You Can Go Home Again
Cinematographer Matthew Buzzell
photo by Chris Thelen
It’s 1968. A little boy, about 3, and his grandfather sit on a dock at Clarks Hill Lake. The grandfather is teaching the boy to fish. The first lesson: how to bait a hook. The grandfather takes a worm, holding it firmly but gently, slips the hook carefully in one side of the collar and out the other while the worm squirms, then casts the line into the lake.
Now it’s the boy’s turn. He fumbles with a worm and the hook, makes a jab, feels a stab of pain and realizes he’s hooked his own thumb. He screams. The old man quietly puts down his rod, comes over to the boy and, without a word, pulls out the hook, baits it, drops the line into the water and returns to his own rod. Stifling sobs, the boy takes it all in, this first encounter with life and death, pain and stoicism, and quiet actions that speak louder than words.
That’s filmmaker Matthew Buzzell’s first memory, the opening scene of his remembered life. And here’s one of the most recent:
The boy, now 47, with a face open and innocent (think Ferris Bueller without the deviousness), is riding his bike from his nearby cottage to his office at Augusta State University. He is pedaling past St. Mary on the Hill School when he sees a bunch of kids in blue-and-white uniforms kneeling on the sidewalk making chalk drawings. He smiles and brakes to watch.
About 40 years ago he was one of those white-shirted boys at this very school, playing on this very sidewalk. In the intervening decades he’s worked as an actor in New York, gotten a film degree, become a cinematographer and director in Los Angeles, made prize-winning documentaries shown on national television and featured by Oprah Winfrey, worked with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, travelled the world with Sacha Baron Cohen, making a film about Bruno. But now to help care for his aging mother, he’s returned to Augusta, teaching communications at ASU. From where these kids are drawing he can see his second-floor office window in Allgood Hall.
“Full circle,” he thinks. He hops back on his bike and rides to campus.
Now the backstory.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Buzzell grew up, the youngest of three kids, wherever his career-Army father was stationed. He remembers Fort Riley in Kansas with special affection.
“I was 4 or 5 years old at Fort Riley when the dreamer in me awoke. They were some of the happiest days in my life. We lived in a historic home on base. General Custer’s house was just down the way. There was a buffalo corral within walking distance. The place was steeped in cowboy lore. It was like growing up in an Old West playground. That’s where I had my first experience of movies as well. My parents took me to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Yellow Submarine. Those films are two of my favorites to this very day. When I see Dick Van Dyke do his little dance it still tears me up.
“It was such a big deal to go to the movies back then. You went with the whole family. It was not an everyday experience, not to be taken for granted. I still approach going to movies with a certain sense of reverence and privilege. I love the ritual of going to the cinema in a theater, watching with other people. I prefer that to watching in my own home. I worry about that theater ritual going away.”
Back in Augusta, Buzzell’s father retired from the military and became a teacher at Glenn Hills High School. His dad would listen to jazz late at night, grading papers. He took Buzzell and his buddies regularly to the three movie theaters on Fort Gordon back then—spaghetti westerns, British horror films, James Bond, King Kong, Merchant Ivory films. Always the formality: the opening of the curtain, the previews, the curtain closing then opening again for the national anthem and the featured film. When he wanted more adventuresome programming, he went to screenings at Professor Charlie Willig’s film series at Augusta College. He also went to Augusta’s Imperial and Miller theaters—both of them on their last legs in the ’80s as downtown died its slow, painful death.
All great fun. But it was live theater that really captured his imagination. His dad, a theater major in college, introduced Buzzell to community theater at Fort Gordon. In 1978 he and his dad got parts in The Shadowbox. In one of the table-reads, he watched his father so become his character that tears streamed down his face as he read. In high school at Aquinas, Buzzell acted in lots of plays directed by Father Fitzpatrick. He was very good. As a senior he was named best actor in the state competition. But uncertain about what he wanted to do with his life, he spent an undistinguished year at Augusta College, half-heartedly taking core courses (including a journalism course with me, about which I promised to reveal nothing).
