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Kurt Vonnegut, the Documentary


Filmmaker Bob Weide (Rahoul Ghose/PBS)
  • Filmmaker Bob Weide (Rahoul Ghose/PBS)
Some news from Sunday’s PBS sessions: Filmmaker and three-time Emmy-winning director Bob Weide, who began working on a documentary about Kurt Vonnegut in 1988, hopes to finish it in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, that’s what he told me in 2001, too. But this time, he sincerely means it.

Weide first met Vonnegut in 1982, not long after Vonnegut saw his Marx Brothers documentary “In a Nutshell.” It took him six years to get Vonnegut's permission to make a film.

Over the years, Weide collected Vonnegut family films and numerous interviews with the author, including footage of Kurt touring his boyhood home on Illinois Street.

Weide has worked on the Vonnegut documentary for all these years in his off hours, when he hasn’t been working on shows like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (as producer and director) and making documentaries. His latest, about the career of Woody Allen, is scheduled to air Oct. 21 as part of PBS’ American Masters series.

The delays in the Vonnegut production have been due to lack of financing, not lack of desire, Weide said in an interview here. He loved Vonnegut, and the two were friends until Vonnegut’s death in 2007. Weide said he misses his friend. Here’s what else he said.

NUVO: So what is happening with the Vonnegut film?
WEIDE: The Vonnegut film never found financing. It was always out of my own pocket. So I’d work on it here and there. In January 2009, there was a new push. Kurt died when I was in England, doing a feature film, and I flew back to New York for his memorial service. I thought: Well, I’ve really got to finish the film. So after I did this feature, "How To Lose Friends and Alienate People," which was a big hit in the U.K. but totally died on the vine here, I thought it was time to finish. There was another flurry of activity.

But then I needed some income. I said, I’m going to approach Woody again and see if I can get his permission to do this film. If I get the Woody Allen film going — which, to me, seemed eminently financeable — maybe I can piggyback the Vonnegut film on top of this. Then, getting the financing for the Woody film proved to be not so easy, for a lot of boring reasons. But once the money came in and I went to work on it, it became so overwhelming a time investment that it was a joke to me that I was going to be able to work on Vonnegut at the same time. It’s something I work on, it’s backburner, I work on, it’s backburner. But my intent is, after the Woody film is delivered, to get back to work on it again — so I can say it was 25 years in the making.

NUVO: Do you have an estimated time of arrival for it?
WEIDE: No. I’m never doing that again. Because every time I think I do, I just feel foolish.

NUVO: Let’s talk about Woody Allen. How do you tell his story in four hours?
WEIDE: That’s the big challenge. My heart breaks with everything I can’t include. I think it’s about 3½ hours. You have to figure out what the important points are and what story you want to tell. You can’t include every amusing anecdote and every funny clip. Certainly, there are going to be people who look at the film and say, “I can’t believe you didn’t even mention this film” or “I can’t believe you didn’t show this clip.” It’s bound to happen. There’s nothing from "The Front," which was the picture he acted in but didn’t write or direct. I know people who are big fans of "What’s Up, Tiger Lily?" It’s not even mentioned. I think we’re talking about a lot of DVD bonus material.

NUVO: How do you deal with the controversy in his life?
WEIDE: To me, it was like dealing with the bad reviews he got after “Stardust Memories,” or anything else. As a filmmaker, I tell the story I think is interesting to tell. I couldn’t care less about any of that stuff. It didn’t interest me then; it doesn’t interest me now. But obviously I can’t just dismiss it, because people will cry “foul” and say Woody is pulling the strings — which he’s not. He has no creative involvement.

Since this is essentially about his career — it’s biography too, but it’s about his career — the question is how that chapter affected his career. And the answer was: Hardly at all. He never missed a beat. He would have a casting session before going off to court. He never missed a Monday night playing with his jazz band. He wrote a play during that time. He was still doing a movie a year. Yes, it has to be covered, so it’s covered. He talks about it, other interview subjects walk through what happened and I show the media circus that erupted. It’s dealt with like anything else that happened in his life.

NUVO: Do you think the controversy diminished him in the eyes of the public?
WEIDE: If you think about it, very little has changed. Whether there’s any number of people who took it personally and vowed never to see a Woody Allen movie again, he’s never been a big box office draw. “Annie Hall” made less money than any other film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture — at least up until that time. His following has always been a devoted following, but a cult following. So I don’t see his place changing at all. And remember: That was 20 years ago, 1992.

NUVO: What’s your relationship with him now? Are you friends?
WEIDE: He’s not asking me to lunch. We’ve never socialized. He’s very cordial, and we seem to have struck some kind of chord. He knew me a little bit, and he knew my work, and we have a lot of mutual friends. I don’t know if he vetted me. He and I hit it off. There are a lot of emails back and forth that are very funny. He’s never refused a request and he’s never not answered a question. But it’s about the work.

NUVO: You worked as a guest director this season on the Palestinian chicken episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is getting rave reviews. Did you know the episode was good when you were making it?
WEIDE: I had no feelings about it that were different than any other “Curb” episode I’ve directed. You never know going in. I do the best work I can. I was glad to be back — it was like a high school reunion, in the good sense. When I was on the show full time, I used to be involved in the stories. Now, it’s like any guest director: Here’s the storyline and we’ll shoot for a couple of weeks. I read it and thought it was amusing, but there wasn’t a hint of it being anything special in the public’s eyes until I started hearing from people who had seen the press DVD, which I hadn’t even seen.

NUVO: That was the first episode where Larry (David) has ever acknowledged that yes, he can be a jerk to people, but sometimes it does some good.
WEIDE: Yeah, that’s true. I have to say, Vonnegut used to say this, Woody Allen says this: Sometimes, you don’t even realize that stuff until you read what the critics write. I can assure you that wasn’t anything that was on Larry’s mind, but it’s something people have talked about.

NUVO: Last question: Is Palestinian chicken a real thing?
WEIDE: Actually, it is. When the press started to come out, out of curiosity I started Googling the phrase “Palestinian chicken” to see what people were writing. Ninety-five percent was about the episode, but every now and then, I’d see recipes for Palestinian chicken that had been on the Internet for a year.


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