From ‘*#&*% you!’ to YouTube

Documentary film ‘The Winnebago Man’ chronicles the transition of a former news producer from a cursing curmudgeon to an Internet darling.

BEN STEINBAUER interviews salesman 311  (photo credit: Courtesy)
BEN STEINBAUER interviews salesman 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you Google “The Angriest Man Alive,” you may come across a curious clip of outtakes from a 1988 Winnebago Industries commercial.
At its center is a disgruntled salesperson blowing off steam with blunt, almost inspiring, profanities and frustrated gesticulations.
The clip originally spread on VHS and garnered cult following. With the rise of YouTube, it went viral with millions of views.
Independent filmmaker Ben Steinbauer (33) from Austin, Texas, set out to find the man behind the infamous clip. He found Jack Rebney (81), a former news producer with a formidable temper and scathing eloquence, who’s been living in as a hermit for the last 15 years.
In his first documentary feature, The Winnebago Man, Steinbauer follows Rebney’s compelling character with dogged devotion and compassion. Hilariously riveting, the film tells a moving, personal story that resonates with stirring cultural and social questions. The film opened in theaters across the US this summer, receiving multiple international awards and rave reviews.
I heard you say that you originally intended to pursue the phenomenon of YouTube fame and notoriety in general. What got you hooked on Jack Rebney?
I realized that he’s probably the most interesting lens to study this phenomenon through. I knew I got a great character in Jack. This guy is so good on camera and is very dexterous with the language.
But also he was facing an incredible conflict with the new media landscape: Jack is an old-school media personality. Back when he was a CBS news producer, there was no such thing as outtakes – film was too expensive to keep rolling between takes. Moreover, the idea of viral video sharing – that people in Japan or Israel could be familiar with something you did 20 years ago – was practically sci-fi to him. He was truly unfamiliar with, not to say suspicious of, this new technology. And yet, it’s through that technology that he had become a sort of hero.
What impact did the film have on him?
I think he changed dramatically. When we first started filming, his message had been pretty much of doom and gloom. Like, ‘Our country is beyond repair, everybody’s stupid, and we’re going down the tubes,’ so to speak. Now, after getting to face his audience (through the film and during its screenings), he suddenly talks in an empowering tone: ‘Yes, we’re in trouble, but you people can fix it. It’s up to you to take up control and effect positive change.’
Jack is extraordinarily sharp and articulate, but he isn’t one to discuss emotions.
To me, Jack is the personification of the screenwriting maxim ‘Show, don’t tell’ He doesn’t want to talk about his feelings. He wants to talk logically about philosophy or politics. That said, he very clearly shows you when something is affecting him. Like at the end of the film, when he’s standing at the back of the theater, seeing the audience react to his Winnebago clip, his eyes tear up and he laughs along. That’s a real emotional moment.
You’re quite a prominent character in the film yourself. That’s something new for you, isn’t it?
Yeah, I’ve never even used voice-over so far. I didn’t plan to become a character. What happened is that the photographer would frequently pan over to shoot me as I was conducting the interviews. It’s because they were so contentious – me trying to get Jack to answer a question and Jack questioning why I’m asking that question, saying timeless lines like ‘Ben, your transparency is almost mind-boggling.’
You were drawn in.
Exactly. We started to realize that the relationship that was unfolding between Jack and me mirrored the relationship he had with his YouTube audience. I became a kind of surrogate for this audience – against which he initially reacted and which, by the end of the film, he literally and figuratively embraced.
How difficult was it to stave off his initial reactions against you?
You know, most of the time he was just insulting me. I recall this foreboding feeling on our second visit to Jack’s mountain cabin, knowing we were going to get yelled at again for 10 hours. Some mornings Berndt [Mader], who shot a lot of the film with me, would say to me, ‘We don’t have to go back there today. We could just go swimming or something.’
What gets you hooked on an idea?
At the risk of sounding corny, I think it’s a bit of gut reaction. Personally, I love comedies. I always want to make things with a certain level of comedy. I always find myself really fascinated by dynamic, funny vulgar characters that are at odds with their surroundings.
What is your favorite Rebney line?
There are so many. When we were on the film festival circuit, we printed out badges and stickers with his lines. The most popular ones were ‘Do me a kindness’ and ‘My mind is just a piece of s---t this morning.’ This became a litmus test for people’s personalities.
And which one are you?
Sometimes I’m a ‘Do me a kindness’ kind of guy, and sometimes I wake up and ‘My mind’s just a piece of s---t!’