US premiere of ‘I Am Burt Reynolds’ showcases actor’s life at Breck Film Fest
Director to attend screening and panel
Shortly after the third anniversary of Burt Reynolds’ death, Breck Film Fest attendees will be able to see the actor’s life in a new light with the U.S. premiere of a poignant documentary Saturday, Sept. 18. Called “I Am Burt Reynolds,” it charts the life of an icon who started as a football player, had a breakout role in “Deliverance” and made a smash hit with “Smokey and the Bandit,” among others.
It is the fifth entry of the “I Am” series for Canadian filmmaker Adrian Buitenhuis. His first, “I Am Heath Ledger,” came out in 2017 and was followed by “I Am Sam Kinison,” “I Am Paul Walker” and “I Am Patrick Swayze.”
The son of a nonfiction writer and brother of a director, Buitenhuis said it was a natural progression for him to become a documentary filmmaker. He studied art history in Montreal and worked as a photographer and mixed media artist while training in the camera department with her sister. As he got his master’s degree in fine arts from Simon Fraser University, he moved into writing, directing and producing films, and he found his niche with documentaries.
Buitenhuis said his collage work is now more of a creative escape, yet he likes how the medium of film incorporates various art forms such as writing and photography.
“I still have a career as an artist, but you kind of have to choose,” Buitenhuis said. “For my life, having a family and making a living, filmmaking seems to be the way to go.”
Buitenhuis did a National Geographic series with Network Entertainment, which is also responsible for other documentaries such as “I Am Bruce Lee” and “I Am Jackie O,” before being tapped for the Ledger film. He enjoyed the challenge of finding a story within the story of someone’s life, and he still hears about the effects of the Ledger documentary.
“Ultimately, that’s what you want, is for a film to have an impact and to shape people and help people in some way,” Buitenhuis said.
He thinks fans of Reynolds’ career and those less familiar will enjoy the biography and hopefully learn something new, too. Buitenhuis said it is a portrait of an important actor and filmmaker as well as a history lesson.
What: “I Am Burt Reynolds”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: $18. Visit BreckFilm.org to purchase and view the full schedule.
“With Burt, that was a journey into the history of cinema, really,” Buitenhuis said. “… His story is really the story of Hollywood. He had a connection to old Hollywood that I have never encountered in any of the films I’ve done before.”
Buitenhuis began working with Reynolds’ family on the film in summer 2019, filming interviews with Bruce Dern, Joe Namath, Jon Voight, Ariel Winter and others before the coronavirus pandemic. Buitenhuis said Reynolds was a giver and a collector, and the intimate location allowed him get a sense for the man.
Though the pandemic cut potential interviews short, Buitenhuis is grateful for those he talked to and the help he received, especially from Reynolds’ former wife, Loni Anderson. Her participation, as well as his son Quinton’s, allowed Buitenhuis to show the father side of Reynolds not often seen. He was given access to Polaroid pictures, home videos and more. Combined with an unreleased 1973 documentary from the Merv Griffin estate about Reynolds, Buitenhuis was excited to use the material.
Additionally, Buitenhuis found that people were very open in sharing their experiences with Reynolds since so many interactions were positive. For instance, Reynolds was active in lifting other people up in their Hollywood careers. One of those interviewees is Marilu Henner. Henner — who was personally picked by Reynolds to star in “Cannonball Run II” — worked with him on five separate occasions.
“She knew many stages of Burt,” Buitenhuis said. “Burt went through a lot of changes in his life overtime, and Marilu was there for it and was always a choice of Burt’s for roles.”
Henner said they were very current, never losing contact, and that they saw each other just a few months before he passed.
“He was extraordinary,” Henner said. “I think about him all the time, and I miss him every day.”
According to Henner, Reynolds was the type of movie star who didn’t carry himself like one. Rather, he was a warm, open person who showered people in gifts and welcomed them so they felt comfortable.
“Nobody was surprised that Burt ran out of money because he was always doing things for the crew, doing things for his friends, doing things for his cast members and doing things for other people,” Henner said.
It was a no-brainer for Henner, who also played his wife for four seasons in the sitcom “Evening Shade,” to participate in the documentary and share her stories.
What: Adrian Buitenhuis, Steve Gordon, Michelle Carpenter and moderator Craig Volk explore the relationship between documentary filmmakers and their subjects.
When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 18
Where: The Hopefull/Discovery rooms of Summit County Library’s south branch, 103 S. Harris St., Breckenridge
Cost: Free. Visit BreckFilm.org to register.
“I think I wanted to maybe tell some stories about Burt that maybe other people wouldn’t know, or just my personal experience with him and just what a remarkable man he was,” she said.
It didn’t make the film, but one story Henner recalled involved a guest star on “Evening Shade.” Playing the girlfriend of Henner and Reynolds’ son, the new actress was nervous and fumbling lines. While others may not have been as patient on set, Henner said Reynolds told the actress to take her time.
“He totally calmed her down, she took her time and really nailed it,” Henner said, adding that Reynolds knew how to make people feel safe and nurture talent. “He was so happy, and he came up and gave her a hug. And that young actress was Hilary Swank.”
Despite the praise for Reynolds, Buitenhuis and Henner acknowledge that the documentary isn’t just a glossy puff piece. It details honestly his money troubles, times he took less-serious movies and health issues.
“You see the good, the bad, the ugly; you see all of it,” Henner said. “You see so many different parts of him, and it tells a story. … It grabs you. It haunts you. This movie haunted me for days, and even now, talking about, I still feel that feeling.”
Illustrating the truth in the entire picture is critical to a filmmaker like Buitenhuis. That’s why he is attending a panel on the subject at the festival Saturday morning before the film. Buitenhuis said getting the trust of the subject is key.
“We always get to tell an honest portrait of the people that we’re making the film about, and that can be hard,” Buitenhuis said about working on the “I Am” series. “But I think it’s important.”
Saturday’s screening will be followed by a Hollywood premiere Monday, Sept. 20, and a monument unveiling is scheduled for the evening set at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Yet Buitenhuis said he isn’t sure when the film will have a wider release, making the in-person Breckenridge event one of the few opportunities to see “I Am Burt Reynolds.”
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