Dear Zachary: Exclusive Interview with Kurt Kuenne

If you haven€™t seen, or heard of, Dear Zachary- and sadly, the chances of that are quite high- then you simply must watch it. It is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, and definitely the most emotionally devastating- it is more effective and powerful that Catfish, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Cove or even The Imposter. Perhaps the reason it is so is because its director, Kurt Kuenne, was at the heart of the documentary- the subject of the documentary, the late Dr. Andrew Bagby, was Kuenne€™s close friend- Bagby was murdered by his ex, also the mother of his son, Zachary. The documentary serves not only as a tribute to Andrew by those who knew him best, but also a harrowing portrait of how Andrew€™s murderer escaped justice. Kuenne is an eclectic and talented guy- in addition to directing documentaries like Drive-In Movie Memories and feature films such as Scrapbook, and a handful of short films includingValidation, has he re-scored the restoration of Cyrano de Bergerac (1925). In fact, Kuenne is just as prolific as a composer as he is a filmmaker- his work has included the Luke Wilson thriller Bad Seed and the indie Hunting of Man. Kurt€™s latest film is Shuffle- which recently finished on the US festival circuit and is now available on DVD and playing in select theatres- starring TJ Thyne (a previous collaborator with Kuenne on Validation) of Bones fame. Kurt was kind enough to grant me an interview to discuss Shuffle, as well as Dear Zachary, music, film in general and his upcoming slate. Hi Kurt, thanks for giving up your time to talk to WhatCulture! For the uninitiated, please describe to us exactly what your latest movie, Shuffle, is all about. "Shuffle" is about a man who begins experiencing his life out of order; every day he wakes up at a different age, in a different year, on a different day of his life - and he's terrified, he just wants it to stop. But then he starts noticing a pattern in his experience and works to uncover why this is happening to him. It's like a big episode of the "Twilight Zone" crossed with "It's a Wonderful Life", and it stars TJ Thyne of the hit TV show "Bones". It also features a couple of his colleagues from "Bones", Tamara Taylor and Patricia Belcher, and features prosthetic old-age make-up by Barney Burman, who won the Academy Award for Best Makeup two years ago for J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek". It's shown principally in black & white (though there is a color version available commercially), and was made very much in the spirit of the old "Amazing Stories" episodes, though it is, perhaps, more structurally playful than those were, with a bigger emotional range; as the movie unfolds, it reveals itself to be a love story beneath its genre mask. It was fortunate to win 9 awards on the international film festival circuit during the past year. And when could we expect Shuffle on UK shores? I'm working on that presently, we're in the process of securing an international sales company to bring it to the rest of the world; it was just released commercially in North America after playing film festivals all over for the last year. I'm hopeful it will be available in your area within the next 6 months or so. It sometimes takes awhile for smaller movies like ours to move around the world. "Dear Zachary" was a similar situation, where it took over a year from the time of its U.S. release to finally hit BBC's Storyville and have a Region 2 DVD available in the UK. But we got there eventually, and we will this time too! Dear Zachary is very upsetting for anyone who watches it, let alone those involved in its making. After making a film that must mean so much to you emotionally, do you feel you€™re done with the documentary genre? To be perfectly honest, I've never been a huge documentary fan - I don't really watch them much as a viewer - so while I've made two feature documentaries, they both happened by accident rather than design. At the time I was offered the job making "Drive-In Movie Memories", I'd never even considered making a documentary...but I loved that it was going to be a celebration of outdoor moviegoing and moviegoing in general, which I'm very passionate about, so I decided to do it and had a blast making it. Right after "Drive-In Movie Memories" premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2001, my friend Andrew was killed. So, I had documentaries on the brain at the time and realized - since I was the keeper of a mountain of footage documenting Andrew's youth - that it was my responsibility to put together some kind of a memory album for family and friends about him -- and I also wanted to give the movie to recipients of the scholarship funds established in Andrew's memory, so that the recipients could learn the story of the person whose legacy was paying for their education. Also, interviewing people about their memories of him would be a good way for me to work through my own grief process. That was the original idea, so the project that became "Dear Zachary" was never intended to be released publicly; if I'd thought for a minute that this was going to be shown on huge movie screens the world over, I would have bought a better camera when I started. But after the criminal case surrounding