Alcoholics Anonymous is a worldwide fellowship of over two million men and women, and its impact and influence have permeated innumerable aspects of American and global culture. What’s lesser known is the life and story of Bill W., aka Bill Wilson, who co-founded the organization in an attempt to reclaim his life from alcoholism. The history of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous is the subject of the documentary Bill W., which opens in theaters in New York, New Jersey, Orange County, and Los Angeles this Friday, May 18th, with more cities to follow. In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently spoke with the film’s co-directors and co-producers, first time documentarians Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino. Here’s what they shared with me about the challenges of making a film about a man who worked so hard to remain anonymous, what they learned about the history of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous, and crafting Bill W.
Jackson Truax: Where did your initial interest in Bill Wilson come from?
Kevin Hanlon: It came from a book that was written by a man named Ernest Kurtz. It’s called Not God. It’s the definitive history of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dan and I had talked about making a movie for a long time. Right at the point where we started to get serious about it, I was reading that book, and just thought it was fascinating story. That’s pretty much what started it for us.
JT: From the beginning, you had a great character with Bill Wilson, and his life provided a great story. At what point did you know you would have the access to the interviews and archival footage you would need to make a compelling film?
Dan Carracino: That’s a great question. And I’m laughing as you’re asking it, because that was the great leap of faith… We worked on this for a couple years before we had a single photograph of Bill Wilson. We were on it for…four or five years before we got access to any major archives… Actually, that part of it turned out to be a blessing. Because, most other AA histories or films have relied exclusively on documentary material in these two archives. We were forced to go to the periphery and do research at, I think it was twenty-five different places, whether they were archives or private collections, and actually unearthed some new material that was kind of interesting. It helped inform us of parts of the story that we might not have looked at when we were given access to these two archives. Then just from the standpoint of the material that you need to make a film, you can’t just make a film with letters. You need pictures. We had some really good fortune there. There was a collection of photographs that we found. I said this to Kevin a number of times, if we had made this film at any other time, I don’t know if we would have found these. If we tried doing this in the ‘90s, we wouldn’t have found these. If we had started later, they may have been destroyed. We just had tremendous luck in finding hundreds and hundreds of negatives of Bill W. and stuff that happened behind the scenes.
JT: How did you come to have access to all the photos that had never been seem before?
KH: We heard from somebody that there were a handful of photographic negatives that were being sold on eBay. Obviously, we went right to that and we bid on a few. We won a small number, maybe four or five of them. We got in contact with the seller and asked him if he had any others. He said, “Actually, I have quite a few others.” He was also out here in New York, so I went out to meet him. To my great astonishment, when I got there, he had roughly fifteen or sixteen hundred negatives, which he had never set out to get himself. He was a sports memorabilia collector. He bought a collection of what he thought [were] just sports negatives. Buried in there were these negatives of Bill Wilson. At first, he didn’t even know who this was. He didn’t know what he was looking at. He had been in a twelve-step program himself a few years before that. He kept thinking that there was this one guy in these photos that looked familiar to him. Finally he realized that it was Bill Wilson. But he came very, very close to throwing this stuff out. This whole collection almost ended up being trashed. It was just pure luck and timing by which we were able to make the connection and go out and see what the man had.
JT: How did you approach the various historians and AA members you talked to? Were people generally excited to talk to you? Or did you meet any resistance?
DC: Kevin did a really good job on the front end… He met with a guy who was a historian and a really enthusiastic supporter of this film. He met us early on. He was very comfortable with us pretty much from the beginning. I attribute most of that to Kevin. Because Kevin made the initial contact. The historian steered us toward the people that we should be talking to early on, and who we needed to talk to in order to open doors with other people to give us legitimacy. So, for instance, there was a guy named Bob P., who was a former General Manager of AA. He has since died, but at the time he was viewed as an elder statesman within AA. So when he agreed to an interview, we could then say that to other people. They would say… “Bob is okay with this. Then I can see myself doing this as well.” That helped a lot with the members that we interviewed… We knew who the prominent historians were. We interviewed almost every one of them. Not every one made it into the film. Ernest Kurtz is a very prominent AA historian. Bill White is a very prominent AA historian. They were very available to us.
KH: Two things made a big difference in being able to interview AA members that would talk about their own experience in AA. The first one was when they began to see how serious we were about it and how much research we had done, I think that helped. The second thing which was probably even more important, was that they saw that we were respecting the eleventh tradition, that we would respect their anonymity. That we were trying to follow the guidelines at the traditions laid out in AA. Some people still didn’t want to talk to us. And that was fine. But I think that did make a big difference for the people that we did wind up interviewing.
JT: I’ve seen various press releases or materials where Kevin, you’re credited as director, and Dan, you as producer. I’ve also seen other places where you’re both credited as co-directors and co-producers. What exactly was the division of labor?
KH: I think the most accurate thing is the description that says we co-produced and co-directed. Dan probably did a lot more of the producing work on it. So he actually deserves an extra credit there. We divided the labor, but it sort of went back-and-forth as to who was doing what most of the time.
