Warren Skeels’ terrifying new movie The Man in the White Van revolves around Billy Mansfield, a real-life convicted serial killer and sexual offender who killed a series of young women in Florida in the 1970s by kidnapping them in his infamous white van.
But Skeels made the bold choice not to ever show the audience Mansfield’s face. Instead, the story is told through the eyes of Annie (Madison Wolfe), a teenager who realizes she’s being stalked by Mansfield but struggles to make her family believe her.
Starring Wolfe, Ali Larter, Sean Astin, Brec Bassinger, Skai Jackson and Gavin Warren, The Man in the White Van premieres this weekend at the Newport Beach Film Festival.
Skeels told MovieMaker that he didn’t want the audience to know much about Mansfield himself, making it instead about Annie’s story of survival.
Warren Skeels on the Inspiration for The Man in the White Van
“We didn’t want to glorify him. And secondly, from an audience perspective, [co-writer Sharon Cobb] and I, in writing it and then also in directing it, really just wanted to root the story with Annie. We felt like if we’re going to root it with Annie, and she doesn’t have a clean shot of his face, and she doesn’t know who this person is, then the audience shouldn’t either,” Skeels says. “They should be experiencing exactly what Annie is experiencing.”
Skeels got the idea to make The Man in the White Van when he met a woman who actually encountered Billy Mansfield when she was a teenager. She became the loose inspiration for the character of Annie.
“I grew up in Florida. I live in Florida now, and I never heard of Billy Mansfield until I was having dinner with a producing financier partner of mine. I was talking about a completely different project — a serial killer story that took in Phoenix that I was developing. And he just looked at me and said, ‘Well, I mean, if you like that genre, you ought to talk to my wife about what happened to her back in Brooksville, Florida, when she was growing up,'” Skeels recalls.
“She and I got together, had a few coffees, and she proceeded to unpack these really unsettling, scary interactions with this ominous white van. It just opened up a world of interest for me. So I got together with Sharon Cobb, my co-writer, and we just started laying out this story that was really rooted with her perspective, and that’s what I really found fascinating about it.”
Something else that made Annie’s story unique was that, at the height of his crimes, Mansfield operated under the radar. The idea of fearing a man in a strange white van hadn’t yet been instilled into the American public.
“What I thought it was really interesting and unique about her story was that in 1974, there was nobody tracking anything, because nobody knew this was happening. So that was a major obstacle that she didn’t even know she was facing,” Skeels said. “Nobody was looking out for a white van and what was happening to these people at the time. It was only after Billy Mansfield’s arrest in 1981 that they then could start backtracking and finding out his M.O. and that people did talk of seeing a white van around.”
Over four decades after Mansfield’s arrest, fears of a man in a white van have become urban legend. Even if you haven’t heard of Mansfield himself, you’ve likely learned to be weary of people like him.
“50 years later, there is this sort of pop culture, social consciousness of fear of the white van. I feel like every year, there’s sort of an instance where there’s a 12 year old kid who has to fend off some guy who’s gotten out of a white van trying to grab them, and that makes the news and sort of keeps that urban legend alive. But it is based in reality,” Skeels says.
Find out more about The Man in the White Van here.
Main Image: Madison Wolfe as Annie in The Man in the White Van.