Okay, so using the Manson Family murders as the underpinnings of your first feature may not be a route that most filmmakers would go. But for writer/director J. Davis, his fascination with the subject goes back to childhood, and he taps into the natural aversion that most people have about Charles Manson and the events surrounding the diminutive cult leader in his feature debut, “Manson Family Vacation.”
The movie stars Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips as a pair of brothers who tour Manson Family murder sites. Duplass plays Nick, the solid family man, while Phillips plays Conrad, the brother obsessed with all things Manson. “Manson Family Vacation” had its premiere this week at South by Southwest to positive reviews and audience reaction.
One of the keys to making “Manson Family Vacation” a solid feature debut was the cinematography by Sean McElwee. To achieve the look of the film, Davis and McElwee used the Canon Cinema EOS C500 and Cinema lenses including the CN-E30-105MM L S and CN-E15.5-47mm T2.8 L S.
Film Slate Magazine caught up with Davis at SXSW as the filmmaker was able to take a breather from the festivities. After all, having your film premiere at a major event like Austin’s most famous gathering puts you into a brand new world.
Film Slate Magazine: How are you enjoying the festival so far?
J. Davis: I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying it. There are two parts to it. I got here Friday and had a couple of very low stress couple of days watching movies. And now we’ve started showing and talking to people. So it’s definitely more of a whirlwind the past couple of days.
FSM: As a filmmaker, when you get thrown into that world, is it a gradual process at all or is it you flip a switch and it’s, ‘Oh, I’m doing Q and A sessions, screenings, I’m doing more interviews than I’ve ever done.’ How does that work in your mind?
JD: Yesterday was the first day of doing interviews in the run up to showing. It was a crazy day. I’ve never done any of this. I’ve never gotten up in front of a crowd to do that sort of thing. Or talk to people like you. It’s a brand new experience. I’m lucky that everybody who’s in this movie is so good at this though. They are usually more eloquent than I am in talking about the movie.
FSM: Was that the first time the movie was seen with an audience?
JD: We’d done some screenings for friends when we were honing the cut. But that was the first time in a theater with an audience. It was great. It was a wonderful experience.
FSM: If you’re going to do it, SXSW is probably the festival. I think it’s such a cool vibe and a little bit different than other festivals. It’s probably a good one to have your initial screening at.
JD: I edited a documentary for the Duplasses a few years ago called ‘Kevin’ about a musician here in Austin (Kevin Gant—ed.). So we came to the festival three years ago and had the best time. We got to show the movie…it was an incredible experience. We were psyched when we found out we would be able to come back.
FSM: So for you, for this movie, where did the idea come from? I like the idea of the dichotomy of the two brothers, and of course throwing in Charlie Manson is a cool little button. So how did the idea first come to you?
JD: Well, I’ve been fascinated with the Manson Family crimes since I was a kid. I picked up the book ‘Helter Skelter’ and opened it up and kind of looked through and saw these photos. And I kind of became transfixed with all these images. The crime scenes and the group of attractive young people were somehow responsible for all this and Manson himself. My grandfather took the book away from me and put it on the top shelf (laughs). At that point I got the book back down again and became even more interested. I expressed my interest in this to my friend, Jay Duplass. Jay and I have a lot in common. But this is one area where we differed.
FSM: He did not show the same interest in Manson that you did?
JD: He was completely horrified that I had any interest in this. So I decided to write a script that would explore that difference between us. I wrote a first draft of that script and at that time Jay agreed to help me produce it and I said, ‘I’m going to do you one better. I want you to play this part of this brother who’s freaked out about all this Manson stuff.’ And I didn’t know if he was even interested in acting. At that point he had just done a couple of things. But he didn’t hesitate. That’s kind of how things got started.
FSM: So it wasn’t that big of a motivation for him to be the brother that does not share the fascination?
JD: (Laughing) He had the motivation.
FSM: So how did the rest of the casting go? Linas Phillips, who plays the other brother, was that an open audition, or is he an actor that you know and you brought him into the fold as well?
JD: I contacted Linas because I’m a big fan of his work as a director and I’ve been talking to him for a little bit about working with him. And then once I got this idea, I asked him if he wanted to play this Manson obsessed brother and he agreed to do it. One of the movies that Linas had made was a movie called ‘Walking to Werner.’ He walks from Seattle to Los Angeles to try to meet Werner Herzog. So I knew that Linas would understand obsession. He came on board and he and Jay had immediate chemistry when we got together to read the script and started working through it.
FSM: So that’s pretty cool that the movie hinges on two actors who have the motivations and like you said, with Linas, also having a single minded determination in his way. So that had to be pretty cool as a writer and director for you to see that and say, ‘Okay, I can turn these guys loose.’
JD: We stuck to the script but within the scenes themselves we did a lot of exploration. But it was just a fertile territory that was their relationship. So we did a lot of exploration within scenes. So we picked out the best stuff in the edit.
FSM: What was the pre-production process like? Was there a lot of time, or was it, ‘Get in there, get it done,’ a quick shoot sort of thing?
JD: We did a Kickstarter campaign. That’s how we got the ball rolling. We were able to meet our goals. And that’s how we were able to get the ball rolling and set our production dates to raise some more funds that we needed and…that’s when it became real.
FSM: Were you comfortable going that route? Was it a point of seeing other filmmakers doing it and thinking this is something that you could do for your film?
JD: I was comfortable doing it. The tough part for me was that I’m not connected in social media at all. I’m sort of this strange privacy freak (laughing). I had to rely on others to cover that ground. We had a producer, Josh Polon, who is particularly good at running Kickstarter campaigns and that kind of thing. So he helped incredibly during that process. When you’re doing it, it’s this all-encompassing thing.
FSM: Were there days, ‘Well, we only got $20, and other days where you got $1,000? The ups and downs?
JD: Yeah, and there were these really empty periods, and in your mind at the time, you’re thinking, ‘If this doesn’t happen my project is not going to happen.’
FSM: And finally, in shooting this movie, were there any challenges aside from a fundraising standpoint, seeing as how this was your first feature? Were there certain things you found more challenging than other aspects?
JD: One of the biggest challenges for me personally was that I work in post-production doing corporate videos, as a post-production supervisor. So I had to take a sabbatical from work, so that was a lot to ask of my work, and there was a lot to ask of my family, so it was because of the sacrifices of the people around me that I was able to do it at all.