Dramatic stories are infinitely more compelling when we know that they are true. Like the story of Budd Dwyer: On January 22, 1987, Dwyer, the Treasurer of Pennsylvania, committed suicide during a televised press conference. The victim of a corrupt state government, Dwyer was found guilty of accepting bribes, a charge he denied until his last breath. Despite his conviction, there was always doubt about the nature of Dwyer’s indiscretion, and speculation as to why he decided to end his life. Did Dwyer kill himself out of guilt, or was an innocent man simply unable to cope with blame and hatred being thrust upon him?
These are just some of the questions that director James Dirschberger sought to answer with his documentary Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer. MovieMaker caught up with the director to discuss his controversial film.
Hugh Cunningham (MM): What was your goal when you decided to make this documentary?
James Dirschberger (JD): When I saw the suicide video, it existed in a time and place where no context, explanation or reason was given. That drove me mad. I started making the film because I knew that there was a story to be told, and if I could answer even one of my questions, it would be worth doing. Since the film’s release I’ve talked to so many people who had the same experience. I’m glad I was able to offer them some perspective on Budd’s story.
MM: This documentary was six years in the making. What was the biggest hurdle you faced in getting it made?
JD: Funding the entire film out of pocket was probably the biggest contributor to the long production schedule. I would save enough money to shoot for about four months at a time and then have to put the film back on hold until I could afford to revive it. This was very frustrating because I never had continuous momentum and, as a documentary filmmaker, nothing is more aggravating than having to just sit on a great story. The upside to this was that I had ample time to research the case and do extensive phone interviews with people months before I would film them.
MM: In the film you interviewed Dwyer’s wife, Joanne, who passed away before the film was completed. What was her reaction to the documentary?
JD: Unfortunately Joanne never got to see the finished film. However, she was able to see a rough cut and some clips before she passed, and I’m told she liked them a lot. During our interview she expressed that she hoped the film would raise awareness about Budd’s story and help bring about some change in the justice system. I like to think that the final cut did her justice.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
JD: I think the audience will walk away with a greater understanding of who Budd Dwyer was and why he took his own life. In a broader sense, I hope they’ll realize that injustices like this are still happening today and will persist until people demand that our system be reformed.
To learn more about Honest Man: The Life of R. Budd Dwyer, visit dwyermovie.com/.