15 Nov Two Guys From the Same Family – An Interview with Robert Weide, co-director of Unstuck in Time.
Two Guys From the Same Family – An Interview with Robert Weide, co-director of Unstuck in Time.
If you’re a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, you’ve been waiting for this film for years. Maybe you even contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to help fund production. Now, after decades in the making, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time has finally arrived.
Scheduled for release on November 19, the film chronicles the long friendship between Vonnegut and the film’s co-director, Robert Weide. Weide, a veteran documentarian, had initially planned an American Masters style film about a great American author, but as his relationship with Vonnegut changed from professional to personal, the film became
something more: the story of a long and lasting friendship between the two men.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time shows the familiar arc of a successful author’s life, tracing Vonnegut’s rise from a struggling writer on Cape Cod to his international celebrity after the breakout success of Slaughterhouse-Five, but the film’s unique charm derives from the glimpses of Vonnegut not as a famous author, but simply as another man’s friend. Through its deft blending of home movies, archival footage, and the film shot over several decades by Weide, viewers see Kurt Vonnegut as a warm, complex human being. He’s Kurt Vonnegut as those who never met him might have imagined him to be.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time will be released by IFC Films on November 19th. Consider it essential viewing for any Vonnegut fan.
Robert Weide, known for his documentaries on The Marx Brothers and other classic comedians and for directing episodes of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, shared his thoughts with The Daily Vonnegut.
At the beginning of the film, you state, “I didn’t even want to be in this film,” and yet you do play a significant role. At what point did you decide that you needed to include yourself?
Well, I was really talked into it and egged on, and as it winds up, it was the right decision, but I sort of went in kicking and screaming. I first approached Kurt about this in 1982. I love that in that letter to him (shown in the film), I said, “I think I can have financing within the year.” So this started out as what would have been a conventional PBS American Masters style author documentary. That was my intent originally. I wrote that letter in 1982 and we started filming in 1988. During those six years he and I had a lot of contact with each other. We would get together anytime I was in New York, and there were a lot of phone calls. This is pre- faxing. The faxes came later.
And so the ice was broken, and we were pretty friendly by the time we started shooting. Now, as the years went on, and certainly as the years turned into decades, we became very, very close. So it got to the point where, initially I was a little bit worried about the friendship having an impact on the journalistic integrity of the film, because this was no longer just a subject I admired; he had become a friend. The integrity of the film was more threatened by my not mentioning it because it needed full disclosure.
How could I pretend that this was just a film about an author? It was becoming a film about a friend. Just as when Kurt wrote Timequake, I had no interest in making it an exercise in metaliterature, but I was really stuck creatively. After he died, I had all this footage, but was stuck as to how to tell the story. There were some people who knew me and also knew Vonnegut, one of them being Jerry Klinkowitz, who said, “Well, you’ve got to do what he would have done, which is you need to enter the story yourself. You need to tell that part of it.”
Timequake was sort of the template. He had written a draft and wasn’t very happy with it. He didn’t know what to do and wanted to abandon it. And then he got this idea to retell the story with this interstitial material, talking about his own struggle to finish the work and what was going on in his life at the time that he was writing the book. That seemed to be the key.
Jerry was a big proponent of my telling that part of the story, how over the years there’s the struggle to finish the film. Then a few other people said, “Yes, of course.” I had no great desire to be on camera. I didn’t want to have to look at my own mug every time I looked at the film. But it seemed the only way out. So I started off putting my toe in the water. I did a little voiceover narration, that didn’t quite do it. This is when I brought in Don Argott, who has a co-directing credit on the film.
Once I was convinced that I had to include this kind of meta element, it seemed too clumsy and aggrandizing to be interviewing myself. So I thought if I bring in another filmmaker to tell that part of the story, I could continue to focus on Vonnegut. Don was the one who put me on camera, and he kept wanting to put more of me in the film. and I kept saying, no, less of me. But every time I argued for less of me, it felt like the film was neither fish nor fowl. I was in it, but then I disappeared for a half hour and then came back. I was like, “Oh yeah, I forgot all about that part of the story.” So then I relaxed a little about it and found ways to keep that secondary story, the meta storyline going without me always having to be on camera.
A big part of that was remembering that I had 25 years of answering machine messages on tape, which I kept because I’m sentimental and I’m a documentarian, and I started listening to them. I thought that could be a way to bring his voice into it without me having to be on camera. We also included Sam Waterson reading from some of Kurt’s letters. Sam did a great job. So it was a way to keep our relationship intact. We wound up with this hybrid between my strength, which is biographical profile documentaries of artists, and Don’s specialty, which is more a verité type of filming. At the end of the day, I think it was the right decision, but I was hesitant to be in the film.
Your presence adds an emotional element that is very strong, particularly at the end. In the film we see a photo of you and Kurt, and on it, Kurt writes that you were two guys from the same family. Why do you think such a strong friendship developed between the two of you?
