Docs according to George Butler

George Butler's controversial US$1.3 million doc Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry debuts at TIFF and hits theaters in October. Friends since 1964, Butler snapped 6,000 photographs of the U.S. presidential candidate before turning his documentary efforts to the big screen, raising the question: Can he do for Kerry what he did for the Terminator? In a conversation with Kimberley Brown, the trendsetting filmmaker sounds off on private investors, books as bait, the value of going theatrical, 16mm film, and being close to one's subject.
September 1, 2004

As your accolades accumulate, is it getting any easier to fund your films?

It’s getting a little quicker. I can probably get them done in three years now, not five. The major difference is that I’m doing more than one film at a time, and I’ve got a very good group of about 25 associates working with me – I have a bigger enterprise.

Is the process more predictable?

The key to making a successful documentary is almost always the theatrical release, which gives it tremendous visibility and hundreds of reviews. A documentary that doesn’t get a theatrical release normally dies quite quickly.

I’ve never done anything for television. It means that you have to produce a film that looks good on a television screen. When I was at Sundance in 2001 with The Endurance, I was appalled by the quality of the images. I’ve always shot film and tried to make the film look as good as possible. The Endurance looked gorgeous – those Antarctic shots were just marvelous. In order to get theatrical distribution, a film has got to look good.

That being said, I must now admit that there is quite a lot of Super 8 footage in Going Upriver and I shot on DigiBeta, so my images are not as strong as in the past. But I’ve got John Kerry’s view of Vietnam, which is fascinating.

Why did you decide to shoot DigiBeta for this film?

I knew it was going to be a very expensive film to shoot on film, and so much of the underlying material was going to be stock footage and Super 8 material. It was fruitless to shoot in Super16.

How did you gather the financing?

There are about 30 investors. There have been rumors that the [Kerry] campaign financed the film, but that’s not true. There has been very little contact between us and the campaign, other than to schedule interviews and things like that.

I’m surprised the campaign cooperated. How did you get them to agree?

I’ve made good films in the past and none are outrageous diatribes. I guess I’m persuasive. Bear in mind that during this particular time, Arnold [Schwarzenegger] was using Pumping Iron as one of the basis for his campaign to be governor of California. And, other film ideas were circulating too.

I heard that Alexandra Kerry might be making a documentary about the campaign.

The more the merrier. There are a couple of other filmmakers around who’ve been working on Kerry films and they are ferociously turf aware. I said to all of them, ‘Look, if 30 films are made on Kerry, so much the better, because the cream always rises to the top.’

How did you decide who to approach for funding?

I made 3,000 phone calls to raise money for Pumping Iron, and I’ve probably contacted 1,000 people for this film. They’re people who, generally speaking, have made some money on Wall Street and are interested in the subject matter of the film, and have the wherewithal to make a $25,000 investment.

Did anyone who financed the film also finance Kerry’s presidential campaign?

I don’t know, because I don’t talk to people about what they do with the rest of their money.

Most people who look at a documentary feel that the money has got to come from [organizations such as] hbo or the National Council of… I’ve never had a grant for any of my movies, and with the exception of Morgan Stanley [which helped finance The Endurance], all of my money has come from private sources. It’s very difficult for people to even imagine that being possible.

Most doc-makers have to go to broadcasters to get their films funded.

It’s too restrictive. [Private investment] is much better than subverting the interests of the film to a broadcast executive. I also usually publish a book with my films.

I try to do what I do on a wide front. And by getting a theatrical release, I get millions of dollars worth of free advertising.

Do you publish the book before the film, like you did with Pumping Iron: The art and sport of bodybuilding (Simon & Schuster)?

In some cases, yes. I’ve got a book with the Kerry film that will be out in September and the movie will be out October 1. John Kerry: A Portrait (Bulfinch Press) is primarily photographs with limited text. I think it’s going to attract a lot of people to the film.

When did you decided to make a film about Kerry?

June 2002, but I didn’t really raise any money until later. I got one investor in spring 2003, somebody who’d previously invested in Pumping Iron. My idea was to use this generous investment to go out and make a sample of the film that I could use to raise the rest of the money. The problem was, when that film was finished, Kerry dived in the polls. At that point, it was a miracle that I could keep the editing room open.

The film became difficult to finance?

