Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Documentarian Bill Couturie, Jan. 22, 1993


Standard-Examiner staff 

Bill Couturie laughs as he recalls a conversation about his 1988 documentary “Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam,” because it so perfectly illustrates the often absurd relationship between the art and commerce of filmmaking. 

Someone from the company distributing the film into the TV market rang him up: “Now that it’s on commercial television, we need an extra 20 minutes,” this person told Couturie. “Could you add 20 minutes to ‘Dear America’? You must have some extra letters lying around.” 

“Guys, it’s not a sausage,” was the director’s incredulous response. “You don’t just add 20 minutes.” 

In fact, Couturie turned the request into “Memorial,” a short companion piece to “Dear America,” which nabbed an Oscar nomination last year. 

Couturie’s latest film, “Earth and the American Dream,” is playing in competition at this month’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a sweeping documentary, surveying American society’s relationship to the environment from the landing of Columbus in 1492 right up to present day. And, as you might guess, it takes a disheartening inventory of our society’s abuse of nature. 

Couturie’s background is diverse. He began making animated films for “Sesame Street,” then segued into cinema verite documentaries as an associate producer on “Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?” – the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award winner for 1978. More recently, he produced “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” which won the documentary Oscar for 1989 – the film looked at the lives of several people who have died from complications of the AIDS virus – and finished directing a music video for Michael Jackson’s song, “Gone Too Soon,” a couple of months ago. 

“Earth and the American Dream” utilizes a technique that Couturie pioneered with “Dear America”: Lots of famous actors – Mel Gibson, Jeremy Irons, Bette Midler and others – supply the dialogue in “Earth and the American Dream.” In “Dear America,” they read letters written by soldiers to their families, sweethearts and friends back home. In “Earth and the American Dream,” another stellar cast of voices reads from letters, journals, diaries, speeches, newspaper accounts and historical books.

“Obviously, there is some thought to marquee value,” Couturie says from his San Francisco office, explaining his fondness for using major stars. “But it’s not simply that. It’s very hrd in a brief number of words to create a character and to create a sense of time and place. And there’s a reason these big stars are big stars: They’re very, very talented actors.” Rounding up the talent to provide the voices took some doing, the filmmaker insists, even though many of the actors in Hollyw0od agree with his film’s environmentalist point of view.

“They work a lot,” he says, “and when they’re not working, they want to spend time on vacation or with their families. To get through to Dustin Hoffman took me over a year, even though he did the narration on ‘Common Threads’ and helped win me an Oscar.”

For assistance, Couturie turned to the Environmental Media Association (EMA), which functions as a liaison between the environmental community and various media. EMA’s board of directors includes the heads of all of the studios, Couturie says, and super-agent Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency and the man widely regarded as the most powerful in the movie business. “Super heavyweights,” Couturie, a CAA client, calls them. 

“It takes all of that – the Oscar, the track record, CAA’s and EMA's credibility – to get through to these people,” Couturie says. Plus, now it’s the thing to do with documentaries: finding stars to read letters and such in films – a la Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” on PBS and the recent “Lincoln” documentary on ABC. 

“Frankly, these guys are getting deluged with requests. So it’s more difficult to get them, even for worthwhile projects, than it used to be.” 

By sticking to the words of his subjects, and without commenting on them, Couturie avoids what he terms the “official interaction” created when a filmmaker interviews the people in a film. 

“The very nature of an interview changes what people say,” the director says. “It can be for the better, because it can be entertaining. On the other hand, when you interview someone, they can’t not be aware of this big hunk of glass staring at them. Even in a good interview, they’re telling you what they want to tell you, and they’re not telling you what they don’t want to tell you – no matter how good an interviewer you are.” 

Couturie theorizes this is the reason he’s been drawn of late to historical subjects; it’s his desire to permit the story to tell itself. 

“One way I describe these films is ‘history haiku,’” he says, referring to the distillation of some 10,000 hours of film footage reviewed by his staff of researchers – 200 hours of which he dragged into the editing room before whittling his film down to its current 80 minutes.

“With ‘Dear America,’ you could go into the library and say, ‘I'm looking for stuff on Vietnam.’ With this film, there was no limit to what we could look at. I liken it to finding hundreds of needles in a huge, huge haystack. It’s by far the most challenging film I’ve ever made.”

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