Andrew's murder went so horribly off the rails, we were all furious and knew that something needed to be done to prevent this situation from happening again, because the Canadian government at the time was content to march forward and say, "Oh, well, too bad" and think no more of it. (The second tragedy depicted in the film occurred in Canada.) So, when I realized that Andrew's father was in the process of writing a book about what happened, and saw that both he and Andrew's Mom were going public to get legal change that would prevent a recurrence, that's when I realized I had to step up and use all the footage I'd been gathering in the same way. And we did finally get Canada's Parliament to unanimously pass a bill amending their bail code in December 2010 as a result of the movie and the book. We didn't get everything we were after, but it was an improvement that will hopefully help anyone in a similar case in the future. But documentary filmmaking was never a goal of mine, and I don't have any plans to make another; my imagination is far more fascinated by fiction. Having said that, I do enjoy putting together little "personal journal" types of things; for example, I put together a 30 minute documentary chronicling "Shuffle" from inception to release for the DVD as a bonus feature. And I'm working on two other small similar supplements on the side presently; one is a 20 minute mini-doc about the completion of "Dear Zachary" and the process of getting legal change, and the other is a little 30 minute DVD bonus feature that follows my short film series (including "Validation") from inception to being embraced worldwide (it'll be included as a bonus feature on the disc of the series when it's released). But I don't intend to seek out another subject for a feature documentary. Having said that, you never know. This is a question I€™ve always wanted to ask a documentary filmmaker- Obviously you have a deep personal connection to the content in Dear Zachary- so did you find all you had to do was to point the camera and let the talking heads and the facts about the case speak for themselves, or did you have to work to strike a certain tone, like one would do on a fictional film? It depends on the person and how well I knew them. My goal when I originally shot interviews, as I said, was not "to tell the story", but to collect as many great memories of Andrew as possible, so a huge challenge sometimes was getting people to remember the happy stuff and laugh without constantly bursting into tears and sadness over what happened to him. Andrew was a very fun-loving, jovial person, and capturing that was the entire purpose of the memory album. One of the toughest times I had in that regard was with his friend Mack Janke in St. Louis, whom I didn't know at all (and who was tragically killed in a car accident earlier this year, I'm sorry to say). I'd always heard what a funny guy Mack was, and I'd been looking forward to his interview as a source of great, fun stories -- and when he showed up, he was so nervous about being on camera, he was drinking a beer before he sat down and on my first question, he burst into tears and clammed up. And at first, I thought, "So much for getting the funny stories out of him." But then we just kept talking, I tried to make the tone more jovial, and he started remembering the good times and eventually was cracking us both up, we bonded -- it ended up being one of my favorite interviews of the whole project -- and I've found that he's become an audience favorite in the movie because his sense of humor is a much needed oasis of levity. But it was tough to navigate him away from his pain over losing Andrew in order to celebrate the funny moments. With other friends that I did know well, sometimes it was easy, but sometimes it was hard, because I'd want to ask questions that I felt were important to document, but I didn't want to invade their privacy and/or strain my friendship with them. So, some were easy and fun, and some were excruciatingly difficult. By the time I was interviewing Kate & David (Andrew's parents), we knew I was going to eventually put this out publicly, so I knew I had to get them to relive all the awful stuff on camera if I was really going to make people know what it FELT like to live through this...but I'd also seen them in so much pain for so long, that I just hated myself for asking them to tell me those stories again, for asking for those little details that I knew would make it come alive, because I knew what it did to them every time they told them. Because you do actually "re-live" the experiences when you tell the story, your body feels the feelings all over again -- and it's not a healthy thing to do repeatedly with experiences of that magnitude. But I knew this HAD to be one of the most powerful documentaries people had ever seen if we were going to have any shot at getting a nation - that wasn't even my own - to amend their bail laws. Nothing less would be good enough to achieve that outcome. So I had to go there and ask those questions, as unpleasant as it was. But, yes, you need to create an environment for your interview with each person to make them feel relaxed and safe, just like you do with an actor in a fiction film. You have directed both Documentaries and Features. Which medium do you find the most challenging, fiction