Ben Steinbauer Commits Some Pink Collar Crimes
Winnebago Man director on his new CBS true crime show
By Richard Whittaker,
1:00PM, Sat. Aug. 18, 2018
Success for an indie documentary filmmaker can be a strange experience, usually measured in a few festival outings or maybe getting picked up by a baroque boutique streaming service. Austin documentarian Ben Steinbauer now has the unexpected experience of seeing his latest project advertised on prime time CBS alongside Stephen Colbert.
No one could be happier about this switch than his mother. "She is overjoyed," he said. "Finally her friends can watch something that I have made that is readily accessible, and they don't have to download, or travel several hours to the nearest art house theater."
Steinbauer became a festival favorite in 2009 with Winnebago Man, the bizarre tale of a commercial shoot for RVs where the outtakes became one of the first truly viral videos. But now he's found prime time success, directing all eight episodes of the CBS Saturday night true crime series Pink Collar Crimes.
Hosted by Marcia Clark (most famous as the prosecutor in OJ Simpson's murder trial), it spotlights what are superficially the most unexpected of felons: America's soccer moms, the polite middle class that conventional drama and true crime TV always portrays as the victim, not the bank robber, or the embezzler. Every crime is non-violent, and every criminal got caught. Steinbuaer described the show as a mix of "Wormwood and I, Tonya, with a bit of Desperate Housewives thrown in."
Ben Steinbauer: Simple question, very long answer. The easiest way to explain that is that Winnebago Man and the short films I made before it are basically comedic documentaries, and that's a very interesting, very specific niche that not a lot of filmmakers fall into. The executive producers, Jon Kroll and Sharon Liese, they were basically Googling "comedy documentaries," and Winnebago Man kept coming up again and again. They looked at the The Bear's website, which is my production company here in town, and they looked at some of my other short films, and saw that I have done a lot of short films that are recreations, and are also comedic, and they reached out.
It was just an email out of the blue. It wasn't a friend connection, I hadn't worked with them previously, and at first I thought it was a joke. It said something to the effect of, "We have a broadcast opportunity for Ben Steinbauer," and we get a lot of inquiries to the Bear email address, of people sending us scripts and whatever, and I thought it was in that category, so I didn't respond right away – until our producer looked them up and said, "I think you should get back to this." So we got on the phone, and the rest is history.
AC: So with Winnebago Man you made a film about a viral success, and in its own way it became a viral success for you.
BS: Exactly. The reception that Winnebago Man had and continues to have, it's almost like the movie keeps going, in a sense. Because when we premiered it, and Jack [Rebney, the film's subject] would go to these premieres, and when we were on The Tonight Show, and traveling in all these different countries that we played in, and sold the film to, it felt like he was being celebrated by new audiences all the time – which is the last scene in the film.
So it was like people were keeping the story of the film going, and I guess this is a version of that, too.
One funny anecdote about Austin filmmakers and the Austin aesthetic is that I went into this thinking, "Well, there's no way I'll get this job, because I haven't ever done television before, never mind something on this level." When they were first sussing me out, they would say, well, what kind of [true crime] shows do you like, and I said, "Well, I don't like any of them. I don't watch them," and they'd say, "Fascinating. Well, what kind of prime time cable shows do you watch?" "Well, I don't. I watch HBO and Netflix, and I make arty films and documentaries," and they went, "You're exactly the guy that we're looking for." It was almost like the scene out of Office Space: "You have upper management written all over you."
What I soon found out was that, because this was a new form they were going for in terms of comedic true crime documentary, they really wanted somebody that had no prior experience, and wasn't going to make this show look like all the other very serious, dark, noir-ish, true crime shows that were out there. They really loved my weirdo, out-of-left-field, art kid from Austin approach to everything, and that's part of the reason why they hired me.
AC: Those true crime shows are so ubiquitous, and have such a standard format, designed to scare you into never leaving the house again. How did you break from that format, without undercutting that these women committed some often horrible crimes, like fraud and bank robbery?
BS: That's what attracted me to it, that we were taking a very stylized approach to it.
A good example is in the interviews. We decided early on that we wanted people to look straight into the camera lens, and be in a very symmetrically framed environment that says a lot about who they are as a character. The reason for that is that it psychologically draws the viewer in, rather than if it were off-axis and we were in some dark, shadowy environment that you don't have any context for.
That helped answer the larger part of the question, which is how we can think of this as comedic, and how that's very different tonally from other true crime shows. The way that we figured out how to do it, and the viewer will ultimately be the judge of if we succeeded or not, was to focus on humanizing the main characters, in a way that we understand that they are bad criminals. They're people who are not career criminals for the most part. They're moms, or society women, or both, and the thing that they have in common is that they kind of drug into this life of crime that they were not very good at, and they have all been caught, and are in jail, and are telling their story. They're contrite, and they're apologetic, and they're telling these "How can I have been so foolish?" stories.
Pink Collar Crimes airs at 7pm Central, Saturdays on CBS. For full episodes and more on the show, visit www.cbs.com.