Burt’s Buzz could be next year’s Bill Cunningham New York if newly announced U.S distributor FilmBuff plays it right. The film is about and follows Burt Shavitz, the famous face of Burt’s Bees personal care products, who also co-founded the company yet now only works for the brand in an image and marketing capacity as the man behind the logo. When not doing public appearances, the septaugenarian is living modestly on his farm in Maine with his dogs and guns and, yes, bees. When he is out representing lip balm and other items, he’s a rock star. Especially in Taiwan. Burt is a one-of-a-kind codger, the sort of eccentric old man that seems destined to be a documentary subject. If he’d even allow it.
He did, and in spite of his superficial oddities and the simple division of his life, he was full of surprises in his story and his persona. I talked with Burt’s Buzz director Jody Shapiro over the weekend about the subject and the process of getting to know both the real man and the brand man through making the film. Also, he explains how the doc’s origins came from a personal project by Isabella Rossellini about her father, Roberto Rossellini, and why one of the most important people in Burt’s story — his former romantic and business partner, Roxanne Quimby, who took over the company and then sold it for millions — wasn’t interviewed for the film.
Nonfics: Aside from the fact that he’s an icon, what made you interested in doing a film about Burt?
Jody Shapiro: The fact that he doesn’t actually realize he’s an icon. That’s kind of it. When I first met with him, one of the first things he said to me was this whole idea of his being an evolutionary not a revolutionary — he wanted to live in the world one day at a time as opposed to changing the world. He was very serious about that. Oddly enough, here’s a fellow who, between his days as a photographer in New York in the 60s and doing photos of Malcolm X and JFK and Allen Ginsberg and then starting the whole company and how that product really influenced the organic natural care brands, he has had an influence over the world. But he doesn’t see it that way at all. I thought this would be an interesting story to explore because of that.
Nonfics: How did you first come across him?
Shapiro: I met Burt through Isabella Rossellini. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Isabella’s Green Porno films. They’re these three-minute-long films about insect sex, where she plays the insects. They’re very cute and quirky. I co-directed some of those with her and produced them. There’s about 30 of them now. And Isabella was actually commissioned by Burt’s Bees to do one of these things where she plays the bee, and she was going to play Burt, to talk about the issues that are facing bees right now and colony collapse disorder and so on. So I went with Isabella to meet with Burt, because she was doing her own research, and at the time she was also sort of working on an anthology and archival stuff of her father — you know the filmmaker Roberto Rossellini — so she was really big on this idea of archives. People’s stories need to be archived. And she thought Burt’s story should be archived.
I had started shooting some raw interviews for him that I was just going to hand over to the company and so they can have it, not thinking it would turn into anything else. And then I heard he was doing this tour of Taiwan, and that’s when this idea clicked for me. The documentary wheels started turning. I started thinking Burt on the land and Burt in Taiwan would really create an interesting film with regards to the contrast of this man’s life. We would have Burt the man on one hand and Burt the logo on the other. I thought Burt was a really fascinating guy, but I wanted to do something more than just a biopic. I thought there was a much deeper story to the way Burt represented himself, and what he represented. So I basically got access to some of this footage that I had already shot and went off on my own to make it.
Nonfics: It’s a kind of folklore tale. He represents this ideal life a lot of us wish we could have and how we buy organic products to feel like we’re that. He also really reminded me of Bill Cunningham in the humble way he lived.
Shapiro: There’s something about Burt, and maybe the same can be said about Bill in that film, that this is a character, a person, who stays completely true to himself. And lives his life by the rules that he wanted to live his life by. And nobody or anything can change that. That’s another compelling element. I think it’s very rare to find those kinds of individuals today. He is the same person when he’s sitting on the farm and watching the grass grow as he is signing autographs on a line in Taiwan. There are different circumstances and he’s got to behave a little differently or… wash! He’s just a true individual and doesn’t shy away from any of these situations or things and handles them in the way he wants to handle them.
The story that I had thought was going to be this black and white contrast between who the man is and who the logo is, I found as I went on, especially when we were editing, that it’s a much more gray story. There’s a lot more middle ground than I had initially anticipated. Again, a lot of that is because of Burt and because of how he is. You’d think he’s just this sort of hippie guy living off the land doing all this sort of stuff. But he cares about the product. He does. He wants to be a salesman. He’s very happy getting that thing out there and into people’s hands.