I think because we had no baggage between us. During the initial phone call I made to him, I started to make one of those fan speeches about how important his work was to me, and he cut me off mid-sentence. He’d seen my Marx Brothers film and he just stopped me and he said, “That scene where Harpo was punching Margaret Dumont in the stomach. It’s about the funniest thing I ever saw.”
I thought, okay, he doesn’t want to hear about what his work means to me; we’ll talk about The Marx Brothers instead. So that was something that we had in common, a love for old comedy. That was a big part of our conversation back in the early days. The more time we logged with each other, the more we naturally just were comfortable with each other and enjoyed each other’s company. After that first phone call, I never came off as a fan, and he treated me like a peer.
When other people asked him why he responded to me when so many other people would write to him proposing these kinds of projects, he said, “Well, Bob was a professional. I’d seen his Marx Brothers film and enjoyed it a lot. Clearly, he knew what he was doing.” That sort of let me in on that level.
For him to refer to me as a member of the family is the ultimate compliment because you know how much the idea of extended family gets written about in his work and how important it is to him. He was a very warm guy and his daughters are like sisters to me. Edie and I are close. Nannie and I are especially close. And so, I did get a bit of an extended family from him. His nephews and I speak on a fairly regular basis, especially his nephew, Steve Adams. Kurt does feel like family, and consequently, losing him felt like losing a family member. It was tough. I really miss him.
Over time, did your perspective on him change at all as part of the filmmaking experience?
No. There’s an expression: never meet your heroes, the thinking being that you’ll always be disappointed, especially if you tend to put them on some sort of pedestal. I never did that with Kurt. I just really admired his work, and interviews with him made him sound very interesting, like someone I would like to get to know. But I will say this about him: Kurt Vonnegut was exactly what you would want and expect him to be. So there was no big shift in my perception of him other than like it is with anybody whom you get to know for a while. We had a lot of very personal conversations where we both opened up to each other. And so, I saw the highs and I saw the lows.
You see it many times in the film, that laugh of his. Anyone who knew Kurt personally knows about that laugh. It’s a smoker’s laugh because of all the years of losing himself with Paul Mall’s. So there’s a cough to the laugh and you never quite knew whether to laugh with him or give him the Heimlich maneuver. So much of our relationship was based on just a lightness and silliness and bad jokes and funny anecdotes and talking about scenes from movies, comedies that we liked, talking about Chaplin and Keaton and The Marx Brothers. Laurel and Hardy, of course, were favorites of his. But I also saw the dark side because he was prone to depression, certainly towards the end. And so I got to know him more than you would just from reading his books.
Although, just from reading his books you get the sense of that, too. The ups and downs, the highs and the lows, because he has you laughing one minute and crying the next, which is sort of cliche to say, but it’s true. If you didn’t know he wrote those books, but you read them and then you met him, you would make the connection. The feeling of those books is the same feeling you got from spending time with him, which is that he’s really brilliant, and he’s really silly and goofy. He can be very profound and also very sad. He’s all the things that his books are.
I noted the absence of Jill Krementz. Did she have any involvement in the film? Was there footage of the two of them together? It seemed a very noticeable absence.
No, she had no involvement, and I never filmed her. The only time she was on camera at all was the first day that we filmed, at Penn Station, the scene of Kurt getting on the train. She was there at the station to see him off. She was on camera for a moment, and that was it.
What was it about Mother Night that attracted you in a way that you wanted to adapt it? What was most challenging about writing a screenplay from a well-known novel written as a first-person narrative?
I really wanted to have a hand in adapting a Vonnegut novel. My friend Keith Gordon had been acting for years and is now directing, and we wanted to do something together. So I said, “Well, why don’t I see if I can get the rights to one of Kurt’s books?” Which I did get, as I say in the film, on a handshake; he never charged me. I never had the option. The understanding was that if I got it made, the day I got paid was the day that he’d get paid. It’s exactly how it wound up. But the few reasons that I like the book as source material are that it’s a very cinematic book and a fairly straight forward narrative. There are a lot of twists and turns, but it’s a manageable story. There’s no flying saucers or intergalactic wars or anything that would drive a budget through the roof. Of course, it was a period film, so that affects the budget, but it was a contained story.
That was part of the attraction because the budget was $5 million, which is lunch money for most films. So we had to do it on a budget, and it seemed like a film that if we were clever with how we spent the money and made sure it was all up on the screen, we could do it.
So it was a combination of thinking this book could make a very good film and for all practical purposes, we might be able to really pull this off. It’s a pretty faithful adaption. The biggest challenge was simply what to leave out. The first draft was much longer than any script should be. So it was a matter of what can we lose?
As far as the first-person narrative, sometimes movies with voiceover narration can be really boring because it feels like a shortcut or a crutch to fall back on. In this case I think it had to be there because there’s the question of how accurate, how objectively truthful a story we’re getting, versus how much of it is through his (Howard W. Campbell’s) memory. The voiceover that Nick Nolte did was so good that it all just came together. Kurt was very happy with it, which was the only stamp of approval that I needed.
