Interview with Jim VanBebber (6-29-05)
Director of The Manson Family film
By Ronnie

Ever since seeing the (first) Vincent Bugliosi HELTER SKELTER TV drama back in 1976, I have been fascinated by mythos surrounding Charles Manson and his family. Add The Beatles and The Beach Boys to the story and I was hooked! I bought every book on Manson (and the various family members) and became a mini-scholar about the facts regarding what is easily the most bizarre story in the annals of crime.

When I recently reviewed THE MANSON FAMILY DVD, I couldn't say enough about it. It is easily the most powerful (yet sometimes disturbing) portrayal of the Manson family yet, covering the story on many levels. Out of all the films I've seen on Manson, it best captures the "essence" of the enigma that is Charles Manson and his family.

So when I had the chance to interview director Jim VanBebber, I jumped at the chance! Although the DVD contains a documentary that fully explained the 15-year odyssey of this masterpiece in the making - I still had a few questions for Mr. VanBebber...

E.C.: First I wanna say how much I love the film! At first I was a little confused because of how you put in the “new cult of Charlie” …

Jim VanBebber: Right, right.

E.C.: But then at the very end it all made sense, when you used that quote, “You’re children will turn against you”…

Jim VanBebber: Exactly.

E.C.: And then you used the death of the TV film guy, Jack Wilson – which reminded me of the murder of Lawrence Merrick [Who did the MANSON documentary]…

Jim VanBebber: Yes, it was sort of a nod to that.

E.C.: It just tied it together because at first I was a little confused – what was all this “new cult of Charlie” stuff – but it made sense at the end.

Jim VanBebber: I’m glad you dug it.

E.C.: One thing that stuck out about the film is that it is a combination of both the mock documentary of the ‘60s with modern-day drama. Was that more of a happy accident that came over time?

Jim VanBebber: You might say that, because originally it was going to be a straight re-creation. Then we ran out of money several times. At one point in early 1992, we had pretty much dried up what we could get from the investors we had. So I decided to make a short – something new to show how we’d grown as filmmakers. Something to raise more money for “Charlie” – which it was called “Charlie’s Family” at that point.

I made “My Sweet Satan”, which was an updating of the Ricky Kasso murder/suicide case, but I set it in 1992. I saw this new, crazy youth going on around me in Dayton, Ohio. So, I set it in that and a lot of the kids wanted to help out because they knew I was working on a film about Manson. That sort of inspired that whole thing. And like you said, what happened to Lawrence Merrick.

E.C.: Talking about that MANSON documentary [1973], your really capture the imagery from that film.

Jim VanBebber: Yeah, Robert Hendrickson [director on MANSON] just turned his camera on the real deal. He shot that while the trial was still going on. To recreate that and the look and everything was the blueprint – because that was the real “Family” that he put on film.

E.C.: I’ve actually seen that once, when video stores first started appearing. But the interview clips in your film captures the essence of that documentary.

Jim VanBebber: We tried to…a lot of newsreel footage from the news at that time was shot on film. So we took pains to get that film stock. Video news film VNF 7240, which Kodak didn’t even make anymore. But we found a guy who had some. Just the attention to the little things, to details, really helped the actors recreating.

E.C.: You also stuck faithfully when using the actual quotes of "family" members.

Jim VanBebber: They just kind of hang themselves with their own words. Pretty wacky stuff.

E.C.: And you paid more attention to the “family” than to Charlie himself. Usually it’s only “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie”…

Jim VanBebber: Sure, that’s what the media did; he’s the most quotable. He gives a great interview and he gets ratings. And lets talk about the people who were killing, you know? In the CBS movies, both versions of HELTER SKELTER primarily focused on Manson.

E.C.: What did the think of the re-make of HELTER SKELTER in 2004?

Jim VanBebber: Well…I thought they did a pretty good job. Again, it focused on Charlie – glossed over Beausoleil and Watson. It gave lip service to the Hinman murder. But totally didn’t show the shooting of Lotsa Poppa Crowe [Bernard Crowe]. They screwed up little details like when killers went to the Tate house and the LaBianca house they were in their ‘creepy crawl’ outfits, all black. The remake had them wearing hippie garb.

E.C.: Like the girls wearing the white 'peasant-girl' blouses?

Jim VanBebber: Right! And if you’ve got all that money, big budget Hollywood TV shoot and you screw up little things. It’s sorta unforgivable.

E.C.: Your movie didn’t hold anything back when it came time to show the actual murders. I mean, it wasn’t glorifying the violence, just an accurate description of what happened.

Jim VanBebber: Exactly. Teenagers trying to be hip wearing Charles Manson t-shirts and stuff – I was like, “Why is this so popular?” You really want to talk about the Tate/LaBianca murders? Let’s see what we’re talking about here – really sort of just shove people’s noses in it. Not going overboard, but just taking the facts and trying to express the raw terror that those people had to feel.

E.C.: I don’t know if it is because I’ve been anesticized to all the violence in all the various forms of media – but the thing I personally found the most disturbing in the film was the dog sacrifice.

