“The story of Gary Betzner is proof that truth is stranger than fiction… and it could only happen in America.”
That opening line sets the tone for all three episodes of HBO‘s latest documentary series, ‘The Invisible Pilot.’ From filmmakers Phil Lott and Ari Mark, and EP Adam McKay, the show follows the life and death of Arkansas father and small-town crop-duster Gary Betzner, but we find out early on that not everything is quite as it seems.
Betzner’s life is examined in the first 30 minutes of the show with an air of confusion. Why did this man with three children, a loving wife, and a beautiful home in Hazen, AK commit suicide by jumping off a bridge in 1977? And why did he do it while his wife was present? Why was his body never found? Those questions are just the tip of the iceberg, and what unfolds is actually something much larger—with drugs, politics and hypnosis intertwined.
When filmmaker Phil Lott first heard the story at a film festival, he was in disbelief. A screenwriter was working for a first-time filmmaker, Craig Hodges, who also happened to be a childhood friend of Betzner’s son, Travis. Hodges was looking to turn this tale into a scripted series, but Lott and Mark saw enough potential in the facts of the story, the complicated truth, to make it a docu-series.
“As he was telling me the story, I kept saying, this is made up, right? At every single facet of the story,” remarks Lott. “And he kept saying, no this is true…So I thought, I need to find the number of that guy, I need to get a hold of him, and we need to make this as a documentary stat.”
What grabbed Lott and Mark is what will grab viewers about a third of the way into episode 1 of ‘The Invisible Pilot’—and below is a major spoiler alert if you haven’t yet had the chance to watch it.
Gary Betzner is alive. He never jumped off a bridge. His wife knew the plan. His friend aided in the coverup and drove him to another county (“Although to this day he will still never admit it,” Betzner remarks in the series). And most shocking of all, the suicide that never happened is just the beginning of his story.
“We chase down stories that we believe in, right? Because it’s a lot of work, and if you’re going to get really involved in these projects, you better really know why you’re doing it—it can’t be just for fun,” explains Mark. “We know the commercial side, we know it needs to be entertaining…We get that. But the other piece of it is, does it do something for an audience now in 2022?”
Without giving too much away, Betzner’s return from the dead involves drug smuggling, the government, and some parallels between some of the political arenas back then to today.
“I think we wanted to demonstrate that there is a sort of hindsight here. There is a new perspective that by telling a story over a long period of time with characters that you have over a long period of time, you sort of live through that time with them. And you come out cleaner on the other side with a much better head on your shoulders,” Mark continues.
Hodges, who had personal ties to those involved, already conducted interviews with most of the family before ‘The Invisible Pilot’ came to be: Betzner’s wife (Sally), his daughter, (Sara Lee) and son (Travis) among others. We see glimpses of those interviews sprinkled in with the ones that Lott and Mark set their sights on including Betzner’s ex-wife (Claudia) and first daughter from that marriage (Polly), along with his cousin, a deputy called after his apparent suicide and even Hodges himself. Then, we get to hear from Gary.
“Absolutely it was a page-turner. And we already had some of the building blocks to the story because we had seen those original interviews,” Lott explains. “So, when Ari and I went in there we had our own perspective as filmmakers,. We wanted to ask the next question, ask the next question—it was just like Alice going down the rabbit hole…It just got more and more interesting. Sometimes more confusing, [and] sometimes more spectacular.”
“All of that footage became the greatest gift in doc history because now we have this credibility, and its anchored in time and these characters who you can live and grow with,” Mark adds. “You could say to me, hey, what are some things that you want to make? It’s that. It’s the stranger than fiction stuff. It’s the stuff that once it’s presented to you, you want to go and Google it and see how could this possibly be true?”
As Mark also says, the facts were there for this to be a compelling watch. But framing everything that happened, all the different accounts that each person recounts, and then putting it all together to still be relevant is where the challenge came in.
“It’s one thing to spin a great yarn and say hey, let me tell you this story about what happened to me in past tense…We had to figure out a way for it to unfold that’s clear to the audience and makes sense, but also makes them understand why it matters and has substance,” he explains.
Both Mark and Lott remark how Gary is a shape-shifting character. Gary himself says on screen that “I’ve been trying to answer that question for almost 80 years,” when asked who he is.
Something interesting that Betzner also remarks on in ‘The Invisible Pilot’ is how you can’t do anything about the past. The only thing you can do is plan for the future and live in the moment. The past doesn’t make a good hitching point—but it makes a good reference point.
And Betzner’s past, going from a small-town crop-duster to the highest levels of government certainly holds some resonance.
“I think there are some pretty relevant themes to any generation, which would be identity—especially as an American, [and] the sort of limitless opportunities. I’m not sitting here saying he’s a hero or what he did was necessarily right… I think that’s for the audience to figure out on their own,” finishes Mark. “Part of the reason we do this at all is, we really want to try to not take people at face value, or their stories at face values, or their character. What happens when you spend time with these people and you see them in their own environments, you really start to realize that it’s not black and white, you know? People really are complicated and it really is about creating a multi-dimensional character and presenting them to the audience and letting them either go on that ride or don’t go on that ride…But certainly walk away with an opinion. ”
Catch new episodes of ‘The Invisible Pilot‘ Monday nights at 9 pm on HBO and HBO Max. ‘The Invisible Pilot’ episode 1 is available to stream now.