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Interview: Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, and J. Davis on Their New Movie, Manson Family Vacation

Family dynamics and the roots of obsession.

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In J. Davis’ new movie, Manson Family Vacation, two brothers take a mini road trip to the sites of Charles Manson. One brother, tightly-wound Nick (Jay Duplass, Transparent), is horrified by the idea of the trip but goes anyway to appease his often absent older brother, Conrad (Linas Phillips, Bass Ackwards), who has developed an obsession with the Manson Family. Although initially playing like a dark comedy, the films turns into more of a drama about dysfunctional family, the effects of rejection, and the roots of obsessions. I spoke with writer-director J. Davis and stars Linas Phillips and Jay Duplass, who executive produced the film with his brother, Mark Duplass. It’s currently available on Netflix and other VOD platforms.

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Lesley Coffin (TMS): How exactly did you come up with the idea for this movie which would focus on a character’s fascination with the Manson Family?

Davis: Well, I had a fascination with Manson when I was a kid. And when I went to high school, I had a friend who put that interest I had to shame. He was way more interested than I was. He had pictures of Charlie Manson in his locker. But I had an interest and expressed my interest to Jay at one point, who seemed kind of horrified. And that difference between us was the motivation for the film?

TMS: So was your character’s reaction to your brother in the film basically how you reacted to J.?

Jay Duplass: Yeah, I was pretty disturbed when I first heard about it, and didn’t understand what he found so fascinating about the family. It seemed creepy, but it also just didn’t fit into my perception of J. So when he asked me to play this character, it felt like a perfect fit. This is kind of my first major acting role, but I found I could pretty easily slide into the role. I knew I could play someone disturbed by Charles Manson.

TMS: Did this role come about before your role in Transparent?

Duplass: We started talking about making the movie before I was cast in the show, but I shot the pilot before filming the movie. But we shot this movie before I shot the first season of Transparent.

TMS: Did it help to on this to at least have the pilot under your belt, considering it is a leading role?

Duplass: I think so. When we shot the pilot, I felt like I was really stepping up in a big way, having never really had that big of a role before. So shooting the pilot gave me the confidence to be a lead in a movie.

Linas Phillips: You never seemed nervous or uncomfortable.

TMS: Well, people always ask about this movie, “so lead actor and executive producer?” And I just think, no, we were just making a thing with a friend. And then we make a new friend, and then it becomes just making a movie with three friends. And credits don’t matter. They come later. The truth is, J. had a story he wanted to tell, I was moved by the story so I wanted to help him get it made, that’s how you become an executive producer. He thought I fit the part and could bring something to the role, that’s how you become a lead actor. But it’s just about making something, playing the role asked of you, and getting credit after the fact.

Davis: You are just trying desperately to make something that hopefully isn’t a piece of shit.

Duplass: It’s true. Whenever you make a TV show or movie, you are always that close to it becoming a disaster.

TMS: Did you ever consider acting in the movie (to J.)?

Phillips: He hates being photographed! That would have been amazing.

Duplass: You would just be watching someone flipping out the entire movie.

Phillips: It would be a strange, eerie performance to witness, watching something afraid that he’s going to be attacked at any minute.

Duplass: Someone about to explode the entire time you’re filming.

Phillips: I didn’t know that about J., and when we went out to scout locations for the movie, I was taking photos for the fun of it, and he just got more and more uncomfortable. And I started thinking, “is he mad at me?”

Davis: My entire disposition changes.

Phillips: I was like, “oh, no…did he smell that fart in the car?” But then he told me, “I really don’t like being photographed.”

TMS: How did you get cast in the part of Conrad?

Davis: I’ve been a fan of Linas’s work. I had seen his movie Bass Ackwards, and got in touch with him as a fan of that movie. And when this movie got started, I asked if he would consider playing a Manson obsessed guy. Linas didn’t have any opinions about Manson, at the time…

Duplass: But he did walk from Seattle to Los Angeles.

Phillips: Because I was obsessed with Werner Herzog, and did an homage to him, that I filmed and turned into a documentary. So J. knew I could get obsessed with people.

Duplass: Walked on foot, from Seattle to Los Angeles, to meet Werner Herzog.

TMS: When did you do that?

Phillips: 2005

Duplass: And filmed it, so you too can experience every painful step along with him.

Phillips: So we had been talking about doing something, and then he came up with this idea and it felt like a no brainer.

TMS: How did you decide they should be brothers, rather than friends like yourself and Jay?

Davis: Let me think about that … I think it was always there.

Duplass: I think so. It seemed like a way for you, excuse me while I speak for you, to examine the two sides of yourself. The way I saw it at least as an observer. J. is a family man who is gainfully employed and lives in Los Angeles with kids. But knowing him really well, there is a side of J. that could have gone the other way. He did a trip where he hitchhiked around the country and he grew up without a dad, so he always had the question, “what will it be like to start a family or join a family that might accept him more than what he came up in.” I think that is what the movie is exploring at its core. How family plays a part in the roots of fanaticism. How those intermingle and how you ultimately build you own families. Both brothers are trying to build their own families and weirdly threatening to exclude each other from their new definitions of family. So those were the intense politics underneath the comedy.

TMS: Did you feel the same way?

Phillips: I have no idea what he’s talking about. Actually, I think he nailed it. I think the brothers are the two sides of J. and Conrad’s kind of the “what could have been” version.

Davis: I don’t have a sibling, so it was definitely more about that than it was about brotherhood. But both of these guys were able to bring their brotherly experiences to their roles.