Jim VanBebber: Oh, really?

E.C.: Yeah, that image just sticks in my head.

Jim VanBebber: A lot of people get upset about that, but the “family” did it. People always ask me if we really killed a dog…of course we didn’t.

E.C.: Maybe it’s just that close up of the dog’s eye at the second that its throat is cut…

Jim VanBebber: Right, right. (laughs)

E.C.: I also wanted to ask about the music in the film. I thing I noticed was the absence of any Beatles songs – but I think that actually makes it more accurate as a portrayal of a sixties movie…

Jim VanBebber: Well, that and I would have loved to use The Beatles’ WHITE ALBUM. But of course we didn’t have the budget. The Beatles catalogue is owned by Michael Jackson - and as twisted as he may be, I don’t think he’d license them to use in a movie about…well, who knows? HELTER SKELTER, the remake by CBS used that song, albeit done by a cover band.

So basically I went with what we could afford and what was important to me was to get Manson’s own music. We wanted to get five songs from his LIE album. And that took forever to find out who owned the copyrights.

E.C.: That would be Phil Kaufman, right?

Jim VanBebber: Yeah.

E.C.: Because I remember reading his book a few years ago…

Jim VanBebber: Yeah, the ROAD MANGLER.

E.C.: And he said in the book that he owns the rights to Charlie’s songs…

Jim VanBebber: Yeah, he does and he pressed the first copies on vinyl album and sold them out of his trunk behind the LA FREE PRESS. I finally found him and talked to him and we struck a deal.

E.C.: That’s what I thought was really cool, that you used some of Manson’s actual music. What was it, about three tunes?

Jim VanBebber: It was five actually.

E.C.: Also, during the Tate murders there is an instrumental playing and it almost sounds like a cover band playing what sounds like “Helter Skelter”.

Jim VanBebber: What it is - a musician getting about as close as we can to evoke that of course. Not close enough for copyright infringement.

E.C.: What about the Jim Jones sound bites, did you have to go through any copyright to use those?

Jim VanBebber: No, we got those released from Washington, where they were being held after the mass suicide in Ghiana from the Freedom of Information Act. That’s public domain. I just got ahold of the best copy that I could. It’s him [Jim Jones] on the loudspeakers while they’re drinking the cool-aid (laughs). I just thought that a group of kids that were into death, heroin and Manson would certainly give favor to Jim Jones. I flirted with the idea of getting some of David Koresh’s music in there too. (laughs)

E.C.: Has Koresh’s music ever been released?

Jim VanBebber: Yeah, it’s floating around on the internet. But I decided that Jim Jones was enough and to concentrate on Manson.

E.C.: You played Bobby [Beausoleil] in the film – is being an actor in your own film a necessary evil, or was it just a…

Jim VanBebber: A luxury. I enjoy acting and I thought I fit the part and it was a good role.

E.C.: It seems like Bobby is almost the most fascinating character, because he is like the missing piece of the puzzle..

Jim VanBebber: Exactly. All these films have been made about the Manson Family and everybody kinda overlooks…he was kind of second in command in a lot of ways.

E.C.: He had his own girls [followers] at the time…

Jim VanBebber: Sure. He brought Leslie Van Houten and Catherine Gillies into the family.

E.C.: And I think Gypsy [Catherine Share], too…

Jim VanBebber: Yes, you’re exactly correct.

E.C.: Was the primary meaning behind the film to deflate the Manson myth? Of the “Helter Skelter” kind of myth…

Jim VanBebber: Yeah, it was. It was to explain it more fully to take away with ‘bogey man’ image of Manson’s supernatural – he could stop watches, bring birds back to life crap. More like he’s a con man who used drugs and sex and isolation to gather up this group of kids who were like a lot of other kids, looking for something that society wasn’t giving them at the time. And it was series of violent events and frustration and paranoia.

E.C.: Years after he did the initial filming, you taped the “jailhouse confessions”. Was it hard to locate the original actors?

Jim VanBebber: We all kept in touch. Just buying a plane ticket to fly three or four people back into Dayton and put them up.

E.C.: I was curious as to why there was no jailhouse confession from Manson himself (played by Marcelo Games). Was that from the storyline, to just concentrate on the family?

Jim VanBebber: Yeah, exactly. I felt that after we shot the recreation stuff that …I thought about doing it and then I decided not to. I came close, but then I decided that that would kind of defeat what I was trying to do.

E.C.: There is the one part where Jack Wilson (TV reporter in the film) was playing the video that he was sent by the “new cult of Charlie” – when was that filmed? Was that Marcello?

Jim VanBebber: No, actually it’s not. It’s Dill Bowling, who was an actor in Dayton who looks a lot like ‘old Charlie’, a lot like 30-year-old Charlie. So we cast him and we shot that thing. It played even better on that small monitor.

E.C.: One thing of later filming the “jailhouse confessions” was that since the film did take so long and so many years passed, you didn’t have to use as much make-up to make them look older.

Jim VanBebber: (laughs) Well, I still did quite a bit of make-up. I mean, Marc Pitman’s hair did recede quit a bit.

