Film Independent Tue 1.21.2014

Apply Now for a Canon Filmmaker Award

Film Independent is now accepting submissions for our quarterly 2014 Canon Filmmaker Award. Four times a year, we select one filmmaker to receive a Canon Cinema EOS package loaned to the recipient. Click here for eligibility details and to apply. Only Film Independent Fellows, Los Angeles Film Festival alumni and Spirit Awards nominees and winners are eligible.

This quarter’s final application deadline is February 3, 2014. To find out when applications open for the next round, check back in March 2014.

Here, we talk to Manson Family Vacation writer/director J. Davis, last quarter’s winner—along with his producer Steve Bannatyne—about their experience making the film and with the Canon package. Their film explores the cult legacy of Charles Manson in a darkly comedic tale of two brothers who hit the road in search of vestiges of The Manson Family and, ultimately, gain a new understanding of their own familial bond.

Tell us about Manson Family Vacation; what is the film about and why is it important for you to tell this story?

It’s the story of a successful lawyer whose estranged brother comes to visit him in Los Angeles. And his brother takes him on this weird sightseeing tour around town, where they visit different crime scenes and places related to The Manson Family. So, the movie gets into issues around the hero worship of Charles Manson and that kind of thing. But at the same time, it’s a story about family. You know, it’s about two brothers who are very different but who are trying to sort of reckon with each other and understand each other throughout the movie.

Who is on your creative team and how did you all come to work together?

Well, the two main actors are Jay Duplass and Linas Philips. And they’re both filmmakers themselves. So, they were great to collaborate with. Jay has been a friend of mine for years, and he encouraged me to write the script. He and I actually have a lot of similarities in taste and temperament and that kind of thing. But one thing that Jay could never understand about me was my fascination with the Manson family. So, in a way, this movie was a way to explore that difference between us. Then, with Linas, I was a huge fan of his film Bass Ackwards. So, I got in touch with him by finding his email online and just writing to him. I told him about this project and he was interested.

I also happened to meet the director Aaron Katz when we were in the early stages of pre-production. I told him about the project and he’s the one who recommended Sean McElwee, who is our amazing Director of Photography.

Where did you shoot?

We shot in Southern California, both in Los Angeles and out in the desert. We basically traced the path of The Manson Family from the big city out to the wilderness.

What have been the biggest challenges with making this film?

Well, one of the main challenges was making a low-budget movie that wasn’t necessarily written with a low budget in mind. I wasn’t really thinking about practical matters when I wrote the script. So there were tons of locations, stunts, props and logistics to deal with. But we had an amazing group of producers and an incredible crew who were able to deliver everything we needed quickly, efficiently and cheaply.

What is the visual look and feel you are trying to achieve with this film and why did you want to shoot with the Canon C500?

Overall, we were going for a very naturalistic look. And one thing we didn’t want was to be overlit and flat. So, we wanted rich blacks and shadows, which we were able to get with these cameras.

How have you built the support for this film (institutional, community, individuals, etc.) and how are you putting together your financing?

Well, first, we launched a Kickstarter campaign for the movie. And we were lucky enough to get support from the independent film community. We got write-ups on some great sites and even some horror movie sites, because of our dark subject mater. So we were able to meet our Kickstarter goal. Then, we also brought in some outside investment. Beyond that, we got crew who were willing to work very cheaply because they believed in the movie. And we got the amazing Canon grant from Film Independent that helped us immensely. I feel incredibly fortunate for all the support.

By Kelly Thomas / Producer in Residence