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A Conversation With Filmmaker George Butler

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: June 2, 2013 at 05:13 AM

Award-winning filmmaker George Butler is best-known for his 1977 film "Pumping Iron,'' which documented the bodybuilding efforts of five-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger and his young rival, Lou Ferrigno. Butler's film subjects are diverse, ranging from the Antarctic to Mars. His most recent project is "The Good Fight,'' a documentary film based on Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and the tumultuous 2006 season. As part of this weekend's Gasparilla Film Festival, Butler will be in Tampa on Friday for a screening of the unfinished film at Channelside 9 Cinemas at 8 p.m. In a phone interview this week with The Tribune, Butler discussed the Bowden project:

Why did you choose to do a film on Bobby Bowden?

I went to UNC, where I did nothing more than play varsity soccer. I was always intrigued by Dean Smith, who was coaching when I was there in college. My original idea was to do a follow-up sports film to "Pumping Iron.'' I thought I would try and do a film on Dean Smith before he retired, but he retired before we could make the film. That didn't work, so I had watched the Seminoles play UNC several times, and they always won. And I suddenly thought that Bobby Bowden and a big-time football program like FSU would be interesting.

How did you pitch the idea to Bowden?

I spent about five years trying to get through to him on the telephone. I kept leaving messages at the athletic department, and they kept saying, 'Coach Bowden is going to call you.' And he never did. Eventually, a friend of mine got me a phone number. I didn't know this, but it was his summer condominium in Panama City. By sheer good luck, nothing more and nothing less, Steve Bowden, his son, was there picking something up. He invited me to come meet his parents. As it turned out, my next trip was to the Antarctic, so I arrived to Bobby's house with about five bags and all of my Antarctic clothing. He just chuckled at the amount of stuff I had. They were extremely hospitable and they invited me to stay in their house, which I thought was quite amazing. They have treated me very, very well ever since.

What has been the greatest challenge in making the film?

It's a difficult film to finance. I remember when I was making "Pumping Iron,'' I went to 3,000 people one by one to raise the $300,000 production of the film. This hasn't been quite like that, but I make films out of New York, and no one in New York knows who Bobby Bowden is. So it's hard for me to raise money in New York, and I've never lived in Florida, so it's hard to raise money down there. We're still looking for some money to finish the film."

Why show a screening of an unfinished film?

The best thing I can tell you is when I made an IMAX called "Roving Mars,'' I was having a lot of trouble getting the film together and getting NASA behind the film. So I screened it when the rocket taking the rover to Mars was launched, and by sheer good luck, there were 600 NASA scientists and engineers there at Cape Kennedy. I screened them part of the film I was shooting, and they just loved it. Everything came together as a result of showing an unfinished film.

What can people expect to see in the film?

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff in a big-time college football program, and a lot of intimate stuff with the Bowden family. It's not a film that's dated in any way. I'm sure it will be the definitive film on Bowden and the program. It's a film that is more than just about football.

When did you start shooting the film?

I started shooting the film in the autumn of 2005, right around the end of the season.

What did you learn about Coach Bowden during this process?

I think what's amazing about this film is that everyone knows how many football games Bobby has won, but a lot fewer people know what a struggle it is for Bobby to keep a football team charged up when they're having difficulties. There is a wonderful line in the film where Bobby says, 'Winning doesn't build character, it's losing that builds character.' It was an enormous struggle that Bobby and the team went through.

What is your philosophy in making a movie?

My movies are definitely about character, and this is a film about the character of the players, particularly about Lorenzo Booker, Myron Rolle and a couple of other players.

What was your access to the Bowden family?

Bobby and Ann allowed us to film for two weeks with their family on a two-week summer vacation. The Bowdens are family first. What I noticed in making this film is that family means coaches, family means players, family means support group. Everything is like one big family with the Bowdens, and he treats everyone about equally.

What is one of the more memorable scenes?

I think it is a majestic scene. Mark my words carefully. Just before the Emerald Bowl takes place, you've got one of the longest shots in the film where Bobby walks all the way around the locker room and taps each one of his players on the shoulder, gives them a hug, and says something to each one of them. I kind of think they all got the idea that this was when they were going to win a game for Bobby. If the team had played like they played in the Emerald Bowl all season long ... it could have been a totally different season.

You mentioned all the behind-the-scenes footage. What stands out?

Bobby allowed us to film in the coaches' meeting before the Boston College game. In theory at least, if anyone in my crew had been a turncoat, they could have called someone at BC and said here are some of the plays that FSU is going to run. Bobby just said to me, 'Now George, don't tell anyone what you are going to see in this meeting.' Then they proceeded to let us film. I couldn't believe my eyes. We got tremendous access. Basically, Bobby trusted me with a lot. That is something I am very grateful for.

The departure of Jeff Bowden was the biggest story of the 2006 season. How much of that did you capture?

We've got some very powerful stuff. It's got the whole Jeff Bowden story from Bobby's and Jeff's point of view. Once again, the Bowden family could have closed ranks. Instead, we've got a wonderful scene between Bobby, Ann and Jeff talking about everything that happened completely open.

You shot around 300 hours of footage. How long will the film be?

Our final film will end up around 110 minutes. We're going to show about half of the film [at Gasparilla].

Do you have a release date this year?

That's very possible. All of the films I have made have gone theatrical, which is very, very hard for a documentary to do.

Why did you start making films?

Something very simple. I began as a writer. I worked for Newsweek. I wrote fiction, and then I became a photographer. In the early '70s, I did a book called "Pumping Iron.'' While I was photographing Arnold, I kept thinking, 'This guy should be in the movies.' No one believed me. So I made a test film with Arnold and I screened it in New York. At the end of the screening, a very famous man got up and said, 'George, I'm going to speak for all your friends in this room, if you or anyone else ever makes a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger, you will be laughed to 42nd Street.' I had to quit making the movie for a year, and it was devastating. Of course, the rest is history."

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