Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson’s life is explored in a new documentary. But the most interesting sections may involve what happened to Wilson after A.A. succeeded.
A man who thought of himself as just another recovering drunk was held up as an icon, to his great discomfort. A relatively obscure businessman was asked to share his insights with audiences in the thousands — and followers in the millions. A man who had helped people resist alcohol sought a new catharsis through LSD.
Using Wilson’s own words, from letters and a rich trove of audio recordings, Bill W. shows the good Wilson did in collaboration with Akron’s Dr. Bob Smith; inserted into the narrative of Wilson’s life are vignettes of alcoholics telling their stories of recovery. But it is also concerned with the complicated man trying to do those good deeds.
The film will be shown in Plaza Cinemas at Chapel Hill at 7:15 p.m. Monday as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival, with a reception preceding at 5:30 p.m. (You must have either a festival pass or a ticket to the Plaza show to attend the reception.) Filmmakers Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino, who spent eight years on the film and financed it themselves, will attend that screening as well as two others, at Tower City Cinemas in Cleveland, at 4:10 p.m. Tuesday and 11:45 a.m. Wednesday. Ticket information is available at www.cleveland film.org, by calling 877-304-3456 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has already been shown at a Texas film festival and to some small A.A. groups, Hanlon said in a recent telephone interview. “But this is really the first time it’s being shown on any kind of scale publicly. … We applied to several film festivals and when we were accepted into Cleveland, we obviously thought this would be a great place to launch it from in that it’s such a local story with Akron and Cleveland. … We’re very, very happy that this is where it’s going to get its first public exposure.”
And it includes a re-enactment of the historic first meeting between Smith and Wilson in 1935, shot at Stan Hywet Hall’s gatehouse, where the meeting took place.
“We had tried to shoot that scene in a location in New York, and it just didn’t work at all,” Hanlon said. “We contacted the people at Stan Hywet [and] I was so happy with the support and cooperation they gave us. As you know, the gatehouse is set up as a museum and they took everything out of the room where Bill and Bob met to let us shoot there. It was really wonderful. It made that scene a hundred times better than it had been when we shot on location in New York.”
The film was an eight-year effort by Hanlon and Carracino, friends since high school who had often talked about making a movie together. But the idea took on fresh form in 2003, when Carracino brought it up as Hanlon was reading Not God, Ernest Kurtz’s history of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I had seen a lot of alcoholism in my family,” said Hanlon. (Neither he nor Carracino is an A.A. member.) “Some had gotten sober through A.A., and some had not.”
But he and Carracino saw a great story to be told.
And it was a story that embraced more than A.A. Wilson, Hanlon said. While there are the familiar notes of Wilson’s business career, his hard drinking, and his financial struggles before and after A.A., the aftermath of A.A.’s success is not overlooked. Indeed, Hanlon said that within a decade of A.A.’s founding, Wilson felt he had done all he could for the organization. But he still had a lot of life ahead of him; he died in 1971. And as he helped others, he felt he was not progressing in his own spiritual journey.
But how to tell the story — especially a story of people who prized anonymity?
The filmmakers knew that they wanted to use Wilson’s words as much as possible, supplemented by interviews with people who knew Wilson or his story, and by the testimonials from alcoholics (who, to keep their own anonymity, are shown in shadow).
Still, the recordings of Wilson were audio only, and a movie needs pictures. So the movie draws on photographs of Wilson, including a cache Hanlon said had gotten mixed in with a collection of sports memorabilia; those were nearly destroyed until someone realized they were of Wilson.
The film also uses re-enactments of some of the moments in Wilson’s life, such as the Stan Hywet meeting, albeit re-enactments that are set apart visually from the other parts of the film.
“At first I didn’t want to have any re-creations, and Dan … thought we had to have them,” Hanlon said.
“Then we sort of reversed positions, and he didn’t want to have them and I thought we had to have them. … That audio, a lot of it is fairly rough. But when we started to put the film together, we needed something to carry what Bill’s archival audio was telling us, and we decided to go that way [toward re-enactments].”
A second device was to display excerpts from Wilson’s letters onscreen, framing the words in such a way that the audience could follow them. And there is the intercutting of the testimonials.
It works admirably well at portraying Wilson, presenting someone who was far more complicated than some tales have made him, someone who found a marvelous way to help others — but never stopped searching for more.
Hanlon said he and Carracino are exploring what to do with the film next. They won’t distribute it through A.A.; although the organization was very supportive during the making of the movie, Hanlon said that it traditionally has not gotten involved in the selling of projects made outside A.A.
“We are probably going to pursue some form of self-distribution,” Hanlon said. “We’re exploring the possibility of showing it in independent theaters, and … getting it on DVD.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels. ohio.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.