or non-fiction? Fiction is infinitely more challenging in my view, because you are responsible for creating and selecting every last detail in your film. Who are the characters? What do they look like? How do they dress? What's their hairstyle like? What do they do? What does their environment look like? How do they eat? What kind of car do they drive, if they drive? What color is the lampshade on their night table? Why? What books do they have on their bookshelf? And, of course, the bigger questions like: What is the story? What happens? Where does it go? Why? Is it believable? And then you have to find people to play these characters and evaluate not just who might be right for each role, but what kind of chemistry they have with the other performers, then shape their performances. You have to create a believable "background world" around them that feels authentic. If you have animals involved, will they do what you want them to do? And then there are the business issues to contend with, like abiding by the rules of unions and dealing with locations, etc. You're responsible for creating reality from the ground up with large amounts of technology and business all around you as a constant distraction. With a documentary, all of those choices are made for you because you are documenting real life; you have no control over any of the elements described above. The challenge becomes catching moments that will only happen once; you don't get a second take. And the challenge is also in trying to capture those single-take moments in an artful way, given that you rarely have any control over things like the light or location selection, and in not altering the environment and the behavior of the subjects as you're doing so. And with documentary, writing usually comes after the fact, and you have to figure out how to best tell a story with the material that you have. But even though I find the process of making fiction film to be quite difficult, it still gets me more excited. I love that you can dream up and realize anything that you want to see, and create your own world. You have composed the music to all your films. How important do you believe music is to a film, be it a documentary, a short, or a feature? For me, music is half the experience of most movies; I hear the music in my head when I'm writing the script, so to me it's all part of the storytelling as it was designed to be experienced from the beginning. It's like trying to say how important a roof is to a house -- it was never designed to work without it. It's the voice of the movie, and when done well, can become its identity as well. I can't imagine "Vertigo" without Bernard Herrmann's score; it's literally half the experience of that film. "Star Wars" doesn't work without John Williams' score; it's just not complete. Having said that, there are also wonderful movies like "Dog Day Afternoon", or Hitchcock's film "Lifeboat", that have no score at all, and work great -- but they were designed that way. (To continue our house analogy, they were designed to be the deck or the patio, and no roof was ever desired.) And you could argue that the sound effects function as score in those films too, just as they do during the first 2/3rds of "Cast Away", which only has score in its last third. I prefer to compose the score prior to production if I have time, because I'm always so exhausted after shooting and editing; I'd rather develop the melodies and write it when I'm fresh. It's also nice to be able to play the music for the cast and crew, to help everyone understand what film we're making. And if there's time to record the score prior to shooting, all the better, because it can be laid into the film during the editing and your test screenings are much more accurate. When people lay temporary music in during an edit, it's often misleading because it's not the final score...or if no score at all is in, it completely affects the feeling of the pacing of the movie, and it's hard to tell if it's too long or too short. So if you have the final score done ahead of time, there are no excuses to make; if the scene doesn't work, you know you have a problem to fix, because that IS supposed to be the final music. How did you get into film? Was there a particular film you watched, or a particular moment you realised this was what you wanted to do as a career? The first movie I ever saw in a theatre was the original 1977 "Star Wars" when I was about 3 or 4 years old, and after that, all I ever wanted to do was make movies and write music for them. But it was "E.T." that made me really notice the director for the first time; "E.T." became my favorite film when I was 8 years old and remains so to this day. I bought a typewriter at a neighbor's garage sale, taught myself to type and started banging out my first screenplays. I started shooting movies first with my Dad's Super 8mm film camera, then graduated to VHS and Super-VHS during junior high and high school -- and it's because of this period that I had all the footage I had of Andrew Bagby that became a gold mine for "Dear Zachary", since I used to make him star in everything, and I kept all the raw footage tapes. (Never throw anything that you shoot away, you never know when it may become a priceless document; when people you love die, you cling to every single frame you can