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Director J. Davis and Actor Tobin Bell: How to Take a “MANSON FAMILY VACATION”

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Sometimes a special film comes into your life that explains who you are and shines a light on the secrets no one has been able to articulate, all the things you hold sacred. And at the end, when it’s all over, you are left alone, but understood. Such a film is J. Davis’ MANSON FAMILY VACATION.

The premise of the movie (debuting on iTunes and digital VOD tomorrow via The Orchard and hitting Netflix October 27), on its surface, might seem absurd. Two estranged brothers, Nick (Jay Duplass) and Conrad (Linas Phillips) attempt to bond over the history of the Charles Manson killings, moving from kill site to diner to desert, hoping to unite their divergent paths. It seems weird and reads as potentially dark, but never really is due to the compassion for its characters. Where did this strangely penetrating and knowing saga come from? Writer/director Davis begins simply, “It’s about accepting people for what they are.”

The filmmaker’s interest in Manson started early. “There’s a scene in the movie where the brother who’s interested in Manson [Conrad] talks about finding the HELTER SKELTER book on the shelf and looking at the pictures, and that’s from my life—that’s what I did,” he reveals. Davis’ grandfather, in fact, was chief of police in their town, and his house was filled with true-crime books. “I saw these sordid scenes that were shocking, and then these attractive young people who were somehow responsible for this mayhem. Then there were all these pictures of Charlie. He looked kind of different in every one—his hair was long, or he was shaved bald; he’d be scowling, or smiling sweetly. He was such an enigma. My grandfather caught me with that book [laughs], took it away and put it on a high bookshelf. I became obsessed with getting it back down.”

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When Davis moved to LA, as fate would have it, he lived down the street from one of the Manson crime-scene houses. He made pilgrimages to the infamous murder sites, including the diner where Manson’s Family planned their atrocities. “I told Jay about that,” Davis recalls, “and he was like, ‘You did what?!’ ” This moment is reflected in VACATION as Conrad reveals to his brother something we can’t articulate in polite society: a fascination with death, the things that make us different, the things that symbolically say we do not belong.

Davis was also intrigued by the human suffering that causes some to go astray. “I saw the interviews [Manson] gave to television reporters, and he was, again, this sort of charismatic figure. He’s fascinating to watch in those interviews, just very transfixing. I read [other] books; MANSON: IN HIS OWN WORDS is particularly interesting, because it’s all from his perspective. You start with an unreliable narrator who has fascinating stories to tell, about horrible things that happened in his life.”

There was one more inspiration from Davis’ early years: “It was probably in high school when I was at the height of my interest, and I had a friend who surpassed me in it. He had pictures of Manson in his locker, would shout Manson’s name in the hallways—that kind of thing. His interest definitely influenced me when I was writing the script.”

VACATION’s strength is that it possesses great insights into someone whose past is not his own, while also maintaining a warmth toward its characters. “I wanted compassion for everyone in the movie,” Davis says. “What interests me is dimensional characters, and Jay and Linas were able to flesh these people out. It’s about the importance of the brothers’ bond, and of family for each of them. And it’s about reckoning with their pasts; each of them has to do that, in a way.”

VACATION additionally uses Manson as metaphor and a symbol—one that is conspicuous in music countercultures and has been adopted by outsiders who have created their own families, express a sense of outlaw culture and embrace not belonging—because they can’t belong to any existing system. Yet the movie’s tone never surrenders to bleakness or desperation; it remains humane throughout. But why create such dimension in darkness? “Because I don’t necessarily believe that people who find themselves in that place are evil,” Davis responds.

Even the film’s lead Manson cultist, Blackbird (played by SAW’s Tobin Bell) is positioned in such a way that we can understand his motives, and maybe see our own need for acceptance within the portrayal. “Obviously, in the film, my relationship with Charlie is not about that,” Bell explains. “So I filled that all in myself in terms of how he knows him, if he knows him—obviously he does. I did the same thing with this movie as I do with any other, whether it’s John Kramer [a.k.a. Jigsaw] or whoever. I ask myself the same questions about the character: What does he mean by what he says? What are the specifics of who he is, what he wants, when he wants it and how he’s going to get it? The script was defined and written well enough that it wasn’t difficult for me to fill those things in, in a way that made sense for me, where I could make the things I say specific to me.

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“We didn’t spend any time during the shoot really discussing things,” Bell continues. “I usually don’t discuss backstory with a director or producer, unless they want to. It’s all homework I have to do. When I create any character, I start out with one question‚ and that question becomes two, and those become four, then eight—and the questions never end. Because every time you come up with an answer, it requires more answers. You know everything you’ve done since you got out of bed this morning. because it’s all in your head. Actors have to say lines that, unless they’ve filled in all those details, can make you mad after a while. I don’t mean angry; it’s just not a good feeling to have to say things when you don’t know what they mean, so I always try to know that, to the best of my ability. So when the camera rolls, hopefully you’ve answered enough of those questions that you can do it and feel real, or as close to real as you can get. It’s a fascinating process.”

Thematically, VACATION presents the audience with a neutral stance, and Bell notes, “After my 19-year-old son saw the film, I asked him, ‘So what do you think it’s about?’ And he said, ‘I think it’s about finding the truth.’ Nick pursues the truth within himself, and isn’t willing to ignore that, and push it to the back. These two brothers finding the truth and telling it to each other is, for me, very moving. ’Cause it’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to step up and face the hard truths in life, and for Nick, it would probably be easier for him to walk away from them, wash his hands of them. Fortunately, he has a good partner, in his wife, who supports him.

“J. Davis knitted a script with Manson as the linchpin,” Bell continues, “but it’s a world of its own, with Manson as kind of ground zero. It doesn’t speak directly about something, but kind of moves around it. Manson’s involvement makes it interesting in a certain way, because he’s a real person. He’s a character in the film, but when it comes back to some of the clips on him, it reminds the viewer, who is watching a fiction, that the movie is talking about real events, a real person. It’s addressing a historical thing that the whole world knows about, and it suddenly brings you back to reality for a second. I love that part of it.”

Blackbird “lives” in the notebooks Bell kept on set while shooting—a technique he learned at The Actors Studio and The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. “That’s something Ellen Burstyn talked to me about all the time, and she would ask me if I had done it. I make notes on my thoughts about the character all the time, so I can refresh myself. As ideas come to me, I have to put them somewhere so I can refer to them, to remind myself, what was my answer to that question? It’s like a painter doing sketches.”

While his characters are trying to find their footing in a complex, absurd world, Davis himself has done just that amongst his VACATION collaborators. “I feel like I’ve found a place with these people and the movie,” he says. “Jay and Linas are great friends of mine at this point, and I couldn’t have done this movie without them.”

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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