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Bill W: The First Intimate Documentary

The AA co-founder had to wait 40 years after his death for an up-close and personal documentary, complete with a never-before-seen archival trove. The filmmakers explain what took so long.

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A moving picture of Bill Wilson photo via

By Heather King

05/16/12

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In 1999, AA co-founder Bill Wilson was listed by Time magazine in its “100 Persons of the Century” issue. Amazingly, however, we have very little on film about his life and work. There are two Hallmark productions: 1989’s My Name Is Bill W., which tells his story, and 2010’s When Love Is Not Enough, which tells the story of his wife, Lois Wilson, a co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups. There’s a 1946 “March of Time” newsreel, with photos or footage of AA’s offices but not of the man himself.

Enter producer Dan Carracino and director Kevin Hanlon (both of Page 124 Productions) who, way back in 2003, became fascinated both by Bill’s story and by the phenomenon of AA. Almost a decade in the making, their documentary, Bill W., opens Friday in a host of theaters in New York City, New Jersey, Orange County and Los Angeles.

Neither of you are alcoholics. Why Bill Wilson?

Kevin Hanlon: Dan and I have been friends since high school and always wanted to make a film together. About eight years ago we got serious about it and at that time I just happened to be reading Ernest Kurtz’s book about AA history, Not-God. I found it to be a page-turner—from the first scene where Kurtz describes Bill W. and Ebby [Thacher, an old drinking buddy of Bill’s and, by some accounts, his eventual sponsor] sitting at the kitchen table in front of a bottle of gin, I wanted to know who this guy was and what happened.

Here’s a man who was on the precipice of destruction, of death, and found a way out that no one else had been able to find before. As we got talking about it, and we found that no one had ever made a documentary about Bill Wilson, we thought it would be a great subject. We both feel this is one of the most important people of the 20th century.

Dan Carracino: So much is hanging in the balance that afternoon [in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron where, on May 12, 1935, Bill made the fateful phone call that led him to Dr. Bob]. Now, maybe he finds sobriety somewhere else, but he probably doesn’t find Dr. Bob. The entire history of alcoholism and its treatment changes that afternoon.

Kevin: I’m not an alcoholic, but there’s been an awful lot of alcoholism in my family. So it’s not just an academic interest. How many families would have been destroyed, how many children wouldn’t have been born, how many people would have died if this hadn’t happened? The thing about Bill Wilson was that he didn’t have AA in front of him. He was the person who had to map all of that out. He was the only person who could never become just a run-of-the-mill member of AA. He couldn’t get the full anonymous benefit, or gift, of it.

Bill W. sacrificed his personal wants and needs far more than most people in AA are aware of.

Dan: We interviewed almost 70 people for the film and I think less than 20 make it into the film. One who does is Bill White, who wrote Slaying the Dragon. He knows a lot about the history of recovery. AA is not the first society where two drunks sit down and talk to each other and stay sober. There’s a whole bunch of societies that pop up from about 1840 on, but no one can ever keep it together long term. A lot of these societies become cults of personality, and the second the founders die, these groups die.

And what Wilson was able to do is to recognize his own shortcomings—and that there’s nothing unique about them, as odd as that sounds. I think the guy is a unique individual, but he knows how very human he is. And he’s able to codify his own flaws so that other people will recognize them within themselves, and then we get the 12 Traditions [in addition to AA’s famous 12 Steps], which truly allow AA to survive beyond him. There’s nothing like it before him, where you get an articulation of not only how to find sobriety, but how to stay together—and then, with the 12 Concepts, how to keep an organization from collapsing from within.

So many people, for instance, don’t get AA’s corporate poverty notion. They decline outside contributions—if you try to give them a million dollars, they won’t take it. And that’s all Bill Wilson.

And the complete lack of public relations policy. I love that these two guys who look like vacuum-cleaner salesmen founded what is the most radical organization of our time, in part because it’s completely free.

Kevin: Bill was also a deceptively brilliant writer. At first glance you think, “My God, I wouldn’t give this to a five-year-old.” It’s so simplistic. But when you read it a third or fourth time, it’s devastating how deep it is in so many different ways. One of Wilson’s great talents was that he could distill ancient and profound spiritual principles in such a way that they could be easily grasped by alcoholics of every socioeconomic status.

Which makes it available to everyone.

Kevin: When he was trying to get the Traditions together, people were pushing him to add more rules and regulations. And Wilson always responded, “We don’t need all that. We have the ultimate enforcer, John Barleycorn.” He was very willing to risk letting things be open and democratic—not to come in as an authority figure and lay down the law. He had the courage to let people make their own mistakes. It’s very unusual.

And he sacrificed his personal life and wants and needs. He didn’t flaunt that, but he gave up far more than most people in AA are aware of.

Your film reveals that Bill had a huge mother wound.

Dan: When he’s 10, his parents divorce. Apparently his father also had a drinking problem. His father goes to Canada, and Bill won’t see his father again till he’s 19. And then within a year or so his mother moves to Boston to become an osteopathic doctor. Some time later, she takes his sister, Dorothy, to Boston and leaves Bill behind with the grandparents in Vermont. Even later in life, he’s always trying to reconcile with his mother. And it doesn’t happen until he’s successful. 

Kevin: Next he falls in love—he describes himself as “deliriously happy.” Then the girlfriend, Bertha Bamford, suddenly dies. He goes to school one Monday morning and finds that she died over the weekend. So here’s another early loss and devastating abandonment.

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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