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'Burt's Buzz' shows paradoxical life of bearded Burt's Bees co-founder

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TORONTO - As he met the hirsute septuagenarian co-founder of Burt's Bees natural products and pitched a tent on his farmland — 11 hectares anchored by a humble, messy home with no electricity in the backwoods of Maine — Toronto-based filmmaker Jody Shapiro quickly realized the quirky entrepreneur is a man of contrasts.

"He never expected (the company) to get this big," said Shapiro, who chronicles Burt Shavitz's life in the documentary "Burt's Buzz," which has its Canadian theatrical release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday.

"I don't think he ever wanted it to alter his life in any way, and I think once that started happening, that's probably when he started kind of pulling himself out a little bit. But he believes in it. He's a salesman."

As "Burt's Buzz" shows, Shavitz came by his success unexpectedly and reluctantly. Born in Manhattan, he started out as a photojournalist before learning the beekeeping trade using hives and tools that had been given to him in upstate New York.

The grizzled nature lover first sold his honey out of the back of his truck with the goal of breaking even. Then he sold it at a local store. It wasn't until he met and fell in love with Roxanne Quimby, a graphic designer and single mother, that the business really took off.

Quimby arranged it so they sold their products — including hand-dipped candles, soap and lip balm — first at craft fairs and then at retail stores. She also hired a local wood engraver to create the famed portrait of Shavitz that's on the company logo.

According to the film, Shavitz wasn't looking for fame or fortune and felt as if he was getting phased out of the growing business. When Quimby found out he was having an affair, she drafted a contract offering to buy him out, which he signed. She eventually sold Burt's Bees to Clorox, and today Shavitz only gets equity from doing promotional work for the brand.

The 79-year-old Shavitz lives a simple life with no television, cellphone or even running hot water in his home. But when he does promotional tours for Burt's Bees, he enjoys staying in luxury hotels and signing autographs for hundreds of fans.

As Shapiro puts it, Shavitz has been able to be a salesman while also staying true to himself.

"Somebody asked him, 'Why do you still go out and do this? You like the land, you don't necessarily like travelling,' and he said, 'Because they pay me,' and it was just that simple, there were no other parts to it," Shapiro, the doc's director, said in a telephone interview.

"But I know he believes in what he did. This was a labour of love for him, there's no question, and he was a big part of it."

Shapiro embarked on the film through actress Isabella Rossellini, who is an executive producer.

Rossellini was doing a film on the colony collapse of bees in the vein of her "Green Porno" short films, which Shapiro had co-directed and produced, and she asked him to accompany her to meet Shavitz for the piece.

"I said, 'He's a real guy? Of course I'll come along to meet him,' and that's how it started," said Shapiro, who made the doc "How To Start Your Own Country" and has produced and served as cinematographer on several Guy Maddin films, including "My Winnipeg."

Shapiro said he approached Burt's Bees about doing the film and "they were completely hands-off" during development, but his main goal was to make a film on Shavitz and "the difference between Burt the man versus Burt the logo."

During the year-long shoot, Shapiro and his crew stayed in a nearby motel as well as a tent on Shavitz's land, and even tried their hand at beekeeping.

"At one point I had this 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' moment where all the tarantulas are on the back, except my back was covered with bees and I was kind of freaking out," he said.

"But by the end of the day ... we were in our short sleeves without the helmets on and stuff and nobody got stung. I could really understand. You have to be very relaxed and very focused and very in the moment and I could see why people are attracted to it."

Shavitz is described in the film as a bit of a curmudgeon, but Shapiro said he opened up to him during the shoot for the film, which includes interviews with Shavitz's assistant as well as his brother and Quimby's son.

"Somebody asked me, 'What makes Burt kick?' and I thought about it and I realized I know what the answer is — it's the sunrise. Every day is a new day for him and he's not the type of person that dwells on the past."

Follow @VictoriaAhearn on Twitter.

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