In his documentary “Burt’s Buzz,” Jody Shapiro tells the story of the man behind the Burt’s Bees label, Burt Shavitz. Shavitz’s story is amazing. After growing up in a middle class family in New York, Burt grew a beard and took to the land in middle age. In Maine, he took up beekeeping and sold honey in gallon containers by the side of the road. After a bit, he met a young woman. They fell in love and developed a brand of personal care products that prided themselves on using ingredients from the earth, and they took the Maine craft fair circuit by storm. After scaling up to a few retail stores in quaint small cities, Burt was bought out of the business and his partner eventually sold it for millions of dollars. Now, he’s just a spokesperson. While many in America don’t know that the man behind the beard is a real person, he’s got a huge fan base in Taiwan, and the film shows his fans waiting in long lines for a picture and autograph.
The film had its world premiere in the TIFF Docs section at The Toronto International Film Festival, where it was snatched up by FilmBuff. We had the chance to sit down with Shapiro to talk about his experience with the film and what drew him to the story.
There’s a lot of things that this film does. It shows a few different versions of the world according to Burt — it shows Burt’s world, it shows a very corporate world, it shows a very bizarre situation in Taiwan, which you get Burt’s perspective of…How does the access come about and why did you decide to tell Burt’s story this way?
It was an evolution how the whole thing came about. I originally met Burt through Isabella Rosellini. And I worked with Isabella for a long time. I’ve co-directed and produced her Green Porno films. And Isabela had been commissioned by Burt’s Bees. She was being commissioned to do these Green Porno-esque films and talk about Colony Collapse Disorder and other things like that. Isabella — the way she researches — she thinks about projects and wants to play these crazy characters. She thought she might want to meet him, so she brought me along. At the same time, Isabella was working on her father’s anthology — Roberto Rosselini’s anthology — and she was talking about the importance of archiving people’s stories and stuff. She had mentioned to Burt’s Bees that someone should document Burt’s story. And she recommended me.
So I went up there with a camera, and I thought I’d just go there and get him to talk about the company and his role in it. Stuff like that. Knowing who he was, of course, but knowing what kind of person he was. And so I shot some stuff really fast while I was there. It was just some raw material that I took and sent back.
Something just kept on nagging me. He was just a fascinating character. There’s a story here. What’s the story? What’s the story? Then I found out he was doing this tour in Taiwan, and it kind of clicked with me. That could be an idea to show the contrast of what it means to be a man and what it means to be an icon. I realized — because I’ve taken pictures of tourism in the past — I realized that there were these two different world. He was a rock star when he traveled over there —
So you had seen what happens when he goes to Taiwan?
I had seen some photos from a few years back, and I thought “Bingo!” this might be the way to tell the story. And so, like any interesting documentary, I think you need three things: a great character, access, and full creative control, so I basically explained my idea, and went off on my own. I went and got access to Burt. Obviously, I wanted the marketing story to be a part of this story. But it was completely my film. I got to do whatever I wanted with him, and it was just a great opportunity.
You had seen the documentation of his previous trips to Taiwan. You understand Burt by seeing him interact with the people around him in your film, though. There was no way for you to know how rich those people would be. Do you want to talk about those other people?
First and foremost, it is Burt’s story, not Burt’s Bees’ story. He sometimes talks so poetically that I really wanted the story to be in his voice. I wanted it to be a fireside chat or something like that. I wanted him to be the narrator. But there are these other people that buzz around him — almost like he’s the queen bee, right? I thought they would be interesting characters to play just to show that his whole life he’s had other people to do things for him. Whether it’s like that with Trevor on the land, and I’m sure it was like that when he built the company with Roxanne. And he’s got all these handlers, especially in Taiwan. I kind of wanted them as worker bees, let’s say (I’ll try not to come up with many more bee analogies here, I’m sorry!) But that’s kind of what it became…The most important thing to me was to keep the focus on Burt.
For me, it’s fascinating to see him respond to other people. The juxtaposition between Burt and Trevor — with his big SUV — is really telling.
