A couple weeks ago I was offered an opportunity to interview Julien Nitzberg, the director of the Johnny Knoxville/Jeff Tremaine-produced documentary "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia." I should come right out and say at the outset that I'm not typically a fan of docs; my tastes tend to skew more towards escapist fare like summer blockbusters. Still, "Wild and Wonderful" sounded intriguing and I figured you readers would be interested in the Knoxville/Tremaine connection, so I went for it.
I'm glad I did too. "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" charts a fascinating year in the life of a massive -- and in many ways, massively dysfunctional -- family based in Boone County. Nitzberg and his crew spent a significant amount of time with them, and the result is a raw, unflinching look at a side of America that is frequently (and willfully) ignored. And, as Nitzberg told me, the household name producers wisely kept themselves out of the picture until the serious shooting was finished.
"Johnny Knoxville... basically said 'The White family and no one in Boone County can know I'm producing this documentary,'" the director explained. "Because he knows that once people hear his name, they start behaving in an especially [crazy] way, and we wanted their lives not to be affected by the consequences of [trying to impress Knoxville]."
That's not to say that Dickhouse -- Knoxville and Tremaine's production label -- took a hands-off approach. The "Jackass" creators were very much present as the footage Nitzberg was capturing on-location came together in editing sessions, helping to guide and shape the story structure. "Johnny would watch all of the raw footage, he was obsessed with it. It was amazing because, you know, when you see Johnny Knoxville flinch and turn away during certain scenes you know you're really going somewhere deep and f--ked up."
There's much for Knoxville to flinch at in the roughly 540 hours that Nitzberg as his team captured. The White family is not averse to breaking the law regularly, and the movie features explicit scenes of drug use and admissions of guilt on a variety of crimes. They understood the implications too; the authorities in Boone County are well-acquainted with the family's antics; no legal repercussions followed in the wake of the film. That said, there were times when Nitzberg's crew were asked to turn of the cameras.
"We always told them that this movie would be super-honest and so--" Nitzberg paused, then shifted gears. "The Whites are very smart, they understand. They understand how funny they are and how funny their family is. The family is very self-aware. The kind of shenanigans they did in the movie they do all the time in real life, just cracking each other up by being badasses and totally wild people."
As a producer, Knoxville was always clear with Nitzberg on what he wanted. He told the director early on that "it can't just be an adoration of the family, we have to explore the darker elements of their life as well." The movie certainly doesn't shy away from the Whites at their worst. But it also shows them as the human beings that they are, flawed perhaps, but capable of real emotion. They're not cartoons, they just lead a different sort of life.
"That was always the idea, to be truthful," Nitzberg explained. "To show this part of America that people try to sweep under the rug. In the end, I think everyone [understands] that this family is really wild, but they have insane love for each other... [and] are there for each other in the bad times."
"The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia" has one more upcoming showing in New York City, tomorrow May 11 at 10pm, at Tribeca Cinemas. It is also available to purchase as a VOD title through June 16.