Bob Weide and Kurt Vonnegut
In 1982, a young go-getter by the name of Robert Weide randomly typed a note to his literary hero. In it, the 22-year-old Weide mentioned that he had written and produced the documentary "The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell," which had recently been the highest-rated program in the history of PBS, and that he was hoping to make a film of the intended recipient of the letter. Six months later, he heard back. As luck and fate would have it, Kurt Vonnegut had enjoyed the Marx Brothers film and he was game to be Weide's next subject.
Thirty-three years later, Bob Weide and partner Don Argott are launching a Kickstarter campaign to complete the project, "Unstuck in Time." All those years ago, the plan was do a straightforward documentary on the then 60-year-old author, who'd been a household name since the release of Slaughterhouse Five in 1969. But a funny thing happened on the way to Tralfamadore. Weide and Vonnegut became close friends. Although he filmed many hours of his favorite author, the project started to take a backseat to the relationship. Along the way, Vonnegut kept writing, and Weide kept making documentaries of people like Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, feature films like "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People," and TV shows, like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where he worked with his buddy Larry David for seven years.
Well, Timequake waits for no man, so today, Weide is harnessing the power of crowd-sourcing to finally finish his film. "Unstuck in Time" morphed into something totally different, it's now equal parts tale-of-an-unusual-friendship as it is Vonnegut's life story. In the first of a two-part interview, Weide and I discuss Vonnegut the man, writer, friend, and corpse-miner. In part two, over at Signature, we talk about the movie project itself. 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: Prior to meeting Vonnegut, what was your relationship to his books?
Robert Weide: In 1976, the high school I went to in Orange County, which was a conservative bastion, started a program my junior year called Open School. It wasn’t for smart kids or dumb kids, it was a cool alternative for kids who were interested in a new approach to education. It offered a more progressive curriculum. I had an American literature class and we were assigned Breakfast of Champions, instead of Slaughterhouse Five, which is a bold choice for high school. Immediately, I felt I’d found my author, my guy. I love humor and comedy and here was a book, that while it has big dark subjects -- man’s inhumanity to man, poisoning the planet -- is very funny. Breakfast of Champions is thoughtful and moving. It’s the total cliche, it made me laugh and cry. After that I read them all, one Vonnegut book after another, working my way through his canon in record time.
One amazing thing about Open School is that if a student sort of mastered a subject, if you were a virtuoso violin player for example, you could teach a class. As a 17-year-old senior, I taught Vonnegut to my peers. It was an accredited class where they wrote papers and I graded them. I was the precocious teacher kid, but it’s only because of how deeply his books reached me.
SIG: Was Vonnegut a big best-selling author at that time?
RW: Sure he was. When I took the class Breakfast of Champions was his most recent book, it was a huge bestseller. In 1969, Slaughterhouse Five really put him on the map. Prior to that, his books like Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater were paperback originals, sold on racks at bus depots and drug stores. Vonnegut’s works were basically pulp fiction, most of his books weren’t even reviewed. Cat’s Cradle was embraced by hippies and college students in the early 1960s, but his books were ignored by the literary establishment. When Slaughterhouse Five came out and brought Vonnegut instant fame and wealth, Delacorte Press re-released all his previous books. After that, he moved to New York and wrote a Broadway play, "Happy Birthday Wanda June." Quick digression, in 2001, I directed a revival at his request.
Vonnegut’s next novel Slapstick was criticized and attacked, but by then, he was a major literary figure. This is back when people still read things other than blogs. His books are not Fifty Shades of Grey.
SIG: It wasn’t even all that long ago, but it’s amazing to think serious authors were household names and pop culture superstars...
RW: Vonnegut though, to this day, is still dismissed by a certain literary crowd who don’t take his books seriously. He doesn’t come from an academic background, he majored in chemistry and anthropology. As a young man, he worked for the high school paper, but he never had a burning desire to write or express himself. Kurt was going to follow in his father’s footsteps and be an architect, but the work dried up in the Depression when people weren’t building in Indianapolis, so his dad told him 'be anything else.' World War II came along, that was a distraction for a few years, that was followed by multiple colleges. Eventually, Kurt’s scientist brother Bernard helped him get a job in public relations at General Electric, only after all that did he start his career as a novelist.
