Jim VanBebber Interview

Some of my favorite films that I’ve seen throughout my short life of 35 years have been those that have given me some sort of emotional response internally after viewing them.   Whether that response is sorrow and tears, uncontrollable laughter, dark fear or utter and guttural depression, films that can produce that type of response in any human being I think should be lauded as great art.   Perhaps, there are two filmmakers working today that have produced in me a response so terrifying that for some strange reason their work has always felt dangerous. It’s as if watching their films is some sort of crime you’re committing.  The first is Kenneth Anger, and the second is the work of filmmaker, Jim Van Bebber.   

With a incredible visual style, Van Bebber’s work for me has always been dangerous, out of control, and flirting with the dark side.  It’s here where exploration for me is of great interest.  His film DEADBEAT AT DAWN (1988) remains today a lo-fi masterpiece of punk rock action and cinematic over indulgence.  I had the pleasure of speaking with Jim VanBebber last year about DEADBEAT AT DAWN and here’s how it went.

BOZUNG:  If you had to do it all over again, would you still drop out of college to make the film with your student loan money?

VAN BEBBER:  Oh yeah, it was the right thing to do. By the second year at film school I realized quickly that I wasn’t interested in getting any sort of degree in the motion picture program. It was basically theory-oriented. You’d spend all this money, and end up with a Bachelor’s degree and have nothing more to show for it than a couple short films with their content’s dictated by a professor who didn’t have much vision or talent. What I wanted out of film school I made sure I got.  At first, learning sound, then sound Super 8, and the mechanics of 16mm. Once I had that knowledge, my friends and I thought, if Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert can do it, let’s give this a shot.

BOZUNG:  I never realized just how much of an influence Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD (1981) was on you.

VAN BEBBER:  I loved THE EVIL DEAD. I was just knocked out by it. Even today, when I watch it, it just blows me away. You can argue about the quality of the editing and the fact that it’s shot on 16mm, but it has more heart and soul than a lot of films of its time.

BOZUNG: Is the title DEADBEAT AT DAWN some sort of a subtle homage to EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN (1987)? Where does your title come from?

VAN BEBBER:  When we first started working, we didn’t have a title. I started shooting without D.P Mike King. I had a different D.P named, Steve Bognar. Steve was a big fan of the band, The Clash.  He had this picture of the band standing outside their tour bus, just all worn out and tired, and the caption read: “deadbeat at dawn”. Steve thought I should call the film that, and he was dead right.  It’s a great title, and it sums up the punk aesthetic that DEADBEAT carried with it. The film in a lot of ways was my reaction to my love of ’80s action films. The Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Sly Stallone films, but with a punk ethic about it.  In those films, the hero fights against people that sell drugs. My character not only fights against those people, but he himself is involved in selling and using drugs. It’s a punk action film.

BOZUNG:  You shot the final half of the film first in order to try to sell it right?

VAN BEBBER:  Basically the half way point in the film now, is where we started shooting originally.  We completed forty minutes and we took it to Times Square in New York City to show it these guys, Terry Levine and Alexander Beck. They said: “This is great, but it’s not a feature, so we can’t do anything with it. Shoot an extra half-hour, and then you’ll have a feature to come back to us with.”

So then the question became, how did we get to that point in the story?  So we started shooting again. We shot the beginning, with Goose’s love affair with Christy, him leaving the gang, Christy’s death and Goose being pulled back into the gang for the final robbery. Everything pretty much married together into a feature film

BOZUNG:  So after everything was all set and done, what was the film’s total budget?

VAN BEBBER:   Well you know…I think, before deferments were paid off, we came in around two-hundred thousand dollars. But that’s everybody killing themselves, and nobody getting paid for their hard work.  It’s NO way to make a movie, really.  Movies are still being made that way today, but at least with us we’re honest people and we did pay our back-end.

BOZUNG: How did the film’s soundtrack come about? Didn’t you originally plan to include various rock songs into the film?

VAN BEBBER:   Right. If I would’ve had my way, and if we could’ve afforded it, I would have had a heavier, Black Sabbath type of music.  But having no money, you have to work with what you have.  I knew this student at Ohio State, whose name is Mike Perry. He was a pretty talented musician, and he believed in our project. So we made a handshake deal that I could use the music in the film, he would get credit and have his music out there.

As we layered it in, I noticed that during the action sequences it needed something else.  It needed percussion. So I had this drummer friend, whose name was Ned Folkerth. He is a really talented guy and I brought him into the studio.  I played the film on VHS with the sound down on the key action sequences and I had him improvise the percussion.  I’d ask him to add cymbals here, a drum roll there for example.  So the score for the film is really a combination of Ned Folkerth and Mike Perry, who decided to be called, A-OK.

BOZUNG:  So will we ever see the soundtracks to your films released one day?

VAN BEBBER:   That’s a good question. I do have them ready to go. I did try to offer them out to this record label, but they didn’t seem too interested.  I have the DEADBEAT soundtrack,and I have the soundtrack to THE MANSON FAMILY (2003) in which Phil Anselmo of Pantera did about eighty percent of the music on.  Plus I also have the soundtrack to what was — CHARLIE’S FAMILY — that was done by the guys from the band Skinny Puppy, Dwayne Goettel and cEvin Key under the auspices of the name — Download.   That was released way before the film came out as THE MANSON FAMILY.  So that is available.  So I don’t know, if there became an interest I’d put the others out.

BOZUNG:  So did you ever go back on a personal level like some other filmmakers do, and add that Black Sabbath music for personal satisfaction?

