JILL ROWBOTHAM meets PETER BUTT FILMMAKER
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.’’