DC: It’s actually kind of a funny story… The first day we were shooting, Kevin and I had been good friends for a very long time… So we’re on this set up in Vermont. We were working with some guys who had done a lot of shooting before. After the first day [when] we were both giving direction…the line producer, this guy Mike Fox who’s a great guy…came up and said, “Look guys, it went really well today, but one of you guys has to be the person speaking to the actors. You’re going to confuse them if we move forward here. So that’s what happened. On the set, Kevin directed. He stepped behind the camera. I stepped off to the side. But we were always conferring with each other. Then what happens…when you’re introduced to people…it just gets a little too complicated. So I just said to Kevin, “Look, you’re the director, I’m the producer when we get introduced for this stuff. Let’s just make it simple.” So that’s what happened there.
JT: Reenactments are a point of almost certain controversy in documentaries. How did you come to decide to include reenactments, and then how to execute them?
KH: Originally I was dead set against them and Dan wanted them. Then we swapped positions. We went back-and-forth quite a bit. But we made a decision at some point that we would allow Bill Wilson to narrate as much of this story as possible The reason we did that was for all the lack of visual materials at first, there was always a very rich archival audio record that was left behind. Wilson had been taped speaking, probably over a hundred times. Once we made the decision to use as much of his archival audio as possible to let him tell his own story, we realized that we had a real challenge as to how we would carry the visuals. We tried to use archival material for that. But it just wasn’t working. Finally, we decided that we’d take a chance and go with these re-creations. But what we were really trying to do was just create almost moving paintings or pictures that would carry the story that Bill W. was telling… It really became a matter of “less is more” and we just tried to visualize the story that Bill W. was telling at any given point in the film.
JT: With all these different elements at play, how did you navigate how much of the film should focus on Bill Wilson, and how much should focus on AA and its legacy, and how much of it should be about the AA members and their stories?
KH: That’s a great question. I think early on, we both decided that we really wanted to focus the film on Bill Wilson. If for no other reason [than that] we’d never made a film before. I just thought it would be much easier to make a film about a particular person than about an organization… But if Bill Wilson left any legacy behind, it’s the people who are in AA that are getting and staying sober right now. So we also thought that we would have AA people commenting upon what it’s like to be an AA member, and that would be the best illustration of what Bill W. had done and what he left behind.
JT: With documentarians there’s often a discussion of “finding the film” and being open to where your subject takes you. How did Bill W. evolve as you were filming it?
DC: The story breaks into three acts just naturally, as you’re reading the history. There’s Bill’s childhood, his pre-teen years, that’s the first portion of it. Then there’s the period where he gets sober and AA starts. You’ve got this twenty-year period, roughly, where that occurs. Then the last part of it is the last fifteen years of his life… We always thought, “What are we going to cover after 1955? Because that’s the last fifteen years of his life…” The story that we had heard was that he got into Niacin. And how interesting is that? It turned out…the thing that surprised Kevin and me most [was] how much Bill Wilson wanted to have a life outside of AA, and how that became impossible for him to do. And the actions that he takes in the last fifteen years of his life to have some semblance of some life far away for himself. I would say that was the biggest surprise.
KH: I agree… We were really surprised to find out just how deep a sacrifice this man had made for AA. How much of his own personal life he gave up and sacrificed to make sure that AA would survive him. I also found myself really surprised at how brilliant a person he was. I didn’t know very much about him starting out. The way in which he was able to create this organization from nothing, and the kinds of problems and challenges he faced along the way, and how deftly he was able to just guide the whole thing, while at the same time, downplaying his own ego and not making himself a figurehead that everyone relied on so much that when we was gone AA would disappear too. He set himself a goal to create this fellowship that would survive him after he was gone. When you read in more detail about the kinds of challenges and problems he faced, it’s really remarkable what he was able to do.
JT: If Bill W. gets widely seen, what’s the ultimate impact you hope the film might have, either on the audience members who see it, or on American culture on a broader scale?
KH: The way that I’ve thought about it for many years now, this guy was, in my mind anyway…definitely one of the most important people of the twentieth century that most people don’t know anything about. I think his story really speaks for itself… I don’t know if it’ll have any impact on the broader culture. But AA has definitely had a huge impact on the broader culture, often in ways that people aren’t even aware of… I think Bill Wilson’s story is a fascinating story. I think it’s really something that should be told.
DC: Like almost everybody we met when we were making the film, we have family members who have suffered from some sort of addiction issue. Sometimes they were able to get well and sometimes they weren’t. Kevin and I said, pretty early on, “This may sound hokey, but if this film can help one person find sobriety, then it’s worth the effort…” I’m not a member of AA. I think I used to have the exact same misconceptions I think most people in society have about AA. There’s this mysterious wizard-behind-the-curtain notion that people have. It seems inaccessible and spooky. One of the greatest things about making this documentary…people in AA are really fantastic people. They’re incredibly generous with their time. They’re just very nice people… We thought if the film could bring down the barrier of understanding who this guy was behind this movement, it might help people. When I first started on the documentary, I liked Bill Wilson. When I [finished] the documentary, I loved the guy… You read what this guy wrote, and all the stuff he put up with and didn’t waver, really, in his commitment to helping his fellow man. He’s just a really great guy.
Filed under: LiC Interview