Arts & Culture
The Big Jewcy: Julien Nitzberg, Film Director
Indie documentaries are a dime a dozen, but believe me when I tell you that Julien Nitzberg’s The Wild and Wonderful White’s of West Virginia is one of a kind. Gaining high praise at nearly every big film festival, The … Read More
Indie documentaries are a dime a dozen, but believe me when I tell you that Julien Nitzberg’s The Wild and Wonderful White’s of West Virginia is one of a kind. Gaining high praise at nearly every big film festival, The Wild and Wonderful Whites recently knocked off Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker, from Amazon’s top video on demand. The film follows the (in)famous White family — one that might actually be the last gang of rebels in the South, and shows you a world that you may never have realized existed. It’s a tale of destruction, family ties, gas huffing, and redemption, and if you watch it with an open mind, it will probably blow you away.
You’re a nice Jewish boy from The Bronx, and now you’ve directed your second film documenting folks from West Virginia. Is WV your spiritual homeland?
The first time I went to visit West Virginia was with my best friend Frank Rodriguez. His dad grew up outside Beckley. I’d been in punk rock bands with a lot of weird and fucked up people and thought I knew the darkest, funniest, most mean fuckers in the world but when I got to West Virginia I found that Frank’s relatives in Beckley were 4 times as dark, funny and mean. They just started fucking with me in the most intensely mean and hilarious way I’d ever seen. The great cruel sarcastic wits I’d known in the supposedly mean city of New York did not hold a candle to the West Virginians. Usually people get to know you before they tease and fuck with you, but Frank’s family did not, they just set about doing it the moment I walked into their house. Right then I fell in love with West Virginia. It was punk rock without trying. How did you come to a realization that you wanted to make a documentary about the Whites?
I first met Mamie White while I was filming my documentary "The Wild World of Hasil Adkins." She excitedly kept telling me that she was on acid. Later in the night she broke up a three-woman catfight. A week later I ran into her again. Sitting in her pick-up, she eagerly informed me she was on acid again. She then invited me to her birthday party because she was going to have a cake "with tits and a pussy on it." Never one to say no to cake, I took her up on the offer.
The next day, on the way over, I stopped to ask directions to Mamie White’s trailer (where Jesco was living at the time). Pulling over to ask a random pick-up truck parked on the side of the road, I was told: "You’re looking for Mamie White? I hope you get the clap and your cock and balls fall off." This gave me a sense of how some people in the community felt about the Whites.
Eventually I found the trailer and met her brother Jesco White. Immediately, I was fascinated by him and his family. A week later I went back and filmed the first video footage of Jesco. This footage later helped raise the interest and money for Dancing Outlaw.
Over the years, I always wanted to do something with that original footage. Then out of the blue, I got a call from a friend telling me that Johnny Knoxville was a big fan of my documentaries and wanted to know if he could call me. I agreed and we went out to lunch and bonded over our love for obscure and offensive country music. I ended up showing him my original footage and he became obsessed with trying to figure out what we could do with the "secret Jesco footage." I didn’t feel like that the original footage was strong enough to put out on its own. They were more like the lost demo tapes of a great band. Then I remembered how I’d found everyone in the family to be as wild and interesting as Jesco. Knoxville suggested that I go back to Boone County to see if there was a story to be told about the rest of the family and the younger generation of Whites. We decided to follow multiple generations of the family to see if I could figure out whether certain White family tendencies (including their love of sex, drugs, and crime) were learned or genetically imprinted. Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine paid for the first shoot out of their own pockets. Johnny hooked me up with an old friend of his named Storm Taylor who Johnny had met when he broke into Storm’s car outside a bar so he could listen to some of Storm’s Johnny Cash cassettes. Storm had become friends with the Whites and been spending time trying to figure out a project about them. Storm became my producer. We shot for four days and came back with what would become the basis of the film. The original Jesco tapes didn’t end up in the film but will be available as a bonus feature on the DVD.
They seem like they’re a pretty rowdy bunch. Any wild moments off the camera you can share?
Luckily we captured most of the wildness on tape but there was always something insane going on. One set of Whites wouldn’t let me film till I snorted a crushed up painkiller with them. It was the kind of thing you have to do to prove you are one of them and not a narc.
Another time, Susan Rae White whose nickname is Kirk was about to go to rehab. Sue Bob, Mousie and Annie Mae White ganged up on me and told me that because Kirk would not be getting any sex in rehab that I had to fuck her that night. I loved Kirk but thought that as a filmmaker that could only cause complications so I told them that I couldn’t. Sue Bob then commanded me that- "the least you could do is show her your cock!"
During the Coal Festival Katie White and Annie Mae White held me down while Annie Mae (who is insanely strong) gave me the biggest hickey you’ve ever seen.
At one point when we were shooting with Hank 3, Jesco decided to fashion a giant diaper out of a confederate flag Hank 3 had with Manson’s face on it. Jesco then proceeded to talk baby talk for an hour, (though occasionally slipping into a monster voice). The diaper kept coming off and Hank 3 would have to re-diaper Baby Jesco while Jesco lay on the ground like a real baby. It was genius, weird and surreal but made no sense in the context of the movie so unfortunately ended up on the cutting room floor.