Vonnegut is extremely intelligent, but he wasn’t a New York City intellectual. He was an outsider. His first book, Player Piano, a satire of GE and technology taking over, had elements of science-fiction so it wasn’t considered literature per se. His books are whimsical, funny, and easy-to-read. His chapters are short, and they’re easy to digest. In today’s short-attention age, it’s more prominent, but even back then, he had the reader in mind. He believed it was a lot to ask people to sit down and read a book. Kurt’s books aren’t long, he doesn’t have that oceanic style. Vonnegut also first became popular with the counterculture, so that was another strike against him for the literary nose-in-the-air critical establishment.
SIG: Vonnegut certainly has science-fiction and fantasy elements, but he isn't really a genre guy is he?
RW: I was never a sci-fi reader, so I have a limited perspective, but I’d say he’s more of a satirist. His second book, The Sirens of Titan is a straight-up science-fiction book, but it’s about ‘what are we doing to each other on Earth?’ under the guise of space travel and intergalactic battles. It’s one of my favorites, a major work, with a moving love story that covers a lot of ground. To think, when it came out, it was on sale for .35-cents.
SIG: Seems like everyone has a college Vonnegut phase, did you ever move beyond him like people tend to do with Salinger or Kerouac?
RW: I always stuck with him. In fact, I blame Kurt for my not being as well-read as I’d like to be. Once I discovered Vonnegut, I didn’t read anyone else. When I finished them all, I went back and read them again. Once we became close friends, I experienced Kurt as a pal, a guy I loved hanging out with, and his literary output took a backseat to our friendship. Later, when I would pick up one of his books, I would be surprised at how brilliant he was. We’d sit around and make terrible jokes and act like college buddies, so when he became a living breathing human being to me, the Oz behind the curtain, I needed to be reminded of his genius on the page. I don’t like all of them, but there’s only a couple I dislike. I did a Woody Allen documentary and when people would ask, I’d say 'I have six favorites, a number on the second tier, and a few I never need to see again.' It’s the same with Vonnegut. It holds up. He isn't just for college and high school kids.
SIG: In the way Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn and then everything else, is Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut’s masterwork?
RW: It’s certainly the book he had to write. After surviving the firebombing of Dresden, it was cathartic, but initially he couldn't find a way to approach it. As he says in "Unstuck in Time," all World War II movies had the stock American tough guys of various ethnicities banding together, but he didn't experience the war alongside John Wayne and Henry Fonda. He fought with the clowns he knew from high school and college. In his earlier works, he substitutes for Dresden, but he didn't take it head-on and get it out of his system. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, there’s a fantasy sequence near the end in which his hometown of Indianapolis is engulfed in fire. He struggled for years with Slaughterhouse Five, but eventually, he nailed it.
SIG: Going through the horrors in Dresden would do a number on anyone’s psyche, did he have long-term PTSD issues, in the way many WWII vets did but never talked about?
RW: It’s interesting. I wrote and produced 1996’s "Mother Night" and there were some Holocaust survivors in the film. They broke down into two categories, people who couldn't talk about it all, couldn't lift that curtain because they would understandably lose their minds, and a group who was eager to talk about their experiences because it was therapeutic. My father was the former, he said things anecdotally but never discussed what it was like to lose a buddy at the front. Vonnegut talked about World War II, wrote about it, but I think even his kids will say he discussed it like a journalist. This happened, then this happened. The experiential aspects of his time in Europe come from Billy Pilgrim.
