When Bill Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, he started a movement that would spread to more than 150 countries and change millions of lives for the better. Time magazine named him “Man of the Year”; he’s been the subject of numerous biographies, and James Woods played him in a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV biopic.
Surprisingly, he had not been the subject of a documentary feature until recently, when first-time filmmakers Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon produced and directed Bill W., an eight-year labor of love.
“I couldn’t believe no one had ever done [a documentary] on him before,” said Carracino. “Basically, it took two naive filmmakers to do it.”
“Our naievete benefitted us,” adds Hanlon. “Had we known the scope of this story in the beginning we may not have gone forward.”
The duo have been friends since high school, and had discussed making a film together for years, before finally deciding on a documentary about Wilson.
“Neither of us has been in the program, but we feel a personal connection to it because of experiences with our families,” says Hanlon, who had been reading a book about Wilson around the time Carracino began to pressure him earnestly about finally making that film together.
“I couldn’t put it down,” says Hanlon. “Here was a man who handed a death sentence and chose to fight it, and to hand those experiences to others.”
He passed the book to his friend, who was instantly hooked on the idea of making a documentary about Wilson. “Basically big moments when history transpires, it often relates to war or terrible events,” suggests Carracino. “Here was this moment when he’s pacing in a hotel room and he has no idea about the eventual impact of his decision. People often don’t realize how historic they are.”
The hurdle that quickly presented itself was the dearth of film footage of Wilson, and few people still living who knew Wilson personally. Plus, AA and its members strictly adhered to the organization’s tenet of anonymity.
“We always knew they couldn’t get involved,” explains Hanlon. “They have a tradition of not getting involved in outside enterprises. That’s a major reason why it has survived for so long.”
“It’s hard to get somebody on camera to tell their story,” adds Carracino. “Coming to someone as first time filmmakers, it was important for us to respect that. Kevin cultivated a relationship with them, because we knew that until we proved ourselves they were not going to be interested.”
Fortunately, Wilson generated a great deal of correspondence as well as a rich audio history, as his public speaking engagements, more than 100 of them, were often recorded. Wilson’s notion of taking an alcoholic taken full moral inventory of himself or herself is one of AA’s cornerstones; as such, he was often disarmingly frank, open, self-deprecating, and candid during his speeches.
“The quality was sometimes rough, but we felt it was better to let Bill Wilson tell the story as much as possible,” says Hanlon.
Carracino and Hanlon also scoured as many as 25 different archives, and went to great lengths to obtain whatever documents, photos, and information they could find.
“We found that other researchers had always gone to major archives, but never around the edges,” explains Carracino. “We found very rich, candid info in other archives. We found Bill was more willing to let his hair down when talking to people outside the organization.”
“We did as much original research as possible,” says Hanlon. “We won some [photos of Wilson] off eBay, and contacted the seller to see if he had more. He had hundreds that he had come close to throwing out because he didn’t know what he had.”
Bill W. has so far had a series of well-received art-house engagements across the country, and is currently playing the Texas Theatre through June 28. Carracino says the number of people not associated with AA who are coming to see it has been increasing.
“More general audiences are seeing it. That sort of gives credence that the story itself extends beyond the recovery world. “