|SXSW '08 Interview: "Dear Zachary" Director Kurt Kuenne
|by Erik Childress
The “Dear Zachary" Pitch: My best friend was murdered by his ex-girlfriend, who fled the U.S. for Canada to avoid prosecution, then discovered she was pregnant with my friend's son, whom she later named Zachary; I originally began this film as a way for little Zachary to learn about his father, until this woman walked free on bail during the extradition hearings.
How soon after the death of Andrew Bagby did you begin filming this documentary?
KURT: I decided to make some sort of memorial tribute for him within a day or so of getting the news of his murder, but I didn't begin actual shooting until 9 months after his death, because I wanted people to be able to tell their funny stories and laugh; I didn't want to wait too long, lest people's memories start to play tricks on them, but distance was needed for people to be able have that perspective.
Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
KURT: I always wanted to be a filmmaker. And a composer. I'm thrilled to be making my living now doing both.
Tell us about the days of filmmaking with your friend, Andrew Bagby.
KURT: Since I wanted to be a filmmaker as a child, I figured the best way to start was by doing it, so around age 7 I grabbed whatever camera equipment I could get my hands on and started shooting. Of course, I needed somebody to be in front of the camera, so I roped Andrew into appearing in just about everything I shot; we were always play-acting movie-like situations as young kids anyway, so to start videotaping them was a pretty natural extension of that. For years it was a lot of fun, but as I started getting more critical about what I was making, I began to require multiple takes and long shoots -- and I was very fortunate that Andrew and our close circle of friends humored me, as looking back I was a bit of a slave driver (in the nicest sense of the word). Andrew had no ambitions to be an actor; he had always wanted to be a doctor, which he became in June of 2000. But as someone who made Eagle Scout by the age of 15, I think he loved the excuse to play a "bad kid", to smoke and swear with abandon on camera and be able to blame it on me. And it left me with boxes of footage of Andrew, which turned out to be a treasure trove for this documentary.
What one particular film of your work together do you look back upon as the one you would put into a time capsule?
KURT: In a strange way, I consider "Dear Zachary" our last movie together, so this is the film I'd put in the time capsule above all else. But in terms of early work, the movie that stands out was a massive project on which I spent my sophomore and junior years of high school called "On The Air". It was a 2 hour, 15 minute comedy-drama made from a 200 page screenplay about two brothers running a radio station out of their high school, which became quite popular around my San Jose high school when it was finished; I discovered that folks were pirating copies and passing it around, and it was mentioned in the yearbook among our senior year's highlights, so that was quite cool. It was the movie for which I won my first filmmaking award, and it got me invited in for a meeting at American Zoetrope (Francis Coppola's company, just up the road in San Francisco) when I was 16, so that was pretty darned exciting at the time. In shooting the film, Andrew's folks - Kate & David Bagby - let me invade their house as a location almost every weekend for over a year. They also appeared in the movie in supporting roles.
Was there a project from those days that either of you were itching to tackle but never got around to?
KURT: There was talk of doing a sci-fi/fantasy picture at one point, but I ultimately thought it best to stick to those stories and subjects that wouldn't look totally ridiculous with the meager resources we possessed as high school students in the late 80's/early 90's. (Despite that impulse, other films we made did look a touch ridiculous anyway, but we tried.)
Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
KURT: I've played festivals all over the map for the last decade or so, but this is my first trip to SXSW, and I'm thrilled to be included. My festival life began when my last USC student film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1995; since then, I've traveled the festival circuit with my first fiction feature ("Scrapbook", 1999), my first documentary feature ("Drive-In Movie Memories", 2001) and a series of black & white comedy short films that have been enjoying tremendous festival success for the past few years. My shorts "Validation", "Slow" and "The Phone Book" are currently playing festivals, so it's been quite something to have four films making the rounds simultaneously right now; just keeping track of prints & promo materials for all these movies has become a full time job! Honestly, my favorite part of the festival ride has been the people I've met and continue to meet. I've found them to be wonderful places to meet brilliant, talented, like-minded people, and have met some of my best friends at film festivals. My least favorite parts of the ride? Well, at some smaller festivals, you sometimes have a very small turn-out, which can be tough, and occasionally you find some creative projectionists who accidentally run your soundtrack through some kind of decoder that makes it hard to hear the dialogue over the effects, perhaps they don't fill the screen with your image, project the wrong aspect ratio, etc. The projectionist does indeed have final cut. But overall, I've had a marvelous time attending festivals with my films and hope to continue to do so.
Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
KURT: Well, I feel a sense of relief; "Dear Zachary" premiered at Slamdance in Park City, both screenings received sustained standing ovations and the reviews were as good as anything I could have ever hoped for. I knew this film meant a lot to me, but I wasn't sure how it was going to be received by strangers who didn't know Andrew. During the editing process, I was acutely aware of the danger that I might be indulgent with material to which I was so close, and I did have test screenings where people told me bluntly, "It's really powerful, but you've gotta cut 30 minutes out of this thing." And I did. So it was quite satisfying to see so many overwhelmingly positive reactions from strangers and to be certain that I'd finally brought it down to size. Probably my favorite moment since the film has started screening was when I overheard a woman trying to describe the film to a friend, and I realized that she was talking about Andrew as if she had known him.
During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
KURT: When I first started this project, it was intended for friends, family and Zachary only, so the only people I thought about pleasing were Andrew's friends & family. I never anticipated releasing it to the public; I only decided to do that after the woman who killed Andrew committed a second murder when Canada unbelievably let her walk free on bail while awaiting extradition. I realized then that this story needed to be heard from the rooftops if there were to be any chance of preventing such a tragedy from happening again. At that point, yes, I began thinking about the audience very much, because I wanted to make a film that would allow people to experience what I had experienced during the previous 2 years, hopefully be made as furious as I was about what happened and move them do something about it.
Because of the nature of the crimes involved, it will be damn near impossible for people to stamp your work as “manipulative.” The editing techniques employed to make this a rapid-fire tale not only allows information to be seeping from every sprocket hole of its 90 minutes, but as you probably hoped, puts the audience within the emotional rollercoaster of this extended family. Do you think you could have achieved the same results if you played it more traditionally with longer takes and conversations?
KURT: I've never been sure what "manipulative" means in a filmmaking context, as it's a filmmaker's job to exercise control over his/her storytelling resources in order to engage the audience and communicate to them as clearly and effectively as possible. I do not pretend to be objective in this film; that would be lying, as I loved the victim very much and am absolutely furious about what happened to him, and about the subsequent and very preventable tragedy that was inflicted upon his family. I made the filmmaking/cutting style/sound design mirror those emotions as best I knew how. Aesthetically, I never saw the film any other way than how I put it together. (I also cut my previous documentary, "Drive-In Movie Memories", in a very fast-paced style; younger critics loved the film's energy, older ones sometimes said I had ADD. I guess that's just my style.) So all I tried to do was portray the events the way I experienced them, as honestly as possible, to put the audience "in the living room" with all of us so that they would hopefully not only understand but feel this entire experience in their bones.
To what extent did you want elements of the film to play like a murder mystery? With clues dropped and hints to later revelations teased during the early events.
KURT: It wasn't really my goal to make the film play like a murder mystery. I tried to dole out the "plot" aspects of the story slowly over the first 20 minutes in order to to keep the audience on the hook with the questions, "What happened? Who killed him? Why? Prove it." while I introduced them to Andrew & his family, and hopefully, while they're waiting for their questions to be answered, without realizing it, they have fallen in love with him, Kate & David, as all of us who know them have. Cutting the film was a very delicate balance between keeping the "plot" part of the story moving as swiftly as possible - i.e. Kate & David's struggle to win custody of Zachary while dealing one-on-one with their son's killer - while also capturing the quiet, reflective nature of my journey to collect all the memories of Andrew for Zachary before they were gone. It was most important for me that the audience understand the injustice of what happened and hopefully become part of our fight to change things for the better -- and I felt that the best way to achieve that was to make them Andrew's friend.
Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
KURT: The Great Gonzo. He's full of passion for what he believes in, goes for everything 100% and never lets anyone talk him out of his goals -- even if that goal is something as seemingly ludicrous as eating a rubber tire to the music of "Flight of the Bumblebee"; for him, it has meaning and that's all that matters.
If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
KURT: The biggest lesson I learned on this journey was learned before I ever began making the movie. In the summer of 2001, I was finishing my previous documentary "Drive-In Movie Memories" in Los Angeles, and Andrew had returned to the Bay Area - only a 5 1/2 hour drive from L.A. - for a brief visit, after which he had to return to his medical residency in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. I was supposed to drive up and visit him, but I felt such pressure to finish mixing the documentary in order to make an arbitrary deadline that I told him, "Sorry, dude; I can't make it. I'd love to, but I'm swamped." He responded, "No problem; I'll see you at Christmas." He was killed November 5th. It wouldn't have made any difference if I'd finished that movie one week later. Never put work before people you care about. You may not get another chance.
