"What is it, what can it possibly be about Blow Jobs and Golf?" -- Martian Visitor.
This is actually not a query from the deep recesses of space, a missive of the Tralfamadorians, but rather a fax from the fertile mind of Kurt Vonnegut, sent to his filmmaker friend Robert Weide. It is an important question though, one that will only be answered if Weide's Kickstarter campaign to complete his Vonnegut documentary "Unstuck in Time" comes to fruition.
In part one of the my interview with Weide, over at Signature, we discussed Kurt Vonnegut the author and the impact the books had on a precocious teenager. In part two, we discuss the long road of friendship that's led to here, directing "Mother Night" and then watching it with Vonnegut, and what it's going to take to get "Unstuck in Time" in theaters, or on a smartphone, near you. I'll say it again. If you're a Vonnegut fan with a little discretionary cash, don't forget Kilgore Trout's money tree was a fictional concept. Pony up.
Signature: In working on the film, how often do you go back to the books?
Robert Weide: Making the documentary has been so on-again, off-again, there's never been a time I sat down and refamiliarize myself -- No, wait I did do that in the mid-1980s. Assuming the Kickstarter campaign is successful, I will spend some time with the books again, but lit crit has never been my strong suit. The film is about the man and what it's like to spend time with Kurt Vonnegut, so what I'll do to compensate is interview people who are much smarter about his books than I. People like Jerome Klinkowitz, who was the first guy to teach Vonnegut at the university level. He started prior to Slaughterhouse Five at the University of Northern Iowa. He's much more articulate than me and will be one of a number of scholars I plan on including in the film.
SIG: At what point in your relationship did you realize it was no longer documentarian and subject, that the film wasn't going to be what you initially set out to make?
RW: There was a long period where it was both without any problem. The first major filming I did was in 1988, after six years of correspondence and lunches, but it wasn't to the point where I thought there was any conflict. The next big filming session was in 1994, when we went on an extended trip to Indianapolis and Lexington, Kent. That's when his daughter Nanny first joined us. She paid me a high compliment at the time, saying she could tell by our dynamic that her father trusts and likes me. He didn't suffer fools and could be suspicious of outsiders, but she liked watching us play together. All of my documentaries have been of people I admire, I can't imagine doing one on someone I didn't. It's a lot of work, who wants to spend all that time with someone you don't care for?
Sometime after that, and I don't want to overstate the conflict within, but the friendship eventually eclipsed the film. It flipped. Instead of worrying about our relationship intruding on the film, it went the other direction. At one point, I stayed at his home on Sagaponack for a week and had the instinct to film, but I thought no, I don't want a camera crew impeding on our time together. It was nice of him to invite me, so I didn't shoot anything. It meant giving up great footage, even just B-roll, of Kurt puttering around the house. That is the exact moment when I realized things had taken a major turn.
SIG: Did you think at that point that you wouldn't make the film until after he passed away?
RW: No, because I kept filming. In 2000, I went back to his 60th high school reunion in Indianapolis with a camera crew. I never stopped. My thinking was I'll continue filming, some of his public speaking and such, keep the cameras rolling and see what happens without a specific game-plan.
SIG: So why didn't you finish the documentary while he was still alive?
RW: Since the beginning, I've had problems with the financing. It takes the wind out of your sails when there isn't enough money to keep going. Unless you're making a superhero movie, it's hard to get financing even for narrative films. I'm not like my friend Morgan Spurlock. He's great at raising funds, has an entire company and office working for him. I'm out of my house with the dogs at my feet, down the hall from my wife. I've never been resourceful at raising money from a variety of sources, a $10K grant here, a donation for $5K over there. I don't have that ability. All of my documentaries have been funded by a single source, usually PBS or HBO.
To be honest, after Kurt died in 2007, I wondered if I would ever be able to get the film done.
SIG: Given his popularity, I find it surprising that there isn't a line of money folks wanting to invest in a Kurt Vonnegut film...
RW: Authors are hard. The films I made about people like the Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce, there's a lot of performance footage, investors can see it. It's tough for them to envision recouping their investment with an author. Films about writers are hard to market. Vonnegut basically said the same thing when he responded back in 1982. He was happy to let me film, but didn't know what exactly I would be shooting as it's not that exciting watching a guy type away at a desk.
