The Meaning of Vanlife: Interview with Director Jim Lounsbury


Director Jim Lounsbury’s new documentary The Meaning of Vanlife explores the increasingly popular trend seeing people abandon traditional homes and lifestyles for life on the road. Lounsbury spent four months living in a van of his own while filming, getting to know the community from the inside.

“I actually really enjoyed it,” he confirms after a moment’s thought. “You start to spend more time doing things like reading, walking and just enjoying nature. It detoxifies you from the digital onslaught we all face every day. You start to find yourself a little bit more.”

Making life work on the road is a learning experience. Staying clean and eating well eventually become important. Roadside markets become compulsory stop-offs and 24-hour gyms are shower-filled havens.

“The two things vanlifers get when they start is a membership to a gym and a national parks pass.”

“After you’ve lived in a van for three or four weeks you start to go, ‘wait a second, I’ve actually got to make a life of this’ and you start to change gears. The two things vanlifers get when they start is a membership to a gym and a national parks pass. That gets them out of trouble if they need to spend a night somewhere or they need to freshen up,” Lounsbury explains, totally at ease talking about life in a van.

Director Jim Lounsbury getting his gear out of his van ‘Hunter S. Thompsvan’ - Photo by    J.R. Switchgrass   .

Director Jim Lounsbury getting his gear out of his van ‘Hunter S. Thompsvan’ - Photo by J.R. Switchgrass.

The idea of making a film about vanlife came about after two of Lounsbury’s long-time friends, Jonny Dustow and Jared Campbell, began living in vans on the east coast of Australia. The trio have known each other for over ten years, since American-born Lounsbury married his Australian wife in his early 20s.

“I’m fascinated with the pressures that face society and things that we deal with on a day-to-day basis. Something that’s noticeable is the rising cost of rent and housing and how it’s put pressure on the younger generation. I’ve been interested in how people are coping and alternative ways of living and housing is one option. So when they started living in vans, I was curious.”

His interest in their lifestyle choice grew even more after they created the Instagram account @vanlifediaries, which has amassed 450,000 followers in only three or four years. In its early days, the account was used to organise small-scale gatherings for vanlifers in Australia. Dustow and Campbell took music and integrated Aboriginal culture into the events to create a sense of community and connection between people who otherwise live in near-isolation on the road.

Jonny Dustow and Jared Campbell, founders of  @vanlifediaries  | Photo by J.R. Switchgrass

Jonny Dustow and Jared Campbell, founders of @vanlifediaries | Photo by J.R. Switchgrass

 “It was amazing, they’d put the call out and all of a sudden 20 people turn up in the middle of nowhere. When they blew up, they found all these people in America doing it and Europe and everywhere else.”

Dustow and Campbell were eager to connect with vanlifers from around the world and take their gatherings beyond Australia. At least 60 or 70 per cent of their followers live overseas. Lounsbury saw the opportunity to follow along and film a documentary that would get to understand what the vanlife movement is all about.

Read: The Meaning of Vanlife Film Review

The documentary is mostly set in America, giving the impression that it is better established there. Lounsbury argued that it is popular in Australia too, but has a different scale and urgency in the States. Despite America merely being more populated, economic differences play a role.

“In America, people sometimes feel the economic pressures more because there’s not quite as much of a safety net for people who aren’t able to get ahead. There’s a greater rich-poor divide. There are people who’ve been thrust into vanlife because minimum wage is so low and it becomes a more viable choice. In Australia, you can probably get a flat somewhere cheap on the dole and it’s a little bit easier to get by for a couple of years while you’re finding your feet.”

“I thought about taking the documentary down a darker path, looking at the forgotten people living out in the middle of America who do work for big organisations packaging products and stuff while living in abject poverty in broken-down motorhomes. I thought about talking about the LA homeless who are living in their cars and working on these multi-million-dollar films.”

Lounsbury instead focused his film on vanlifers who have chosen their lifestyle.

A question he wanted to answer was how people make money on the road. Many of them are creatives, making money on the road through photography, videography and blogging on social media and websites. Others run businesses or teach. But the significance of social media in the lives of almost all the vanlifers featured in the film was surprising. It’s a strange paradox given that these people tend to be trying to escape the capitalism, technologies and structure of ‘normal’ society for a more sustainable life in nature.

“I think in the city, social media becomes a sense of escape and entertainment. For vanlifers, social media is actually a way they connect and find one another,” Lounsbury explained slowly and clearly. It’s a topic he’s given plenty of thought.

The standout characters that Lounsbury features in The Meaning of Vanlife are Kit Whistler and J.R. Switchgrass. The couple run Instagram account @idletheorybus, where they share their theories on life and work to over 150 thousand followers. They’re noticeable not only because of their orange Volkswagen bus, but because of their unique outlook on their existence.

“I immediately knew that they were really fascinating,” Lounsbury recalled. “They operated on this very separate wavelength to everyone else. They were kind of like the hobos of old – itinerant farmers going from place to place.”

Kit Whistler and J.R. Switchgrass - Photo by J.R. Switchgrass

Kit Whistler and J.R. Switchgrass - Photo by J.R. Switchgrass

Including the pair was not a light decision, however. Lounsbury knew they were interesting but not very relatable, so he took care in finding other vanlifers who were more similar to the average person.

“That’s where Corey and Emily from @wheresmyofficenow popped up. They’re both very well spoken, they had really interesting philosophies and ideas about vanlife, but they also were people we could connect with because they’ve worked in New York City, they’ve done the rat race, they’ve done most things that people watching this documentary have done. They made the decision to leave that life to a degree – they still work on the road, they write articles, Corey’s a tour guide for adventure companies. They still have traditional jobs but they just do it on the road.

“That gave a slight counterpoint to people like Kit and J.R. where we go: ‘who are these people?’ They pick fruit and they birth calves; they just love this idea of dialling back the clock to a previous century. They have the really unique isolationist theory where they like to live out off the land and be removed from everything. They’re not so community focused.”

Corey Smith and Emily King in The Meaning of Vanlife

Corey Smith and Emily King in The Meaning of Vanlife

Lounsbury isn’t sure how much the movement will continue to grow. It’s a question of how much roads, forests and caravan parks could sustain.

“You’re already seeing in Australia, in Portland, in Seattle and all these vanlife hothouses, a movement where residents are trying to reclaim the streets. You see signs at the beaches now: ‘no parking overnight’. But certainly as long as economic pressures are there, I think alternative choices like vanlife will continue to proliferate.” 

“Vanlife’s definitely not for everyone. There’s a certain person who likes camping and enjoys that process of journeying and exploring. This was never meant to be an advertisement for vanlife, it was meant to be an exploration of why people do it because it’s been this growing movement. But there’s multiple ways to engage with the vanlife community and be a part of it no matter who and where you are.”

One thing seems for sure; while films like The Meaning of Vanlife and social media accounts continue to present vanlife in such a beautiful way, the movement can only gain popularity and attention. 

Read our film review of The Meaning of Vanlife.

The documentary is available on Stan, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo on Demand