George Butler is the director of The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, a documentary regarding the insane story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and how he and his expedition of twenty-eight men survived getting stranded on an ice floe and being lost for twenty-two months. The documentary is now getting some theatrical release across the United States. This conversation was held in person on 4/18/2002.
Widge: I saw the film--Cowboy sent me an Academy screener, back when it first was making the festival rounds. I wanted to know the reason that it wasn’t nominated at the Oscars—-because I was astounded that it wasn’t nominated… Was it ineligible?
George Butler: We got robbed.
W: Tell me about the crime.
GB: I wrote two lengthy, well-reasoned letters to the Academy, and they really felt badly about it, because the head of the Academy, no less, wrote me back a two-page letter saying essentially, “no.” And a two-page “no” letter is a very long “no” letter. But they have a battery of rules that face documentaries, and it makes it virtually impossible for a popular, big-spirited documentary that goes out into the marketplace to get an Academy Award nomination. When I went to the Antarctic, I went to the most remote location to shoot on earth—if you can find another movie shot in a more remote location, please let me know.
W: Probably not on this planet…
GB: Exactly. And it was expensive. And in order to do that, I shot four films, including an IMAX, two TV versions, and The Endurance. One of the TV versions played in England and Germany, and got two British Academy Award nominations. It’s a very different film from The Endurance. They said it’s based on the same material, and I said, in that event, if you’re saying you cannot be on television and get an Academy Award, then all the films that use any stock footage for the last twenty year would be ruled ineligible because they’ve all played on TV. But they said, "But the director didn’t put them on TV." And then you get into a morass and now stiff counterarguments and arguments, and the essential fact is Frederick Weisman has never been nominated for an Academy Award, Errol Morris has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Any film that’s popular and has wide distribution is going to run afoul of one of their rules or the other, and the Academy Awards, as you know, are basically popularity contests in the feature division. In the documentary division, there’s an obscurity contest, and none of the films that are nominated are getting theatrical distribution. So it doesn’t make any sense at all.
W: You didn’t suffer for your art enough, I guess.
GB: Exactly. And I’m very grateful for what’s happened in The Endurance. It is quite simply the most successful documentary of the last five years…probably the most successful commercial documentary since Hoop Dreams, and I’m delighted, and Cowboy has done a great job.
W: Well, backing up to the beginning...how did you get started in making documentaries? I mean, when you were a kid and everyone wanted to be a fireman or an astronaut, you wanted to make movies about them being firemen and astronauts, or how did that start?
GB: I never took a film course, I never thought I’d be in film, I never went to film school, I never had any connection to the movies. In fact, I grew up in Africa and Jamaica and the West Indies. I almost didn’t see movies as a child. And the ones I did, I remembered very clearly. And I did not have a deprived childhood of any kind. I had a wonderful sort of foreign childhood in Africa and places like that. What happened was is that I went to the University of North Carolina as a writer…I went to graduate school as a writer in Virginia at Hollins College. I worked for Newsweek, I published a newspaper in Detroit...and then I became a still photographer. And I did a book on the Vietnam war with Senator [John] Kerry from Massachusetts, and then I was asked, oddly enough, to do an assignment for Sports Illustrated on a obscure bodybuilding contest, which I did, and I was fascinated by what I saw. And we started doing a book called Pumping Iron, and I was working with a writer named Charles Dance from Birmingham, Alabama, and we ran into Arnold Schwartzenegger. And the original contract was with Doubleday, and when the book was finished, we handed in the photographs of Arnold and the other bodybuilders and the text to the editor-in-chief of Doubleday, a man named Sandy Richardson. And he wrote us back a letter saying, "this book is an insult to the company—no one will ever want to look at a photograph of Arnold Schwartzeneger or read about him. Please give me my advance back," which is very rare for a publishing company, "you have wasted our time and misspent our our money." The book ended up at Simon & Schuster--
W: That was a long "no" as well, actually.
GB: Yes. Actually, you're right. The book ended up at Simon & Schuster, was an immediate best seller. And I thought, "Now, someone should make a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger"--and wrong again--because no one would touch him. I did a test film of Arnold and...I had a hundred people come in to invest in the film and they laughed at him all the way through. And Romulus Linney--who's from Tennessee, who's Laura Linney's father, the actress, and he's a playwright in his own right--got up and said, "George, I'm gonna speak for all your friends in this room. If you ever make a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger, you will be laughed off 42nd Street." It was like this all the way through. People hated Arnold Schwarzenegger in those days, they hated body building, they didn't want anything to do with it, because it was new. It was entirely new. And...the rest is history, because Arnold went on to become the biggest star in the movies in the 90's. Pumping Iron is getting a gigantic re-release in October from HBO. I've been on the phone all morning with Variety about this re-release. Sports Illustrated just called it one of the classic movies on sports, put it on their five best list of best sports movies ever. And...it's an authentic American classic, but it was not easy to make, because it was highly original. And we went through a lot of the same stuff with Shackleton.