Honest Man: the Life of R. Budd Dwyer is a movie about politics and corruption, suicide and survival. Four years in the making, it explores the scandal that led an honest, hardworking man to take his own life. This independently produced feature-length documentary follows Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania politician who infamously committed suicide at a televised press conference.
The film chronicles Dwyer’s meteoric rise to political power and examines the bribery scandal and subsequent trial that pushed him to his breaking point. Honest Man also delves into the controversy and consequences of the uncensored airing of Dwyer’s death on television stations worldwide.
Honest Man reveals a story that has remained untold for over 24 years. The film features exclusive new interviews, including William Smith, the man whose testimony convicted Dwyer, and Dwyer’s widow Joanne–her last interview before her death in 2009.
Was Dwyer venal, or a victim? Did he kill himself because he couldn’t live with being guilty or because he couldn’t live with being innocent? Honest Man allows audiences to judge for themselves.
James Dirschberger, director of Honest Man is originally from Buffalo, NY, an hour from Budd Dwyer’s hometown of Meadville, PA. He moved to San Francisco in 2002 to pursue filmmaking. Since then he has teamed up with numerous Bay Area artists to create successful collaborative animations, music videos, short films and documentaries. His films have screened around the world and have accumulated over one million views online. He is currently developing an animated series for television. “Honest Man” is his first feature film.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you first encounter the subject of the Honest Man?
James Dirschberger: I first found out about Budd Dwyer the way most people found out about Budd Dwyer in that I saw the video of his suicide online. What draw me to him and his case was that when I saw the video there was no context to it, either about who he was or why he would do something about that, to me that was the most shocking part and this clip kind of just existed in this information vacuum, the want to know the answer to these questions made me want to dig further and before I knew it I was making a movie.
BT: How did you go about researching the movie?
JD: At the time it was a little bit harder, I don’t think Wikipedia even existed so there was maybe two independent sites that had a brief synopsis of events and I drew two names, one of whom had written a book about Budd, and I reached out to Lorraine, who appears in the film and moved on from there. I did not initially reach out to the Dwyer family; I wanted to show them a body of work so they would know that I wasn’t just doing some exploitative film. There was another author named Bill Keisling, his penned a books about the scandal and the rise and fall of Budd Dwyer, so there were two reliable sources for me to build off of. Luckily now with the film out there and the republishing of the books and the Wikipedia article, so now people can know who Budd Dwyer was and what would draw him to do such a thing.
BT: How did you come up with the tile of The Honest Man?
JD: The Honest Man was a title that many people had used to describe Budd and I think it kind of embodies who he was or who he thought he was, he thought that he was an honest person. He rose to the ranks through the American dream and that same desire and naivety was what brought hum down as well.
BT: What does the film say about politics today?
JD: It shows that the American judicial system and the American public seems to have a very short memory because this is scandal that ruined so many live, Budd Dwyer obviously died because of this court case, and nothing has really changed especially the changes that Budd pointed out before he took his own life, overzealous prosecutors are still out prosecuting people on a limb. Budd Dwyer is not alone, he is remembered only because he took his own life and I think it is sad that nothing has changed.
BT: The film seems to lean to no particular political side.
JD: Yes, Bud Dwyer was a Republican, but he did something that I always thought all politicians did. When you take office and replace a Democrat, instead and replacing everyone he did a top-down evaluation of the office and kept the people that did a good job. The idea that we are all a part of the same team and it is not Red vs. Blue or Republican vs. Democrat. We did not dwell on this because this is not a Republican or a Democrat story; this was a story about an American.
BT: How challenging was it to make this film?
JD: I’d say one of the biggest challenges in doing an independent film, is that this film was completely self-financed. I would save up a couple thousand dollars and then shoot and then stop, it was tough, because there was a lot of starting and stopping. We also limited the scope we had and could not interview everyone that we wanted to. Other than that, the biggest challenge was getting people to appear in the film. No one on either side was eager to go back and relieve this, to ask someone to reminisce this tragedy and to do it on camera is a very tall order to fill. Some people were very kind in their answers in how they declined and some other people not so much.
BT: How much of this film was made in the editing room?
JD: That is where my fantastic editor and producer, Matt Levie came in, I think I had an idea of how the story was going to play out in my mind but Matt put it all together. There were things that I thought we could no do that Matt was able to weave all of those things in?
BT: Any upcoming projects?
JD: Yes, I actually do a lot of animation and have a pilot that is in development with a cable network. I have started research on two subjects one of which may be the next documentary that I am working on and in the meantime I am just working on music videos and whatever pays the bills.
HONEST MAN makes its Los Angeles premiere tonight presented by Cinema Speakeasy at the Royal/T in Culver City. Doors open at 7pm, and the screening begins at 8:30pm followed by a discussion moderated by Truthdig’s Kasia Anderson with director James Dirschberger, members of the Dwyer family, and The Whitest Kids U’ Know founder Trevor Moore. Tickets are $10 at the door. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, visit http://cinemaspeakeasy.com/2011/06/23/los-angeles-premiere-an-honest-man-la-july-29th/.
Images courtesy of Eighty Four Films.