What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
KURT: Growing up, the films of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis were what inspired me to make movies, and their films have as much impact on me now as they did when I was a kid; I just saw "Back to the Future" projected at a midnight screening recently and it was just as great as ever. "E.T." became my favorite film when I first saw it at age 8, and it still is. As I've gotten older, I've also realized just how much Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, Cameron Crowe and John Hughes have influenced me, though I wasn't that cognizant of it at the time. Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Alfred Hitchcock are people whose work I can return to again and again, and it never lets me down, and whose canon I'm still discovering bit by bit. And I'd be remiss not to mention the great documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner, who I had the good fortune to meet while making this film, and whose work really opened up my mind to new approaches to cutting and sound design. His 1996 film "Nobody's Business" might be my favorite documentary film of all time.
Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
KURT: Not so much; this movie and its style came out of the experience of living through it, and is my attempt at a cinematic equivalent of the emotions I went through.
Michael Moore’s last three documentaries have all carved out portions to throw a little love Canada’s way, whether it be for their lack of guns, healthcare system or simply being George W. Bush-free. There’s something refreshing about you lobbing a few deserved hand grenades over the border at a justice system that, for lack of a better reasoning, have bought into some of their own province’s press. Not that you condemning an entire country, of course, but the charges you level them with are as damning as any point Moore has ever made on any subject.
KURT: I really don't think of this as a nationalistic issue; letting killers walk free to do it again is wrong wherever it happens, though in this case it happened in Canada. I do want to point out - and I hope the film shows - that the people of Canada, in particular Newfoundlanders, were absolutely wonderful in their support of Kate & David during their time there. You won't find a more friendly population than the people of Newfoundland. Andrew went to medical school in Canada, and made many wonderful friends there whom, after meeting them while making this movie, I now consider my friends. But this case illustrated clearly that the Canadian judiciary has a very naive attitude toward murder; prior to trial, murderers there are treated with no more gravity than thieves. And sadly, this has happened before: in 1994, Canada let a man named John Cousins walk free on bail while he was awaiting trial for murder, and gave him the opportunity to murder another innocent man, Edward Shaw, stabbing him over 60 times. In the case of Shirley Turner (the woman who killed Andrew) -- despite charges of first degree murder and criminal homicide; despite changing her story to the police 5 times before fleeing the United States, clearly telling multiple lies that contradicted each other; despite a mountain of evidence which, among other things, placed her at the scene of the crime and gave her motive; despite 8 people putting restraining orders against her because they feared for their lives; despite the fact that her previous boyfriend before Andrew said she'd threatened to kill him too; despite the United States advising that she was a flight risk, as well as a danger to herself and others and should be held in custody, the Canadian judiciary let her walk free on bail mere hours after her arrest on December 12, 2001, and the Crown Prosecutor didn't even put up a fight. And not only that, their bail system doesn't even require people signing for bail to put up money or even prove that they have the money if the person runs; all they need is a pen to sign their name. And when Shirley Turner didn't show up to court after she committed her second murder while out on bail, none of the bail sureties were called in. No one had to pay a dime, even though Kate & David Bagby tried to force the government to call them in. So the system's a joke. Innocent until proven guilty is an indispensable tenant of society, but it should not be stretched to the point where it allows an actual murderer to repeat his or her crime while awaiting trial. The potential consequences are simply too devastating. I hope this movie helps them to see the flaws inherent in the current system and moves them to adjust them accordingly. They carelessly gambled the lives of everyone in the general population that Shirley came in contact with, and in this case, it resulted in the murder of someone I cared about.
Like Moore and many crusading documentarians, you had trouble getting some of the story’s major players to be interviewed. The female judge who allows Shirley Turner to go free and the stupidity she displays in her reasoning for it could arguably turn out to be the film’s most lasting villainess. You have yourself a forum here. So what would you have said (or asked) the judge had she agreed to your phone call?