We also missed some wild shit- right after we left from a shoot we heard that Sue Bob and her boyfriend Rick got in a fight over how to cook a ham. He took the hot ham out of the oven and threw it at her. It burned her leg. She immediately called the police and he got arrested for assault with a deadly ham and spent a week in jail.
It seems like you decided to film them at just the right time. Without giving anything away to the readers, it seemed like a transitional time for the family.
The Whites live at 3 times the speed of ordinary lives. They have way more drama than most people could handle without going mad. Death, prison, murders are regular and tragic parts of their lives. The year we filmed in had a little more than average for them but not an excessive amount more. There were deaths, births, people leaving and entering prison. But to put that year in perspective, Kirk White in the previous few years had seen her father imprisoned for a double murder, her sister die in a tragic high speed car crash and one of her brothers imprisoned for a deadly assault and robbery of an old man in a wheelchair. She herself had been in and out of jail on a number of charges and had been on the lam for a while till a bounty hunter caught her. So, yes it was transitional in some ways and in others quite typical.
Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine produced the film; was there anything they saw in the film that actually shocked them? I’d imagine it would be hard to do.
The greatest thing in the world is to see Johnny Knoxville wince and we made him wince a lot with the film. When Les White got "pantsed" during Bertie Mae’s birthday I definitely saw him cover his eyes. And we used to have a very long version of the scene in which Mousie White practically beats up and rapes her husband Charlie after getting out of prison. Knoxville definitely winced a lot of times during that! I have to say seeing Johnny Knoxville shocked is one of the great experiences in life. Tremaine, ironically, didn’t seem as shocked but just laughed his ass off at Knoxville’s reactions.
You got Hank Williams 3 to participate in the film during some of the dancing sequences, did those scenes take a few tries to pull off, or did they work out in one try?
We did a few takes of the music scenes with Hank 3 playing guitar and Jesco dancing but those guys just have an amazing chemistry and would just keep jamming and dancing even when the cameras were off. They are pretty good friends and love playing together.
It’s a pretty big hustle getting an indie doc. noticed. How has the reception been?
We’ve had an amazing reception. We were lucky enough to premiere at Tribeca and then move onto the LA Film Fest and then a bunch of great regional festivals. At most festivals we have an 80-20 ratio of people who love it to people who hate it. The people who hate it are just insanely furious when the movie is over. At the Memphis Film Festival, I had a group of people screaming at me. They were furious that people were laughing at certain scenes and demanded I tell them why people were laughing. I told them to ask the people who were laughing, not me. The two sides of the audience then got into a full pitched screaming match arguing over the movie. Wow! It was insane. The people who hated it just kept staring at me like I was a baby killer.
These people who hate it are usually very politically correct and want a condescending view of the Whites as tragic victims. There is tragedy in the Whites’ lives but they are super smart and funny people who are self aware of their predicaments. Mamie and Jesco watched the movie in LA and laughed along with the rest of the audience at the fucked up situations they get into. They know what is funny about themselves and the other family members. There is a condescension that politically correct people have to poor people where they think they can’t be shown as complicated people with a full range of emotions and a dark sense of humor that they have because they are self -aware of how fucked up their situation can be. The Whites are deep, smart and self-destructive and that confuses the fuck out of certain people.
What’s coming up in the future?
I am just finishing writing a movie for HBO Films about the real life 1950′s pro-integration professional wrestler Sputnik Monroe. I also am about to write a pilot for an HBO series with my pal Jeff Feuerzeig who directed "The Devil and Daniel Johnston." It’s called "The Tribe" and deals with a family of contemporary Hasidic and secular Jewish criminals inspired by a number of weird true cases.
The Wild Whites finally became a topic on a popular white power message board: have you finally made it?
Ha ha! I can’t believe I have been revealed as a member of the elite documentary film cabal that controls the world. The Elders of Zion are gonna be so upset that their protocols are once again no longer secret! (I’m also trying to determine how much to charge for people to park their motor scooters under my massive nose! If any Jewcy readers can offer advice I’d appreciate it!)
Weirdly, I wrote and directed a comic operetta (with composer Roger Neill) a few years ago called "The Beastly Bombing or A Terrible Tale of Terrorists Tamed by the Tangles of True Love." It was about a group of white supremacists who come to New York to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge and meet a group of Al Qaeda terrorists who have arrived at the same time with the same plan. They eventually bond musically with songs about how much they both hate Jews. Towards the end of the show, the leader of the white supremacists falls in love with the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorists. The musical played for a year in LA as well as Chicago and Amsterdam and no white supremacists got mad at me for that. It seems strange they waited for this! But I am always glad to get hate any time I can. How many people can be lucky enough to be hated by white supremacists and politically correct people for the same film? I have to say that is a proud accomplishment!