New documentary highlights Alcoholics Anonymous co-founderWritten by James A. Molnar | The Gold Knight | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Bill W.,” a new documentary opening Oct. 19 at Rave Levis Commons, recounts the life of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Filmmakers utilized actual audio and video from the co-founder to tell his story, along with interviewing more than 70 members helped by the organization, which the film says currently has 2 million members in 170 countries.
The making of “Bill W.,” an almost decade-long process, started with a book.
Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon, co-directors and co-producers of “Bill W.,” have been friends since high school and always wanted to make a movie.
The two recounted how their first movie came about during a recent cross-continental phone conversation with Toledo Free Press Star.
When Carracino got serious about making a film around eight years ago, Hanlon said he was reading a book called “Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous” by Ernest Kurtz.
“As I was reading the book, I thought it was a page turner, an incredible story,” Hanlon said. “Dan thought it would be a good movie, too.”
After the duo decided to make a movie about Wilson, they worked on research and tried to obtain primary sources to best tell his story.
Hanlon said, however, that it was tough.
“Probably about a year and a half into it, we looked at each other and said, ‘No wonder no one’s ever made a film about this before.’ It’s an anonymous man who founded an anonymous society and we had no photos, no moving footage,” he said. “It seemed like it was going to be a bit of an uphill battle.”
Materials needed to make the movie eventually came to the filmmakers, Hanlon said, including archival video and audio from AA.
“The audio was actually easy to find,” Carracino said. “As poor as AA’s visual history is — from a documentary filmmaker’s standpoint — it’s almost too rich, audio-wise.”
During his life, Wilson was recorded almost 100 times, Carracino said.
Visual material, however, took a long time to find, he said.
Also featured in the film are letters that Wilson wrote and interviews with members of AA.
With these interviews, the filmmakers said they wanted to preserve the organization’s strong tradition of anonymity.
“Bill W.” features 18 of the 70 members the pair interviewed while researching the impact of Wilson.
“Here was a picture of a man who was virtually handed a death sentence,” said Hanlon, remembering the book he read before making the film. “He recounts several times how his doctor was telling his wife that within a year he would either be dead or locked up in an insane asylum because of his alcoholism — because there was no hope.”
Wilson found a way out of this “death sentence” and dedicated his life to helping others in similar situations, Hanlon said.
“I think without a question Alcoholics Anonymous was one of the most important things in his life,” Hanlon said. “He never said, ‘No.’”
What the filmmakers said surprised them both while working to tell Wilson’s story were the ongoing sacrifices made by the co-founder, both personally and financially.
“He wants to carve out a life of his own, but every time he tries to do it, there is some other challenge, some genuine need for the fellowship,” said Carracino, noting that Wilson, who died in 1971, had no regrets for continuing to help.
Wilson lost his house to foreclosure and lived with others during the early days of AA, according to the movie.
“One of the biggest prices that he pays is the sense of financial security,” Carracino said. “He forwent all of that for the good of the fellowship.”
By the end of “Bill W.,” audiences are left with a story of human connection, Hanlon said.
“I think they are going to be surprised by the emotion the film carries,” Carracino said.
“Some people may go to this movie and come away with a sense of the impact that one person’s life may have,” Hanlon said.
The best way to show Wilson’s legacy is to show the people affected, Hanlon said.
“This guy really did a lot of good with his life,” Carracino said. “There is something very inspiring about the man’s life.”
On the air
Review: ‘Bill W.’
Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, is the subject of a new documentary opening Oct. 19. The documentary utilizes actual audio of Wilson to tell the story and struggle of the man working to help others, even if he himself suffered.
At many times in the movie, the filmmakers point out that Lois, Wilson’s wife, could have easily chosen to leave her husband. They were together for more than half a century. She stuck by him during his lifelong battle with alcoholism and also the financial struggle that came while trying to start the organization.
What audiences witness onscreen is a well-researched movie that takes advantage of pictures, letters, audio and video of Wilson to tell his story.
This man was a great orator and what he has to say is very compelling. The re-enactments throughout the film provide a good visual aid to the audio.
“Bill W.” also features interviews with former and current members of AA. These interviews give the best picture of Wilson with the testimonies of members who explain how the organization changed their lives.
The filmmakers have created a documentary proving the genre can be as compelling as fictional movies at the box office, if not more so. (Not rated.)
—James A. Molnar
Toledo Free Press Lead Designer and Film Editor James A. Molnar blogs about all things Oscar at TheGoldKnight.com. Watch him discuss movies on “WNWO Today” around 5:50 a.m. on Fridays.