HBO’s The Invisible Pilot docuseries tells the story of Gary Betzner, an Arkansas crop duster who mysteriously vanished in 1977. The incredible story had so many twists and turns, it couldn’t fit into just one documentary — so Ari Mark, director and executive producer of The Invisible Pilot, and Phil Lott, co-director and co-executive producer, turned it into a stranger than fiction three-part series.
“The Invisible Pilot is about this small town, everyman guy, family guy, well-liked. One day in 1977, he takes his kids to ice cream, and he pulls his car over at the side of the road. And it’s in the middle of a bridge, and he gets out of the car, and he jumps off it and disappears. And over the course of three episodes, we follow and unwrap this amazing story of what happened that day. And how he ended up going toe-to-toe with the American president,” Lott said.
Ari Mark and Phil Lott designed the first episode to draw you in and entice audiences to finish the series.
“Episode one — if you think of them in chapters — is very much about a quote-unquote dead man, what it means to die, and, how this particular character is kind of weirdly complex; is able to really just sort of ascend to unexpected heights,” Mark said. “Partially out of fearlessness, partially out of just sort of sheer gall, and I think there’s a tweak of sort of Americanism in there, of this pursuing your dream and doing whatever the hell you want to do, whenever you want to do it.”
Phil Lott first heard the story of Gary Betzner at a film festival in Sonoma 12 years ago.
“I’m English, and I like to talk to people. It’s mostly wine up there, so it was just a couple of glasses of that, and I met this screenwriter who had been given a job of fictionalizing this story for a local filmmaker called Craig Hodges. And he was working through this story, and I was asking about what his script was about, and he was telling me this story, and I kept saying, ‘But you made that bit up, right? You made that bit up, right?’ And he was like, ‘No, no, this is all true. This is all true stuff.’ And I think I finished that conversation, I was like, I need this guy’s number, because I don’t think you should make a fiction script, I think you should make a documentary,” Lott said. “This is a stranger-than-fiction story, and this guy deserves a story. It’s taken us a long time to kind of get in with the family, and get in with Gary, and convince them that we were the right people to tell the story.”
All three episodes of The Invisible Pilot are now streaming on HBO Max. Here are some time stamps from the Factual America interview:
00:00 – The trailer for The Invisible Pilot.
03:05 – The synopsis of the docuseries.
06:18 – How Phil and Ari came across this story.
08:40 – What makes documentaries sometimes more exciting than feature films.
12:10 – What the US government was up to in 1980s.
18:20 – What Gary Betzner’s relationship with the government was while serving his sentence.
21:30 – The investigative journalism Ari and Phil had to undertake to create this docuseries.
24:50 – What Gary and his family’s reactions were to the documentary.
27:40 – How Phil and Ari approached and shaped The Invisible Pilot.
34:30 – What it was like to work with Gary Betzner.
37:30 – Upcoming projects for Phil and Ari.
Factual America uses documentary filmmaking to examine the American experience as well as universal topics that affect all Americans. Guests include Academy Award, Emmy, and Grammy-winning filmmakers and producers, their subjects, as well as experts on the American experience. We discuss true crime, music, burning social and political topics, history and arts with the creators of the latest and upcoming documentary films in theatres and on the most popular digital platforms. This podcast is produced by Alamo Pictures, a London- and Austin-based production company that makes documentaries about the US from a European perspective for international audiences.
Main Image: Gary Betzner pictured in The Invisible Pilot on HBO courtesy of Factual America