Arts & Leisure

How a local farmer became ‘Hollywood Doug’

MIDDLEBURY DAIRY FARMER Doug Butler is the protagonist of the new documentary “Underdog” directed by Middlebury College grad Tommy Hyde. The Vermont premier of the fillm will take place at Town Hall Theater Saturday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m.

Middlebury College graduate and emerging filmmaker Tommy Hyde packs a lot into his first feature-length documentary, “Underdog,” a loving portrait of Middlebury dairy farmer Doug Butler. A perfect example of this is the two-minute montage that begins around the 49-minute mark, after an adviser has told Butler he needs to start thinking about selling his farm because it doesn’t seem like he’ll be able to milk his way out of his ballooning debt.

On the way home from that meeting Butler says he can “see why some of them poor old people committed suicide … depression … losing everything, their life’s work, the family farm…”

The montage begins with a howling snowstorm, blowing in through the window of an abandoned barn, covering up old farm equipment, chasing birds into a tree for shelter. Rather than an invitation to hibernate it feels like a kind of smothering. The sounds of the squall bleed through to the next shots, of the milking parlor, and the next, of the kitchen table, where Butler sits in a dirty, frayed sweatshirt, staring out the window, his eyes tired and full of worry.

Butler doesn’t begin to speak, however, until the shot has transitioned outside again, to a handsome black dog standing in a light snow, turning its head toward the camera in slow motion. Then two more dogs, then another. Deep in the background, somewhere, that cold wind is still blowing.

“I was going to go to UVM,” Butler, who’s now 60-something, says in a voiceover, “but I was seeing rough times on the farm … (my family) were going to lose the farm … it was down to a couple of days … so that’s how I jumped into it.”

Butler’s recollections of missed opportunities and dreams for the farm are accompanied by footage of a dozen or so slap-happy dogs racing toward the camera, pulling Butler on a sled.

As Butler in voiceover describes the first time he ever saw dog sledding, in Shelburne, Vt., and how it inspired him to buy a team of his own, we see his dogs up close and personal, their eyes glowing with a kind of bonkers dog-joy, their tongues flapping wildly in the winter sunlight.

Earlier in the film, Butler seemed to have given up on a long-held dream to race his dogs in the Open North American Championship, which is organized every year by the Alaska Dog Mushers Association. But by the time the montage ends, he has changed his mind — over the protestations of his sister Joann, who is concerned about his health. He will try to qualify for the race, he says, and if he does he will drive to Fairbanks to compete.

Those two minutes tell a story that reflects the major concerns of the film: the loss of family dairy farms in Vermont, the mental health crisis in rural America, the slow and sometimes agonizing death of bigger-than-life dreams.

And it is an artful piece of narrative filmmaking.

The only thing it’s missing — because you’d need an entire film to get at it — is the Doug-joy: the kid-like whooping when a train driver answers the call to sounds his horn, the falsetto smitten dog owner baby talk, the excitement of lighting out for the unknown, dangers be damned.

DOUG BUTLER IN his truck.

As “Underdog” shows so well, Doug-joy draws people into Butler’s sphere, it inspires nicknames like “party on a sled,” and it wins him admirers, especially among people who understand how complicated it is. Doug-joy is the response to the grave concerns laid out in that montage. Which is why Hyde was so intrigued by Butler to begin with.

“I think I saw a lot of myself in Doug,” Hyde said in his director’s statement. “I’m a dreamer and an extrovert, and in Doug I saw a potential future — one where my hopes and plans didn’t pan out. I wanted to know if that was OK, and how to harvest happiness from the nooks and crannies of a downtrodden life.”

Hyde, a Connecticut native who graduated from Middlebury in February 2015, was working on an assignment for a digital storytelling class his freshman year when he was introduced to Butler. Hyde and his classmate hung out at the farm, shot some footage and “made a really terrible four-minute film,” he told the Independent.

After the assignment was complete, Hyde kept going back to the farm. Sometimes he would just visit or help out, other times he would bring a camera he borrowed from the college film department or library. This went on for years, and Hyde accumulated around 500 hours of film footage.

“Doug would never sit down,” Hyde recalled, so the budding filmmaker had to find other ways to communicate and get to the emotional truth of Butler’s story. “In a funny way, Doug was kind of teaching me how to make the film,” Hyde said.

And the first person who really “got it,” he said, was a different Doug — Town Hall Theater founder and Artistic Director Doug Anderson.

Not long after Hyde moved back to Vermont in 2016, he shared his film idea with Anderson, whom he’d known in passing during his college years.

“When we heard about the project and met both Tommy and Doug Butler, Town Hall Theater immediately created the position of Resident Filmmaker and has supported Tommy in many ways,” Anderson told the Independent. The finished product, which recently debuted at the Camden Film Festival in Maine, “is bracing and beautiful, and has an unexpected warmth at the finish,” Anderson said.

ONE OF DOUG Butler’s dogs.

Town Hall Theater will host the Vermont premier of “Underdog” on Saturday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m. Both Hyde and Butler will offer answer questions from the audience after the screening.

The audience for that premier, Hyde predicted, is likely to show a wide cross-section of the community, reflecting the many voices and efforts that went into making “Underdog” a reality.

“The whole project feels like a creative collaboration of disparate communities coming together to interact and make something special.”

For more information about “Underdog,” visit underdogfilm.com. For ticket info, visit townhalltheater.org/event/underdog.

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