The 1974 cult classic film “Buster and Billie,” shot in and around Statesboro, is being digitally remastered by Zephina Media.
Produced by Columbia Pictures, the film starred Jan-Michael Vincent as Buster, and Joan Goodfellow as Billie. Pamela Sue Martin, Robert Englund and Clifton James completed the list of main characters. The film was to trace Buster and Billie’s romance and its tragic end, providing a “unique cinematic experience that was revolutionary for its time,” according to a Zephina Media press release.
The movie was panned by critics and a flop at the box office, and was eventually forgotten by most, although it developed a cult following. The film was lost and was presumed destroyed because the original masters were missing for 45 years. Bootleg copies have appeared over the years, but there was never anything that came close to the original film quality.
In late 2019, Zephina Media project manager Seth Doherty set out to solve the mystery of what happened to the film. Through a connection at Sony Pictures, Doherty was able to find the original film elements, long forgotten, in Sony’s underground vaults.
“It’s been quite a treasure hunt, with a lot of twists and turns,” said Doherty. “I’m a bit of a super-fan of the film, and I think other fans of ‘Buster and Billie’ will be pleased with the results.”
Doherty says that Sony had taken “very good care of the film reels,” but even so, when restoration efforts began, he wasn’t sure what they’d find.
“But at the end of the day, the film was in great shape and easy to work with,” he said.
“Buster and Billie” was set in a small town in Georgia in the late 1940s, and followed the classic theme of boy meets girl. But unlike so many other stories that follow that plotline, there is an unprecedented twist. Buster Lane, Vincent’s character, is the popular guy in school, engaged to his sweetheart, Martin’s Margie Hooks.
Billie Jo Truluck is the proverbial girl on the other side of the tracks, who provides sexual favors to Buster’s friends. When Buster gets frustrated with Margie, he begins to visit Billie, and what starts out as friendship quickly turns into a steamy romance. When Billie begins to turn down the other boys, their response shocked audiences and critics alike.
The boys grow increasingly jealous because she is no longer available to them and after they become drunk one day, they come across her walking on a dirt road. They corner her and when she fights back, they rape and kill her in the heat of the moment.
Buster finds Billie’s body, and in a rage, confronts the other boys. He kills two of them and injures the others. He’s put in jail, but is released the day after her funeral, which no one attends but his parents, and he later takes flowers to her graveside.
The movie originally was given a rating of “X” due to its graphic content and nudity, but filmmakers were able to tone it down so that it could receive an “R” rating.
Doherty says the film certainly deserved its rating.
“In 1974 it had to have pushed the boundaries of cinema ratings as it ticked off all the boxes...it does have nudity as well as language and, of course, violence. It shows drinking, smoking and teenagers in awkward situations,” he said. “All of those things were necessary to tell the story properly and with authenticity. For me, that is why the film struck a nerve. It was real.”
According to the American Film Institute, the production team, along with director Daniel Petrie, chose Bulloch County and the surrounding area because of the cooperation of Georgia’s Motion Picture and Television Advisory Committee, created by former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.
Parts of the film were shot on locations around Bulloch County, including the old tobacco warehouse in downtown Statesboro, and in Register and Stilson. School scenes were shot at the old primary school in Metter. Crews scouted not only film sites, but also began to recruit local residents to round out the cast.
Marsha Crosby, who was born and raised in Brooklet, said that when Hollywood literally came knocking on the door at her family’s farm, she was the one to answer. Crews had scouted in the area and took note of her dad’s property.
So when a 16-year-old Crosby opened the door, “They asked me, ‘Hey, you want to be in a movie?’” she said, laughing. “I said, ‘Yeah, it sounds exciting, but I have to ask my parents.’”
No filming was done on the family farm, but Crosby says her parents did give permission for her to be in the film. She was told to go to the Crossroads Motel for hair, makeup and wardrobe. Her long hair wasn’t the look they wanted, she said, so her hair was braided and put up. Crosby had several days of filming at the old primary school in Metter, and says she was in a lot of the school scenes, on the school bus, and at the dance.
“It was fun and it was a great experience,” she said, adding that she got Vincent’s autograph, and she still has it, along with a pay stub from being in the movie. She’s just not sure where she’s put them.
Crosby says she wasn’t aware during her time on set of what the plot of the movie was going to be.
“I probably wouldn’t have been able to be in it if my parents knew exactly what it was,” she said. “But overall, it was fun doing it.”
Sylvania resident Vicki Rogers Bazemore, who lived in Statesboro at the time, says that when film crew members came to town, they set up camp at the Holiday Inn and, “You took your picture down there. Because my mother took a family photo, that’s how we all got in.” Bazemore’s whole family was in the film.
“When they first talked to us about being in it, we were under the impression that it was to be a family movie,” she said. “When it came out, it was a little bit more than what my parents realized it was going to be.”
Bazemore says that back then, “that type of stuff was just not something that you would see in a film without that type of rating to it,” referring to the “R” rating.
Bazemore and her brothers were in the church scene, and she recalled that they had many, many takes before the scene was done. Her parents were in the barn dance scene.
“After the movie came out, we went to see it, and they actually blacked out my mother’s front teeth. We had no idea they were doing that. That was not what we were really expecting to see,” she said.
But all in all, she calls her experience a good one.
“We got to skip school, and we got to meet the crew,” she said, adding that they were paid $25 a day.
Angie Swain and her siblings, Patti and David, were all in high school at the time, and got to be in the film because they were in the right place at the right time. Their dad, Aaron, was principal of the Metter primary school, and he had given permission for filming to take place there. He was also asked to play the high school principal in the film, and his children got to go along for the ride.
Swain says “they made promises that it wouldn’t be too sexually explicit,” and they were told the film was going to be a “coming of age story, a small town movie.”
After the movie was released, and the family became aware of the content, Swain says her father was caught completely off guard.
“He was not a happy camper,” she said. “He was in the choir at the First Baptist Church, he was a deacon, he was a member of the Rotary Club, and never missed a meeting. He was a really good man. No one knew or they wouldn’t have allowed them to use the school.”
Even so, she still calls it a good experience.
“It’s fun because I was in it. And I can say I was in a movie with Jan-Michael Vincent,” she said, laughing.
Doherty says he can’t speak to what local residents were told about the film’s content during that time.
“I can tell you that in my own personal experience, it is not at all unusual that film extras and anybody else without access to the script do not know specifics of the film beyond their personal scenes. The writer of ‘Buster and Billie,’ the very talented Ron Turbeville, as well as the director Daniel Petrie and Jan-Michael Vincent have all passed away. Sadly, there are a lot of good questions about the making of ‘Buster and Billie’ that are lost to history,” he said.
Doherty adds that for him, finding “Buster and Billie” was a passion project.
“Along the way, I discovered the movie had a large, worldwide cult classic fan base eager to see the move remastered and released. To date, the response and anticipation for the release has been amazing, with orders for the film coming in from all over the world,” he said. “The ultimate goal, of course, is to introduce ‘Buster and Billie’ to new audiences who will experience the film for the first time, as I did, back in 2019.”
To obtain a copy of the film on Blu-ray, go online at www.busterandbillie.com.