Bill Butler

2013 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient

Cinematographer BILL BUTLER
was Honored at the 6th Annual Charleston International Film Festival.

Bill Butler’s achievement goes on and on, not simply in the long list of films by this respected cinematographer that stand the test of time, but in his continuing work.

At 91, Butler has lost none of his zest for the medium or the creative flair that is his hallmark.

“I don’t have anything to retire to,” he says. “All I know is filmmaking. I’m reading a script I just got today from someone who wants to know if I want to do it. And sure I’ll do it. I still work very well out there on the set. I have all the energy in the world.”

Widely recognized as an innovator in television as well as in motion pictures, the man who shot such seminal films as “Jaws,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Conversation” returns to the Holy City in April to receive the Spire Lifetme Achievement Award for Excellence in Filmmaking at the 6th-annual Charleston International Film Festival.

Accompanied by his wife, Iris, it was his first visit here since filming the independent feature “Deceiver” with Josh and Jonas Pate in 1997. And no matter how many laurels are bestowed on Butler for his distinguished career, he says having one’s work celebrated never becomes old hat.  “No way. How could it? These are my people. These are people interested in film. It’s like all brand new for me, fresh as can be.”

Looking back, Butler says the most gratifying aspects of his career have been the technical (camera and lighting) advances he devised, the collaborations with gifted directors and actors, the caliber of the final product and, most of all, his interactions with fellow crew.

“It’s all of that. Of course, the lasting tribute is that they choose to play your films over and over. The most rewarding thing is seeing your films last. Almost 40 years ago I made ‘Jaws.’ The fact that it’s lasted that well is a good test of the quality of the film. One of the main things was the honesty with which I approached it with the camera. I could have used all these tricks cinematographers like to use to make themselves look good. Instead I took a documentary approach.”

“The greatest challenge the director, cinematographer and actors have in making a good film that lasts is how honest can you be, how believable can you make your story. And what really set the tone for that honesty is when Steven (Spielberg) decided to shoot in the open ocean. Taking an almost documentary attitude with the camera was a style that was absolutely correct with that movie.”

An Oscar nominee for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and an Emmy Award winner, Butler, a Colorado native now living in Montana, did not venture from Chicago where he helped establish the city’s first television station (WGN), solely to accumulate awards in Hollywood. Quite the contrary. It was always about the work, the opportunity to be creative and defy conventions.

Especially in one of the most inventive decades of the movies, the 1970s.

“We had an irreverence toward the rules of filmmaking. People like myself who broke upon the scene in the ‘70s did not believe there were rules you could not break. I had not come from Hollywood, but out of Chicago and TV. While most DPs (directors of photography) were trained in Hollywood and had these set rules, we said ‘No, there are no rules.’ If you have an idea, you do it. We were not afraid to try new things and because of that we brought a new style to filmmaking in the ‘70s.”

The integrity of the image was a goal reinforced by working closely with director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) in their early years in documentary television, as well as in the company of legendary cinematographer Conrad “Connie” Hall.

“Friedkin affected me a lot. He was brilliant, and I learned a lot about life from him. Connie and I also became good friends. And once you learn from him you don’t need anyone else (as influences). You didn’t so much learn film from him as you did honesty. On every film he would try a new style. He was always being fresh and new and yet all his films have a certain look to them, with great integrity and honesty that ended up on the screen.”

In the end, cinematography is both an art and a craft, Butler says. “To be a good cinematographer you must first have a good mechanical aptitude because you are dealing with a machine. But you must also have a feeling for light. You have to be sensitive to everything that film is sensitive to. You sleep it, you eat it, and you spend a lot of time with people in the laboratory.”

Butler has worked some of the most accomplished directors in the business, but also has fashioned films with more than 15 first-time directors, not least Francis Ford Coppola, then just starting out. The advice he gives to young aspirants today differs little.

“I didn’t go to film school, but I’m not going to counsel someone not to go because there’s a lot there to learn. Yet the best advice is just to go do it. Do what’s in your head and what you’d like to see. Not everyone can do it because they don’t have the talent or the feel for it, but if that is your talent, give it a shot. First find out what it is you want to do. Find what you are good at and then don’t do anything else. If you splatter yourself all over the place you’ll be a little of this and a little of that and never much good at anything. You’ve also got to work harder at it than anybody else. Live it day and night, like you’re married to it.”

Butler certainly remains wed to his work, as avid as ever, and ready to roll on a moment’s notice.

“There’s no retirement for me. You know, I had three daughters, then remarried had two more daughters, one of whom is just now going to college. That’ll keep you young. And this is no accident. I’m trying to get all out of life I can. I’m out there giving it hell.”

– Bill Thompson