In all of these situations Burt is still Burt, and that was one of the things that I wanted to get across and was attracted to. He’s a completely authentic character. Whether he’s with Trevor or a handler, he’s going to be completely himself. He’s one of those people, very hard to find these days, who are true to themselves. He’s not ashamed to say what’s on his mind. He doesn’t care. Yes, he looks like a hippy living on the land, but he’s not afraid to admit that he’s a capitalist and wants to make money. He believes in the product. He wants to help sell it. I just like that all of these people are doing their things, but Burt is still Burt.
You came at the project from a very pragmatic way originally. Is there something about the way that people imagine him that inspired you to tell this story?
When I was making this film and mentioning it to people, half of the people didn’t even think he was a real person. I remember that first tin of lip balm that had his face on it from the early 90’s. So I was star struck. He kind of doesn’t have this awareness of his influence was the first thing that stuck out. This guy is a part of a much bigger world, and he doesn’t really realize it. He’s happy in this little space. I thought there had to be a story here.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Burt’s Bees as a huge corporation whose “organic ideals” are compromised. Whether or not that’s the case, is there anything about representing corporations that was important or interesting to you?
I didn’t really want to get into that story. I felt like it was more Burt’s world. What he thought of everything that was going on. What I really wanted to talk about was this idea of materialism, people’s perception of money and wealth. Again, the big thing for me was this idea of an icon. How is an icon represented and sold to people? I thought this was going to be a black and white story. I thought this was going to be about Burt the Man and Burt the Icon. It’s a grey area. In some ways, he’s everything you’d want him to be, but on the other hand, he’s not what you expect. He’s a man full of contrasts. But there’s no explanation to these contrasts except for who he is. This is someone who hasn’t changed his bed sheets in seven years, but he insists on staying in the W hotel when he travels. Why? I don’t know. Because someone told him to do that one day? Possibly… Because he read it somewhere? Because he just can? Because someone else negotiated the deal? The company stuff, i didn’t feel like that was really a part of the story.
I think that people really care about him. There’s no question that he’s an important part of the brand. There’s no question that he’s respected. The marketing part was really interesting, how it started and how he’s being used.
There are certain things that Burt does, and you don’t understand them. Part of you wants to know, but you know there’s no good answer. Did you feel the need to ask him why he did certain things?
Absolutely! Yesterday at the Q&A, someone asked “Why do you still work for Burt’s Bees and do this stuff?” And he said, “Because they pay me.” It’s that simple.
That’s the thing with Burt. There’s obviously still a little bit of the drama with Roxanne, and with the company being sold. It’s more a personal story. It’s about the money. But it’s also about feeling like he lost something, both the product and this relationship that he seemed to value.
What you see is what you get with Burt. I think he’s a very deep person, and everything that he says is deep. Because some of this stuff is blatantly obvious, there’s no story there. It would be manufacturing something if I asked. It wouldn’t be true to him. I think he feels he’s fairly well-represented on the screen. (He’s seen it a number of times, and always talks about the framing for some reason.)
Sometimes you want to dig in and ask more, but he gave you everything up front the first time. If he wants to stay at a four star hotel, then stay at a four star hotel.
You chose not to explore the machinations that made him such an icon in Taiwan. What’s behind that choice?
It’s just good marketing. There’s no question. I don’t know enough about Taiwanese culture to comment. I know they refer to him as Grandpa Bee over there. There’s something about his look, and his organic nature and aesthetic that really appeals to people. It was really surprising how crazy they were for him.
Burt’s so different when he’s at home in Maine. We see him at home, and his way of life is almost political, dogmatic, for him. Is this film a commentary on America to you?
There’s a bunch of different stories here, there’s an American dream story here: from $38 a month selling honey by the side of the road, sleeping in a barn (he still sleeps in a barn basically), to twenty-five to thirty years later, a billion dollar company. Again, on the other side of the story, when was the last time you heard someone say: I don’t need the money, I’ve got my land and that’s all I need. And he means it.