Interview: Victor Bonacore on Jim Vanbebber Doc DIARY OF A DEADBEAT

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SHOCK talks to the director of Jim Vanbebber documentary DIARY OF A DEADBEAT.

For every fan of independent filmmaking, the name Jim Vanbebber isn’t a new one. The Ohio-born legend of underground cinema is probably best-known for his 1980s action flick DEADBEAT AT DAWN and his mind-fuck follow-up based on the real-life slaying of actress Sharon Tate, THE MANSON FAMILY. Vanbebber himself is something of an enigmatic figure to fans: notoriously independent, sometimes intimidating in his volatile passion for filmmaking (and for life). Victor Bonacore, another independent filmmaker, has spent several years crafting the new documentary film Diary of a Deadbeat which goes one-on-one with Vanbebber himself, exploring his nuanced and sometimes contradictory personality and filmmaking styles. Also interviewed are those who know Vanbebber and his work well: Pantera’s Phil Anselmo, filmmaker Damon Packard, force of nature Shade Rupe, actress and ex Sherri Rickman, and even myself. It’s a varied and complex look at an uncompromising artist and his life’s work. This is a documentary only someone with the insight and core understanding of renegade filmmaking like Victor Bonacore could undertake with success.

Enjoy our conversation with Bonacore as he releases his documentary upon the world of filmmakers and fans alike.

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SHOCK: The documentary originally started as a short special feature for a different project: you had bought the rights to some of his earliest films and were going to release them.  Can you tell us how the project evolved from there?

BONACORE: I started talking to Jim in 2009 when I acquired his 8mm films… his childhood movies from ages 11 through 17.  There are 25 of them ranging from 3-minute slasher films like ATTACK OF THE KILLER BANANAS to these epic 45-minute James Bond-influenced films like STINGRAY.  It’s amazing to see these films: early stop animation, early gore special effects, early stunt work.  It’s all fun stuff to watch but to see how it made its way into all of his other films is gold. There are even a few Super 8mm ones that aren’t silent and have dialogue, like WHITE TRASH, which kind of seems like a pre-cursor to DEADBEAT AT DAWN: a 15- minute gritty crime drama about organized fighting.   There are splices of these films in the documentary, but they are all getting released on a DVD called Growing up Vanbebber which will have all 25 films with new soundtracks created exclusively for these films.  Massacre Video will be releasing this set within the next few months.  

I went out to Los Angeles in March 2010 and that was when I first met Jim and first started actually producing it.  I shot with Jim for about a week then…He wanted to focus on what he was working on at the time, which was CAPONE: THE KING OF CRIME, a script he had written with Michael T. Capone which they were planning to make at the time, just searching for funding.  That was the main thing he was focused on talking about.  Honestly, I wanted to focus on all of his work, his entire life, everything that happened to make his films come to cultivation.  I wanted to know about his future projects and dreams.  I wanted to know about all the scripts he has written, his collaborations, his time in LA acting in underground films, basically everything!  That might sound super fan boy, but it’s true. 

That same year I shot with him when he was a guest at the Cinema Wasteland convention in October 2010, and then I went down to Florida and shot with him while he was kicking off his new film and then about a year later he started production on it and I went down again for that. 

It took so long because the project kept growing and growing.  When I first went out to LA and interviewed him I thought that would be it and it would just be a little retrospective doc that would accompany the 8mm films of his childhood but every time I would shoot another interview or discover some other footage or something it would just bring out more stories and it would continue to grow into something bigger.  There was also a point where I had gone through a personal tragedy and kind of just took a back seat and moved up to the Poconos and did a little soul seeking.  I was still working on the documentary at that time but the process was slow on my part. But there was always something going on with Jim and there was always ONE more interview I wanted to get, and I wanted to try and get as much footage and information as possible, and there definitely were times where I felt like I would never finish it, Then there was a point when I felt like I had a solid ending to the documentary and it was time to end any shooting and then do nothing but edit it.  The editing process became very time consuming and intense.  But I eventually found my true groove with the edit and it all started to come to life.  There were also the factors that I am sure many independent, poor filmmakers deal with, which is your doing it all yourself. The editing became so overwhelming at one point that I ended up having fellow Long Island filmmaker Michael Shershenovich help with some of the editing.

