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Exclusive clip: Ample Ent. founders discuss HBO’s “The Invisible Pilot”

A three-part docuseries from Ample Entertainment and Adam McKay’s Hyperobject Industries, covering the story of a man in small-town Arkansas who was living a dangerous double life, is set to debut ...
April 4, 2022

A three-part docuseries from Ample Entertainment and Adam McKay’s Hyperobject Industries, covering the story of a man in small-town Arkansas who was living a dangerous double life, is set to debut on HBO Max this week.

The Invisible Pilot, which premieres on Monday (April 4), tells the story of Gary Betzner, a father of three who seemingly commits suicide despite a happy home life and successful career. But a story soon emerges about another side of Betzner’s life, one that includes hypnosis, secret identities, and the worlds of drug smuggling and gunrunning.

The docuseries is directed by Phil Lott and Ari Mark, who also serve as executive producers along with Adam McKay, Todd Schulman, Craig Hodges and Jon Bryant Crawford. Ben Selkow is co-executive producer, with Martine Phelan-Roberts and David Tillman producing and Madison Passarelli co-producing. For HBO, Tina Nguyen serves as senior producer, with Nancy Abraham and Lisa Heller executive producing.

Series directors and Ample Entertainment founders Mark and Lott were drawn to this subject partly because Lott had long wanted to work on a story related to the Iran–Contra affair (which The Invisible Pilot touches on), and partly because of the intriguing archival footage and interviews they viewed that documented part of Betzner’s story, which inspired them to tell the full tale as a documentary series.

The two directors sat down with Realscreen to discuss the project.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was the process like in adapting this story into a full documentary series?

Ari Mark: Ultimately, we’re always looking for what is the way in to this [subject] that really makes it feel new. So we really just dug deep into the story to try to uncover what were the strangest, most unexpected elements. What we realized was, what’s really strange is the guy [started as] a really small-town crop duster with only really one skill, which is flying. How does that talent give him this sense of power, where he’s really going to be able to step out of his ordinary life and achieve something extraordinary, which is becoming one of the world’s most successful drug runners? For us, that was really exciting — to think of an ordinary American in the ’70s, a dad with a couple of kids, who went from nobody to a different kind of nobody.

What did Hyperobject’s involvement add to the project?

Mark: The minute they saw our development materials, we were on the phone, and they were in. It really jived with their tone as a brand. When you think of [McKay's films] Don’t Look Up [and] The Big Short, you really think of this sort of [tone of] not taking itself so seriously, but still [looking at stories] having massive world ramifications. And I think that’s really what this is, and I think that’s why we hope [the series will] be successful, [and] resonate with audiences, because it has that thing that Hyperobject does so well, which is operate on multiple levels tonally. Todd Schulman is Adam McKay’s producing partner, and he was genuinely creatively hands-on on this project, and it really was very valuable. Even Adam was actually instrumental in his notes. We were pleasantly surprised [by] just how effective they were, and really did improve the project. So that was a nice Hollywood moment for us.

What about HBO? What made its platform a good fit for this story?

Mark: Nancy, Lisa and Tina kind of blew us away, because they treated us like filmmakers, not just producers. What I mean by that is they were like, “What’s your vision? Let’s poke holes in it, walk us through it step by step.” Once they were on board, they were on board. There was no questioning, there was no undermining, there wasn’t this anxiety that often comes with these projects where it feels like this massive leap of faith. In this case, I think they really trusted us to say, “Look, it’s your project, we have suggestions, but this is yours.”

Phil Lott: This is a story that takes place over almost 25 years, and goes to a lot of different places in history and takes you to lots of different names and faces, and the danger in the beginning was always that it could get very confusing for an audience that just wants to sit and enjoy a great story well told. They’re [HBO] having their eye on it, and just asking questions all the time, was incredibly helpful.

What was the process like working with archival footage on this series?

Lott: One of the things Ari and I love to do generally in all of our shows, [and] definitely when we’re directing, is subvert the genres as much as we can. We were like, “What can we do with this film that we haven’t seen somewhere else?” I had personally never seen the main faces in the documentary, the main contributors, aging, as they tell the story. The story does have repercussions and lives in the now, even though there’s lots of past-tense elements to a person revealing the story. It lives today and you see it on the faces, you see the lives lived, and you see it in their environment, and they change over the years too.

How does The Invisible Pilot fit into Ample’s overall slate?

Mark: It’s something that Phil and I believed in, so we just started going after it. And the reason we got Hyperobject excited and HBO excited is because we went into the field and shot those key interviews. We showed that this is here, this is real, and we actually made a [cut] of the project ourselves, and we cut it and presented it to them. So it doesn’t really get more handcrafted than that. But then, using our production-company model, we built a support team around it, using Ample’s existing infrastructure, using our existing resources, using the equipment that we have, and also, by working hand-in-hand with a fledgling filmmaker, sort of helping shape some of his existing footage.

Clip courtesy of HBO. The three-part series The Invisible Pilot premieres on April 4 on HBO and HBO Max.

 

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