Somewhere in the darkly gray area between buddy comedy, road trip movie, family drama and suspense-thriller lies Manson Family Vacation, the compelling story of two brothers who not only have lost their connection to each other, but also to their lives. One brother is angst-ridden Nick Morgan, played by Jay Duplass, the real-life brother of writing/directing/producing partner Mark Duplass. Nick is barely holding his life together as an overworked lawyer in Los Angeles, juggling a successful career with a beautiful family and home. The other brother is drifter Conrad, portrayed enthusiastically by actor/writer/director Linas Phillips. Both are dealing with the death of their father, with Conrad believing he was largely unloved by everyone as the family’s adopted child.
Conrad has quit his job in the Northwest and is heading toward new work at a nonprofit environmental organization in the Mojave Desert. He decides to make a pit stop in Los Angeles along the way to visit his brother, and despite Nick’s busy schedule and their clearly fractured relationship, Conrad convinces him to go on a macabre journey in the hope of a reconciliation, taking him to the infamous murder sites of the Manson Family. Although Nick is shocked by his brother’s morbid fascination with Charles Manson, he does his best to keep pace with Conrad, who clearly views the experience as something more than just a day trip.
Director J. Davis uses the infamous life story of Charles Manson as a conduit to explore the broken family relations between Nick, Conrad and their departed father. The film is a mix of moods, from amusing to unnerving, but as a whole, it hints at something more, working as a vehicle that explores what family truly means. The film also includes a haunting and at times menacing guest spot by the sublime Tobin Bell, most commonly recognized as Jigsaw of the Saw franchise.
Davis, who also wrote the screenplay, recognized early on that many off-the-cuff changes would be involved in the making of the film. “It quickly became apparent that the real magic between Jay and Linas would emerge after letting them improvise and explore their relationship,” explains Davis. “Whenever there was a heavy scene, we’d run with it a bit. Once certain beats were hit, and each scene was in the can, we’d take things further and explore deeper. I was also lucky to have two incredible editors in Nick Sherman and Dave Boyle, and both were so attuned to the material that I was able to detach myself from the editing process far more than I ever imagined.”
Davis explains that having backing from the Duplass brothers, key figures in the burgeoning mumblecore scene of independent comedy filmmakers, was a big help for production. Davis had edited a documentary directed by Jay Duplass called Kevin, cementing a friendship between the two at an earlier stage.
“As I was writing the script,” Davis says, “I kept thinking about Jay actually playing the lead character. I had no idea if he was interested in acting, but thought he’d be perfect for this. One night I asked him if he’d act in the movie, and to my surprise, he immediately agreed to do it.”
Davis reached out to Linas Phillips to play the Manson-obsessed Conrad after seeing him in Bass Ackwards, another mumblecore subgenre film that Phillips also directed. Mark Duplass, who co-produced the film (and is a member of the ensemble cast of the FX series The League), also contributed with notes throughout production and gave comments on the final edit.
Cinematographer Sean McElwee notes that one of his goals shooting a dark comedy such as Manson Family Vacation is to step back and let the cast breathe. He estimates that nearly 90% of production consisted of one-take sessions shooting on two Canon EOS C500s from opposite directions. “Obviously, this process, while necessary for certain shoots, isn’t always ideal for cinematographer and gaffer,” he quips. “Hiding lights became problematic, but my gaffer [Nate Brown] did a great job squeezing lights into very small spaces to allow the cameras to capture as much material as they could.”
McElwee explains that the Canon CN-E30-105mm T2.8 telephoto was his most popular lens due to flexibility in focal length, especially useful for the majority of “grueling OTS” shots. “If we needed to make an adjustment on the fly, we could do so without moving the camera,” he adds. “With little time for each setup, it became the most efficient way to work.”
The shoot did employ other lenses, such as the Canon CN-E30-300mm T2.95-3.7, used for a masterful manual zoom pullback of a hitchhiking Conrad as he arrives in Malibu at sunset. Set on the Pacific Coast Highway, the shot established the character as a wanderer while setting the film’s tone using stylishly nostalgic ’70s long-lens zooming, filmmaking practices from the same era as the Manson Family murders.
Some of the content in the film is also pulled directly from Charles Manson, with several songs from his folk rock album Lie: The Love and Terror Cult segueing nicely with composer Heather McIntosh’s lively and upbeat score. Actual interviews with Manson and news vignettes also pepper the final edit, adding to the lunacy of the situation while also blurring the line between fiction and reality in the film.
“When it came time for us to choose clips, we picked ones that showed Manson at his most charismatic to see how someone could fall under his spell,” continues Davis. “Linas had very little exposure to Manson at the start of this project, but once he started watching these interviews, he quickly became obsessed—which was great for his character, but sometimes a little scary for the rest of us.”
Meanwhile, the three primary locations of the film sync up nicely with the three acts of the script: Los Angeles’ brightness and warmth, even at the murder scenes; Nick’s house, sterile and largely captured at night; and the Mojave Desert, so bright for the most part that it seems almost overwhelming as a backdrop.
“From very early on, we discussed having separate looks for the film,” explains McElwee. “In Los Angeles, at Nick’s house, it was very neutral, while the desert scenes were shot with more contrast, warmth and digital grain. In the DI [at FotoKem], we created and employed a third look for scenes where Nick and Conrad visit the Manson sites in L.A. This look was a bit of a split between the other two. We shot the entire film completely neutral, knowing that later we could color to our liking, and watched monitors and the dailies in the Canon view assist mode, very much like watching footage in Rec. 709 on the ALEXA.”
Thanks in large part to the Canon EOS C500’s 12 stops of latitude, the color grade in the film has no blown highlights or overextended shadows despite the brightness of the desert and other high-key scenes. “Whenever we could, we controlled the light for a softer, more natural tone,” continues McElwee. “In the desert, however, I intentionally allowed harsh sunlight to create a grittier, dirtier feel for the second half of the film.”
McElwee recorded externally to the Sound Devices PIX 240 video recorder capturing uncompressed 12-bit footage. Although the Canon EOS C500 is capable of 4K output through 3G-SDI, as well as full 2K, the production faced workflow constraints when it came to post, manpower and budget, so McElwee says they stuck with 1080p.
“We knew we’d be running around like crazy on this shoot, both in more contained areas like Nick’s house, but also in the middle of the desert, so the PIX 240 was ideal for our situation. It was the lightest and most mobile external recorder we found, and it held up very well in grueling conditions. I’m a big fan of the Canon family of cameras and, given the right production and story, would absolutely use their EOS system again.”
The production used two Canon EOS C500 cameras, plus Canon Cinema primes and zooms, thanks to a loaner Canon package, secured by Davis through the quarterly 2014 Canon Filmmaker Award at FilmIndependent.org. Then more than $40,000 was raised through a very successful Kickstarter campaign.
“The campaign becomes all-consuming, and all you think about is whether you’re going to reach your goal,” laments Davis, when asked if he has any advice for other indie filmmakers when it comes to crowd funding. “Luckily, one of our producers [Josh Polon] was an old hand at Kickstarter campaigns, so he calmed me down and became the voice of reason throughout the fundraising process. In the end, we reached our goal, which gave the project legitimacy and got the ball rolling.”
After a debut at the SXSW festival in 2015, Netflix picked up the film for streaming as part of a package acquisition deal with the Duplass brothers. “I can tell you that we were really excited to be picked up by Netflix,” admits Davis. “That’s where I love to watch movies, and it’s where most of the people I know tune in to watch them, so my friends won’t have an excuse for not seeing this.”
In addition to streaming on Netflix, Manson Family Vacation is available on iTunes.