Nonfics: He also seems like he likes all the fame and attention, even if he might not admit it.
Shapiro: 100 percent. It’s a really odd side to him that I could never quite figure out. There’s no question he wants the solitude, he wants to be alone. There’s no question he doesn’t want to be traveling. But I think he at the same time feels he’s owed something, that there’s some sort of respect he deserves. I don’t know if that’s coming from him. I get the sense maybe someone told it to him one day. But he’s keen on this stuff, this acceptance.
Nonfics: You mentioned it not being a biopic, but you do have a lot of back story on an old man who’s done a lot. Did you have concerns about trying to condense a long life into the relatively short time of a feature film?
Shapiro: I spent a lot of time with him before I started shooting the actual stuff for the film. One of the things we bonded over was he loves vintage motorcycles and I have a vintage bike myself. So I was tinkering with his bike with him and stuff like that. And then I came back another time and he pulled out this box with 30 years of dust on it of photographs he had, like the Malcolm X photo was in there, and nobody had ever seen these before in so long, and…
It was tough. We had about 40 hours of material. Obviously the marketing was important, and his story with the company and Roxanne was important, and of course I realized I had to put some time and effort into telling that stuff. What was really important to include and do it justice but took some doing, because of how you have to tell the whole film, was his past. His early life. His relationship with his family. And especially his photography career. I really, truly wanted this to come across like it felt like it was Burt’s story and not Burt’s Bees’ story. And that side of it, his relationship to the land, his relationship with the dogs was important, as well. There are lot of things I felt like we had to shorten to just make everything fit.
Nonfics: The back story is vital, because it’s such a surprise. I didn’t know anything about Burt, but to learn who he is and to also have that stuff about who he was on top of that…
Shapiro: I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff. He was in the army. We just didn’t have time to fit it in. Maybe it could be a DVD extra.
Nonfics: Did Burt have any concerns about his life being documented, especially given how reclusive he is and because he’d been screwed over before?
Shapiro: No. We talked a lot about it beforehand. I think what he was happiest about was that this was an opportunity to talk about his other life, as well. I think he was really happy that someone was going to acknowledge his photography carer and this life that he had before Burt’s Bees. He used to joke — he wondered why anybody was ever interested in a film about him, which was part of his charm and the attraction of filming him, the fact that he doesn’t realize that half the people I’ve met don’t even think he’s a real person, but definitely know of him. It took time. He’s an old guy. He tells lots of stories. He’s got his own way of doing things. I had to spend a lot of time talking to him and there was a lot to go through afterwards. But he really opened up. I was really pleased.
Nonfics: And obviously now he’s helping to promote the movie — though of course he loves the attention.
Shapiro: He’s already talked about how he’s missing the dogs. I saw him last night for dinner and he was kind of happy. He wasn’t jumping up and down. He was treating it like a real star does, I imagine, taking it all in stride.
Nonfics: Why isn’t Roxanne in the film? And how did you get her son to kind of take her place?
Shapiro: I did approach Roxanne. I got in touch with her and explained the film that I was making and I wanted her to be a part of it. She politely declined. But she was the one that suggested Lucas, her son, be in the film. She said he was around during that time and he grew up with Burt basically and was witness to all that was going on. I get the sense that… I don’t know Roxanne at all, so this is pure speculation — though I’ve obviously done research and tried to find out about her story and the story of the company, and there’s no question she was a genius, 100 percent, how within 25 years she turned this company from $38 a month to close to a billion. I have a sense that she’s one of those people who when she’s done with something she’s done with it. And her days with Burt’s Bees were done, she’s on to something else, other bigger projects, and she didn’t feel the need to talk about it.
I’m very pleased with Lucas and what he said and how he describes the situation. I feel like it came from an honest place. I didn’t at all want this to turn into a he said/she said kind of production. First and foremost it was Burt’s story. And Burt sees the world and in a certain kind of light and I think you need to take that light when you watch everything through it. I hope you get enough of his personality across and the way he perceives things to interpret everything he says. I think Lucas fills in some gaps with that.
This interview was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2013.