It wasn't personal experience that convinced Kevin Hanlon to make Bill W., a new documentary about Alcoholics Anonymous and its dedicated co-founder Bill Wilson. It was simply a case of the businessman-turned filmmaker knowing good movie material when he saw it.
"It's ... a very moving story about a person who devoted his life to helping millions of people and who created something very new to his world," Hanlon, 55, said in a recent phone interview. "A.A. estimated there are 2 million members now, and I don't know how many people have been affected by A.A. since the beginning. He really did a lot of good in the world."
Hanlon also knew that no one had bothered to tell Wilson's life story — at least, in documentary form.
Bill W., which is scheduled to open Oct. 19 at Rave Levis Commons 12, is the story of a man all but given a death sentence by a doctor in the 1930s convinced that his alcoholism would kill him. It's also the story of a man who got sober and fought the rest of his life to stay that way — and to help others get sober as well.
Hanlon co-wrote and co-directed the documentary with friend Dan Carracino, who longed to make a film. While reading Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous by Ernest Kurtz, widely considered the authoritative history of A.A., Hanlon suggested the book's subject matter to Carracino as the basis for their first film.
Neither has ever been a member of A.A., but each knows others who are. While Hollywood previously tackled Wilson's story in the 1989 made-for-TV bio My Name is Bill W. starring James Woods and James Garner, Hanlon and Carracino wanted to relate accurate history rather than truth mixed with dramatic license.
It didn't take Hanlon and Carracino long to discover why no one else had produced a similar documentary. As Hanlon jokes, "Wilson was an anonymous man who founded an anonymous outfit. There were no pictures of him, no footage. But that stuff started to resolve itself" as they researched for material.
In fact, Hanlon and Carracino unearthed photos and home movies of Wilson throughout much of his life. He died in January of 1971 at the age of 75. The documentary also brings the A.A. co-founder to life through personal correspondence with his wife of 53 years, Lois, and friends and members of A.A., as well as through his own voice, as recorded in meetings with members in which he shared his inspirational story.
Through the course of making their film, Hanlon and Carracino learned that Wilson was far from perfect.
In addition to alcoholism, he battled crippling depression, and the film suggests to be true the rumors of Wilson's lengthy affair with friend and fellow A.A. member Helen Wynn, who also suffered from depression.
Despite his personal foibles, Wilson was treated like royalty by A.A.'s members — much to his disdain — and he was anything but anonymous.
"He was deprived of a membership in the fellowship he created," Hanlon said. "He couldn't walk into a meeting, put his hand in the air and say he was having a tough day.
"He thought he would lead A.A. for a certain time and then go back to his professional business life. It turned out that that just wasn't going to be true because he was really needed to keep A.A. going through its formative years. I think very few people realized the depth of sacrifice he would have to make in his personal life, and the enormous toll it took on him."
Bill W. will have the obvious appeal to members of A.A., but Hanlon insists his film and its subject matter is bigger than the core audience.
"I don't think you have to be an alcoholic to find this story compelling," he said. "He was a guy given a death sentence and told there was no hope and he found a way out of it and dedicated the rest of his life trying to help people not die from the thing that almost killed him.
"We really just wanted to resonate the story of Bill Wilson's life and let audiences draw from it in the way every person would, some broader theme."
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.