Gr8LakesCamper: Q&A with "Winnebago Man" Director

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June 28, 2010

Is there anyone in the RV circles who hasn’t heard of Jack Rebney?

Rebney is an RV salesman whose hilarious, foul-mouthed outbursts circulated underground on VHS tapes in the 90s before turning into a full-blown Internet phenomenon in 2005.

Today, “Winnebago Man” has been seen by more than 20 million people worldwide, and is regarded as one of the first and funniest viral videos.

Filmmaker Ben Steinbauer goes in search of Rebney — and finds him living alone on a mountain top, unaware of his fame. Steinbauer’s documentary movie, also titled “Winnebago Man,” is said to be a “laugh-out-loud look at viral culture and an unexpectedly poignant tale of one man’s response to unintended celebrity.”

The film has earned outstanding reviews from film festival audiences and critics alike.

You can also follow the movie through Twitter.

Actually, it was through my Gr8LakesCamper Twitter account that one of the producers of the film, Joel Heller, first contacted me. One thing led to another and he put me in touch with Steinbauer, who answered some of my questions, which are below.

Interview with Ben Steinbauer, director of “Winnebago Man”

Describe the phenomena of Jack Rebney’s outtakes video, which many have called the Internet’s ‘original viral video.’

Following a two-week shoot in August 1988 for a Winnebago industrial sales video, the film crew edited together an outtakes reel from the shoot, featuring the outbursts of Jack Rebney, the on-camera RV salesman. While the finished sales video went to Winnebago dealers to promote the 1989 Itasca Sunflyer RV, copies of the “Winnebago Man” outtakes were being passed amongst the crew and their friends in Iowa. Eventually, the video fell into the hands of VHS tape collectors, who began copying and trading it and the four-minute clip eventually became known as “Winnebago Man.” And years later, when the online video sharing revolution took off, Rebney became one of the first Internet video superstars.

The “Winnebago Man” video has now been viewed by more than 20 million people worldwide, and continues to be discovered by new fans from around the world. In May 2010, Conan O’Brien named the “Winnebago Man” clip one of his all-time favorites on YouTube. The Winnebago Man has been quoted in films and on TV by everyone from Ben Affleck to Alec Baldwin to SpongeBob SquarePants! There’s even a painting of Rebney — as Shrek — that hangs in the Dreamworks Animation offices.

Do you remember your first time watching this video?

Absolutely! It was in 2002, and after a few drinks, a friend told me that there was this underground video that I had to check out. And he was right… I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was so funny that I was convinced at the time that it must have been scripted – something staged for comedic effect. I made my friend rewind the tape and we immediately watched it again. And again. And again. By the time I left, I had my own copy on VHS tape.

So how do you go from watching an outtakes video to doing this movie?

As a documentary filmmaker, I was fascinated by the idea that with new technologies like YouTube and other video sharing sites, we all can be captured on camera doing something embarrassing, and then forever be known for that one moment. It used to be that you could move to another town. But in a Google-searchable world, we all have digital reputations that are hard to shake. It’s especially difficult to escape if you are captured on video doing something incredibly funny – that people can’t stop watching. So, when I first began filming, I was interested in exploring the theme of unwanted celebrity, and I was also intrigued that the video had become so popular online, yet no one knew anything about Jack Rebney.

Was Mr. Rebney difficult to find, or difficult to persuade to do this movie?

It is a big part of the story of the film, so I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that it was necessary to hire a private investigator to find him. Rebney had been living in seclusion on top of a mountain in Northern California for more than 15 years.

As far as how difficult it was to persuade Jack to be in the movie, Jack is difficult to persuade to do anything, and making a documentary about him was no exception.

Is Jack the same in real life as he is in the outtakes video?

In some ways, Jack is the same as you see in the outtakes video, and that’s part of what makes him so fascinating as a character. But to be fair, he does not constantly swear in real life. However, he does speak in a kind of hyper-articulate, almost Shakespearean vernacular. And he does occasionally pepper his speech with some Anglo-Saxon-ese (as Rebney calls it) to get his point across. And it would be accurate to describe Rebney’s disposition as adversarial.

Tell us about the movie. What’s it about?

The movie is my search for the star of my favorite viral video and then what happens after I find him. As a die hard fan of the clip I wanted to know what Jack Rebney made of his unusual brand of celebrity. And the answer is far more complicated than I had imagined. The story ultimately becomes about Jack coming to terms with this fame and in a larger way, how he will be remembered by the world.

Now that the movie is done, what is the experience like to now present it to others for their reaction?

The film has been playing at festivals for the past year, and no matter where we show it, people come up to me afterwards and tell me that Jack reminds them of a relative, a grandfather or grandmother, or a parent. It’s been fascinating to see that people respond so personally to Jack and his story. Also, it’s a great feeling to be in a theater full of people laughing together. It has also been a joy to include Jack in this process. I call him on speakerphone during the Q&As as often as possible – and he has come to enjoy getting to talk to his fans and answer questions.

What are some of the memories you’ll keep from the making of this movie?

I have two wonderful creative producers, who are also friends, Joel Heller and Malcolm Pullinger. We’ve been working together as a team for nearly 3 years, and it’s been incredibly fun to collaborate and then to travel all over the world together, sharing the film with audiences. One highlight of the past year was being invited by the United States Embassy give a talk to a group of dignitaries in New Zealand. Another was the very first time I got to see the film play in front of an audience – when it premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival, in Austin, Texas, which is my hometown. It’s also immensely gratifying that I have a friendship with Jack Rebney. Through the process of making this film, he and I have become rather close, and I’m proud to say that I have an 80-year-old hermit on speed dial.

Final question: Can we expect an outtakes video from this movie?

Of course! I knew starting out, that I couldn’t make a film about an outtakes clip without showing my own outtakes from the documentary. Let’s just say that people will not want to miss the end credits.

Gr8LakesCamper celebrates the world of RV Camping in the Midwest. Gather around the campfire and share tips, ideas and stories on RVing, camping and travel destinations. Follow Gr8LakesCamper on Twitter, Facebook and the personal blog.

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    Ty

    I played the video outake on this site for 5 seconds. That’s all I could take of that foul-mouthed character. Just because you don’t mind watching movies that have that kind of language in them doesn’t mean you should offer it to us without at least a warning. Be more careful, would you please?

  2. Avatar

    Gerald Kraft

    How can you allow something to be on your web site???????????

  3. Avatar

    Gerald Kraft

    How can you allow something like this to be on you we site.

  4. Avatar

    I have added a warning to the post due to the adult language, and I apologize to Ty and Gerald for not having included it in the first place.

  5. Avatar

    Ty

    Thanks. I appreciate that. Ty

  6. Avatar

    Gerald Kraft

    THANKS.

  7. Avatar

    BEN

    estimated weight of a winnebeggo class a rv/26 or 28′