'Manson Family Vacation' Director, Stars Talk About Their Weird Obsessions

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Linas Phillips and Jay Duplass talk about 'Manson Family Vacation.' (Image: Christine N. Ziemba)

The family road trip flick Manson Family Vacation, which debuted at this year’s SXSW Festival, is now finally available on Netflix. Written and helmed by first-time director J. Davis, the under-the-radar film stars Jay Duplass (Togetherness, Transparent) and Linas Phillips (Bass Ackwards) as two brothers who drive around L.A. and then out to the Mojave Desert to revisit some of the Manson family’s old haunts and crime scenes.

For those not familiar with the Tate-Labianca murders, the infamous “family”—headed by Charles Manson—committed two sets of murders from Aug. 9 to 10 in 1969. Actress Sharon Tate, who was married to director Roman Polanski and 8 and a half months pregnant at the time, and four others were killed in Tate's Benedict Canyon home. The next day, supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were killed by Manson and his gang in their Los Feliz home, murdered as brutally as the family’s victims the night before.

The film’s premise is set into motion by artist/drifter Conrad’s (Phillips) obession with Manson, which, naturally, unnerves his straightlaced lawyer brother Nick (Duplass).

During a recent press day for the film, Duplass, who also serves as one of the film’s executive producers, explained that Manson Family Vacation has a real-life connection.

“J. and I have been friends for awhile, and he has a fascination with Charles Manson, always has, and always disturbed me. It’s a sort of like an uncomfortable point between us. [The movie] is a fun, healthy way to explore that.”

"I got interested in the Helter Skelter book as a young kid and got caught with it and had it taken from me [by his grandfather]," Davis said. "I became interested partially because it was forbidden fruit, kind of. When I expressed this interest to my friend Jay, he was kind of horrified, and I kind of developed this project to explore that difference [between us].”


Start at 1:57 to see Manson's creepy 'dance.'

While it’s couched in a cinematic road trip/travelogue device, Manson Family Vacation becomes an oddly moving tale about two brothers (one adopted) whose lives couldn’t be more disparate. Contradictions are inherent in the film, as it's peppered with bits of humor, and pathos, amid the sibling rivalry and Manson references. The opening sequences include a scruffy Conrad hitchhiking in a Manson t-shirt and a video of an interview of his idol doing this creepy dance. “We wanted to immediately establish the certain self-destructive nature of this character,” Davis said.

Phillips said that he could relate to Conrad’s obsession with Manson. “I can get pretty weird with my fascinations and stuff. I did this movie Walking to Werner where I was obsessed with Werner Herzog.” (The 2006 documentary follows Phillips as he walks from Seattle to Herzog's home in L.A.) “So I know a lot about obsession…it’s sort of like a process of thinking about something so you don’t have to think about it ever again.”

But why is there still a fascination with Manson for people like Conrad 46 years after the Helter Skelter murders? “I think it’s because he’s so dynamic a person,” said Phillips. “I mean the interviews are fascinating.” Adds Duplass, “I mean that’s what people are not admitting. Yeah, 75 percent of the time he’s like a raving lunatic, and 25 percent of the time, he’s espousing deep truths that no one else is saying or coming up with in such a creative way.”

Duplass also reminds us that Manson was hanging out with musicians like Neil Young and Dennis Wilson. In fact, there’s a point in the film where a song plays in the background and Nick (and the audience) is surprised that it’s Manson himself (the tune’s not terrible). “If he had become a famous musician, probably a lot of people would still be alive, and he would probably be well-suited being a famous musician. And that could have even had a positive effect on the balance of his mental state,” he said.

'Manson Family Vacation' is the first of four films that Duplass Brothers Prods. will produce for Netflix after a short theatrical release.