An amiable Butler talks about home, heritage and work
The weather in the Antarctic is highly unpredictable. Having gone on shore at 2 O'clock in the afternoon, a film crew found themselves in the midst of 85-mile per hour hurricane-force winds only two hours later. Unable to get back to the ship, they were stranded and spent the night on the icy terrain.
It was an instance of art imitating life – or the other way around. The crew was at the end of the world doing location photography for a film about the famed explorer Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton's experience, however, was a little more intense. He was stranded with a crew of 21 men when his ship, the Endurance, got trapped in the ice. That was merely the beginning of a nearly two-year long odyssey of survival.
Luck O' the Irish
George Butler, the film's director, lucked out that day. He was working on a complementary IMAX project at the time and wasn't with that particular film crew on that particular day.
"I actually spent a very luxurious night on board the ship," Butler said wryly. "We had a very good wine with dinner that night."
Aside from that one incident, things worked out well for the crew, and the allure of the Antarctic didn't bestow the same punishment as it did on Shackleton.
"It's the most beautiful place I've been," Butler said. "Shackleton and his men were confronting great danger in a place of great beauty."
Great Risks, Great Rewards
Butler's efforts all those thousands of miles away have paid off handsomely. The National Board of Review has named his feature-length documentary, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, the Best Documentary of 2001. That follows on the heels of numerous other accolades garnered from the documentary's travels along the film festival circuit, including winning the award for Best Historical Documentary at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival.
Butler isn't holding his breath for an Oscar just yet, though. Pointing out other well-known documentaries such as Hoop Dreams and Roger & Me, which were overlooked for cinema's grand prize, Butler notes that, unlike the Best Picture category, the Academy Awards seem to pick the most obscure movies for Best Documentary.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
A relaxed, approachable man, Butler jokingly says of his heritage he's half American, half Irish, and half English. Born to an American mother and Anglo-Irish father, Butler added, "Since I was conceived and raised in Africa, that also makes me a sort of Afro-American too."
Butler also speaks fondly of his farm in New Hampshire. It's the heart of his family. Reports of 33 wild turkeys in the apple orchard in the morning brought an easy smile across his face.
Shackleton might not have felt so comfortable on that farm. At home more on a far-flung journey than while taking care of domestic matters, Shackleton was an ambitious man that embodied his Irish family's motto, "By endurance we conquer."
The Beginning of Another Adventure
Butler's tracing of Shackleton's footsteps began on a whim. He gave his friend Caroline Alexander a book on Shackleton. Inspired by what she read, Alexander wrote Mrs. Chippy's Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton's Polar-Bound Cat, a playful account of the Endurance during its fateful voyage as told by the ship's cat.
In searching for illustrations to add to her book, Alexander rediscovered Frank Hurley's original photographs buried in the recesses of the Royal Geographical Society in London.
Those photos then became the basis for an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibit is now traveling around the country.
"Every step of the way, I said I wanted to make the films," Butler said of the circle that brought him into the documentary.
An Expensive Proposition
Looking for support, Butler approached WGBH in Boston, which took the bait and proposed to send him and his crew to Antarctica on a 60-foot sailboat. Butler had to explain the logistical challenges for such a vessel and why it couldn't be done that way. Not only were the distances too great, but ice, naturally, would also be a factor.
In search of additional funds to make the magic happen, Butler approached Morgan Stanley. "They did something they've never done before," Butler said. "They backed an independent film." From a certain point of view, Butler thus created a new way of making movies: By getting corporate sponsorship.
Even though the project was to create a documentary and didn't involve special effects, this was not a cheap undertaking.
"We had to shoot in what is probably the most remote location in the history of the movies, the Antarctic," Butler commented. And, unlike the Endurance's crew of 22, Butler found himself at the bottom of the world with 100 men, two ships, and a helicopter. Making the documentary would also entail three separate trips to the Antarctic, spending a total of four months in the deep cold.
The funds amounted to $7 million raised by Butler through his own efforts plus an additional $5 million raised by PBS. The rest is history in more ways than one.
"I was very determined to shoot these films in the exact locations Shackleton was in," Butler said, "and I think it's the biggest asset of the project."
Quality, Not Quantity
Having directed the now legendary documentary Pumping Iron in 1977, Butler followed that with Pumping Iron II: The Women in 1985. His next documentary was 1990"s In the Blood and now, 11 years later, The Endurance.
"I find that it always takes five years at least to make a movie," Butler said of the time lag between projects. Also, movies aren't his only line of work; he's also taken around 100,000 photographs commercially and has published five books.
"And I've also, I will be very quick to admit, had a number of projects that just didn't happen," Butler added. Having spent a lot of time on a project, there are occasions when you find yourself high and dry and you have to start over.
He's trying to make up for that low production rate with five films in one year, all related to Shackleton and his Endurance expedition. There is the new feature-length theatrical version, an IMAX companion piece (Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure), a two-hour European TV edition (which won two awards in England), a totally different TV movie for PBS in the States, and an additional "Making of" film for PBS. Unfortunately, some creative differences have tied up the PBS projects.
"The good news is The Endurance has it all. That's the movie I'm most proud of," Butler said.
The Shackleton Allure
With 31 books on Shackleton currently in print, the enduring appeal of the Endurance's story lies in the bare essentials of storytelling and the human spirit. In contrast, the ill-fated climb of Mount Everest recounted in Into Thin Air and its IMAX companion, Everest, don't hold the same resonance.
Butler noted, "Shackleton's men wrote in their journals better stuff than came back from Mount Everest in 1996. And additionally, Frank Hurley took photos that are better than anything that came back (from Everest)."
The bottom line is, even with all the advances in technology and digital photography, it's still the human effort and human story that make solid filmmaking. It simply cannot be said that better movies are being made because of all the new technology, and that's a concept Hollywood is facing in its attempts to film Shackleton's adventure.
There are now two high-profile productions currently in the works that are attempting to tell the tale of Shackleton's exploits. There's a $40 million TV mini-series starring Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet) coming in June 2002 on A&E. For the big screen, Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm) is at the helm of a $150 million edition starring Russell Crowe as Shackleton.
Butler stands firm that The Endurance will compete at the highest level with those films.
"It's such a good story, but it's a very difficult story to tell," Butler asserted.
There is also some dismay over all the tricks Hollywood is trying to pull in its attempts to tell the tale. In efforts to make things politically correct, screenplays have circulated with storylines that avoid killing the expedition's team of dogs and some even try to get women on the ships. It'll be a challenge to get around the truth, no punches pulled.
"They're going crazy trying to figure out how to make this," Butler said. "The Endurance, I believe, will be the classic film on Shackleton. I don't think there's too much question about it."
Without airs of bragging, Butler explained simply, "Unless someone goes to the Antarctic and shoots where we shot, they're going to have a tough time topping it." (Branagh's incarnation, for one, was shot in Greenland, avoiding the harsher elements of the true location.)
As for the future, Butler has signed on to do an IMAX film for NASA's trip to Mars. While he did go to the Antarctic, he won't be making the trek to Mars personally. NASA is going to send IMAX-quality cameras to Mars and Butler will work with what is sent back.
And Butler's still not done with Shackleton. He's going back next year to film a new documentary on the quest to retrieve Hurley's lost photographs and to find the remains of the Endurance.
Spearheading the expedition, sponsored by National Geographic, will be Bob Ballard, the man who found the Titanic.
For more information on The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition and its release schedule, visit EnduranceTheMovie.com.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.