In Conversation with Winnebago Man director Ben Steinbauer and Jack Rebney

Posted: October 28, 2010 in Q&As
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Winnebago Man poster“The Winnebago Man,” a.k.a. “The Angriest Man on Earth,” is a character made infamous in the ’80s and ‘90s via the exchange of dubbed VHS tapes and later on YouTube with millions of hits and counting. The man behind the sensation is Jack Rebney, an elderly hermit who lives atop a mountain in California. We now know this because University of Texas film professor Ben Steinbauer made Rebney the subject of his first feature documentary, Winnebago Man.

The footage is a montage of outtakes cut during the filming of a promotional video for RV. Rebney gives his crew a lesson in cursing and utters gems such as, “I don’t want any more bullshit anytime during the day from anyone – that includes me!”  Someone had enough foresight to see the hilarity in what they were witnessing and continued to let the camera roll between takes. A video montage was created and it began to spread – fast. Rebney was dubbed the “Winnebago Man” and the rest is history.  But that wasn’t good enough for Steinbauer. Fascinated by the effects of Internet stardom on the “Star Wars kid,” he wanted to know how Rebney felt about his notoriety. Therefore, he set out to find Rebney, which proved no easy feat. But when Steinbauer did finally find him, what he got was gold.

Rebney was not the most encouraging of subjects, but Steinbauer’s persistence paid off. His friend and fellow documentary filmmaker Jeff Malmberg (Marwencol) had said the best subjects are the ones who don’t want the attention. Rebney definitely fit the description and proved the adage true. In addition, Steinbauer felt a kinship with Rebney that allowed him to push a little harder without the fear that Rebney would abandon the project. It was just a “gut reaction,” says Steinbauer. “The pushing felt warranted.” On the flip side, Rebney points out the whole subject matter was irrelevant to him. “It was irrelevant to me and everything to him,” he says. But in the end, Steinbauer can be proud of his accomplishment, both in persuading Rebney to participate and the enchanting final product. Furthermore, Rebney likes the film – and he hasn’t liked anything in 25 years.

Winnebago Man took three years to complete, but there were a lot of dormant periods during that time too. The documentary has been on tour for about 18 months, but these junkets aren’t reunions for the pair; they speak to each other daily. “I never thought I’d have an 81-year-old hermit on speed dial,” says Steinbauer. Observing their camaraderie, it’s hard to believe Rebney ever uttered his favourite line from the picture and meant it: “If you don’t like it, get the fuck out!” Another surprise, which even Steinbauer did not expect, was that it was unnecessary for him and producer Joel Heller to go back and shoot extra footage to fit the film’s narrative. Amazingly, everything the audience sees happened as it’s shown.

Steinbauer says he wanted to show Rebney he could be proud of his “digital reputation.” While Rebney has embraced and been embraced by his fans (particularly the lovely young women that surround him after screenings), he still deplores the Internet and believes it will be one of society’s primary forces of destruction. One of his issues is the instantaneity by which “kids” can access information versus the time and effort it took to do research pre-world wide web. But this is just one of Rebney’s many opinions regarding the state of the world. Later in the interview, he also discusses the tight knit relationship between Canada and the United States and the necessity that we all work together.

During the film, Rebney states that he wants to use the documentary as a platform to disseminate his views of the world to a large audience. This was obviously not Steinbauer’s intention. “If I had directed the movie, it would have been magnificent!” jokes Rebney. In actuality, he believes Steinbauer is very talented and has a bright future as a filmmaker. Furthermore, Rebney is happy with the balance Steinbauer achieved and that he showed Rebney’s opinions existed. He hopes CNN will call soon, but in the meantime, Rebney has published his own book: Jousting with the Myth: An Heretical Analysis of God, Religion, Sex, and Politics. It will be available for order in November 2010.

Steinbauer comments on how technology is perceived as the greatest tool to keep us connected, which is true to an extent. We reunite with former schoolmates on Facebook and email or text friends and relatives on a regular basis. But he continues, pointing out that it also keeps us physically distant from each other. Instead of meeting in-person for a coffee or bite to eat, we have a virtual chat using one of the various instant message services. The irony in this situation is technology is actually the reason Steinbauer and Rebney’s friendship exists, which neither ever anticipated at the start of the production.

For those looking to buy the DVD November 9th, Steinbauer has a special treat in store for you. He’s included an Easter egg (hidden bonus feature) of Steinbauer, Rebney and his friend Keith Gordon singing “The Good Morning Jack Rebney” song the morning after Rebney’s first encounter with his fans at the Found Footage Festival. It simply sounds priceless. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work in the film.

Steinbauer isn’t taking much of a break to enjoy his success; he has three projects in the works at the moment: the first two are documentaries and the third is a narrative comedy. Brute Force is about a musician of the same name who signed with Apple Records in the ‘60s and recorded “The King of Fuh,” which never saw a wide release because the chorus was about the “Fuh King.” Now at 70, his controversial music is being re-released. Chameleon is about an infamous French con man that actually scammed Steinbauer out of his advance, but not before signing the release that gave him permission to record his life story. Quickie tells the story of a guy who tried to fake a robbery at the store he works to impress a girl, but is shot during the burglary attempt. The events are caught on the security camera and the footage goes viral on YouTube, but the guy carries the guilt of knowing it was all an elaborate sham.

Winnebago Man is the first movie about a YouTube celebrity to be released on the big screen. Coincidentally, 2010 marks the 5-year anniversary of YouTube, as well as the 100-year anniversary of the RV. The film opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox October 28th.

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