Interview: Jody Shapiro

Burts Buzz

First, second, third, max, third time you see it on the shelves, you have to wonder it. “Is that Burt guy from Burt’s Bees a real person?” The conductor capped, spaghetti bearded woodsman whose face adorns every little yellow package of Burt’s Bees product. Was this company really started by a hillbilly named Burt, or is he nothing more than a Ronald McDonald for the natural ingredients crowd?

Well, you’d be half right. Burt Shavitz is a real person, and his beard truly is that unkempt, but hillbilly would be an odd label for him. Reclusive, a little bit of a hermit, sure, but he doesn’t entirely shrug off society, he’d just rather not entirely embrace it. Burt, as it turns out, is a hard person to pin down, and to make things worse the once urban living civil rights photojournalist (I know) happens to be a little tight lipped.

Filmmaker Jody Shapiro didn’t go easy on himself by making Shavitz the subject of his film, Burt’s Buzz (opening this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox). Shapiro profiles how a human being becomes a mascot, and continues to live their really weird life thereon. I spoke with Shapiro about filming the man best known for being on a tube of lip balm.

Dork Shelf: Before this film was made, did you ever have moments looking at Burt’s Bees packaging and even considered if this was a real person or not?

"Burt's Buzz" Premiere - Arrivals - 2013 Toronto International Film FestivalJody Shapiro: Oh yeah, one-hundred percent. I remember when I was invited to go visit him, finding out that he was a real guy. I also still very very clearly remember seeing this tin, of the hand solve or lip balm, in the early 90s, my girlfriend had it at the time, and it stood out. This product stood out because of this guy’s mug on it.

DS: Did you know anything of his loss of control of the company going into this?

JS: I didn’t know anything about it at all, about the company. It was something that came up when I was talking to him, when I first met him. I realized there was a bit of a story with his departure from the company.

DS: So you met him before the making of this film?

JS: It’s a bit of an interesting story that evolves in an interesting way. I met him through Isabella Rossellini. [we laugh] I don’t know if you’ve heard of her Green Porno films? I worked with Isabella on those films. Isabella was actually commissioned, by the company Burt’s Bees, to do these Green Porno-esque type films where she would play the bee, and she would play Burt, and talk about the state of bees. It’s called Burt Talks to Bees. At the same time Isabella was working on an archive of works by her father, Roberto Rossellini. She was going on about the importance of archiving people’s stories. She took me to Burt, she was speaking to the company, and told them that I should sit down and speak with him.

Originally I was just going to sit down with Burt for a few days, spread it out if I wanted to, just to get him to tell his history with the company. I did that, gave them the raw material and forgot all about it. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t fascinated by him, he had these really interesting stories. I was thinking about him a lot. Then I heard he was doing this promotional tour of Taiwan, the documentary wheels started turning. I thought, what they’ve described of this rockstar treatment in Taiwan, compared to his home life, it could be an interesting way to show this contrast of what it means to be a man behind the logo.

DS: And that’s a contrast that the film hinges on, the odd fellow he is and the consumer’s image of him, built around him. The way others speak about him in the film makes him seem a little anti-social, how did you manage to get him to open up?

JS: It took a long time. First of all, I filmed with him over the course of a year. One of the things that I did when I decided to go ahead and make this film was that I had to go back up to his place, spend some time with him without a camera. I hung out, I had lots of conversations with him about what I wanted to do, how I wanted this to be Burt’s story, not Burt’s Bees story. How I wanted this to be his voice. I wanted this to feel like a fireside chat. Slowly over time these stories started coming out. At one point he surprised me. I went to visit him and he found, with 30 years worth of dust on it, this box filled with literally 200 photographs. Trevor, who you see in the film, his caretaker, he hadn’t seen these before. I’m flipping through it, and there’s the Malcolm X photo, there’s the JFK photo. He started warming up, but I really had to take my time.

DS: Trevor seemed to be a real guiding person, was he that to you as well?

JS: Trevor’s an interesting guy, he still remains a mystery to me. He lives on the property. He takes care of Burt. He sees some kind of kindred spirit in him. But he’s also very well educated, and he really helped me get to Burt. He speaks in Burtisms that only Burt understands. Trevor helped me translate.

DS: Were you surprised by what his estate looked like?

JS: Yeah. Obviously I had seen some pictures of the house and things like that, but when I got there, it’s really truly rustic. The land itself is beautiful, outside, especially during the summertime. But the estate is… hoarded, it was interesting to see. It all played into the contrast. When I realized he was going on this trip and all the things being set up for him, I knew there was this guy, who hasn’t washed a dish in seven years and yet he’s insisting to stay at the W Hotel. It was weird. All that sort of played with the idea of this man, this logo. I’m running off to another explanation for something, sorry about that, but I thought this was going to be a black and white story.