“My parents were great. They recognized some talent in me and tried to help me focus it. They encouraged me to apply to the North Carolina School for the Arts. They said, ‘You need to go to college, you’ve got this talent, you need to take this opportunity to develop it.’ I applied and, lo and behold, I got in!”
It was tough: 40 to 50 students entered the drama program; Buzzell was one of the 12 who graduated in 1989. His friends there included Mary Louise Parker, Diedrich Bader and Chris Parnell. He learned plenty about the pressures and rewards of acting. Now it was time to conquer Broadway.
He shared a loft above a Blimpie’s at Broadway and 18th Street with four classmates—two ballet dancers and two musicians. “The smell of onions and salami was constant. My room literally was a closet. I lived there my first six months in New York.” He got temp jobs and auditioned for parts. One of the jobs paid $13,000 a year. “Here was the first time I had a salary. I felt like the richest guy on the planet when I got my first paycheck for $800. But after taxes and paying my share of the rent, which was $400, and also my share of the bills and groceries, that $800 a month was not enough to survive on. There were many days when I had only corn flakes to eat. They were definitely lean times.”
It got worse. During his time in New York, Buzzell’s father died. He came home for the funeral, then returned, broken-hearted, to Manhattan. “New York is an incredibly vibrant city and you’re constantly surrounded by people, but it can be the loneliest of cities. Those were dark days.”
But things were about to brighten. Buzzell got a part in one movie, then a second. They weren’t very good movies, but they paid the bills. “I was fascinated by the process of filmmaking. There are so many jobs on a film set—drivers, loaders, sound technicians, lighting people, script girls, writers, directors, actors...it’s a bigger family even than doing theater. I realized then that my heart was always closer to cinema than to the stage.”
So after two years in New York and a short stint in Atlanta, Buzzell moved to L.A. to act in movies. There he followed the usual routine for entry-level actors: auditioning for commercials. Then came a revelation.
“One audition went really well. It was for a little part in a national TV commercial. The casting people said, ‘You’re great, we love you!’ I felt terrific. I went home, the phone rang, it was my agent. He said, ‘They love you, they want you to come back in. You got a callback.’ So the next day I went back and there were more people there, casting directors, people from the product, and they said, ‘You’re great!’ I went home thinking, ‘Terrific, I just booked a national commercial!’ And I waited for the phone to ring. And it didn’t ring and didn’t ring. I called my agent, and he said, ‘Sorry, Matthew, they went with someone else. That’s the breaks.’
“I spiraled down into a depression. It was such a heartbreaker. And all of a sudden this light bulb went off, and I thought, ‘Matthew, what are you doing? You’re giving over all this emotion for a Spic and Span commercial where you’re a young janitor mopping a floor! I went to school in drama and trained to be in a Spic and Span commercial?’ It’s not what I wanted to be doing. At that time my agent was trying to package me. He wanted me to grow my hair longer and wear a denim shirt for new head shots. I was being told what to wear and how to look, and I realized that for an actor the only free choice is in creating the character. All other decisions are made for you. I had deep love for actors and the craft, but this was not my path as a creative spirit.”
So after two years in L.A., Buzzell quit acting. He came home to Georgia in 1993 to study historic preservation at the University of Georgia. For fun he also took a filmmaking course with Jim Herbert, a painter and experimental filmmaker who, among other things, had directed some REM videos.
“I loved that class. I shot a roll of film every week. I felt totally empowered and free behind the camera. I thought, ‘Maybe this is what I need to be doing. Maybe I need to go to school in filmmaking.’”
