An unsung entrepreneur gets his due in Costa Botes’s new documentary.
The rise and fall of the American Dream has given us some indelible symbols in art, whether it’s Gatsby’s green light at the end of the pier, or Kane’s Rosebud. Wellington filmmaker Costa Botes finds a similar metaphor in an unlikely location: the jellybean. David Klein started marketing the then-novel idea of jellybeans sold in single flavours, and founded the now multi-million-dollar company Jelly Belly. However, Jelly Belly’s commercial success was matched by Klein’s personal disaster—he was bought out cruelly, and spent decades languishing in obscurity in spite of his contribution to a beloved American product. Botes’s documentary Candyman offers an entertaining look at David Klein’s rise and fall, capturing both the entrepreneur’s strengths and flaws. The jellybean metaphor works not only as a cautionary tale, but as a celebration of a kind-hearted man who, despite being used and abused by people along the way, kept on trying.
Botes started making documentaries before it was considered ‘fashionable’. “I hadn’t thought too much about documentaries,” he recalls. “But the sorts of films which made me really excited were works of fact but were filmed really subjectively. Filmmakers like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog—it seemed like the most interesting films I was watching were documentaries.” He’s noticed changes in the documentary market subsequently. “The market caught up a little bit, and you had films being rewarded at the box office. It was a few years before I realised that was a mirage, that it was festival driven mainly. The number of films that get out and make money for their makers is minuscule.”
He achieved notoriety in his collaboration with Peter Jackson, which garnered the label “greatest film hoax in history” from the Guinness Book of World Records. The film, about a ‘pioneer’ of New Zealand film, was believed by many to be true when it screened on television. It has also led to speculation about later works (such as Candyman) being “mockumentaries”, a question that baffles Botes. “The negative aspects of Forgotten Silver were played out at the time. Everyone obsessed about the hoax element and forgot about it as a work of entertainment. I think it’s an extremely well crafted piece of storytelling. A lot of blood was shed over it. To have all that pushed to the background because everyone went on about the hoax—it was truly not meant to fool anyone. It was a matter of some shock to me that people bought it to the extent that they did. It took all the fun out of it.”
Botes also made the behind the scenes documentary for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but in a process which paralleled David Klein’s life, had the footage ripped away from him. “That work got scooped. It was one of the only films to tell you what it was like. But I got scooped and pushed aside by the Hollywood crowd, who came in late, weren’t ever there, took all of my footage, because New Line gave it to them. That was something in my worst nightmares I never wanted to happen.”
Botes says he has managed to discern a pattern in all of his films. “The subjects who have attracted me, have all been men, characters who have a long distance perseverance, who don’t let go of that passion. You see that in the Wind City Strugglers, you see it in Forgotten Silver.” In some respects, this fascination bears similarity to Werner Herzog’s love of flawed dreamers. “Herzog is a real touchstone for me. I don’t know if my films are like this—his films have a real manic edge to them that I don’t have at all. I like his blurring of personal with the objective. He certainly does not make films, which could be described as journalistic. I think here in New Zealand, there’s a really naïve perception of documentary. The word ‘balance’ keeps getting used. I think balance is death to good documentary. You’ve got to have a point of view, you’ve got to advocate.”
Botes’s inspiration for Candyman came from meeting Bert Klein, David Klein’s son. Bert lived in New Zealand for a year while working as an animator on Lord of the Rings, and the two stayed in touch after the film. “Bert sent me an email just saying check my father’s blog, and I already knew his Dad had invented Jelly Belly, but never got much of an opportunity to question him about it. He [Bert] never really talked about it. I looked at the blog and it became immediately obvious that there was a story there. In archetypal terms, there was a man with a brilliant, creative idea, made a lot of money really fast, made a lot of people really rich, and then through a combination of his own foolishness, and his own personal weaknesses, allowed himself to be manipulated out of that particular venture and lost control of it.”
The film was produced by Bert Klein, and Botes says while the project was driven by this personal connection, he was also given a lot of space to make the film. “Bert’s motivation was twofold. One was to reclaim his Dad’s legacy for his children. He was virtually estranged from David for some time. The loss of Jelly Belly turned David into a monster. Bert went from this happy four-or-five-year-old, and then post-Jelly Belly, David became depressed and took it out on the family. Bert’s growing up was affected directly by all of this fallout. Now as an adult, with a baby in the house, he took stock, and asked ‘who was my Dad, what really happened?’ Making this movie was actually a discovery for him and effecting a reconciliation.” Botes admits “I’ve never made a movie which has brought a father and son together—that was nice.”
At its core, however, the film examines a pretty cruel situation: Klein’s giving nature and empathy for working people was preyed upon by a number of hanger-ons. Botes says the father-son reconciliation was needed to maintain some hope in amongst such a sad story. “You don’t want to hand an audience that kind of dead rat. Unless the failures are of such a scale that it’s entertaining—that didn’t happen here. David, at a moment in time, was really vulnerable and put his name on a piece of paper he should never have signed. We’ve all done that; we’ve all made some decision or lapse. Within what seemed like days, business quadrupled. And quadrupled again. Within a few years it was making millions. It must have killed him.”
This loss in money was also coupled with Klein’s name being erased from the company he founded and developed. “That’s the thing which hurt David the most. He maintains that it wasn’t the 200-odd million dollars that he missed out on, it was the fact he was rubbed out. The guy who used to sign his name as Jelly Belly became a nobody overnight. And it literally was overnight.”
Botes tried to get Jelly Belly opinion on the film, particularly from the current chairman Herman G Rowland (he was Klein’s manufacturer and also bought out Klein). “I pride myself on my integrity and I had to compromise myself in this film. I wanted their point of view. All the advice that I had was that they won’t want to talk to you if you’re making a film about David. I had some misgivings about it, but we told them we were making a film about famous American candy, and the next thing I knew, they were offering us an interview with Herman. And I thought let’s do that. I went in there, and it was all going so well, and unfortunately I tipped my hand, one question too many, and it was like flicking a switch. The temperature dropped fifty degrees, and he looked at me, and asked me to turn the camera off.”
Despite this incident, Botes says that he understands Rowland’s business motives for making the move that he did, due in part to unreliability of David Klein as a business partner, and the need to raise money for a new factory to deal with a 14-month backlog. He also suggests that Klein was “a genius salesman but he thinks small. I think he was worried they were a flash in the pan and they wouldn’t last. His partner was very keen to sell as well.”
Through the making of Candyman, Botes says that although he found out David Klein is “quite an up kind of person, I’ve seen the best and worst of him now. Every person I interviewed—I interviewed over thirty people—I asked them whether they would trust David, [whether they] believed he was a truthful person. And they all did.” Botes’s moving documentary captures the realisation of small dreams and the price success can pay. And as Botes says: “The film is not about a jellybean, it’s about a man. We’re going to tell the tragic life of a man through a jellybean.”