find of them to keep them alive.) And I pounded out the early scores to these movies on my parents' piano. In high school, one of my films won a competition and got seen by Francis Coppola's brother August, who got me invited in for a meeting at Coppola's company Zoetrope when I was 16 (I grew up in San Jose, about an hour from San Francisco, Coppola's base of operations); that was an amazing experience for a high school student, and a great signpost to make me sense that I was on the right track. I next went to USC, where I studied both film production in the film school and scoring in the music school, and my student films got me invited in for meetings with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis during my last semester, and that was also a very encouraging experience to have when I was 21, to know that something I made had piqued the interest of the people whose movies had inspired me to make films, at least enough to make them want to chat with me for 30 minutes (Zemeckis' "Back to the Future" was also a seminal film in my formative years). As soon as I got out of school, I raised money, made my first feature and have continued to write, direct and score by any means available to me ever since. Would you like to try and crack Hollywood, and reach a mainstream audience? Or would you rather continue to make independent films without your creative vision being diluted, which is always a risk? Quite frankly, all I've ever truly been interested in is Hollywood and mainstream audiences; my favorite films are "E.T.", "Forrest Gump", "Back to the Future", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "It's a Wonderful Life", so my tastes are very mainstream. Steven Spielberg is still my favorite director, along with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and so many more of the old greats. But I've kept getting sidetracked with these documentaries, short films and smaller features -- and when you're both having fun making them and discover that you're building a passionate fan following, it's tough not to keep doing it. I first cracked Hollywood's radar in a significant way when I won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences several years ago, which was when I first got signed with a major agency and landed with my current management. I went on dozens and dozens of meetings with studios all over town, pitched on numerous projects and kept coming within a hair's breadth of getting some of my films financed at a higher level. I wrote and wrote for several years and my work kept getting me in rooms, but it wasn't resulting in actual movies being made. ("Shuffle" was one of the scripts I wrote during this period.) I finally got so tired of creating stacks of paper that were only being read by a few dozen executives, that I just had to get out, shoot something again and put it in front of a real live audience or I was going to go out of my mind. That's how my short film series ("Rent-A-Person", "Validation", etc) started. So, between my four part short film series, "Dear Zachary" and "Shuffle", that's mainly what I've been doing for the past 7 years. I embraced low budget filmmaking out of impatience as a way to get films made and in front of live people - and in the case of "Dear Zachary", it was what life required of me as the only person in a position to tell Andrew's story and get change - but I've never considered myself to have an "indie" sensibility. So, yes, I would love to start working at a higher budget level and reach a larger audience. I'm fortunate to get fan emails every single day about "Validation", "Dear Zachary" and "Shuffle" - and those do nourish the soul, to be sure - but indie film is not a dependable way to make a living. Nor do the types of films I intend to continue making really belong in that aesthetic. Do you have a strong opinion on the changing landscape of cinema, for example the death of Celluloid and the rise of Digital, or the prominence of Stereoscopic 3D? The decline of celluloid as a mainstream projection format makes me sad, I must say. There's a lot of great digital projection out there, and when it's done well, it's stunning; I've seen stunning 4K restorations of old films that look like the most pristine film print you could imagine. And I've seen "Shuffle" screened off of a simple blu-ray disc at a theatre equipped with a top-notch projector, and even though "Shuffle" was shot digitally, that projector made it look like smooth, gorgeous 35mm. But there's a lot of mediocre digital projection out there too, and the tough part is that you never really know what kind you're walking into when you go to a mainstream theatre these days. I just hate it when I sit down and see that the colors are jacked too much or the day exteriors take on that "video overxposure" look; I feel like I'm watching a large TV whose controls need adjusting. I will actually drive further and pay more to go to a theatre I know has superior digital projection or still screens on film. I've certainly been the beneficiary of the rise of digital projection, because it's made it much less expensive for me to make prints for theatres, not to mention drastically reducing shipping costs. But I'm an old-fashioned guy at heart; my favorite pastime is going to see old films at revival houses projected on 35mm film, I love seeing