we encounter and get to know Jack is really unusual in another respect, even overshadowing the consequences of his fame, somewhat. You brought up this distinct vernacular of Jack’s and so I wanted to mention how profoundly satisfying it is to meet someone who “rages against the machine” in such an eloquent way. That’s part of why we love Jack, I think. He describes Twitter as “trying to eat soufflé.” For being such an isolate, he perceives a hell of a lot about the medium that made him so infamous in the first place.

I think what this film also has to offer, and I’m sure you’re aware of this, is that we really need to hear these things, all of us, to remind us what’s at stake. He’s not just ranting. He expresses himself in a very articulate and intelligent way. That can penetrate far more profoundly and gives credit to an intelligent audience. And, lo and behold, that audience is out there ready to listen—and applaud.

BS Well, the irony of all this is that we’re talking about someone who’s known for swearing a blue streak even though he is so articulate and well-spoken. But it makes sense. It wasn’t until I had actually met Jack that I realized that even how one uses profanity can be very creative and “eloquent.” You need to be very comfortable with the language to begin with.

Jack is somebody who has worked in media all his life and he thinks about how he expresses himself publicly in a way that most people don’t. He is an astute critic as you pointed out, for sure. He also worked in media at a time that is so vastly different from ours. This is ultimately why I wanted to focus on him. That clip, obviously, is my favorite type of this kind of media we have. I appreciate the clips and I watch them on YouTube as much as anybody else, but I’m not someone who’s a super fan-boy of these kinds of things. It’s just that that clip made a deep impression on me.

The more I got to understand Jack’s back-story, the more intrigued I became. His story is also an object lesson in unwanted celebrity in this viral video culture. The fact that there are even outtakes is startling for him, let alone ones being watched 23 years from when they were made, by tens of millions of people all over the world! I think, for him, it sounds like some kind of science fiction scenario.

PC The film represents and talks a lot about this vast generation gap between Jack and his fans, old and new. But then there’s that anger of his. And I think that that anger he expresses is really what resonates with a crowd, especially a young one. As evolved as we like to think we are, we still have a really hard time expressing anger unless it’s staged in some kind of parody. And, for all of our “new and innovative” ways of communicating, interpersonal communication has taken a big, fat nosedive.

Jack is someone who just says what he wants to say in its purest form. He’s angry and he wants to yell. It’s incredibly cathartic to listen to someone do it so well.

BS I agree. That’s one of the startling things to me about how he relates to the people he cares about. Just because he likes you, doesn’t mean he’s not hard on you. In a piece of footage we didn’t end up using in the final version, Keith says, “Jack’s expectations for the human race are way too high.” When Jack calls up to cancel a magazine subscription, he expects the clerk on the other end to be the equivalent of a Rhodes Scholar. I’ve actually seen that in action.

I think this has been a life-long thing and plays into the idea of isolating himself from as many people as possible. He expects so much. He’s up in his cabin in northern California reading Kant and John Locke and then moves on to sections of the Torah, or Christopher Hitchens’God Is Not Great. He gets frustrated when other people aren’t on that same wavelength. And he’s just never developed that “inter-social filter” that we’ve developed, so he speaks this coded language that masks his anger.

People do want to be able to vent (without consequences) and that clip is definitely cathartic. If you talked that way to your boss, you’d be fired; if you talked that way to your partner, you’d probably find yourself single.

PC Let’s talk, then, about your decision to market this film as a comedy and why that’s so important. Winnebago Man is a very, very funny movie. We all know that “documentary” as a brand could use a lot of help in finding its audience. When I first wrote about the film, I mentioned that, despite it being a documentary (ha, ha), it was really the perfect, crowd-pleasing, popcorn flick. Can you talk a bit about the strategy you and Malcolm and Joel and the rest of your team mulled over?

BS Well, this is my first feature. I’ve made a lot of short doc work and so have been doing this long enough to understand and appreciate every first-time feature director thinking that his or her film needs to play theatrically. When I started this, I had no thought about this playing in theaters; it was never a driving force. But what happened along the way while we were making the film changed things. We were on a call with our entertainment attorney here in Austin, Deena Kalai. It was an introductory call to talk about working together and I was explaining the project and what it was about, etc. And she started cracking up because she knew the clip and loved it and was very excited to work with us for a reasonable rate. The same thing is true about that investigator who appears in the film to help me locate Jack, also a fan of the clip and someone who ended up working for free to help me find him. That would happen a lot during production.

Once we finished the film, we premiered it at South by Southwest in 2009. We had this experience similar to what you described. The first time we watched it, we had a little over 200 people. The second screening over 300 people showed up. The audience for the third screening was about 800 people. There was a real communal buzz. To have that many people laughing and crying together at the same time became something, for me, that was greater than the sum of its parts. Even though it’s based on a clip that’s seen on YouTube, which is something that’s usually consumed on an individual basis, the film is definitely something better viewed by an audience watching it together.

When I initially saw the Winnebago Man clip, it was on a VHS tape that a friend hauled out of his closet. After a few drinks a few friends sat around together and watched it. When I got my own copy from this friend, and would show it to people, that’s how I would have them watch it—a bunch of us in the living room laughing and reciting lines from the video. This is a piece of media best seen with a group of people.

PC You also happened to gather an amazing group of people together to make the film.

BS There is just no way I could have made this film without Joel Heller and Malcolm Pullinger. I am continually amazed at the amount of care and attention and focus they have brought to this consistently over a very lengthy process. In the same way the clips—and the film—are best consumed with a group, the film was best served by a group effort, if that makes sense. Yes, it was my idea, I’m in the movie and I’m its director, but along the way I was able to gather a really incredible group of people around this project. It’s not something I even can take credit for; I was just very fortunate to have them want to be involved in this process. If I had planned all of this, it couldn’t have happened any better.

The fact that the film has played all over the world, the fact that you and I are talking about this right now, the fact that it’s about to have a national theatrical release, is literally mind-blowing for me. None of it would be possible without these people who have gone on this journey with me. I call Jack on speakerphone for Q&As so he’s able to directly address the audience. Without me, he would not have that conduit to the world that he now has. I feel that exact same way about Joel and Malcolm. Without those two guys, this movie would not have that same kind of lifeline to this larger thing that it’s become.

Jack Rebney, ironically, will probably experience even more notoriety now, after the release of Winnebago Man last week. Read Rebney’s tweets at http://twitter.com/winnebagoman. For theatre engagement dates, and more information about the film, visit www.winnebagoman.com. 

Pamela Cohn is a New York City-based media producer, freelance arts journalist and film programmer. She writes a blog on nonfiction and experimental cinema called Still in Motion (http://www.stillinmotion.typepad.com).

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