SHOCK: Why do you feel Vanbebber needed his own documentary?

BONACORE:  I felt Jim deserved a documentary because I felt like he was so much more talented than many of the filmmakers that were getting the big breaks and here is someone who has this super interesting story, who was making these epic little films at the age of 13 then going to film school and really shaking it up there, making films that people worshiped.  He was an interesting guy who made intense and important films while rejecting any kind of “system” of movie-making while still respecting the history of film.  To me he was the true American independent and his story should be told.

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SHOCK: What does it mean when Vanbebber is described as an “Outlaw Filmmaker”?

BONACORE: The first person that I know of to call Jim an “outlaw filmmaker” was Mike Hunchback, a musician from New York who I interviewed for the doc.  He was a friend of mine for a long time and someone who shared the same appreciation for Jim’s work as I did.  He said, “Jim is the last outlaw in the world of cinema” during the interview, and since that moment I just ran with that.  He’s an “outlaw filmmaker” because he follows his own rules, will only make films on his terms. Things like shooting on film and not crossing over to digital.  I know he has had chances to make movies but with the only option being that he had to shoot on digital and eventually it wouldn’t work out.  He is not an ass-kisser and his ultimate goal above all is to make the movie that the way he visions it without any compromises. It can be freeing because it gives you unlimited ability to do what you want, the limiting thing is it might take you 15 years to make your movie but in the end, it’s your movie and it’s a true piece of art.   I look up to Jim because he’s inspirational.   Still to this day he is trying to get the movies made that he believes in.

SHOCK: While the first part of the documentary follows Jim in Los Angeles, the latter parts are about his filmmaking in Florida, where he shot the short GATOR GREEN.

BONACORE:  Jim left Los Angeles and relocated to Florida and starting making GATOR GREEN.  He needed to work and make a film after not making a film during his time in LA.  Within a year of living in Florida, he already met a few people with similar passion, Stephen Biro from Unearthed Films and Scott Gabbey from Ultra Violent Magazine. He wrote a new film influenced by the atmosphere of Florida.  The documentary shows the several obstacles Jim and company had to jump over to make the film, raising money, getting locations, casting, learning how to work with alligators and crocodiles. The interesting thing to see is how Jim deals with these challenges and rises above the obstacles in true underground Vanbebber fashion.

SHOCK: Is there a message, ultimately, in this documentary?

BONACORE: I don’t know if there is a message, but I wanted to show what it’s like to be a true independent and really struggle to make a film.  To show someone who literally, eats, breathes, and shits film.  Everything in his life revolves around getting his next film made and maybe that’s what I found so intriguing, realizing now that I write this. I love film, you love film, many of us love film, but I could whole heartily say that nobody loves film more than Jim Vanbebber.

SHOCK: One of the more fascinating aspects of Vanbebber is his legacy in Ohio. DEADBEAT AT DAWN was the first feature film shot in Dayton, and since then, there have been numerous filmmakers inspired by him to come out of Ohio and Dayton itself.

BONACORE:   I’ve only lived in Dayton, Ohio for a small period of time, almost two years but in that time span I’ve seen the dedication that the film makers here have.  There are truly independent artists here. There is this guy in Toledo doing his own thing making films his way, Dustin Wade Mills, with already many films under his belt. There is the local Henrique Couto who has his own following constantly making movies, raising funds and doing it successfully. The dedication to film and the underground can be felt by anyone who is paying attention. Then of course there is the late and great Andy Copp, another Dayton native, who has worked with Jim directly and was definitely influenced by him directly and in the end went off to do his own slew of underground outsider films. Jim has left his mark here in Ohio, especially Dayton.  From his childhood films in Greenville, his rebel student films at Wright State, shooting DEADBEAT AT DAWN on the streets of Dayton, now living here in Dayton I see it every day, and I think that’s cool. 

DIARY OF A DEADBET is out now on Blu Ray from Massacre Video and the Los Angeles premiere of is Saturday, April 16th, 2016 at the Silent Movie Theatre where it’s screening as a double feature with DEADBEAT AT DAWN on 16mm.