As leader of the “Jackass” crew of crude, borderline insane daredevils, Johnny Knoxville has stepped in front of guns, professional boxers and ticked-off bulls. When he came up with the idea to make a documentary about an infamous, law-breaking West Virginian family called the Whites, he mission was just the opposite.
“Don’t get in the f---ing way!” he explained.
Between sips of strawberry-flavored Boone’s at the Saturday night after-party for “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia,” Knoxville said that his approach to producing the doc was a necessary, if somewhat frustrating, result of having such a recognizable face.
“If I go, it changes the dynamic,” he told us. “Suddenly there are people following [the crew] around with a camera and it’s like, ‘Oh, Knoxville’s here.’ The focus goes off [the Whites] doing their thing.”
The Whites are notorious in their little coal-mining corner of the Appalachian Mountains, and came to widespread attention when mountain-dancing, gasoline-huffing Jesco White starred in a 1991 PBS documentary called “The Dancing Outlaw.” In the years since, the Whites have been involved in gun fights, robberies, drug deals and murder. Through it all, four generations of Whites have maintained a fast-paced, often darkly comic lifestyle shaped by the poverty of their surroundings.
Knoxville had been a fan of Jesco’s original documentary and reached out to documentarian Julien Nitzberg with the idea of heading back to West Virginia to film something about the entire family. A camera crew traveled down and shot three days of footage with 85-year-old matriarch Bertie Mae White and the rest of her clan. Knoxville took one look at the material and knew they could make an entire movie about the Whites. The crew ended up spending a year with the family and the result is “Wild and Wonderful Whites,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday.
“They live very intense lives,” said Knoxville. “They’re very charismatic, very entertaining. They live extremely fast and not on the edge—just completely over the edge. And a lot of them unfortunately end up doing time and dying violently. Roll the cameras, you’re going to get footage.”
“Wild and Wonderful Whites” marked Knoxville’s first time at Tribeca, and while said he found the experience “a little nerve-wracking,” he was simply honored and thankful that the film was selected at all—which was not the case with his earlier films.
“You would have thought we would've got invited with ‘Jackass,’ but we did not,” Knoxville said with a laugh. “Had our fingers crossed!”
Do you want "Jackass" to re-team for a third film? If not, what other sorts of films would you like to see Knoxville produce?