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In his debut documentary Winnebago Man, director Ben Steinbauer tracks down one of his heroes. You might think, Oh, his favorite baseball player from his youth? Or perhaps an astronaut? Or maybe simply his third-grade teacher? Nope, Steinbauer is not one to stick to such clichéd notions of heroism—his idol is a cranky RV salesman with a foul temper and a truck driver’s way with words. Jack Rebney, aka Winnebago Man, is the star of a hilarious, viral-before-we-knew-what-viral-was VHS tape that made the rounds throughout the 90s, leaving nothing but fond admiration in its wake.
With the onset of YouTube, fans of Winnebago Man could retire their outdated tapes in favor of an online archive that would never wear out, and a whole new generation of admirers was born. In light of this new world order—our online parallel lives—Steinbauer began to wonder more and more about Rebney himself, the man behind the rants. Who was he? Where was he? Did he know about his cult celebrity status? Did he care?
Tribeca: What prompted you to tell the story of Winnebago Man as your directorial feature debut?
Ben Steinbauer: In 2002, I was first shown a copy of the Winnebago Man outtakes clip on a beat-up VHS tape and was immediately hooked. My friends and I watched it over and over again and howled with laughter. I asked for my own copy (and of course back then, sharing a video with someone required hooking 2 VCRs together). I proceeded to show everyone I knew, and eventually became completely fascinated with it. I wanted to find out what had become of the man in the video and I imagined all kinds of intricate back stories.
But it wasn’t until the birth of YouTube and other video sharing sites that I started to think about this concept of unintentional and unwanted celebrity. Everyone I knew had seen the outtakes clip, but no one knew anything about this man. So I began searching for Rebney, and the film became a chronicle of my search and what happened once I found him.
Tribeca: Please tell us a little about the story… Who IS Jack Rebney?
Steinbauer: Jack Rebney is a man of contradictions, and I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone like him. I don’t want to give away too much from the movie, but I will say that Rebney worked as a CBS news producer in the 50s and 60s at a time when the news was shot on 16mm film. So not only was there not the ability to easily share videos, there were no outtakes.
About 15 years ago Rebney became disillusioned with modern media and society in general, and decided that he wanted to move to the woods so that he could read and think. He’s been living as a hermit on top of a mountain in Northern California and has had very little contact with the outside world.
Tribeca: What do you identify as the reason for Jack’s wide appeal?
Steinbauer: I think that Jack is a perfectionist whose expectations for the human race are so high that it’s inevitable that everyone falls short. And when these expectations aren’t met, he has a way of expressing his frustrations in a highly artful and uncensored way. I think perhaps a lot of people wish they felt this free to be so expressive in moments of frustration. I think it’s also important to note that Jack is mainly angry at himself in the outtakes clip. He’s berating himself more than the crew, and I think this is why people not only laugh at the clip, but also empathize with him. If he were simply taking out his rage on someone else (ala the Christian Bale rant on the set of Terminator Salvation), I don’t think the Winnebago Man clip would have remained popular for so many years.
Tribeca: What was your interview strategy when you set out to find/meet Jack?
Steinbauer: As a huge fan of the Winnebago Man clip, I wanted to meet Jack Rebney. So when I started to look for him, it was purely out of curiosity and a sense of wonder. But after talking with the crew who shot the industrial, I realized that Rebney had been burned by the outtakes and was incredibly distrustful of the media, so it took a long time to gain his trust.
Once Rebney allowed me to start filming, I focused on what it meant to him to be known in a way that he was not happy about. Jack was resistant to talking about it, but by the end of the movie, he shows what it was like for him. So the old adage about showing vs. telling really held true in this case.
Tribeca: Was there ever a time you thought about giving up? That Jack was just too hard a nut to crack?
Steinbauer: All the time! I had a lot of my friends and other filmmakers advised me to drop it and move on to a new project. But I had this sneaking suspicion that if I held on long enough and continued to film with Jack, that the story would go somewhere interesting. I think that part of the appeal for audiences watching the film is joining me for the ride of not knowing what is going to happen next.
Tribeca: What is your relationship with Jack now?
Steinbauer: We talk on the phone almost every day, and I’m proud to say that I have an 80-year-old hermit on speed dial.
Tribeca: The film really shines a light on the whole “inadvertent celebrity” phenomenon—a la Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame—that has been exacerbated by the YouTube movement. What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
Steinbauer: YouTube has only been around for 5 years, and in that short time, a lot has changed! It used to be that if you got caught on camera doing something funny or embarrassing, you could just move to another town and people wouldn’t know about it. Now, we all have digital reputations that follow us everywhere. I hope that the film raises interesting questions for audiences to think about, without attempting to answer them definitively.
Tribeca: I understand you teach film school now, but how did you get started as a filmmaker?
Steinbauer: I do teach film at the University of Texas at Austin, but mainly what I do is run a commercial production company called The Bear Media. We produce and direct feature films, commercials and music videos. I got started making documentaries in college. I was a creative writing major but a professor of mine encouraged me to take a film class, saying my writing “was very visual.” At the time I thought he was really excited about my work, but looking back I realize that he probably thought I was a terrible writer, and was trying to get rid of me. In any case, I took a course in film production and fell in love with filmmaking.
Tribeca: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Steinbauer: Choose a subject you absolutely love, and work with the best people you can! I have been working on this movie for four years, and I still laugh when I see it. I’m really lucky in that way, and I hope that all the films I make will be as enjoyable as this one. I have also been extremely fortunate to have two passionate and creative producers working with me: Joel Heller and Malcolm Pullinger. Our collaboration has made this movie much bigger and brighter than I ever could have on my own.
Tribeca: What’s up next for you? Another doc? A feature?
Steinbauer: I have two documentary projects in the works: The Chameleon, about a French con man whose sold me his exclusive life rights and then disappeared; and Brute Force, about a musician from the 60s who was the only artist on the Beatles Apple Records label censored for his explicit lyrics.
I’m also reading screenplays, looking for a comedy narrative to direct. I’d love to do something in the same vein as the John Hughes movies I grew up watching.
Winnebago Man makes its theatrical premiere this weekend in NYC on July 9 and 10, opening at the Landmark Sunshine Theater at 143 Houston Street and at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square. It also opens July 16 in LA, and then rolls out nationally. (Screening times and Q&A schedule will be available at the Winnebago Man website.)
Internet superstar Jack Rebney will join director Ben Steinbauer for Q&As following the 7:30 pm and 9:35 pm screenings on Friday and Saturday nights, July 9 and 10 at the Sunshine Cinema.
Documentarian Michael Moore will be making a special appearance to introduce the film on Friday, July 9 at the 7:30 PM screening at the Sunshine Cinema. Moore calls Winnebago Man "one of the funniest documentaries ever made!"
Other special guests this weekend include LA Weekly Film Editor Karina Longworth, who will be moderating the Q&A on Saturday, July 10 at the 7:30 pm screening at the Sunshine.
Follow @WinnebagoMan on Twitter.