the scratches and the pops. I still listen to vinyl records at home, so I have a fondness for old things. That's probably why I've made so many movies in black & white. There is a concern that I've heard voiced repeatedly, though, that hard drives are not a good archival medium; you need to migrate material every 3 to 4 years, because drives do go bad. Modern film, on the other hand, when stored in a climate controlled environment, is good for at least 100 years, so it's a far better archival medium. So I've been very conscious of keeping my own work that originated digitally on multiple drives and migrating it every couple of years and will continue to do so...but for movies that aren't receiving that kind of personal attention, I worry that we may end up losing some of them in the years to come, just like so many silent films were lost in the days before people knew how to store and preserve film properly. (A friend of mine declared recently, "You watch: within our lifetime, a famous movie will be deleted through neglect." That was a frightening sentence.) As far as 3D goes, I love it when it's done well. I think Robert Zemeckis' "The Polar Express" is an okay movie in 2D, but in 3D, it's a visceral masterpiece. (It's available on 3D Blu-Ray; check it out if you have access to a 3D television.) I just got to see Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" in 3D for the first time last week, and I've always loved that movie, but seeing the 3D restoration just took it to a whole new level. "Hugo" in 3D was stupendous; I don't ever want to see that movie in 2D because the 3D was so good. I'd love to make one myself. But it's not the right choice for every movie. It's like dessert; a little bit here and there is a fabulous treat, but too much just makes you feel sick. What advice would you give young filmmakers in regards to getting into the business and getting their films made? My advice for young filmmakers who want to do this is to just go do it; do not wait around for someone to give you permission to make a movie. Decide exactly what you want to do, then find a way to make it happen, and find people you trust to give you honest feedback. As mentioned above, I went to USC in Los Angeles, and I found studying there to be a great experience, because you're surrounded by like-minded people who can push you to do better, so I'd recommend that to anyone. And you constantly meet industry professionals there who are doing what you want to be doing, which is not only an amazing resource, but makes it seem tangible and possible. You need to be around people who are supportive, talented and honest, and who will help you make your work the best it can be before it goes out into the world. And once you've got a piece of work that you've rigorously tested and feel is ready to be seen, get it in front of everyone you possibly can via festivals, contests, blind submissions, personal contacts, etc -- and somehow, doors will eventually open. It may take a long time, it may take several films or scripts before you're recognized in any way, and you have to be okay with that. If you give up or get discouraged easily, do something else. You have to commit to it and do whatever it takes. And if you're making a movie, the absolute most important thing is that the script and story be the best they can be, or everything built on top them is time and money wasted. So, what€™s next? I believe you€™re working on a musical adaptation of Frank Beddor€™s The Looking Glass Wars€ I've actually finished writing the script, music and lyrics for "The Looking Glass Wars" and have handed it off to Frank, who seemed very pleased with what I'd done, and he's now out working on getting the show financed and mounted. Frank was a movie producer before becoming a novelist - he most notably produced "There's Something About Mary" back in the late 90s, which was a smash hit - so he's a very good businessman in addition to being a tremendously talented storyteller. I'm sure there will be rewrites before too long, but for now I'm enjoying being done. Musical theatre was certainly a departure for me (and another sidetrack from "Hollywood", as mentioned above), but I've always wanted to write a stage musical, I loved Frank's story and when he offered me the opportunity, it was too cool to pass up. (He met with numerous Broadway names about his book over a period of several years, elected not to work with them and finally came back to me, convinced I was the right person to do it; how could I say no to that?) I'm writing two new screenplays right now and working on the little short documentary pieces I mentioned above in my spare time. I'm not sure what I'll be shooting next or when, but I do know that I need to take a budget leap on the next one. It's time. Shuffle is currently awaiting a UK release, is now available in The USA on DVD, and is currently screening in select theatres courtesy of GATHR Films. You can lean more about the film here, and you can learn more about Dear Zachary here. Kurt Kuenne is represented by Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment.
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Aspiring Director, Screenwriter and Actor. Film is my passion, but I indulge in TV, Theatre and Literature as well! Any comments or suggestions, please tweet me @IAmOscarHarding