KENNEBUNKPORT — George H.W. Bush has a habit of doing something big – and a little bit out of the ordinary – on his birthday.

The former president parachuted out of a plane on his 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays. But Tuesday, when he turned 88, Bush celebrated a little more sedately, for a former president, that is. He invited some 200 family and friends, including former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, to a special screening of the new HBO documentary film “41.”

The film, in case you’re not in the habit of counting presidents, is about Bush. He was the 41st man to sit in the Oval Office.

Using a wheelchair to get around, but looking energized, Bush said he wanted to have the screening on his birthday, near his Walker’s Point home. So a temporary metal-and-glass structure was built on the grounds of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church and dubbed the Kennebunkport Playhouse.

Pausing on the red carpet set up in the lobby, Bush said he had seen an early version of the film earlier this year and thought it was “pretty good.” He said he was “grateful” to the film’s producers and to all the folks who had come out Tuesday for the screening.

But he quickly added that it’s not a film he’d want everyone in his life to see.

“I’m glad my mother isn’t here to see it,” said Bush. “She would have said ‘George, it’s all about you.’ She always taught us to not talk about ourselves.”

Getting Bush to talk about himself started as a challenge, the film’s producers say, but his voice ended up being the film’s greatest strength. The nearly two-hour-long documentary, which premieres on HBO Thursday at 9 p.m., is unusual in that Bush is the only voice in it. No talking heads, no family members telling their favorite stories about Bush.

Just Bush.

“I found that he’s very shy and doesn’t like to talk about himself. He edits himself out of videos he has,” said Stephen Beck, who was co-executive producer with Jerry Weintraub and co-writer with director Jeffrey Roth. “That’s probably why it took us three years to make this film.”

Former Bush adviser Andrew Card, who has a summer home in Poland, said he learned early on that Bush had been “counseled by his mother not to practice braggadocio.” Former Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater came to the screening from his home in Maryland to see Bush tell his life’s story on film, saying “I’m still always anxious to hear what he has to say.”

Bush’s son Neil Bush said he wasn’t surprised that his father agreed to do the project, but he was surprised that the film – which started out as a traditional documentary with other voices – turned out to be first person.

“I guess I’m surprised that he took that much time to do this, to reflect on his life in that way,” said Neil Bush.

Director Roth said the film is about “a man who happened to be president” and focuses more on him – his personality, his principles – than on his deeds.

Bush’s other son, former President George W. Bush – 43 – was on the guest list compiled by HBO, but did not enter via the red carpet and was not available to reporters. The temporary theater where the screening was held included a blue-and-yellow marquee that read “Kennebunkport Playhouse” with blinking lights all around. Below the marquee was a concession stand with popcorn and other refreshments.

After the 4:30 p.m. screening, invited guests went to Walker’s Point for a clam bake. Before the screening, camera crews and reporters from national cable networks and entertainment shows crammed along the 20-foot red carpet and kneeled at Bush’s wheelchair to ask him questions.

Bush, wearing a white turtleneck sweater and blue blazer, was asked what he was proudest of in his life.

“The fact that my kids all still come home. Family is very important to us,” he said.

He talked about how happy he was to still be spending half the year in Maine, and to have all his family spend time here with him, especially on his 88th birthday. He answered questions easily and with a smile on his face for about five minutes before heading into the theater to see “41.”

The last question came from Amy Sinclair – a Maine-based reporter for New England Cable News – who asked, “Mr. President, what do you plan to do for your 89th birthday?”

“I don’t know,” said Bush. “What do you have in mind?”

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: [email protected]