THE FACE

JILL ROW­BOTHAM meets PETER BUTT FILM­MAKER

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

CHANCES are Peter Butt’s new film will be com­pul­sive view­ing, not just be­cause it tack­les a larger- than- life Aus­tralian, Harold Holt, who drowned off Che­viot Beach near Vic­to­ria’s Port­sea in De­cem­ber 1967. The other rea­son is be­cause Butt’s al­ready good rep­u­ta­tion is build­ing.

His Who Killed Dr Bogle and Mrs Chan­dler? was shown on the ABC in Septem­ber 2006 and be­came the high­est rat­ing doc­u­men­tary the pub­lic broad­caster had screened, with an au­di­ence of 1.78 mil­lion in the cities.

It re­vealed his the­ory about what had been pre­sumed a no­to­ri­ous dou­ble mur­der com­mit­ted on New Year’s morn­ing in 1963. He pro­posed that the cou­ple died ac­ci­den­tally dur­ing a tryst be­side Syd­ney’s Lane Cove River, where toxic gas was pe­ri­od­i­cally emit­ted from the riverbed. It was the first fresh take on the tragedy in decades.

The film won the 2006 Lo­gie for most out­stand­ing doc­u­men­tary.

Butt is cagey about his new of­fer­ing, an­other col­lab­o­ra­tion with Film Aus­tralia and the ABC, sched­uled to screen in the sec­ond half of next year. How­ever, he is happy to clar­ify one point: the prime min­is­ter cer­tainly died off Port­sea, just as his­tory records. There will be no al­ter­na­tive end­ing to the Holt saga.

Given the wild suc­cess of the Bogle and Chan­dler doc­u­men­tary, Butt ad­mits ex­pec­ta­tions may be high, but notes: ‘‘ You do not make a film think­ing about rat­ings; you make a film you want to be cred­i­ble. I’m al­ways look­ing for true sto­ries that take me places no one has been be­fore. I’m not in­ter­ested in re­hash­ing his­tory; my in­ter­est is in in­ves­ti­gat­ing a well- known story and look­ing be­yond what we know.’’ That’s it for clues on the Holt doc­u­men­tary. Butt, 53, knew early on he wasn’t cut out to work nine to five, or for an em­ployer, or at least not for any length of time. Nat­u­rally there have been some salaried po­si­tions, but he al­ways wanted his own busi­ness.

‘‘ Hav­ing a record­ing stu­dio was my big dream,’’ he says. When the chance came in 1977, he leased an old film stu­dio in Surry Hills where he made sound­tracks for movies.

‘‘ I thought I would keep it go­ing for three months and then switch to mu­sic, but within three months I had taken out a cam­era and was mak­ing films,’’ he says.

Ris­ing stars such as Peter Weir were com­ing through the stu­dio and Butt re­mem­bers see­ing the rushes for The Last Wave in 1977.

‘‘ It took me a few years to find the ‘ real’ first film,’’ Butt says of his own early work. He was learn­ing how to use a cam­era, to work with 16mm film, and ‘‘ de­vel­op­ing the in­stinct for a story’’. In 1979 he re­leased No Such a Place , about the demise of a shale- oil min­ing town west of Lith­gow, NSW, called Glen Davis. ‘‘ I had been there as a school­boy with friends. It had a big oil re­fin­ery.’’ When he found out the min­ers had gone on strike un­der­ground for a month as they fought to save their jobs, he knew he had a story.

When Weir’s Gal­lipoli opened in 1981, Butt’s film was cho­sen as the short film to pre­cede it. ‘‘ I have al­ways been in­volved in a film from that time on,’’ he says.

Al­though he has worked on other things, such as the ABC’s A Big Coun­try — ‘‘ I learned how to find a good story and good tal­ent’’— through­out there has been steady stream of his own projects.

‘‘ I could not work within the sys­tem, I just had to find things they would agree to,’’ Butt says.

In­de­pen­dence is a pow­er­ful theme in his life. ‘‘ I think as a kid a lot of things hap­pened in my own head. I didn’t have sib­lings who were close in age, it was mostly my own thoughts. I just didn’t feel like I fit­ted in.’’ Ditto for the con­ven­tional work­force. ‘‘ I wasn’t ready to con­form to the hours and the struc­tures, and I was rail­ing against that ‘ job for life’ thing. I wanted a new job ev­ery day.’’ He learned that while money didn’t have to come from a pay cheque, it was hard to come by and shouldn’t be squan­dered. Hence, at 21 he bought his first house, for $ 21,000, in Syd­ney’s in­ner west, not far from where he lives now.

Some­where in the midst of all this lev­el­head­ed­ness and dis­ci­pline, cre­ativ­ity bloomed. And, of course, with hours spent re­search­ing, writ­ing and edit­ing, it helped to be con­tent with his own com­pany.

Al­though Butt adds that doc­u­men­tary- mak­ing is a col­lab­o­ra­tive process, ‘‘ one of its joys is work­ing with large and tal­ented teams’’. An­other part is the nec­es­sary ob­ses­sion with find­ing and de­vel­op­ing good ideas.

Be­cause he runs his own sched­ules, al­beit pun­ish­ing ones, there is room for re­mark­able en­coun­ters. One of th­ese was with Ge­of­frey Chan­dler, wi­d­ower of Mar­garet, who agreed to meet and talk about an as­pect of Gil­bert Bogle, un­re­lated to his death, in which Butt was in­ter­ested at the time.

‘‘ We met in a cafe and he said he would give me an hour. He stayed four days and we got on like a house on fire.’’

Even­tu­ally they talked about Mar­garet. They de­vel­oped a trust­ing re­la­tion­ship that led to a re­mark­able piece of work.

Butt is painstak­ing and dogged, seem­ing to lack an artis­tic tem­per­a­ment, but pow­er­fully en­er­getic and madly in love with ev­ery as­pect of mak­ing films, from con­cep­tion to the fi­nal edit.

‘‘ By go­ing into all those as­pects I could have more con­trol and have much more fun,’’ he says. ‘‘ There is so much serendip­ity in­volved in film, par­tic­u­larly in the edit room. You make a mis­take but that mis­take works: it’s like plas­ticine in your hands and you don’t know what the shape is go­ing to be.’’ He has never been tempted by fea­ture film. ‘‘ I just do not have the head for pure fiction,’’ Butt says. ‘‘ I love dig­ging.’’

Ex­ca­vat­ing the rid­dle of Holt was a wor­thy chal­lenge and Butt’s re­cent suc­cess had given him ex­tra con­fi­dence.

‘‘ Af­ter Bogle and Chan­dler I felt we had touched a nerve with the pub­lic. I thought, ‘ We want to hear our own sto­ries.’ ’’ As he dug into Holt’s char­ac­ter, he thought, ‘‘ Here’s a story.’’

Stay tuned.

Pic­ture: Lisa Wil­liams

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