KURT: Justice Gale Welsh is the judge in question, who let accused first degree murder suspect Shirley Turner walk free on bail on January 10, 2003; though I could not disagree more with her decision to let Shirley walk free - and her decision to do so destroyed lives - it was not my aim to attack Welsh when I called asking her for an interview. If she had agreed to an interview, I simply wanted to ask her how she felt about her decision now, what she'd learned from it and what she would do differently from now on. I wanted to hear her admit that she'd made a mistake and say that she was sorry. The first step toward change is admitting that an enormous mistake was made. But she refused to speak to me, so I'll probably never know what she feels about it.
What actor would you cast as your favorite cartoon character?
KURT: TJ Thyne ("Bones") as Bugs Bunny.
Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
KURT: I just signed an option with a production company/financier based out of Romania to direct my screenplay "Mason Mule", for which I won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences a few years back; that's been my dream project for awhile now, and I'm thrilled that it looks like I'll get to do it soon. And I've got a stack of screenplays that I've been amassing over the past few years that I'm itching to shoot. I'm pretty self-generating and don't really understand the need for remakes and endless sequels. As a moviegoer, I don't go see them. If someone else already did it, it's been done. Move on, I say, there's lots of new ground to cover. Also, if a filmmaker with my resumé was handed semi-huge budget tomorrow, I would be subject to reams of notes from committees telling me how to make the movie; for the meantime, I'd rather work with smaller budgets, with people who respect my work and who genuinely want me to make the movie. I can do better work that way and it's more fun.
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
KURT: Well, I am a composer as well, but if I weren't making movies, I'd probably focus on music full time.
With so many celebrities supporting anti-Iraq and pro-environment documentaries, to whom would you like to get the attention of and show Dear Zachary to in hope of getting their support?
KURT: I've felt for awhile now that if either Oprah Winfrey or Larry King knew about this story, they would shout it from the rooftops in support of change. I think it would be a particularly perfect fit for Oprah, not only because of her compassion and interest in children, but also her book club; Andrew's father David Bagby wrote an excellent book about this mess, "Dance with the Devil: A Memoir of Murder and Loss" (available on amazon.com), which became a national bestseller in Canada upon its publication last March and has already been through three printings. I hope they both get a chance to see the film somewhere along the line, as well as read his book.
Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
KURT: Film critics are very important for filmmakers in my position, because they are able to give a film that is coming out of nowhere some legitimacy, to funnel the public's (or a distributor's) attention toward a specific film that they otherwise might ignore. A film like "Once" is a perfect example of this; it just won an Oscar, and probably wouldn't have been in that position if critics hadn't shouted from the rooftops, "See this movie!" which got the audiences to come out in droves, including myself.
What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?
KURT: An honest, sincere full-on rave from someone anonymous means more to me personally, as it means I've made an enormous impact on that person. All people's opinions are of equal value, though reputation and fame tend to cloud people's perceptions of that fact. (Having said that, there are some blurbmeisters who just like to see their name in print and offer up quotes for films that they know don't deserve it, but I'm assuming we're not talking about that kind of person.)
Through all the terrible things that happen in the film, it’s ultimately one giant love letter to the spirit of David and Kathleen Bagby and to the true art of something that is shown too often in both narratives and documentaries in a negative light. And that’s parenting. The hope that is embedded in the both of them through this entire ordeal, the fight David has put up to change the laws and in the heartwarming tribute to them from everyone that knows them in the end makes Dear Zachary a true testament to them and the resolve of the human spirit to overcome. What are some of your fondest memories of them?
KURT: I have so many I don't even know where to begin. Their house was always what we kids always thought of as the "party house"; they had so many friends that the place was always brimming with people, you could always hear the laughter of children in the swimming pool out back, and the crack of billiard balls in the living room as a cluster of folks hovered around the pool table all evening. They would let Andrew have a dozen of us kids over for sleep-overs and let us stay up all night watching movies, but always made us mind our manners (Kate would never let you get away without saying "please" and "thank you" in their home). David would take all of us kids to the local park and let us tackle him in the grass. It's not just any parents who will not only let a teenager turn their home into a movie set for the better part of a year, but also appear in the movie as supporting players, and on top of that even say naughty words on camera when asked to. Andrew was an only child, but everyone I know who grew up under that roof considers them second parents. I've said before that, despite the dark events that this movie depicts and the fact that I hope it influences bail reform, I see it as a real-life version of "It's a Wonderful Life". At its core, it's the story of two people who created an enormous circle of friends just by being good people, and when they were at their darkest hour and thinking of ending it all, those friends rose to the occasion to keep them alive and kicking. And as a result, they're still trying to make the world they live in a better place.