TMS: Do you agree with what Jay said about the roots of fandom or fanaticism filling in something that is missing in your own life?

Davis: I’m a man of many obsessions, so I don’t know.

Duplass: You just sent him into therapy. I don’t think, all fandom comes from something missing. Well, maybe it is driven by something missing or that you feel you need. It sounded right when you said it, so maybe.

TMS: And we should widen the idea to obsession in general.

Duplass: That is what hunger is, it drives you to do things that someone else might not do, because of this need. People are always asking my brother and I, “why are you making so many movies, you must be destroying yourselves.” And my answer to that is, “yes, yes we are.” Why are we still doing it? “I don’t know?

Davis: There were times when I was making this movie, scrunched in the backseat with the sound guy, thinking “why am I doing this to myself?” Grown-up human-beings shouldn’t be doing this.

Duplass: Your wife and kids are at home missing you, and you’re missing them, and you just think “why put yourself through this.”

Phillips: I had nothing better to do with my time. I literally have nothing else to do.

TMS: What did your wife think of the premise?

Davis: She doesn’t share the interest, but she was always very encouraging of the project.

TMS: Some of the funniest scenes in the movie are when Conrad comes up to people and people are clearly nervous about him, because of the Manson shirt. Did you have to have that made?

Davis: Yeah, I just thought it would be a great way to introduce his character. It struck me as very funny that he would even try to hitchhike wearing that shirt. It really hits on his character’s self-defeating nature.

TMS: Well the other thing about his character’s introduction, is even his look and the things he talks about seem like the behavior of someone very young who is just stepping foot into adulthood. So there is something sort of sad and unnerving when you say he’s in his 40s. Why make him a older, and make it clear that he hasn’t grown out of his obsessions or tempered them down a bit.

Davis: I think by having him be older, it does raise some flags. Some people do get stuck and he’s one of those people.

Duplass: It felt more dangerous if he were older because he’s at this tipping point. And it is very clearly a tipping point. He’s literally packed up what is left of his life and is willing to move to the desert. And what does that mean?

Phillips: It seems like he can’t move forward because they keep talking about their childhood. I think sometimes people go back and try to rekindle childhood fascinations to get through them and move forward. So clearly, Manson was an outlet for him he never outgrew. And I know, when I get obsessed with something, I have to explore it and burn out on it in order to move on.

TMS: I liked the fact that we weren’t given a lot of specific examples of what their childhood was like. You don’t have a lot of stories about it or include flashbacks, so we don’t know exactly what childhood was like for him. Because he might be holding on to something, that Jay’s character doesn’t consider a big deal.

Davis: Their past is a slippery slope and something open to their own interpretations.

Duplass: But as we went through, we did start filling in gaps. With the improvisation, we started to go much deeper into the relationship of the two brothers. Not just with their backstories, but also how they treated each other. We are against each other in the movie for a lot of the time, but we had a lot of fun filming and that translates on screen. And it felt right, that they would be almost soulmates, and close friends as kids, so the audience would have something to hope for. Something they wanted us to return to.

Phillip: I think you can never really know who was right in a relationship, because there is so much emotional bias. What is important is to really hear someone when they say they feel a certain way, rather than shooting them down or dismissing them. And that isn’t what happens to these brothers when they bring up their thoughts on their childhood.

Davis: The whole movie is sort of set in motion by the death of their father, and how they are both dealing with it from different places.

TMS: Most of the movie was improvised?

Duplass: I wouldn’t say the movie is improvised, but all the scenes were improvised. The way my brother and I have made movies is, you use the script as the backbone so everyone knows what needs to be achieved. But if you use the script, great. If not, that’s great too. But usually what improvising does is, it clarifies the scene, because if you are adhering to a script and get through the scene as written, people often have a false sense of accomplishment. But when you improvise and can truly watch an honest moment unfold on screen, in an unpredictable way, your instincts know right away whether or not it is working and accomplishing the things you wanted from that scene. So it isn’t just about having a verite moment, it is about clarifying that moment and knowing if the story is being truthful and honest.

TMS: When we think of improv, we usually think of it in terms of comedy, especially sketch comedy. Is there a big difference as actors between comedy improvising comedy and improvising as dramatic actors?

Duplass: The real difference is what you need to accomplish. With a movie, you aren’t trying to get the perfect version of what was imagined a year ago when first coming up with the idea for the film. Because you don’t know who the actors are or what they are bringing to their characters or what happened in the scene you just filmed that you can bring to the next scene. You have to be willing to bring all those elements to the film, and that’s when you end up with even more. All that is required is to have people willing and open to sit in chaos. And that is not easy.

Phillips: And think about what you are trying to get from other characters. What are their overall goals and individual goals? When you do sketch comedy, you are usually going for the joke and making callbacks. In a film, the focus is on story and emotion. A lot of the story beats were already in the script, and we knew we had to get to those.

Davis: There are elements you have to plant within scenes, but once you have those in the can, you can keep going and finding more.

Phillips: You are pumping it even more, and asking what else would he say in that circumstance?

Duplass: And when you are improvising and revealing information or part of a mystery about who someone is, you can explore the subtlest aspects. Instead of saying something, you can say something indirectly or say the opposite while thinking something else. And then I look to J. and he’ll say, “I knew exactly what you were feeling then, you didn’t have to say it.” And that is just an example of when you are working hard to tell the subtlest, smartest version of a story. Flashbacks would have been the most obvious way to get that information out. I mean, some flashbacks work, but in general, they are a bummer.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book, Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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