It launched Friedkin’s career. And though Butler would return to shoot television often during his career, when Friedkin went to Hollywood, Bill went with him. While Friedkin was off helming a spoof called “Good Times” (1967) with Sonny & Cher, Bill shot Phil Kaufman’s Frankenstein comedy “Fearless Frank” (1967), notable as Jon Voight’s debut but also for Butler’s interest in the natural world; his gift for capturing the emotional intimacy of family relationships through effortless, unforced framing; his fondness for the slow push-in and extreme close-up to amplify tension; of key-lighting and even a closing-iris in-camera effect to draw attention to details in a scene; and for shooting from extreme high and low angles to provide visual interest and texture. When freshly-reanimated corpse Frank (Voight) foils a diabolical cat burglar in Fearless Frank, he punches the villain all the way up a spiral staircase with one swing. Butler shoots the felon’s dazed mug from above so our sightline tracks all the way down and around to Frank, still at the bottom, looking up with one fist raised in the follow-through. Butler wasn’t ostentatious, he was succinct. Everything you needed to know, you get in one shot.
In simpler terms, Butler’s way of seeing, born of modest, tightly-knit roots, a farmer’s love for the outdoors and an engineer’s and technological auto-didact’s ingenuity, helped to define the look of the greatest era of film in the history of the medium. Bill Butler grounded the incomprehensibility of the American ‘70s—the energy and the cacophony of it; the feeling of change carried before a violent, anarchic gale. Already 46 years old during the Summer of Love, he wasn’t one of the “Film Brats,” that group of tousled trailblazers who filled the gulf left behind by a decrepit studio system that found itself out of step with the tastes of the Flower Power generation.
He was there for Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut “Drive, He Said” (1971). He was there, too, for Robert Culp’s first and only directorial effort, 1972’s tremendous and sadly underseen LA noir “Hickey & Boggs,” the first produced screenplay by a young writer named Walter Hill for which Butler re-used the sunset beach shot at the end of “Fearless Frank”. Then, much later, he shot actor Bill Paxton’s directorial debut “Frailty” (2001). In an interview with the Austin Chronicle in April of 2002, Paxton says “I wanted my first movie to have some great craft in all of the departments, and cinematically speaking, I knew that Bill Butler could do that.” If mentorship wasn’t a role Butler craved, it was one it seemed in which he was cast. Butler provided a look for “Frailty,” intimate and warm before it becomes insinuating and sinister, keyed in on the father/son dynamics that drive the piece.