Angry icon Jack Rebney throws his hands in the air on a hot day filming in Iowa.

'Winnebago Man' Hits the Road

Susan Gerhard August 2, 2010

The Angry Tirade, one of YouTube's most popular genres, finds no better expression than in the longform ranting of a figure who's come to be known by the vehicle he teaches us to hate, the Winnebago." The clips of  lone actor Jack Rebney ("Winnebago Man") fuming at underlings, RVs, scriptwriters, flies, and himself during an industrial/commercial shoot went "viral" via actual hand-passed video before the Web made such phenomena common. But one of his biggest fans, a filmmaker out of Austin, Texas, wasn't content with the story as found; he wanted to find out what happened to this seemingly private individual gone publicly insane. The result is a documentary not only about viral videos, voyeurism, personal growth via public embarrassment, or one individual having a very bad day. It's a story about a director and his non-fiction subject growing fond of each other in the process of making a film. I got a chance to exchange words over email with director Ben Steinbauer and his producer, San Francisco-based Malcolm Pullinger, the week the film opened.

SF360: Two characters develop over the course of this film: ‘Winnebago Man’ Jack Rebney, and Ben, the filmmaker.  How many years did you spend making the film? What were the biggest hurdles from a production standpoint?

Ben Steinbauer: The film took about four years from concept to completed film.  I think the biggest production hurdle was never really knowing how things would go with Jack.  As you see in the film, we had a number of conflicts during the shooting, and things were always teetering on the edge of falling apart.  Needless to say, it was little difficult to rally crew and raise money for a project when you’re not really sure if your main subject is going to let you keep filming.  But we knew that Jack was incredibly compelling and his story was unique and timely, so we stuck with it.  Which is partly why it was so gratifying when Jack ultimately embraced the film and his fans, and turned it into a positive outlet to connect with people. Who would have thought that a man known for swearing a blue streak would turn out to be so good with audiences!

SF360: How did you three get involved with each other on this project?

Malcolm Pullinger:  Ben and I first met through Bradley Beesley, a filmmaker who has lived in both Austin and San Francisco.  Bradley was directing a live performance shoot for The Flaming Lips in Oklahoma City, and he asked Ben and me to come out and film documentary footage of the band and their fans.  The shoot went well, and Ben and I knew we’d want to work together again one day.  So, when Ben called me about this project, I was immediately interested.  

Ben was introduced to producer Joel Heller by Matt Dentler, the former SXSW producer.  Joel had a lot of experience with narrative comedies, which seemed a perfect fit for the project.  The three of us gelled right away.  It’s been crucial that we’ve all become close friends, and able to laugh and support each other along the way.

SF360: Ben, we see them in the film, but can you recapitulate here one or two moments of growth in your own thinking about the evolution of the dissemination and reception of ‘found’ performances?

Steinbauer:  I have a production company in Austin, Texas, and we get calls regularly from companies asking us to make them a commercial that will ‘go viral.’ But of course that’s missing the point because the characteristic that I’ve come to identify about what makes videos spread, like the Winnebago Man clip, is a sense of authenticity.  Clips like ‘Star Wars Kid,’ for example, are unselfconscious and resonate in ways that remind us of something in ourselves, but they do it accidentally. These videos warrant repeat viewings, whereas the unfortunate Mel Gibson tapes, for example, are nasty and not something that most of us listen to more than once.

I also think that we live in a media-saturated world full of hyper-produced programming that leaves people craving a glimpse behind the scenes or a crack in the facade. There is an innocence to the Winnebago Man outtakes that is very attractive. Jack is commenting on his performance as he’s failing to live up to his own high expectations and thereby disappointing himself. In that way, he is inviting the audience to relate to him and I think that is why people respond so positively to Jack, both in the outtakes clip and in the film.

SF360: It was great to be reminded that YouTube is a fairly recent phenomenon, though it already has a collection of ‘survivors,’ like your Jack Rebney, Winnebago Man. Some have already evolved from their traumatic exposure with a better understanding of themselves and celebrity. How difficult was it for you to track down case-in-point Aleksey Vaynor (‘Impossible is Nothing’)?

Steinbauer: It wasn’t difficult at all to find Aleksey Vayner. Like most of us, he was fairly easy to locate online. The challenging part was getting him to agree to the interview. As someone who has been burned by the media on an international level he was understandably weary of appearing on camera and being interviewed by someone he wasn’t familiar with. But after a few long emails and phone calls I was able to explain the project to him and eventually win his trust.

The stories he told me about the negative outcome of this video resume ‘Impossible is Nothing’ were truly frightening, and it was plain to see that his life had been changed dramatically as a result of his unintended notoriety.

SF360: I’m curious about the collection of underground videos that came along with the first ‘Winnebago Man’ clip you viewed, Ben.

Steinbauer:  The first time I saw the ‘Winnebago Man’ clip was late one night after a few beers at my friend’s house.  He had a VHS copy and said , ‘You have to see this!’  I was instantly transfixed.  It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen!  At the same time it was like I was watching something I wasn’t supposed to be seeing, like stepping out of a time machine into a forget moment from the past.  

There were a number of other underground videos being passed around at the same time—sometimes on the same tape as the ‘Winnebago Man’ clip. Some of my favorites were ‘Larry Williams,’ ‘The Gassy Preacher,’ The JackAss pilot, ‘Jesco The Dancing Outlaw,’ ‘The Best of the Worst of Star Search,’ and the amazing ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot.’

SF360: Much of Jack’s personal life is left out of the film, but it was interesting to see his transition from deep woods Northern California to experiencing an audience in San Francisco. How did you prepare for that climactic trip to the Found Footage Film Festival at the Red Vic Movie House?

Steinbauer:  ‘Prepare’ is maybe too strong a word.  It was probably closer to bracing for impact.  Once Jack agreed to go to the Found Footage Festival, we arranged to shoot at the Red Vic and capture Jack coming face-to-face with his fans.  But beyond that, we had no idea what to expect.  In fact, right before Jack walked up to the microphone to address the crowd in the theater, Keith, his best friend, leaned over and whispered to me, ‘You know, this is like pulling the pin on a hand grenade and rolling it down the aisle.’  I think that kind of summed up the uncertainty, tension, and excitement of that whole day!

SF360: He’s a classic character, as one of the Red Vic audience members reminded us. ‘Everybody’s angry grandpa.’ Who would play Jack Rebney in the fiction feature someday?

Pullinger:  We love this question, because this is something that we used to talk about even back in the editing room.  We’ve also heard a lot of great ideas from fans who have the film recently in N.Y. and L.A..  We’ve heard ideas ranging from Dabney Coleman to Sean Connery.  For me, though, it would have to be John Cleese.  Not only does he have an uncanny resemblance to Jack, I think he’d be able to capture the intensity and humor of Jack’s personality perfectly!

Steinbauer:  I agree that John Cleese would be amazing, but I think my personal favorite would be Delroy Lindo.  You might have to IMDb that one.

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