Kurt came to the premier, which happened to be for the Montreal International Film Festival. We sat next to each other for the screening. In the first few frames you see the Israeli flag and these official government cars driving in and Campbell (Howard W. Campbell, played by Nick Nolte) is taken out of the back of the van and put in prison. The music on the soundtrack is Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. The juxtaposition of those two things really made Vonnegut chuckle. He was sitting next to me and just chuckling away. When I heard that laugh, I said, okay, that’s the only review that I care about.
He was very pleased with Mother Night. He was very pleased with Slaughterhouse-Five. There have also been some short films for TV made from his short stories. He liked a few of those and there’ve been some really awful adaptations too, but I was pleased to be able to make a film that he liked so much.
Did you know you’d be included in Timequake‘s clambake scene or did you just happen to see that as you were reading it?
I had no idea. Timequake came to me as a stack of hand-typed Xerox pages. I don’t know how cleaned up they were. I can’t even remember now if they still had any margin notes or things crossed out, but anyway, I’d read a page, put it down, read the second page and put it down, and made a pile. So I was reading Timequake in bed one night and I came across that page, and I probably screamed and woke the neighbors because it was in the middle of the night. It was very exciting.
In one of his books he writes about getting a letter from a fan asking him if he was all right. The fan was concerned that Vonnegut might try to kill himself because Breakfast of Champions had a depressing tone to it, although, again, it’s a very funny book. I remember back then thinking, God, what a lucky duck, this guy has Vonnegut mention him in a book. Then lo and behold, 20 years later, he did it with me. So that was a real honor. I still get a kick out of that. This sounds really silly, but it’s true, when I go into bookstores, I always migrate to the Vonnegut section to see what they’re carrying, and when I see Timequake, I always pull it off the shelf and flip forward to look for my name just to confirm that this really happened and I didn’t imagine it. I do that to this day. So yes, that was quite the surprise, certainly.
Books like Jailbird and Bluebeard and Deadeye Dick are great novels that are often overlooked. People tend to stop at Breakfast of Champions and there’s a perception that his work dropped off in quality and importance. What are your thoughts about his later works and did Kurt share anything about his own thoughts?
That’s one element of the film that I struggle with a little bit because we may be guilty of that. We spend time with Timequake and A Man Without a Country. Some of it is just the editorial process of making a documentary. You reach a certain point where you can’t cover every book. We don’t spend a lot of time with the early books either, like Sirens of Titan or Mother Night or Cat’s Cradle. With Vonnegut, there’s this arc. We show him on the way up and then a very slow rise, and then with Slaughterhouse-Five, he’s on the map. So you tell that part of the story.
But I don’t mean the film to be dismissive of those later books, there’s just not as much to say about them. In the film, Greg Sumner, says, “A lot of people got off of the Vonnegut bandwagon after Breakfast of Champions,” which is true. But he sums it up by saying, “There’s a lot in those books that work, and things that didn’t work.” But I love Jailbird. I love Deadeye Dick. Some people love Bluebeard and Galapagos. I liked those books, but if either of those had been the first Vonnegut I had read, I might’ve read some more, but I wouldn’t have been fanatical about it, because they didn’t speak to me quite so directly. But I know people who say Bluebeard‘s their favorite book or Galapagos. One of the editors in my film said his favorite novel was Hocus Pocus.
In Palm Sunday, Kurt grades his own books. I can do that too, but I would give everything an “A” up through Breakfast with Champions. And then there’s some ups and downs. I would give Hocus Pocus an incomplete, as I’d have to go back and read it again. But the other books are still strong B’s or B+’s. Again, Jailbird and Deadeye Dick are among the best later books. Slapstick, I’d like to go back and read because I haven’t read it since it first came out, but I remember my impression being that the forward is the best part of that book. The foreword has stayed with me much longer than anything to do with the novel itself. So a mixed reaction to those later books. But I’d sooner read a lesser Vonnegut than some of the best works of other writers.
I find it interesting how many younger people I meet for whom A Man Without a Country was their introduction to Vonnegut. It was sort of a throwaway book for him. He had told me he was done after Timequake. The book was a kind of postscript to his career but became the entry point for people of a certain age, who then went back and read his earlier stuff.
His appearance on The Daily Show might have a lot to do with that. As a final question, what do you hope viewers take away from the film other than the basic biographical information about Kurt?
I hope that people familiar with Vonnegut’s work will get a kick out of finally seeing a fairly definitive, comprehensive documentary about him and seeing footage and pictures that they’ve never seen before. For the uninitiated, I hope that they see this film and maybe get interested in picking up one of his books and have the same experience I did, which is feeling that they’ve found their author. That’s what I keep saying about him. When I read Breakfast of Champions, I thought, “Okay, I’ve found my author and I’ve got to read everything this guy’s written.” But overall, my hope is that people will feel that they spent a couple of hours with this guy and got a little taste of what I was fortunate to feel for 25 years, that they got to know a very special, very brilliant, very warm, very human, human being.