DS: Between him and the company?

JS: Between him and the icon, between who the man is and who the logo is. But I realized it’s actually a lot more grey.

DS: Did he seem like a willing participant in this consumer culture?

JS: Oh, he wants to sell. He wants to sell the product. There’s no question. He calls himself a salesperson. This is the thing about him that people don’t see. He’s as authentic as they come. He doesn’t hide anything, there’s no hidden story to him. He’s a true to himself personality. If he’s there, signing stuff or talking about the product, it’s because he put his hard work into that, he believes in it. It may not be the life that he wanted, but he did it, and if he really didn’t want it anymore he wouldn’t be doing it.

DS: He also seems to carry around a hermit mentality, especially as he shuffles around Taiwan.

JS: There’s no question, he’s a man for the land. He hates the big cities. He hates elevators. He hates air conditioning. He’s in Toronto right now, worried he’s missing the grass growing. He would much rather be at home watching the leaves change colour.

DS: Can’t that be mistaken for being anti-social?

JS: There’s no question that he’s a bit anti-social, but I think there’s something about this freedom. I know what the attraction is with camping, wanting to get away. Hopefully not have any email. But this has been a way of life for him. He had a great career as a photojournalist, he claims it was because he didn’t want to get stuck in the city, in an apartment. Something in him was triggered, and he didn’t look back.

DS: Were you surprised there was so much going on behind what most assume is nothing more than a beard and a funny hat?

JS: A hundred percent. Again, the first thing that he said to me is that he was an evolutionary, not a revolutionary. He never wanted to change the world, just live in it day by day. I start thinking about what he’s done, the people that he’s met and the things he had taken photos of, obviously the reach of his product, he actually has had an influence over the world. He doesn’t see it.

DS: It seemed to be the case in Taiwan especially, but do you find it interesting the way people respect, adore logos or consumer iconography?

JS: I’m amazed by the power of it, what people think of it. Like I said, I still remember that little tin can with his face on it. I felt a little star struck when I saw him, sitting in a rocking chair, petting his dog, wondering why he was there. It was Burt. I’ve seen Burt for years and years and years, seen people putting Burt on their lips. The Taiwan thing is out of control, I still don’t quite understand that. I know over there they call him ‘Grandpa Bee.’ There’s something about his look, his age, that they find respectful.

DS: In many ways this is still a film about advertisement, because a lot of what’s propelled him is the branding.

JS: It’s this weird thing you gotta play with, especially here. I wanted the marketing story to be part of it, obviously I had to go get access to that material. The marketing of an icon is a big part of it, is the part of it essentially. I’m fully convinced, and this is where Roxanne (Quimby) was a genius, that it was his image, and it was this backwoods approach at the time when these organic products were just coming out. If I had a chance to do a doc on Colonel Sanders I’d leap for it. I don’t really know how to explain this, I’ve been trying to figure out how to formulate this, but he’s kind of everything you’ve wanted him to be, but you’re still shocked that he is. You do want him to be this hermit backwoods guy, just with 17 beehives and old recipes and stirring stuff over a woodstove.

DS: The only omitted figure from the film was Roxanne, though you did have her son speaking a lot on her behalf. Could you not get a hold of her?

JS: No, I contacted her. She just declined to be in the film. I got the sense that she feels her job is done, she’s washed her hands. But it was her that suggested that her son be in the film, that’s how Lucas became involved. It was an interesting perspective, I liked the voice he lent to it.

DS: He didn’t seem to take sides.

JS: No, he didn’t. He had grown up with Burt. I really didn’t want this to become a he-said-she-said thing. I think everything with Burt is a grey, but he sees the truth as he sees the truth. This wasn’t an investigative report. The others balance it out nicely, but this is about Burt.

DS: Burt seemed to take this pretty personally, but the rest of the world seemed to take it as a business decision.

JS: Exactly, and I think that reflects to his concerns, or his regard of money and material possessions. I really don’t think the money meant anything to him. Lucas says it best, he just thinks it’s like chips, that he’s owed something. I don’t think Burt’s let his heart out to a lot of people, and that’s something he’s carried around. You saw his awkward hug at the end, you saw his attachment to his dog.

DS: Since making the film have you looked at marketing differently?

JS: Yeah. I now love the idea, especially when it’s humans being used as logos, the real stories behind it. Im’s also, as always, amazed by the power of marketing.