SIG: So here you are, 33 years later, utilizing a 21st-century fundraising model...
RW: That's why this Kickstarter campaign is so important. We need to raise $250,000 to get a finished cut of the film. And that's not all-in. We have other sources for music licensing, film clips, etc., but that doesn't happen until we physically complete "Unstuck in Time." It may seem like a lot of money, but it's less than we spent on the Marx Brothers documentary back in 1982. For the Woody Allen film in 2011, we had a $1.5 million budget.
The other hold up, of course, is that I had paying gigs along the way. I spent a year working on an HBO special with my friend Larry David. It debuted in 1999. It was called "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which went on to become the next seven years of my life.
SIG: "Unstuck in Time" would not have been the same kind of film had you pulled together the financing ten years ago though, right?
RW: It's a completely different beast now, a meta story about the making of the film folded into the narrative. It's impossible to articulate it, I just have to make it. Fortunately, Kickstarter has become a viable means of financing.
SIG: It's a great time for different documentary styles, what you're doing is a better fit today than say 1994, isn't it?
RW: I'm a reluctant host, I'm not crazy about being on camera, but people seem to like the personal way into a story. I'm not Spurlock or Michael Moore, but the only way out of this hole I've dug for myself is full disclosure. The idea was first suggested to me by Jerry Klinkowitz who pointed out it would be a very Vonnegut-ian approach to the film. He placed himself in his books.
SIG: In this scenario then, you're Kilgore Trout?
RW: Actually, if you follow the metaphor, I'm Kurt Vonnegut and he's Kilgore Trout. In Breakfast of Champions, he confronts Trout, tells him, 'You're a fictional character and everything you've done in your life is because I wrote it. Now, I'm cutting the puppet strings, giving you free will and you can do whatever you like.' Trout is very confused by this, yelling out 'Make me Young! Make me Young!'
Vonnegut struggled with Timequake for ten years and when it finally came out, half was the novel he set out to write and half was the meta story of the difficulties he had writing it. To hear from a Vonnegut scholar, that my approach is the tact to take, having the making of the film be part of the film, put me at ease. I want to minimize myself on-screen because when a famous person dies, everyone comes out of the woodwork saying they were their best friend. I've seen too many documentaries where I want the filmmaker to get out the way. I don't want to contribute to that and ruin it by making Unstuck in Time about me. I have to find the balance.
SIG: What was it like making "Mother Night" long after you'd become good friends with Vonnegut?
RW: I remember finishing the book in high school and thinking, 'Wow, I'd love to make a movie of it someday.' Twenty years later, I did just that. When I approached Kurt about it, he told me to go ahead because nobody had the rights. He didn't even consult with his agent or lawyer. I wrote a script on spec in 1990 and financing came together in 1995. My friend Keith Gordon, another big Vonnegut fan, directed it and it was a great experience all around. Kurt wasn't territorial at all, he believed books live as books, regardless of how well the film adaptations turn out. He told me it was my project now and said I should think of the book as a friendly ghost hanging around the room, refer to it or ignore it as needed. We had a big premiere at the Montreal Film Festival and it was a great honor to hear him chuckling in the seat next to me. It was such a successful collaboration that afterwards, Kurt and I both had trouble knowing whose lines were whose. He complimented me on an exchange in the film, I replied, 'You jerk that's yours, it's in the book.'
Here's a funny story that shows how Vonnegut didn't take his stature as a writer too seriously. He was in Los Angeles and invited me to lunch, but first he had to do some press for a series of short films called "Kurt Vonnegut's Monkey House." A reporter asked him about his thoughts of other films based on his works, specifically Catch-22. I let out an involuntary yelp and clasped my hand over my mouth. Kurt heard me and I saw the mischief in his eye. He gave the reporter a straightforward answer about stories being separate from their adaptations and that the books live on their own.
He added a postscript, 'Oh by the way, Catch-22 was written by Ray Bradbury.'
SIG: That's the perfect place to leave off, good luck with the Kickstarter campaign.
RW: Thanks. Our relationship started when I was 22 and Kurt was 60. In 2019, I'll be the same age he was when we met. After all these years, I want to finish the documentary and make good on the offer I presented in 1982. I owe it to my friend.