In "Unstuck in Time," he talks about how he and the other American POWs were forced to find the bodies from the Dresden firebombing. They were all underground. There was nothing left of people who didn’t go into bunkers, cellars, and basements; they were ash. People below suffocated to death as the fires sucked up all the oxygen. Vonnegut and his fellow soldiers had to corpse-mine, piling up the intact bodies like cordwood, and burning them to a crisp for sanitary reasons. I asked him about it and he said, 'We’ve all seen the clips from when the concentration camps were liberated, the footage of German soldiers placing their victims in lime pits, and people wonder what’s going through the minds of these soldiers doing the body removal. I can tell you, because I did it, in reverse with Germans. Old women, children, random men... You aren’t thinking of anything, your mind shuts down.' Emotion was removed, it had to be.
SIG: Wow, that’s heavy...
RW: When I was 21, I was hanging out with my friends partying at the beach. I wasn’t having people try to kill me in a forest on the other side of the planet, being put on a freight car and shipped out to work in a factory, and having to dig up the dead. I asked him, 'What did that do to you?' Vonnegut’s answer was startling. He shrugged and said, 'I don’t know. The dogs in my Indianapolis neighborhood had more of an impact on who I am now than anything that happened in the war.' Totally dismissive of the experience, and this from a guy who made a living off of World War II.
When I told that quote to his daughter Nanny, whom I’ve become good friends with, she shook her head and said, 'That is such bullshit.' She insists her dad was always in denial about what World War II did to him. But if that was Kurt’s way of dealing with it, so be it. Writing was his therapy.
SIG: I recall reading once that every day, Vonnegut would go sit in a Manhattan park near his apartment, totally unaffected by his celebrity. Does that ring true?
RW: Absolutely. He was ritualistic. Whenever I would visit him in New York, we’d hang out in his place on E. 48th St. and chat and then go for a walk in his neighborhood around the United Nations. We’d drop in on a handful of local restaurants where they knew him and had his table... I can’t recall if he always ordered the same thing, but we’d eat, have coffee, and that was his routine.
Vonnegut was the opposite of Salinger. He was visible on the streets and loved being out-and-about. He was friendly with anyone who came up and had a kind thing to say about his work. He would ask their name and chat with them. He relished walking around New York.
SIG: Did he run with the big-swinging-literary-dick New York City peers of his day, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, etc.?
RW: Yes, later on, Vonnegut was friends with that whole set. Since he didn’t come from that set, and worked all those different jobs including opening the first Saab dealership in America on Cape Cod, he was an underpaid, unappreciated, working class guy for a long time. He longed to belong. When fame came, he was eager and thrilled to be accepted among those guys. He basically remained a humble Indiana writer, but he loved hanging with serious literary types. They had big laughs, especially after a drink or two.
It was difficult for him to outlive so many of his peers. Joe Heller’s death really hit him, he loved the guy like a brother. He and Nelson Algren had places near each other on Long Island and Kurt constantly worried about his neighbor’s health and livelihood. He was always concerned about the well-being of his fellow writers, be it financially, physically or emotionally.
SIG: Vonnegut’s death, even at 84, was rather sudden, wasn't it?
RW: Here’s a guy who smoked unfiltered Pall Malls every day of his life starting as a teenager. Cigarettes were standard issue in a soldier’s rations, if you got ‘em, smoke ‘em. Yet, every year he’d get a checkup, his doctor would shake his head, and tell him, 'Your lungs are clear, this makes no sense.' He called cigarettes "coffin nails" and claimed to be committing slow suicide. Kurt joked that he was going to sue the tobacco companies because the warning labels promised cigarettes would kill him.
He had bouts of depression, they would come and go, but he was always in good health. He had a great capacity for joy and lightness. In his 80s, he had balance issues. In March of 2007, he was having a smoke on his porch, had a fall, possibly tripping over his dog, hit his head, and fell into a coma. He had severe brain damage. No news was released publicly. Those of us close to him knew about it, but his family took a few weeks debating what to do. After a month, they decided to let him go. He died April 11, 2007. Nanny told me that a friend of her’s had told Kurt about somebody, perhaps her own father, who was perfectly healthy but died after a fall. Kurt said something like, 'Wouldn’t that be a nice way to go.'