For three decades, Jim Van Bebber has been one of the most abrasive, iconoclastic filmmakers in the American underground. His debut feature Deadbeat At Dawn was a perfect rendition of 60s biker films shot guerilla style on the streets of his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. His mini-feature My Sweet Satan is an updated retelling of the story of Ricky Kasso, a troubled Long Island teenager who killed a friend and helped fuel part of the “Satanic panic” campaign against metal in the 1980s. Van Bebber’s masterwork The Manson Family, being screened again in independent theaters (remaining dates follow below), was a labor of love that took more than a decade to see proper release. The ensuing years haven’t been as kind to Van Bebber as he struggled in Hollywood (more on that in the second segment), where his voice was unsurprisingly viewed as too unpalatable for mainstream viewers.
Van Bebber is now in Florida and hoping to make a comeback with his in-the-works movie Gator Green. He’s also the subject of a documentary called Diary Of A Deadbeat that's awaiting release. Finally, the guy is a Decibel reader. “We can talk about whatever you want,” he said. “I love Decibel and I’m glad it’s roaring and alive in America. I’m always ready to talk metal. It’s made my life and I love the genre.”
Here is the first segment of our exclusive interview with Jim Van Bebber.
Did you get into metal before you started making films? I know you started making Super 8 films at a young age.
I was into metal as soon as I heard Sabbath back in the day. I guess I was in sixth grade and I was like “what the fuck is this!” My brother was plugging me in to whatever was hip. It might even be things like The Sex Pistols, ELO or The Doors. It felt like the greatest time in the world to grow up. What are these kids doing now? What do they have? They have nothing. NOTHING! Except for Philip and his Housecore shit I feel like they have nothing.
What was the metal scene like in Dayton?
Dayton is not a very heavy metal town. It's a good town for jazz. If you want good jazz music Dayton has a bunch of swell people. As far as metal, if they are good enough they are going to leave Dayton and go to Chicago. Nothing lasts there.
When you were growing up did you get your music from friends or just from your brother?
My brother was a big influence but we both went different ways. The chief record store in Dayton was called Renaissance Music Media. It’s now gone. It was awesome and the owner Jeff was a friend, a real brother, and a kind soul. I can’t say enough about the influence of that place. It was the cultural center of Dayton, Ohio. I even got into old blues from that place, stuff like Howlin' Wolf. There was also an artist called Nervous Norvus. He looked like Bill Haley’s bastard brother. His shit is so fucking off the hook – stuff like “Ape Call”.
When I watched Deadbeat at Dawn I thought your character Goose and the other roles were modeled after metalheads. Or was it mostly biker films?
It was 60s biker films. It is what is what is. My nemesis is called Danny and his girlfriend is Iris. If you rewatch “Born Losers” that’s what his character and his girlfriend are called. There might be a hint of Bruce Dickinson in Goose. That’s about as metal as it got. That’s a weird movie. It’s also a kung fu movie.
Bonecrusher's speech in the movie was used as a sound bite in the Impetigo song “I Work For The Street Cleaner.”
Oh, I love that. I’ll always protect the copyright of the feature film but if bands want to use sound bites I’m all for it. They all seem to go for Bonecrusher. They all go after that fucking speech! Every damn last one of them. I’ve caught a million other things on YouTube and I sit back and laugh my ass off.
Was that speech in the script or ad-libbed?
It was kind of ad-libbed but I don’t fuck with Marc Pitman. He also gave a great performance as Tex Watson in The Manson Family. What you do with that guy is tell him where to go and turn the camera on. He’s one of those naturals. You can give him a handful of sketchy ideas and he just goes.
Impaled later covered the same song and they used the sound bite except they did it in their own voices.
I know, I know. That was pretty classic.
Your film “My Sweet Satan” is a retelling of the story of Rick Kasso, which was literally the scare story people used in 80s when they tried to dissuade people from listening to metal.
Do you remember that whole war? It was a war against metal, against heavy metal, under the guise of Satanism and all this bullshit. You had Geraldo and everyone on the planet Earth coming after it. I remember it. I certainly do! I found it offensive as shit. You want to give a bunch of 50-year-old ladies something to hate so you give them metal. You hate Ozzy. You hate Bruce Dickinson. You hate Lemmy. Why did they pick on that shit?
It was a convenient target.
It sold ratings. That’s what I tried to say with The Manson Family, that it ended up being more about television ratings than the man.
How did you hear about the Kasso story?
I was working at a bookstore – the same one I showed in the movie – and I came across a book on it.
When you watch that movie there’s nothing you can say is happy. It starts with a guy hanging himself in jail and someone else gets beaten to death by a fire pit. I’m not sure metal comes off positively.
I think every film I make has a happy ending. These guys are doing their shit. Most people sit at a computer all day and masturbate. These guys lived. Everyone I represent on film is living being. Maybe their live is short, maybe it’s sweet, maybe it’s sour. It doesn’t matter. They are living. They aren’t sitting there texting.
Did you identify with Kasso?
I certainly drew correlations with the “hoodies.” Kasso was one of those guys. It felt like I knew the guy when he got kicked out his parent’s house. I was halfway between playing sports and being a hoodie. I tried to address some of the same concerns in The Manson Family.
In the next segment: Van Bebber’s struggles in Hollywood; his friendship with Philip Anselmo, his work on the Down documentary and his future.
See The Manson Family:
April 3 – Granoff Center for the Arts, Providence RI April 5 – Ritz Bourse, Philadelphia April 5 & 6 – Egyptian Theatre, Seattle April 12 – Logan Theatre, Chicago April 12 & 13 – Hi-Pointe Theatre, St. Louis April 13 – Cedar Lee Theatre, Cleveland April 19 & 20 – E Street Theatre, Washington DC April 19 & 20 – Inwood Theatre, Dallas April 21 – Screenland Crossroads, Kansas City MO April 23 – New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles