August 25, 2002|George Butler is perhaps best known as the maverick filmmaker behind 1977's Pumping Iron, the benchmark bodybuilding documentary that almost single-handedly introduced a young Austrian fellow by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger to American audiences. Each of Butler's subsequent projects have been examinations of the urge for achievement in ages of relative leisure, from the groundbreaking female bodybuilders of Pumping Iron II, the big game hunting of the disaster- and controversy-ridden project In the Blood, and finally this year's IMAX Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure and companion feature-length documentary The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition. Despite the similarity of Mr. Butler's projects, the bonhomie growing between people during strife and outrageous circumstance, and the evolution (or lack thereof) of machismo, he frowns on discussions of intentionality in his work and choices of subject material. That's something that I learned the hard way. (Please note: this interview was conducted during last winter's awards season.)
How do you view the nature of Man and his quest for glory and acclaim on "gentlemanly" quests during times of leisure?
The best person to ask that on the face of the earth is probably Arnold Schwarzenegger--he's trying to get it all: fame, fortune, political power, and immortality as well. One of the interesting things in making The Endurance is that I know Arnold inside and out and we shot one-hundred hours of film when we made Pumping Iron and it was fascinating by virtue of the fact that in the Seventies people wanted a hero like Arnold--they were very responsive to someone who was after health, wealth, success, power. He was an egomaniac and a "me" generation kind of guy. He was like Babe Ruth, he could point with his bat and say he was gonna hit it out of the park and he did. He spoke of a master plan to take over America and he's all but done it, I mean, he just got $30 million for [Terminator 3].
On the other hand, Shackleton was a leader of men, almost completely unselfish as far as we can tell, though he did have an ego. His strength was taking relatively normal people and telling them, "You won't believe this, but I can put you on the ocean in a boat on the edge of the Weddell Sea and you're going to do an eight-day journey to Elephant Island with 50-, 60-knot winds, ice water breaking over the bows of the boat--you're gonna be wet, your feet in eight inches of water the whole time. No warm food, you don't need that--and we're gonna get there. And furthermore, after that we're gonna go and rescue you and get you out of here." His men believed him and Shackleton made it work.
And yet there are similarities in how you describe Schwarzenegger and Shackleton--are you drawn to subjects who display those qualities (ego, leadership, ambition), in particular?
When I was in college and people said did you realize that Moby Dick was about this, and that Melville meant that--and I never believed it. Melville took a good story and he spun it just right--he just made a book out of whaling material and it's fabulous, but I don't think he took any time thinking about what students would take from it. Similarly, I think I'm just drawn to good material, original material--stuff that no one has done before.
Taking your point, can you talk about your five projects starting with Pumping Iron and what about them stirred you if not a commonality of theme?
The wonderful thing about Pumping Iron is that no one else wanted to touch Arnold--body building was like midget wrestling, none of my friends wanted anything to do with it and in fact most people thought we were nuts to have anything to do with it--but the moment I saw Arnold I thought "This guy should be in movies." I'd never made a film, never been to film school, but I raised some money and I directed Pumping Iron because I believed in the material. Pumping Iron II came about because someone had the money to make the movie and I thought I'd make the most interesting movie I could for the material. It coincided with a new cutting edge of feminism, which was the athletic revolution for women--the women in that film were the first women on film to have muscles. When I finished that film Gloria Steinem did a story for a magazine saying that this was the cutting edge of feminism. So that worked very well.
In the Blood, well, hunting is one of the biggest subjects of all and it's totally politically incorrect, but the underlying truth is that the countries in Africa with the most game have the best hunting programs. The reason for that is hunting stops poaching which is the biggest enemy to conservation. The arguments behind the film are very compelling indeed and all major conservation organizations in America were started by hunters. Roosevelt at that time was just coming back into fashion with the biography by Edmund Morris and he was the greatest conservationist of all and a great hunter.
When I washed up on the shores of Shackleton, I decided to make the movie because it was such a great story. I wasn't saying that Shackleton was "my kind of man" or anything like that, it was just a fabulous story supported by the most amazing photographs and also by this wonderful motion picture and diaries.
The story of The Endurance is a somewhat timely one.
We've had an interesting ride with this movie. When September Eleventh happened people were looking for something or someone like Shackleton who could say, "Take the biggest disaster you can imagine, and I'll show you how to get out of it." The NY Times has compared the photos of the Endurance in the ice to the framework at night of the remains of the WTC. A lot of people have written that Shackleton would be a modern hero because of his leadership, courage, and survival instinct.
We're up to 51 prints, which is a tremendous amount of prints for a theatrical documentary, and I think there's no question that we're gonna have the biggest distribution of any documentary this year. And it's quite an achievement to do that not with the charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger, but with this dead historical hero.
How did you become involved with the production?
I was in a bookstore in NY one day and saw Lansing's Endurance by the cash register, so I bought it and I started reading it and Caroline [Alexander] happened into the room and I said, "This is a helluva story." She said, "Let me see," and sat down and read the whole book. She was looking for photos of it and found all of Hurley's photos and that led to the exhibit and her book. They were all at the Royal Geographic Society in London--but in 1977 when Caroline went there, they didn't know they had them. She asked for them and they didn't know where they were so she battered around in the archive and found them, and that led to her exhibit and that was the first time anyone had ever exhibited them. She is the real architect of the renaissance of interest in The Endurance.
You retraced the steps that Shackleton and his crew took.
This is very important and it's another big consideration of this film. It was my sense that the only way to make this film was to go to all the original places. I went to great expense during Pumping Iron exactly the way Arnold and Louie [Ferrigno] led their lives. I really believe in veracity. We conducted what I believe is the most remote location shoot ever undertaken by any Hollywood or documentary production. I took 100 people, two ships and a helicopter 1500 miles from South America to the Weddell sea--1500 miles from civilization and more in some instances--and I think it really shows because The Endurance has great veracity, a feeling that this is what Shackleton saw because the Antarctic has changed very little since 1914. And it was wonderful to be able to shoot a film where if Shackleton woke up and looked off the coast of Elephant Island--what he saw is what we filmed.
Did you experience similar hardships?
We were very lucky in making it; it was extremely dangerous. We lost three replica wooden lifeboats--they sank on the last day of filming. It gave us a real lesson in how quickly a boat can get swamped in those conditions.
Did you fear for your life?
Absolutely. On my African film, we lost the life of one of the hunters--a guide in a grassfire--and we lost a lot of film equipment. It was a minor disaster so I was very safety-conscious on this film and it ended up being very effective. You make your own luck sometimes and we had very good luck in Antarctica, which can be very unpredictable. But we certainly took great risks--we were in 40-foot waves, it was big stuff.
I live in New Hampshire in the Mt. Washington weather system that has some of the worst weather in the world. I'm an avid outdoorsman--done a lot of hiking and camping and hunting and fishing, I know what it takes to survive and I know how people can die from exposure on a cool summer's day when their clothes are wet and a big wind comes up. I'm the only member of my crew I believe who's been to all of the Shackleton locations--and I have no idea, and never will understand, how twenty-eight men survived 625 days. It's not possible. And saying that, the only way to explain it would be to say that it's a miracle occurred. And if it's a spiritual lesson--The Endurance is a spiritual story and I really believe that--there was something extra involved.
What were the special problems of filming an IMAX film in these conditions?
I'm used to "jump and go" filmmaking where you move quickly and shoot a lot of footage. The IMAX camera is the most ponderous thing on earth, but with the IMAX you know you're just going for the image so you just get the image right. What I ran into is that so much of Shackleton's story is on the water so we had to set up this very elaborate camera boat with gyroscopic mount on the front which compensated for the motion of the waves--a kind of Steadicam for the boat. It was very tough filming in the boat because you had 2½ minutes of film in the camera and water was always getting on the lens or something like that and to change film in 20ft waves is really something, but we did it. I had a very good crew.
I always work with the best people I can find and I had no pride on the line--if someone knew more than me, I had no problem with that. I really let people do a lot on their own and I'm always confident that they'll come back with good material.
Did you ever harbour any doubts that it would come together?
I never had any doubt--everyone around me did. I had more trouble dealing with my partners in this project because they thought I'd never get it done, but I had a bigger obstacle in making a body-building film. I can see how it's going to come together--but before it does it's hard for others to see it.
I've heard rumours of a Ken Branagh miniseries and a Russell Crowe/Wolfgang Petersen feature based on Shackleton's adventures.
Ken Branagh has just finished a mini-series to be released in June with him as Shackleton--but he shot it in Greenland and Petersen is shooting in Hollywood and this is where my film has enormous power over them. You'd never get a Hollywood production to where I went.