The Invisible Pilot is, in a word, wild. The new documentary series from directing and producing partners Phil Lott and Ari Mark (Murder in the Heartland, Could You Survive the Movies?), which adds to HBO’s list of documentaries available to stream on HBO Max, tells the story of Gary Betzner’s unexpected suicide in 1977. Gary was driving with his wife Sally when he stopped in the middle of a bridge, got out of his car, and jumped. Known as a loving husband and father, a successful pilot, and an all-around exuberant person, Gary’s suicide shocked the community of small-town Haven, Arkansas. Interviewing Sally, their children Travis and Sara Lee (who were just kids when Gary jumped), and other key figures to trace the events that led to and followed his suicide by him, The Invisible Pilot unearths secrets and twists that include hypnosis, drug-smuggling, the CIA, and political scandal.
“We first heard about [Gary’s] story 12 years ago,” Lott says in our interview, ahead of the series’ premiere. “I was at a film festival in Sonoma […] hanging out at the bar, when I met [screenwriter] John Crawford, who was working on this amazing story that he’d been asked to write. He told me the story, and then told me that it was also true and based on some guy’s real life.” Almost immediately, Lott shared Gary’s story with Mark, whose initial reaction went from incredulity to excitement. “Weird and totally, unexpectedly true — that’s kind of our currency. That’s what we love, so it was kind of a no-brainer for us to dig in. It had a lot of the hallmarks of the best non-fiction storytelling, things that you need to pull through a series.”
Lott and Mark first met while working together on 2012’s The Pitch, AMC’s documentary series set in the world of advertising. They reunited a couple of years later, after Mark had moved from AMC to Xbox Entertainment Studios, to work on Xbox’s first series Every Street United. It was then that the two decided to officially partner up, and in 2015, they launched their production company Ample Entertainment (“in a garage,” they say in an interview with Realscreen). “We share a respect for storytelling,” says Mark when asked what the key to their success of their partnership has been. “If you don’t share a sensibility with your partner, you’re dead because it’s the indefinable, hardest thing to articulate to another person. It’s the nuances, the little stuff, and we always agree on that.” Lott adds, “Our [work] history has broadly plotted the same path: we’ve both been fascinated by American politics; we’re both fascinated by the nature of a small-town guy that can do something extraordinary. When we’re talking in a room and bashing ideas off each other, it just builds and builds and builds because [we’re] both getting excited at the same things.”
On Adam McKay Joining The Invisible Pilot as Executive Producer
The Invisible Pilot immediately launches you into the summer of 1977, from the opening aerial shots of Hazen’s country roads to a reenactment of Gary driving his car, with Crystal Gayle’s “I’ll Get Over You” playing in the background — quintessential American sights and sounds. While needle drops in movies and shows aren’t new phenomena, there’s something about Gayle’s song that is, at once, inviting and warm, but with a touch of melancholy. In fact, the suggestion of adding Gayle’s song significantly came from the mind of none other than Adam McKay, who was a Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture Oscar nominee at this year’s Oscars for Don’t Look Up and, as reported by Variety, struck a first-look deal with HBO in 2019. “It [wasn’t] some vague celebrity note,” says Mark of McKay’s musical suggestion. “It was like, ‘No, here’s a piece of music, you should put that right there.’ We put it there, and we [went] ‘Oh, my god!'”
For Lott and Mark, McKay proved to be a key piece of the puzzle in terms of achieving The Invisible Pilot‘s tone. The duo shot a portion of their series to, according to Mark, show HBO “a slice of what we want this series to look like [and what] we want it to feel like” and, immediately, McKay was onboard. “It wasn’t like, let’s talk about it, let’s have a meeting about it — which is a lot of what you get, especially in this town — it was like, no, we’re doing it, Adam loves it, he just saw it, and we’re all excited.”
On Their Approach to Telling Gary Betzner’s Story
What’s perhaps most interesting — indeed, most entertaining — about The Invisible Pilot is how impossibly true Gary’s story is, to the point where it feels almost fictional (almost like the docudramas everyone is obsessed with right now). Without giving anything away, Gary’s story is as tragic and dark as it is daring and triumphant and, what’s more, not without its hilarity and light, hence why nailing the tone of the series and juggling all of these seemingly complex — and very human — elements are Lott and Mark’s greatest achievement with the series. And if the wild ride that is Gary’s life wasn’t enough, the duo also had to contend with the trove of archival footage that was unexpectedly made available to them by a local filmmaker (and family-friend of the Beztners) who had taken an interest in Gary’s story and had filmed interviews with Gary’s wife and children throughout the 2010s.
“On the one hand, it’s challenging when you have that much material to deal with, and on the other hand, it’s the greatest gift from the filmmaking gods,” says Mark, “because you are suddenly able to get all this perspective [and] really fill out the world and show the audience that not only is this real, but it’s been going on for a while. And you get to see the characters evolve and change in age over the course of the series.” Speaking to the amount of archival they were able to work with, Lott says, “First off, there’s this sort of Southern Gothic nature of storytelling — they’re all brilliant at telling stories, anyway — but when something like [Gary’s jumping off a bridge] happens it’s like a VHS record that gets recorded over and over and over again […] the story remains the same no matter if it’s ten years ago, five years ago, two years ago.”
“That search for authenticity and realness and storytelling” are, according to Mark, the reason why they’ve “gotten addicted to non-fiction.” Both Lott and Mark started their filmmaking careers in fiction, but working in non-fiction proved to be more exciting. “I think if we can find the realness, we can find the authenticity, we can find [that] the things that are right in front of you in this world are much stranger or equally strange and poignant as anything we’re going to come up out of our heads because it’s all influenced by the same stuff. It’s all influenced by our environment. It’s all influenced by the world that we’re living in.”
“I think that’s a very powerful thing. And what you can do with [non-fiction] is you can impact people in a different kind of way because they say, ‘Oh, my god, this is actually real’ — and it can move the needle. […] It might not work, but you can at least get a swing at the plate and really [get] people to sort of change the way they think.”
The Invisible Pilot is a three-part series that airs weekly at 9:00 PM (ET) on HBO and HBO Max, starting April 4.
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