Exclusive: Interview with Ben Steinbauer, Director of Winnebago Man


Acclaimed for his short films, Austin-based emerging filmmaker Ben Steinbauer is currently touring the festival circuit with his first feature Winnebago Man, a documentary that seeks to get to the heart of Jack Rebney, the most famous man you’ve never heard of thanks to YouTube and a series of hilarious Winnebago sales video outtakes. A “sneak preview” of the film — which morphs into a character study of a man who feels himself pitted against his own ironic celebrity — screens as part of The Rooftop Films Summer Series tomorrow night. To help spark your interest Rooftop’s Music and Outreach Manager Danielle Kourtesis sat down with Steinbauer to find out what we can expect other than swear words.

Tell us about your film.

Winnebago Man is the story of Jack Rebney — the star of an infamous outtakes video clip of the same name, that gained legendary status years after it was compiled as an inside joke by an vengeful industrial video crew in 1989. In the years since, the clip has spread all over the world, yet no one knew anything about the man in the video. So I set out to find the reclusive and cantankerous Rebney and along the way we developed an unlikely friendship that leads to his confronting his new brand of unintended and unwanted celebrity.

When and how did you first get your hands on the Winnebago Man VHS?

I first saw the outtakes clip on a bootleg VHS tape in my friend’s living room. The friend will remain name-less because we were very, very stoned — and this friend could still recite the entire video word-for-word. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen… or maybe that’s just the pot talking?

How did the advent of YouTube propel Jack Rebney into internet superstardom?

Jack Rebney was already a cult celebrity — the original Winnebago Man outtakes clip predates YouTube by 16 years and there was an underground tape trading culture that would pass these tapes around. But because you had to hook two VCRs together to make copies for your friends, his popularity grew slowly.

Once YouTube hit in 2005, however, and it became possible to post and watch videos instantly from anywhere in the world, Jack’s rants have become infinitely more popular with millions and millions of fans all over the world. He’s been parodied in Italian for Christ Sakes!

According to Charlie Sotelo and Cinco, the hosts of Austin’s cable access program The Show with No Name, the allure of humiliating YouTube clips is that they are short and sweet, and that you are not meant to connect with their subjects on a personal level. That said, what compelled you to learn about “the real” Jack Rebney?

First I became fascinated with the notion that it is possible to become famous, or at least infamous, for something that you are not proud of — something presented in a short video on the internet. Put another way, you can now end up with a kind of unwanted worldwide celebrity, that you have no control over, which is a new phenomenon generated by the advent of online video sharing. I started to wonder how I would handle that type of attention if it happened to me. I didn’t have a satisfying answer so that led me to go looking for these kinds of celebrities. Jack was my favorite so I began with him.

But once I found him the story became about something different. He is such a dynamic and magnetic personality that his personal narrative became the focus of the documentary. He is a retired news producer from an earlier era of media making which was a sharp contrast and made him a great subject to help explore this new idea of unwanted internet fame.

Plus he’s fucking hilarious!

The original Winnebago videos are compelling because there is something relatable about Rebney’s over-the-top frustration. The line I relate to is “I can’t fucking make my mind work.” How did you first relate to Rebney?

I first related to Rebney as a way to make an entire group of people explode with laughter whenever I would play the tape. I admired the way he expresses himself so fluidly. He’s almost like a jazz soloist with swear words.

But now that I’ve seen the clip more times than a grown man should admit, I relate to his general frustration and anxiety as he attempts to communicate the inner working of his mind. It’s very unique and totally eloquent, as strange as that may seem to say about a man who’s known for his vulgarity.

You say in your film that Jack’s notoriety is a “blessing in disguise” for the two of you. How did this unusual relationship benefit you both respectively?

I say that in the film as a response to Jack. And what I mean is that he can use his audience to communicate something that is very important for him to communicate.

But in a larger way, I think Jack Rebney is one of those rare people who are celebrities whether the rest of the world knows it or not. He has a commanding presence and control of the language that is completely magnetic and entertaining. I’ve never met anyone like him and it’s been a fucking blessing to get to make this film about him.

Related post: Rooftop Films @ SXSW: Winnebago Man