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TIFF '13: On Being Burt
Documentarian Jody Shapiro talks about Burt Shavitz, the real life Burt behind Burt's Bees

If you’ve ever wondered about the man with the beard on tins of Burt’s Bees lip balm and wondered if he’s a real person, then wonder no more. That man is indeed Burt, he does indeed have a big bushy beard, and he is a hippy to the bone, although he likes to fire guns in his spare time. Jody Shapiro’s new documentary, Burt’s Buzz, premiered at TIFF this week and details Burt Shavitz’ life, which is spent acting as a spokesperson for his own brand, now owned by The Clorox Company. 

I had a chance to sit down and talk to Shapiro this week. We chatted about Burt’s life and an unexpected connection between Burt and Isabella Rossellini that allowed this film to happen.

 

From watching your film, I got the feeling that Burt is a hard person to get close to, which leads to my first question: how did you get close enough to him to make a movie?

I actually met Burt through Isabella Rossellini. Lately, I’ve been working with her as a co-director and co-producer on the Green Porno series.

I love that series.

The Burt’s Bees company had commissioned Isabella to make these little Green Porno-esque films on the state of of bees. She had actually suggested to the company that somebody sit down and do some interviews with Burt and just talk about his story, and she suggested that I do it. And then I found out he was going to do a promotional tour of Taiwan, and that’s when it clicked. That’s the story, the idea between what it means to be an icon and who is this person behind him. If I could get this story, I could maybe elevate this beyond a biopic. I like to think I got the three things you need to make an interesting documentary, which is character, access, and full on creative control.

The film suggests that Burt doesn’t really care about the money that he lost when he lost control of the company. I can’t tell if Burt enjoys the life of traveling across the world on these promotional tours. Do you think he would do it if he could afford not to?

Somebody asked this question at the Q & A and this is part of the authentic charm of Burt. They said “Why do still work for the company and do these things?” and he said “Because they pay me.” That was his answer. He gets to travel these places, he’s a curious guy. He likes to travel and meet people on occasion. If it didn’t happen, I don’t think he would care at all.

Where do you think he would be if he didn’t have this job?

I think he would still be in that cabin. He’d be selling his own honey, and he’s getting on in his years. Obviously, he’s getting to the point where he needs some support, but I don’t think his life would have changed that much. I just think he would have been a man on the land.


Burt’s Buzz premiered on Sunday, but you can still catch it on Friday at 12:00pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Read our review.

____

Alan Jones writes about film for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv.

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