‘Burt’s Buzz’ Director Jody Shapiro On Burt Shavitz, Burt’s Bees [VIDEO EXCLUSIVE]
Documentary filmmaker Jody Shapiro found a prime subject in Burt Shavitz, the eccentric founder of cosmetics company Burt’s Bees. “I thought there was going to be Burt the corporate logo and corporate influence and then Burt the man,” Shapiro told uInterview exclusively. “I realized it is actually not black and white, it is a grey story. Burt is an ex-hippie, he is a live off the lander. He is a bit of a drop out. He does not have anything to do with technology and he is quite happy just sitting around doing nothing, but at the same time he is a salesman, he believes in the product.”
The focus of Shapiro’s documentary became more about the man than the product. “Well, he is a storyteller,” Shapiro said. “He does literally nothing but sit on his front porch and either as he likes to say, listen to the grass grow or tell stories, so I’ve realized while we were making the film that this was going to be Burt’s story, Burt’s story opposed to being Burt’s Bees story. I wanted it be in his voice. I wanted it to be at his pace. I wanted it to be you know in his universe.”
Burt’s Buzz is currently playing in theaters and is available online through Amazon VOD.
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I met Burt a few years ago, through the actress Isabella Rossellini. I worked with Isabella for a number of years. She was commissioned by the company to do these short films, called Burt Talks To The Bees, they wanted this little series of films for online about Colony Collapse Disorder about the state of bees today, and Isabella has a history of doing animal-related films called Green Porno. I don't know if you have seen them but they are these cute three-minute long films, you can just Google them, they are online. She plays insects, it is about the sex life of insects, so anyway Isabella was going to play Burt in these little films, and she wanted to meet him and get some information from him about what his theories on the issues surrounding bees were about. And I traveled with her and when we were there we met Burt and we talked with him and I was just taking away about this guy, this really fascinating type of character. When we were there, we talked about his life a little bit, he started talking about how he was this sort of evolutionary, not a revolutionary he was misguided and never wanted to change the world. I thought that was a very fascinating statement for someone to say very honestly, who has a big influence on the world not just through Burt's Bees the company, the product, but of his time as a photographer. In the late 60's he was a photographer for Time-Life magazine taking pictures of these great iconic photos of New York. There was just something unique about his philosophy as well of a way of living his life, I thought this is a rare individual that you find stayed completely true to himself, and I thought it would be interesting to find out more about him, because of that.
Well, he is a storyteller. He does literally nothing but sit on his front porch and either as he likes to say, listen to the grass grow or tell stories, so I've realized while we were making the film that this was going to be Burt's story, Burt's story opposed to being Burt's Bees story. I wanted it be in his voice. I wanted it to be at his pace. I wanted it to be you know in his universe. Taking that approach of course meant we have to do it in his time you know, so I traveled back and forth to Maine over the course of a year, maybe four or five times. A lot of that was just putting a camera on a tripod and just sitting and having hours and hours of conversations with Burt. I think when you are exploring someone's life, you want to stay true to who they are, that you realize the differences between yourself and them. I guess as a filmmaker, you try to get that side of it to come out and it takes patience, because you need to let the other person be who that person is.
Well, I guess the first thing i learned about Burt that surprised me the most is that he actually is a real person. I remember when the call came to go on the trip with Isabella that she was meeting Burt of 'Burt's Bees.' I remember thinking is that guy real. I clearly knew who she was talking about, I remember for some odd reason seeing his logo on that little tin can at one point. It was such a influential image for that type of product. That was a big surprise, then I thought how often do we get to pull the layers off the face, off this logo to reveal the person behind it. I thought it was going to be a very black-and-white story. I thought there was going to be Burt the corporate logo and corporate influence and then Burt the man. I realized it is actually not black and white, it is a grey story. Burt is an ex-hippie, he is a live off the lander. He is a bit of a drop out. He does not have anything to do with technology and he is quite happy just sitting around doing nothing, but at the same time he is a salesman, he believes in the product. He wants it to do well, he wants to make a living from it. It is a man filled with contrast, but at the very root of it, it is a man that stays very true to himself and that is what I thought was very surprising.
No, not at all, he sometimes had good days and bad days, like anybody. He was 77 at the time, so he was getting old. He was very happy to talk about his past and very happy to talk about photography. There was parts of his relationship with his ex-partner, his ex-business partner, Roxanne that he found difficult to talk about and I think some of that came from a emotionally wounded guy. Somebody that you can see when you watch the film that has more of an attachment to his dogs than humans, he has a very strange relationship with people. So getting him to go to those areas were tough, but yet again we spent our time and he realized why he was telling a story and why he wanted people to hear this stuff, so we just did it in a way that made him feel comfortable.
Burt was selling honey, by the side of the road about over 30 years ago, he was making $34 a month, living a very happy life that is all he needed was that $34 a month. One day there was a woman hitchhiking, her name was Roxanne Q. Bee, and as the story goes, Burt picks her up. She was living in a tent with her two children, and she had asked him what he was doing with his wax from the hives that he had. Burt said well, I'm just storing it for a rainy day, and she said, why don't we make wax candles with it and start selling it at craft fairs. So they started doing that and finding other uses. Burt had an old book of recipes that you could use for honey bee wax. He started selling that and literally within thirty years, Roxanne and Burt built a company from essentially $34 a day to close to a billion dollar company. It is a remarkable story, but as much as Burt loved it it was something that he didn't really see as a big part of his life in the business sense. He was an outdoors man. He wasn't a guy stuck in factories and I think during that process and during the time when the company got there, it was something he did not want and that cause Roxanne and Burt to grow apart. Her and Burt came to a conclusion, this is what we go in to in the film, that Burt should no longer be in the company and essentially one of the interesting aspects of it is, is when the company sold for the amount, Burt did not get any of the money, because he was out of the company when the sale happened. It is a bit of a sore spot, but interestingly enough, this is what we cover it in the film the sore part is not necessary, because of the money, which is a potential loss of Burt for hundreds of millions of dollars, because money really doesn't mean anything to him. You will understand that when you see the film, it is more, because I feel he is owed something in his participation in the company and I think it is an emotional loss as well.
Well, that is an interesting one! It is funny someone else asked me that and I went on this long answer, and Burt said whatever they want and I'm like can that be my answer. It is very rare like, I said to find an individual who is true to themselves, an authentic type of character. Burt does what Burt does. If Burt wants to move, Burt moves. If Burt wants to sell product and make a million dollars, Burt will do that. If Burt wants to give up all of his belongings and a TV he gave up 20 years ago or whatever, Burt will do that. I think it is really interesting to see how that type of personality relates in the corporate world and stay true to themselves and be part of a bigger world, but still remain that way in themselves.