SxSW 2015 Interview: MANSON FAMILY VACATION director J. Davis

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/12/15 13:10:49

"MANSON FAMILY VACATION is the story of a guy who has a settled life in Los Angeles with his wife and young son. Then, out of the blue, his estranged brother shows up for a surprise visit and all the brother wants to do in town is go to the Manson Family murder sites. These are the infamous locations where the Manson Family committed multiple murders. So, the brothers end up doing this bizarre sightseeing tour that eventually leads them out to the desert and into the modern-day world of Charles Manson." Director J. Davis on MANSON FAMILY VACATION which is screening at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

This will be my second time attending the festival. A few years ago, I edited Jay Duplass' documentary KEVIN which premiered at South By Southwest. So, we both went to the festival then and had a great time. And now, we have a chance to return with MANSON.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

Well, for my day job, I work as a post-production supervisor doing corporate videos. But at night, I have always worked on passion projects, usually as an editor. I have been lucky enough to edit with filmmakers like Jay Duplass and Caveh Zahedi. But then, for this project, I became the director by coming up with the idea for this movie and having people encourage me to make it.

How did your movie come together as a director?

Initially, I saw myself as the producer, writer and maybe the editor of this project. But what happened was that I lined up Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips as my main actors. And Jay pointed out that I would cast two directors in the lead roles of the movie. So, he said I would have to direct it myself.

What was your process in getting the film together? Talk about who you produced it with!

We have an amazing group of producers on this movie. Eric Blyler, Steve Bannatyne, Josh Logan, Ali Sandler, Josh Polon and Samantha Kern all worked tirelessly onset and off to make this movie happen. It was a divide-and-conquer scenario where each person took on a different task and brought their expertise to it.

I bet there were a lot of challenges with this material and subject. What was your #1 challenge with MANSON and how did you over-come it?

We did a Kickstarter campaign for the movie and that was a challenge for me for a couple reasons. First of all, I am a pretty self-sufficient person who is not used to asking people for help. So, it was hard for me to reach out and ask for contributions. But it was also hard to reach out because I'm kind of a privacy freak. I have no social media presence. So, getting word out about Kickstarter was more difficult than it usually is. But thankfully, I had some help. So, we did manage to reach our goal and that's what got the project moving forward. From there, we were able to go into production and raise more funds.

If you had to pick a single favorite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

There was this scene that was an argument between Jay and Linas and I thought it was a very simple scene. You know, it was probably one page. They have this quick exchange of words. But our plan was to improvise with it. So, in the first take, Linas got into this argument with Jay and his voice broke. Then, he suddenly started crying and stormed off. And that's the moment where I knew there was more going on with these characters than even I was aware of.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?

There was so much adrenalin flowing through my body during production that I actually drank less coffee than usual. The hardest part for me was winding down at night.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and the intended look of MANSON FAMILY VACATION.

Sean McElwee and I made a few key decisions at the outset. We decided that we were going to go for certain looks in certain areas of the film. We also mapped out when we would be locked down and when we'd go handheld. And we decided early on that we needed to be a two-camera shoot. We wanted the actors to be able to improvise and play off each other. So, all of that influenced the way we shot things and the size of our crew. We shot mostly with the C500.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?

I'm looking forward to being around people who are excited and enthusiastic about movies, the same way I am. And to be honest, I'm also looking forward to seeing so many people who worked on MANSON there. You know, Jay Duplass will be there, Linas Phillips, Tobin Bell. So, it will be like a reunion.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next?

We are currently figuring where we would like to show next. There are lots of great festivals out there that we would love to be a part of.

Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

My dream would be to show it at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. It's a great old Hollywood theatre where I have seen a lot of cool repertory movies. So, it would be incredible to see my own movie there.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

I would send Tobin over to talk to them. He plays Jigsaw in the SAW movies. So, he could probably give them a good scare.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

I'd say that what worked for me in getting this movie done was having a strong galvanizing idea. The concept of this movie interested people and that's what helped me pull in our actors, producers and crew. So, I would recommend just making sure your idea is solid before you move forward.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?

I'm a big movie fan. So, that's a really hard question. I can tell you that one thing Jay and I have in common is our love for the movie ROCKY.

Be sure to follow MANSON FAMILY VACATION online at or on Twitter at @mansonfilm!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our 35+ filmmaker interview series. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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