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Bill W: The First Intimate Documentary

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A moving picture of Bill Wilson photo via

By Heather King

05/16/12

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And when he takes his first drink: “The whole face of the universe instantly changed.” That is an experience dear to the heart of the alcoholic: that instant, and unfortunately fake, sense of being at one, at last, with the universe.

Kevin: Suddenly he’s the center of attention, he loses all his inhibitions.

You have tapes, home movies, photos: How did you go about gathering all this archival material?

Dan: When Kevin first came to me and said, “Why don’t we do a film on AA and Bill Wilson?” I said, “It’s never been done?” And a year or two in, when we didn’t have a single photograph, we said, “Now we know why it’s never been done. It’s an anonymous society!”

We decided to make the film in 2003 and we’ve been working at it full time ever since. It wasn’t till about 2005, 2006, that we began to find some stuff. We got very fortunate. So many of the black-and-white photographs of him shopping at the store, at picnics, talking at AA conventions, those are unique. We found a trove of photographs that had been sold at an estate sale. A guy who was a sports collector bought many lots of sports photographs that had, as it turned out, a bunch of AA stuff mixed in. He had been to some 12-step meeting, saw the name “Wilson” on one of the sleeves for the negatives and he started selling some negatives of Bill W. on eBay. We were pretty much able to buy everything he had.

Kevin: By the way, this guy was about to trash the stuff. The whole collection was nearly lost.

Dan: The audio [Bill W. narrates a significant portion of the film] was pretty easy to find. You can find a Bill Wilson talk from any number of places. Bill was taped over 100 times, mostly in the ’50s. There are also recordings of other people involved in AA’s early years. We have an audio recording of Nell [Wing, personal secretary to Bill and, later, to Lois] that blends perfectly with pictures we found of her with Bill and Lois up at Stepping Stones [Bill and Lois’s home in upstate New York].

What's so countercultural about AA is that it teaches us not to hide our vulnerabilities.

As far as the archival films go, we always wanted to find the original, in order to get the best possible image. In looking for some of that, we also found stuff that hasn’t been seen in decades. We were in touch with Ruth Hock’s daughter [Hock was the first secretary of AA and typed up the Big Book], and she dug up a home movie from the late ’40s that shows Bill and Lois visiting Ruth.

In the 1940s, Time magazine made “March of Time” newsreels similar to what 60 Minutes would do today and play them before feature films in movie theaters. In 1946 they did a 15-minute piece on AA. So we found that footage, and it shows people at AA headquarters putting pins on a map of the United States where meetings had sprung up, letters asking for help pouring in, that kind of thing.

How did you come to have Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s “Cello Suites” on the soundtrack?

Dan: We have our editor, Patrick Gambuti, Jr., to thank for that. It was his idea, this thread of music in Bill’s life. For instance, Bill played the cello, in part to relieve his depression. A woman we interviewed, who met Bill W., pointed out that when you hold a cello to your chest, there’s a vibration.

Kevin: She said in later years that he and Lois invited her and her sister up to Stepping Stones for lunch, and afterward Bill brought his cello outside and was sitting on the lawn playing it. And she said, “Have you ever sat near a cello when it’s being played? The vibrations will fill your chest cavity.” She also said, “I just had such a sense of Bill’s isolation as he was sitting outside on the lawn playing and I felt sure that his playing the cello helped ease that sense of isolation.”

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Bill is in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, tentatively sober, starting to think about a drink. And he suddenly realizes, “I need another alcoholic.” That was so much at the heart of the film, this mystery that out of the terrible suffering of alcoholism can arise compassion and the ability to help someone else. You don’t have to be an alcoholic for that to resonate.

Kevin: It seems to me that alcoholics don’t have a single flaw or emotion or difficulty that non-alcoholics don’t also have. But there is something about alcoholism that seems to make people experience these things at more depth, or more intensely, and causes them to seek a solution in a way that other people may not have to. What’s at the heart of the film for me is when Bill White or Ernie Kurtz talk about the spirituality of imperfection. The thing that makes all of us human is our imperfections and our vulnerabilities.

And that’s the good news! We spend our whole lives trying to excise our vulnerabilities.

Kevin: That’s what’s so countercultural about AA. We’re taught to hide that stuff and it turns out the opposite is true.

Bill gets sober, and then he continues to struggle, to suffer loneliness, persecution and imperfection. He also has this longstanding relationship with Helen W., a woman who becomes the editor of "The Grapevine" in the ’50s and is also involved with the LSD experiments with Bill in the ’60s.

Dan: There’s a deep and meaningful relationship between them.

There are rumors that Bill was a womanizer.

Kevin: We pored over decades of correspondence by, from and about him, and we found no evidence of any such thing.

Dan: One of the things Ernest Kurtz pointed out is that everyone has a problem. Alcoholics know their problem. As Bill said, in talking about why AA would survive, “It’s not because we’re a better people—but because we’re a weaker people.”

Go to billw.com to see the Bill W. trailer, check show times and find out more about the film.

Heather King is the author of three memoirs; the first, Parched, was selected by The Fix as one of its Top 10 Addiction Memoirs. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at shirtofflame.blogspot.com.

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