Elbert Hubbard: An American Original
The Roycroft Campus in East Aurora, New York is a place of romance and myth. It was built out of dreams and passions, self-determination and self-expression and it attracted those yearning to find an ideal society or otherworldly retreat – the fabled Utopia. Legends abound at Roycroft, and its atmosphere still lends to their credence today. One wants to believe the stories that have been passed down, told and re-told, about the man named Elbert Hubbard.
The idea of "tell me a story" is the foundation of every good film, but documentarians must work in fact – not in myth, romance or fiction. We are not at liberty to create plot points, narrative or character arcs for the sake of the story. These things must be found in the raw material of life mined through research. The story depends not on "creative invention" but on "creative arrangement," and we must look away from the story that others may want to hear or, in some cases, the one we may prefer to tell.
The story of Elbert Hubbard, like the story of most everyone's life, came with plot points, narrative and character arcs. The difference between Hubbard and most people is that his story rivaled the best of Hollywood fiction – it was a filmmaker’s dream that played out in almost operatic fashion on the national stage in a classic three-act drama.
In Act I, the protagonist appears rather unheroic – an average man, but he is changed by a woman and series of events, and before the curtain falls, he is ready to take the world by storm. In Act II, he rises to the top, riding a wave of popularity, but is then faced with a life-altering decision. In Act III, he fulfills his purpose but dies prematurely—his fate sealed by his own choices and by the forces he embraced during his rise to power. The entire drama plays out against the backdrop of the philosophical and aesthetic movement of Arts and Crafts.
Elbert Hubbard was a complex individual who was both a reflection of and a reaction to his times. As an historical documentary filmmaker, one of the first things I must consider is imagery. Fortunately, there were countless photographs, hundreds of artifacts and the preserved Roycroft sites. There were also reams of documents and writings available that could be examined and read in order to begin to piece together a true representation of the man and his era.
When telling a story that has never been told before – as is the case with Elbert Hubbard – the challenge of ferreting out the truth becomes weightier and the need to scour facts, double check and verify sources, takes on a greater urgency. Complicating and sometimes obstructing the view of the truth were chapter after chapter of homage and worship from those who had elevated "Hubbard the Philosopher" to almost mythic proportions and scathing critiques from those who decried him as "Hubbard the Charlatan." Add to the mix the self-inflated and grandiose hyperbole of Hubbard's own writings about himself and it becomes even more difficult to separate fact from fiction, the man from the myth.
Elbert Hubbard's life was painstakingly de-constructed and then re-constructed. Getting to the heart of the man and his story was time-consuming, laborious and often frustrating. It was months of sleepless nights worrying about fitting every detail. With the help and guidance of scholars, historians, authors, curators, Roycroft descendents, and those who carry on the traditions that Hubbard began nearly a century ago, a complex image emerged of a man set against the machinations of his time. In the end, Hubbard’s story provides compelling evidence that the past parallels the present with uncanny similarities and resonates profoundly on many levels.
Filmmaking is an art and a craft. For me, it is a labor rooted in the love of the historical journey and the great satisfaction and privilege that I am able to tell you a story.