He applied to the best film school in the world: the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Rejected on his first application in 1995, he got in a year later and moved back to L.A. Buzzell spent three happy, creative years at AFI, studying with a great faculty—men who had created or directed such shows as The Twilight Zone, Playhouse 90, The Honeymooners, Get Smart, Dog Day Afternoon. Buzzell loved directing films. “I had a crew behind me and my ideas were embraced. I never had to fight for my ideas. People wanted to work on my projects. And because of my experiences, I knew actors and how to communicate with them.” AFI named him Director of the Year in 1999, the year he graduated.
But no agent came calling. No deal was dangled. Buzzell decided to make the next move himself, financing his own film with credit cards and a few donations from friends. His subject, long in gestation, was his musical hero—jazz singer Jimmy Scott. He made the film by the seat of his pants, filming Jimmy’s performances in Japan, editing in a friend’s living room. The result was Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew. PBS aired the film in 2004 on Independent Lens, where it won the Audience Award. It was the first documentary shown at New York’s Tribeca Festival after 9-11. Since then it has been screened at film festivals all over the world and distributed internationally on DVD by Warner Home Video.
“It’s a scrappy little movie, but sweet,” and it got Buzzell noticed as a first-string documentary maker. Doc after doc followed. He was commissioned to make What a Girl Wants, a film about the influence of media culture on teenage girls. It was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show; Tell Me Do You Miss Me chronicles the break-up of the indie rock band Luna; Putting the River in Reverse documents the collaboration between Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Patti LaBelle and Allen Toussaint on the first major recording sessions in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. To finance these “passion projects” he took jobs with TV reality shows (“In case you wondered,” he said, “reality shows are not ‘real’”) on the Learning Channel.
Then for almost two years he traveled the world working with Sacha Baron Cohen and a huge crew filming a documentary on the making of Bruno. It was an exhilarating, exhausting and weird experience. “It was terrifying. There were times when I thought we were going to get killed. I was practically having a nervous breakdown because of the challenges and stress involved with that project. It was constantly being rewritten, we were moving around a lot, and I even got paranoid thinking I was being filmed as the subject of some reality prank show. It was that intense.”
On his annual Masters visit to Augusta in 2010, Buzzell sat in on a film class taught by Rick Pukis at ASU. That resulted in the offer to work as an adjunct in the communications and professional writing department. Buzzell was between jobs and thinking about getting closer to home. He took the offer as a sign. He returned to Augusta in 2010.
So what’s it like being a professor in a quiet Southern town after the creative excitement of Los Angeles? “I love the energy of the classroom. I love to encourage young filmmakers. And I want to honor my father, who chose to be a teacher and considered teaching a noble profession. Teaching is a great honor and a great responsibility. I never forget that.”
And there’s a lot to like in a small city. “There’s the joy of walking to work or riding a bike, not starting the car for days at a time, seeing friends I’ve had for 30 years and being able to be with them in 30 minutes. I love the sense of community, running into folks at the grocery store, people waving to me on the street. I don’t miss L.A.’s smog or sense of entitlement. I do miss the people, the architecture, the access to culture, the food, the dreaminess of L.A. But I go back every summer, house sit for a month, and that satisfies my L.A. fix.”
Having not burnt his bridges to California, Buzzell still gets jobs there that he can work on in Augusta and complete out there. That’s how he finished Excavating the 2000-Year-Old Man, a documentary on Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, during a visit to L.A. this past Christmas.
Right now Buzzell is working on an Augusta film project, a poetic documentary on author Starkey Flythe. Flythe is a beloved Augusta character, a Southern gentleman of rumpled elegance, gentle wit and masterful storytelling. His fiction and poetry have appeared in national publications, including The New Yorker. The film, still being shot, follows Flythe back to Richmond Academy, his alma mater, where in one scene he reads a poem in the football stadium about his memories of high school chorus. Other scenes dramatize his short stories and show him playing Chopin on his slightly out-of-tune piano. Buzzell calls it a kind of music video for the written word.
Despite 14 titles to his credit as cinematographer, 13 as director and five as producer, Buzzell cherishes his newest roles: teacher, son, citizen of Augusta.