A new documentary airing on HBO tonight on business titan Warren Buffett doesn’t reveal his investment secrets or strategies but instead provides a behind-the-scenes look at his upbringing, marriage and family, provided in part through never-before-seen photos and home movies.
Becoming Warren Buffett tells how an ambitious, numbers-obsessed boy from Nebraska became one of the world’s richest, most highly-regarded investors, with a net worth of over $60 billion.
Tracing Buffett’s ascent from first-time investor to his successes today, the documentary explores the highs and lows of his career and personal life, from becoming a father of three and a legendary businessman, to weathering the Salomon Brothers treasury bond trading scandal, which threatened his reputation, and the loss of his wife and first love, Susie Thompson Buffett.
“I like numbers, it started before I can remember,”” Buffett tells a group of Omaha Central High School students in the film. A voracious reader his entire life, at age seven he read a book he borrowed from the library, One Thousand Ways to Make $1000, and, inspired by its lessons, began selling Coca-Cola, gum and newspapers. His father, a salesman who survived the Depression, was elected to Congress when Buffett was 12, moving the family to Washington. Displaced and unhappy, Buffett lost interest in academics, attending the University of Nebraska at his father’s insistence; he was turned down for admission by the Harvard Business School. This rejection was propitious: Buffett discovered that two of his financial idols, Ben Graham and David Dodd, taught at the Columbia Business School; he wrote them a letter and was accepted there. From Graham he learned what he calls the “two rules of investing”: “Rule #1: Never lose money. Rule #2: Never forget Rule #1.”
Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger turned Berkshire Hathaway, a struggling textile company, into a behemoth holding corporation, with stakes today in Coke, Heinz, Geico and other blue-chip companies.
The documentary was directed by Peter Kunhardt, the Emmy Award-winning producer of Jim: The James FoleyStory, about the U.S. photojournalist slain by ISIS in 2014; he has also made documentaries on Richard Nixon, Teddy Kennedy and Gloria Steinem.
Kunhardt, a friend of Buffett’s son, Peter, asked Peter if he thought his father would be receptive to Kunhardt’s making a documentary about him. Peter told Kunhardt to write his father a letter, “since he’s famous for making up his own mind,” Kunhardt said. Buffett agreed to work with Kunhardt, and the film was made between 2014 and 2016, on five visits to Omaha by Kunhardt and his crew.
Kunhardt said he was not interested in looking into Buffett as “a financial guy. I got the sense this was the first time he was willing to truly tell his family story in a way that had not been done before. I wanted to understand the influences that allowed him to become so successful, what shaped him.”
He said that over time, Buffett began to trust him, in part because Kunhardt’s two sons, Teddy and George, worked with him on the documentary as producers. “My sons helped instill that trust. At his age, he’s ready to be a little more reflective than he’s been in the past. He’s always looked forward. He’s at a good point to look back. It’s a way for him to tell his story without having to sit down with a pencil and paper and do it himself.”
Kunhardt said Buffett saw the film before it was shown anywhere, but that he had no editorial control over it. “He told me how much he liked it, that he was very pleased it tells a story that’s not been told before.” Kunhardt said, adding that the only change Buffett requested was in an inaccurate number in a chart on Berkshire Hathaway.
Kunhardt said Buffett and his family gave him and his sons total access to all of their photos (which numbered in the tens of thousands) and home movies, without prescreening the latter.
Kunhardt—who shows Buffett driving himself to work in the morning, discussing which item from McDonald’s he will order for breakfast that day–said he appreciated Buffett’s “simplicity and humbleness. In this world, there are so many rich people showing off to each other with bigger houses, bigger jets. It’s refreshing to see the antithesis of that. He can buy anything he wants but doesn’t.”