Not difficult, impossible. In December, 2003 there wasn’t a single person in North America who thought that John Kerry would get the nomination. What I knew from 40 years of experience with John is that the closer you get to the election date, the stronger he gets. I was freely saying to the press – and there were a few at the time that would listen – that Kerry was going to make it, and people just hooted with laughter.

Did you ever consider abandoning the project?

One of the reasons I’ve managed to stay in this business is because I’ve managed to keep even the most difficult movies alive. In 1988 I was making a film about conservation in Africa and someone was burned alive on the set in a horrendous grass fire, and it threw the film into turmoil. There were major insurance claims and finger-pointing all over Africa. Any normal person would’ve abandoned the film. I came home, quietly held the project in reserve, raised the money and then went back and made a different film, [In the Blood]. One of the best things to do is do what you say you’re going to do, even if it changes as you go along.

Knowing the scrutiny under which Michael Moore’s last two films fell, are you nervous that your 40-year friendship with Kerry will produce a similar reaction?

We’re checking, double checking and triple checking the film. No matter what you do, you’re going to get criticized, so I just want to make sure we’re factually correct.

Did Moore’s experience influence your approach to Going Upriver?

No, it was just a red flag. My film is based on Doug Brinkley’s 550-page book Tour of Duty (William Morrow), the most interesting thing about which is it gets John Kerry to the age of 29. Who else in America gets 550 pages before they’re 30? It’s a good blueprint, and no major things in the book have been challenged.

Given your history with Kerry, why adopt the book for a blueprint?

It’s a big story and Brinkley lays it out well. The book is also a best seller. It’s a way of combining forces to do something that will have some meaning to the public – a lot of people that read a best-selling book will go and see the film.

You were a reporter for Newsweek in the 1960s. Given your news background, would you characterize Going Upriver as balanced?

I’m heavily criticized for making a film about a good friend, but [James] Boswell was [Samuel] Johnson’s best friend, so it can be done. The curious balance is that with familiarity comes a certain access, and that’s valuable to any biography.

My film is probably going to surprise people by what it actually is, rather than what they anticipate. [The public] thinks Kerry is a very boring guy and I don’t; he’s fascinating. His speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, which is in my film, is one of the great speeches ever given in the U.S. Senate.

How would you characterize the film?

It’s the story of John Kerry in Vietnam and in the peace movement, and it comes into the present in the third act. It’s my view of John Kerry.

Doesn’t the subject and the timing of the release make your friendship more significant?

I can’t answer the question, because the movie could come out and have no effect at all. Nobody knows what the political landscape will be when my film opens in October. But, I’m very, very clear about one thing: I’m not setting out to influence anyone. I’m setting out to make a good film, and if there’s a secondary influence, that’s great. But I don’t believe you can set out to make a film that changes anyone’s mind.

ThinkFilm in New York picked up the doc at the beginning of August. Why lock in a distribution deal before TIFF?

We had to pick someone who could prepare to distribute the film in October and ThinkFilm is a terrific documentary distributor.

Does this film have a theatrical life if Kerry is defeated?

Very unclear. If he is defeated there may be so many angry people in America that it may have an even bigger life.

What projects are next?

The film I want to make next year is about Bobby Bowden. He’s the greatest unknown man in America, and he’s the most successful football coach in the world – at Florida State University. I see him as the Will Rogers of America. He’s bigger than Zeus in Florida, but is not well known outside of the South.

Which of your films is your favorite?

I think The Endurance is the best film I’ve made – the theatrical version.

What’s your most successful film, financially?

Pumping Iron.

What’s the profit to date?

No one knows. I was in a hotel in India once and Pumping Iron was playing on TV. Now, I didn’t sell it to India, so it was a pirated copy. I understand it sold hundreds of thousands of video cassettes in Russia because it’s about weightlifting. I would say 100 million people have seen it.

How do you define success?

Everyone is looking at the Kerry film and wondering what it’s going to do to change the election in America. My attitude is, it may do nothing to change the election in America. My only goal is to make the best film I can. Has Fahrenheit 9/11 changed voters’ minds? I don’t know, which means probably not. It’s very difficult for a work of art to change peoples’ minds. It’s not impossible by any means, it’s just difficult. And, if you set out to do it, you’ll never do it.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.