VAN BEBBER:    No. The way it is now, works. The soundtrack for DEADBEAT is very eighties. I think it works for the film.  It identifies the time period of when it was made. The look of the film certainly doesn’t reflect the eighties, and I don’t know if the sensibilities do either.  The film was a tribute to American International biker films, Bruce Lee and L.S.D.

BOZUNG: One of my favorite things about the film is its visual style and how great it looks on 16mm. Is there nothing better than good 16mm film?

VAN BEBBER:  Sure. I love 16mm and there have been some amazing films on it.  BASKET CASE (1982), THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972), THE EVIL DEAD (1981), THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), and on and on.  Mike King and I consciously chose the film stock — 7240 VNS Video News Film Stock — just to give it that drive-in aesthetic.  The film stock is reversal,  so Mike had to be very careful with his f-stops.  It was a deliberate choice, also with the wardrobe, and the psychedelic segues, that was meant to evoke a late sixties, early seventies feel.

BOZUNG:  I was curious to see if the work of Kenneth Anger had any influence on you, in terms of editing but also as well as his use of colors throughout his films?

VAN BEBBER:  Not so much on DEADBEAT, but certainly Anger’s influence came in heavily on my follow up, THE MANSON FAMILY. The colors in DEADBEAT are more the garish colors of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) or Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (1967).

BOZUNG:  Going back to the themes in DEADBEAT AT DAWN, although it’s a revenge film, at the core of everything the film is also a love story on a level, no?

VAN BEBBER:  Yes, absolutely. There’s definitely also the romance angle there. That’s just me.  I knew that the Goose character was an anti-hero. The audience needs to get behind someone, and there needs to be something to latch onto.  People have accused me of being callous on a level. For example, the scene where Goose throws Christy’s body into the trash compactor.  He did that ‘cause there were no other options to get out of the situation.  I mean, what was he going to do, call the cops?  He can’t afford a funeral.  He’s burying her within the inner city, and it’s killing him to do it. At the end of day it was his only option. I mean it is an action film, so people shouldn’t over analyze it honestly.

BOZUNG:   So where do all these characters come from?  Are any of them crass tributes to people that maybe you knew at one point back in Dayton? Or are they just tributes to characters from films that influenced you.

VAN BEBBER:  Well, the American International biker films were really the springboard, and primarily Tom Laughlin’s THE BORN LOSERS (1967), his first Billy Jack film.  The blond leader of the biker gang that Billy Jack is up against in that film is named, Danny, and his girlfriend’s name was Hazel. I mean, how literal can you get?  The other characters in that film are named Gangrene and Crabs, and what have you.  I took inspiration from that and I was still reeling from seeing Walter Hill’s THE WARRIORS (1979).  DEADBEAT was intended to be a tribute to those raw, rocking films that I wanted to add my own sense to.

BOZUNG:  One of the standout sequences is that with Goose’s father the heroin junkie, were his rants improvised or scripted?

VAN BEBBER:  It was all scripted. I had to rewrite the role, because originally I had thought of him as a thin, feeble, sort of William Burroughs-like heroin junkie.  As we had very little money, we had to audition local actors and get guys who had done dinner theater and commercials around the Dayton and Cincinnati area.

But really, none of them could act.  The only guy who came in with any sort of energy was Charlie Goetz.  I wanted him, but he was so damn manic that he couldn’t pull off the William Burroughs idea,  so I rewrote it into this manic persona, who was still crazed about Vietnam.  It was really a last minute adjustment to fit the actor.

BOZUNG:   So I’ve heard rumors that the sound effects you used for people using nunchucks in the film, were taken from Bruce Lee’s ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), is that true?

VAN BEBBER: Yes.  We took the track from ENTER THE DRAGON, phased sound out and did some manipulation so that they weren’t exactly the same sound.  Nunchucks don’t sound like that, and real punches don’t sound like they do in real life on film either.  I’ve never heard sound effects for nunchucks better than I’ve heard them in ENTER THE DRAGON.

BOZUNG:  My favorite aspect of your work is how I get this overwhelming sense that what I’m watching is very dangerous and frightening. Why do you think people watching your work get this sort of vibe?

VAN BEBBER: I think a lot of it is due to the director’s control over the work. His filmmaking sensibilities bleed through.  If you watch the films of Sam Peckinpah, except maybe CONVOY (1978) or JUNIOR BONNER (1972), you experience this nihilism, a longing for lost ideals of “when men were men.” Scorsese gives us that vibe with MEAN STREETS (1973) and CASINO (1995). Cronenberg does the same with DEAD RINGERS (1988). I think it comes from the filmmaker.

Personally, I like dark, depressing subject matter.  I like dangerous cinema. I’m a big fan of downer endings on film.  That perspective, I guess, just comes through in what I’ve done up to this point.  If I were a gun-for-hire, and someone asked me to make them a comedy, I’m sure that would be just as sick in its own way

BOZUNG:  So what about a DEADBEAT AT DAWN sequel?

VAN BEBBER: Well, that was bandied about for a little while, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.  I’ve written a script.  A biker action film that is a sort of continuation of the “Goose” character, but only in the sense that HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) is basically “The Man with No Name”, more or less the same character, but a different movie.  But I don’t think I would do it, ‘cause Goose died at the end of DEADBEAT.  Nobody survived.  They all got their guts knocked apart, their fingers bit off and they all bled to death in the street.  How could there be a sequel?  Goose comes back as a bionic man or some shit?   When I do make another action film, the character will share those sensibilities for sure.  I mean, I still want him to use nunchucks and throwing stars.

Reprinted with permission of Mondo Film, LLC.  All rights reserved.