In 2009, Austin-based documentary filmmaker Ben Steinbauer made his feature debut with Winnebago Man. The eponymous subject of the film is Jack Rebney, a volatile Winnebago spokesperson whose outtake outbursts became a massive viral hit after the explosion of online video sites. A quest movie in which Steinbauer sets out to find Rebney, this crowdpleaser was a huge hit on the festival circuit, winning prizes at CineVegas, Hot Docs and Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival. Below, Steinbauer talks about the journey he took as he tried to locate and then befriend the enigmatic online phenomenon known as “The Angriest Man in the World.”
When did you first see the Winnebago Man video? This was pre-YouTube, I believe.
I first saw it in 2001: I was living with Brad Beesley [Okie Noodling, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo], and he was my roommate for three years here in Austin. When I first moved to town, Brad introduced me to all these filmmakers who were part of this underground tape trading scene. We were over at somebody’s house one night having sone beers when somebody was like, “Have you seen Winnebago Man?” I went, “What’s that?” He said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to check this out.” He got out this crappy, beat-up VHS tape and popped it in.
This grainy image comes up that’s clearly been dubbed numerous times and the audio is terrible, but it just proceeds to rip the doors off the room: everybody just stops, frozen. It was so funny, it felt like it was scripted. I was just stunned, and immediately asked to watch it over again. It felt like an artifact from a bygone era, something that we just weren’t supposed to be seeing. I asked for my own copy, and proceeded to show it to anybody who came round to our house who hadn’t seen it. In that first year, I would say we watched it almost on a daily basis. It was just absurd.
How long did it take for you to decide you wanted to do something more than just share it with your friends?
It never really occurred to me to go looking for the guy. Everybody had speculated about where he might be, but nobody out of my friend group had set out to look for him. Then in 2005, internet video sharing sites like YouTube and eBaum’s World appeared, and that’s also when the Star Wars Kid’s parents sued the parents of the boys who put that video online. I started reading stories about these accidental celebrities who got this unintended notoriety. I became really enamored with the idea that we’re out of control with the way we’re represented, and it’s this total anomaly based on this really great technology.
I started looking at these other stories and wondered how the star of my favorite video was dealing with this very issue. So I started to do random, very simple Google searches, and then every step of the way I’d find somebody who told me a rumor about the crew and how it was like this Apocalypse Now-type filming of this industrial video. Every little bit of information got weirder and more mysterious, and by the end it felt like I was looking for Bigfoot or something. It was just this epic mess.
When did you make the decision to be such a prominent character in the movie?
I’ve been making documentaries for about nine years and I’ve never even used voiceover in any of my other movies, let alone been a character in front of the camera, so I did not intend in any way to be a character in this movie. It was when he called me back and said, “That wasn’t me – you need to come back up here” that we started to realize that maybe this was a story about his relationship to me. But even then, it wasn’t clear that I should be filmed or I should be part of the movie – it was just a thread that was developing.
Then the next time we went up to shoot with him, Berndt Mader, who’s my business partner and was the cameraman, started panning over and started capturing me during these interviews, without me telling him to do it. It was clearly what the story was developing into.
I think Winnebago Man shows what a great narrative sensibility you have. Are you at all interested in doing fiction features?
Oh, absolutely. I want to plug Malcolm Pullinger and Joel Heller at this point: they were my two producers, and Malcolm was the editor too. Those guys really helped me shape it in a way that was relentless; they were great about having rough cut screenings, and we did that for months and honed it to this finely tuned machine that it has become. I really credit those guys for insisting that we go through that process. The outcome of this movie has been really crazy for me: I now have a manager and an agent in Hollywood, and that was why. They look at this movie and go, “Whoa! This feels like a three-act narrative film more than it feels like a documentary.” I love character-driven comedies.
In my other films, I realize that I’m looking at these larger issues through one specific example that is usually comedic with some elements of tragedy thrown in, or at least sadness. I’m attached to direct a couple of narrative comedies. I have three projects in the works: one that’s just straight documentary, one that’s a hybrid version that we’re still figuring out how to tell and could go either way, and one that’s just a straight narrative comedy. So I kind of have a little bit of everything to look forward to.
You’ve been based in Austin for about 10 years. There’s a lot of really talented filmmakers – Bob Byington, Andrew Bujalski and David Gordon Green to name just a few – living there too, so how much has being part of that community affected you?
It’s so fun to tell people that I live in Austin because everybody knows about it. You just mentioned three of my friends whose movies I love, and the narrative comedy I’m attached to direct is actually Bob’s script. It’s a little bit like art camp living in Austin, you know? The reason it feels most like art camp is that if you come to town and say “I’m a filmmaker,” which is basically what I did, you very quickly know everybody you need to know. You can borrow a camera from this person, this guy’s got a dolly, and you can use this dude’s Steadicam – everyone is willing to pitch in and help if you’ve got a cool idea. It’s a really supportive, great place.
It’s maybe a little slow – it’s like the third coast, the stoned cousin of LA – but that makes for some really awesome, quirky, bizarre projects when you have time and access to equipment and crew. Look at the people who live here: the people you mentioned, the Zellner brothers all the way up to Terrence Malick, and everything in between. There’s a lot of room for experimentation.
Nick Dawson is a frequent contributor to FilmMaker magazine and is the author of Being Hal Ashby.