E.C.: On the DVD there is a documentary on the making of the film where you said you used a lot of Tex Watson’s descriptions…

Jim VanBebber: Sure, from his book, WILL YOU DIE FOR ME.

E.C.: Because Tex is the only one who has not trying to recount…like Sadie’s [Susan Denise Atkins] trying to say she never stabbed Sharon Tate and Leslie now says she only stabbed Rosemary LaBianca AFTER she was dead…

Jim VanBebber: Oh yeah, exactly. Tex pretty much paints an honest picture. Or at least he was the one that I chose to go. The two most helpful books were his book at Paul Watkins’ book.

E.C.: I haven’t read that one [Paul Watkins’s book]

Jim VanBebber: It’s out of print, but its really good, called MY LIFE WITH CHARLES MANSON. You might be able to find it at a library. (deadpans) That’s what I did and I never returned it, I just paid for it.

E.C.: Now, Tex Watson's description was one of the first where I heard about him and Sadie doing speed prior to the murders – because you always hear about the Tate/LaBianca murders being “acid murders”.

Jim VanBebber: Of course they weren’t on acid. Now they ‘creepy crawled’ on acid, but certainly not the actual murders. Pretty much everybody was sober except for Tex and Sadie, which were on methamphetamines.

E.C.: I also like the whole orgy/acid/crucifixion scene. In a lot of the accounts that you read, you find that Charlie really reinforced that crucifixion theme.

Jim VanBebber: Yes, he started playing on that Christ motif.

E.C.: I also thought that the actor that played Clem, Tom Burns, really captured the craziness of Clem’s character…

Jim VanBebber: Yeah, Clem’s difficult to cast – because you’ve seen the film MANSON, and he gets a lot of screen time. He’s just this lanky, wild-eyed parrot of Charles Manson. I found Tom, and Tom was perfect, he threw himself into the part like everybody else did.

E.C.: Why was there a name change of the film from “Charlie’s Family” to the “Manson Family”?

Jim VanBebber: It was Dream Entertainment that was handling our foreign sales, and they actually suggested and thought it might sell better overseas with the name ‘Manson’ for its recognizable value. At that point, to me that was fine. A title change was a small thing to do. Actually I like the title. “Charlies’ Family” kinda sounds like “The Spook Show” and “Manson’s Family” kinda sounds like “The Haunted Mansion” – more class.

E.C.: Do you feel that the film got a better reception in America that overseas?

Jim VanBebber: Without a doubt.

E.C.: Because people seemed to identify it more with the American culture?

Jim VanBebber: Yes, he’s our ‘boogey man’. And these are our Hollywood murders. It certainly didn’t play well in Britain and had limited success elsewhere.

E.C.: I saw one of the reviews which said it concentrated too much on the gore, but HELLO!-that’s what it was all about – the murders.

Jim VanBebber: I think they missed the point. Missed the point of what I was trying to do. You step out of the country and you get a different sensibility. I’m going to Australia for a film festival there in a week or so, and it will be interesting to see what the atmosphere is like.

E.C.: Here’s a “what if” question: if you had finished the film in 1988 when it was still in the docudrama phase, do you think it would have been as effective?

Jim VanBebber: Probably not. It’d still be a very accurate and very disturbing film, but I think the extra layer of the new Charlie kids – I was just able to shape it a little more. Timing is a weird thing. The film is more relevant now than it would have been in ’88.

E.C.: When it comes to making movies, do you prefer the fiction genre or would you tackle any other true-life stories, like the David Koresh story?

Jim VanBebber: I’m always attracted to non-fiction, real life stuff. However, I’ve written a lot of fiction scripts and love a good “ghost story”, a good fantasy film or whatever. It doesn’t have to be non-fiction.

E.C.: I had a question about the portrayal of the Tate murders in your film. With the ‘death walk’ of Abigail Folger – was that mainly dramatic effect? Because I thought that Patricia Krenwinkel chased her out the Tate’s bedroom and killed her on the lawn?

Jim VanBebber: That’s probably exactly what happened. There is one account, I forget whether it came from Patricia Krenwinkel herself in the book THE MANSON WOMEN, but somebody described it where they had left her in the kitchen and then she [Folder] made it out on the lawn herself. So at least there is one account of the defendant saying that. I decided it was a good dramatic device and there is at least one account that that’s the way it went down.

E.C.: What about the “musical motive” of the murders. He picked the Tate house and that’s where Terry Melcher used to live.

Jim VanBebber: He had visited it and seen that Terry didn’t live there anymore. I think he was sort of sending a message. He was out to start ‘something’ and I think he thought, “This was a good a place to start as any”. To send Terry a message.

E.C.: I've always been curious as to how seriously Charlie took his music. He seems to change his story with each interview.

Jim VanBebber: One of the things that I think the last CBS remake of HELTER SKELTER did well was actually deal with Melcher and Dennis Wilson.

E.C.: Do you have any other projects coming up?

Jim VanBebber: Things look promising, but I’ve learned the hard way not to shoot my mouth off! I’ll say, “Wait and see”…