David at one troubling moment breaks an uncomfortable silence with a declaration of outrage that I’m sure is going to make most audience members feel like someone just punched them point blank in the heart. It reminded me of a similar moment in Deliver Us From Evil when the parent of a molestation victim lashes out. It’s the kind of fiercely honest moment that will certainly connect with the thoughts of viewers at that moment. Can you recall what you were feeling at the moment of filming it?
KURT: At the moment of filming it, I'd thought about asking them if they wanted to stop, but then figured they'd have no problem telling me if they wanted to stop (it was just the three of us in the room, just like any other conversation we've ever had), so I just shut up and let them talk. I'd been a part of a lot of those kind of moments when spending time with Kate & David at their house right before and after Andrew's funeral, but it did surprise me that I caught one of those moments on camera. The one in the film still isn't as devastating as the blackness I witnessed in their home in the days following his murder. I don't know if there are any words or images that could ever communicate what I saw and experienced there. But I'm glad I caught a version of that kind of moment in the movie, because it's the best representation I have to show the world the consequences of a judicial system that treats murderers the same way it treats petty thieves. To quote David, property crimes are irritating; murder is DEVASTATING. You can replace possessions; you cannot replace a person. A murder charge is very serious, is not made lightly and should not be treated lightly. When you do, that's the result.
As they say every murderer is someone’s child (or in Shirley’s case – had a few) do you ever get a little skittish watching your film and wondering what her children or relatives might be thinking while she is getting (rightly) savaged on screen?
KURT: It wasn't my intent to savage her, as that serves no purpose, only to present her actions and let them speak for themselves -- and only to the extent that was necessary to show why it should have been painfully obvious to the parties charged with public safety that this person should never have been allowed to walk the streets while awaiting extradition. I have nothing but sympathy for Shirley's children; they're Zachary's brother and sisters, are innocent victims in this and were left with an unbelievable burden to carry through life. I have a particular respect for her son T.J. who was absolutely wonderful to Kate & David when the second tragedy depicted in the film occurred. I thought about asking him for an interview when David & I last had lunch with him in Newfoundland, but decided against it as I didn't wish to put him through any unnecessary anguish. It is certainly not my intention to hurt anyone. If they choose to see the film, I hope that it is received by them in the spirit that it is meant -- as an honest look at the situation from my point of view, as a means to honor their little brother and promote bail reform in Canada, so that what happened here can never happen again.
The legal systems of North America have hardly been one to inspire many positive statements, particularly for those who have been victimized or close to victims of the system. Is the bail system the real problem or is it just a stepping stone to a larger issue in keeping the public safe.
KURT: For the purposes of this case, the bail system in Canada is the real problem. If Canada hadn't let Shirley Turner walk free on bail while awaiting trial, I wouldn't be answering questions for this interview right now, as there would never have been a reason to release my film publicly.
As is the case with many shootings on school campuses or places of businesses, the public at large is often denied their right to see justice served when the culprit usually takes their own life. Do you think it’s in our nature, as a result of cinematic reciprocity, to wish for that eye-for-an-eye and when it doesn’t happen, our anger has no avenue to die?
KURT: As David says in the movie, I think we're built that way: if you kill a bear cub in the wild, you can be damned sure that bear cub's mother is going to rip your head off and tear you limb from limb. We're built the same way; any human being worth a damn is mad as hell when someone harms someone they love. That's a healthy, natural reaction. So, yes, if the person responsible takes themselves out of the picture, it's definitely hard to know what to do with your anger as your desire for justice can never be fulfilled. In this case, however, because the person responsible had already been identified as a dangerous person, when the second murder occurred my anger was directed at the killer's assistants, the people whose job it was to stop her, but who casually let her walk free to do it again. Given that the government would not do its most basic job in this case and intervene, the only scenario in which she doesn't get to kill again is if someone had taken the law into their own hands and killed her themselves. That's the simple truth. And it's not supposed to be that way; that's why governments exist -- so we don't have to take the law into our own hands to protect our families. And when a government is broken, it needs to be fixed or what good is it?
In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
KURT: Well, back to your question about the usefulness of critics, I'd point to the reviews (see some of them at www.dearzachary.com :), which, fortunately for us, have been pretty wonderful so far. I'd also say that usually when a documentary is made about an unbelievable story like this, it is most often made by an outsider who has heard about the story and is coming in to document it. In this case, it happened that I was already a career filmmaker who had been documenting this family my whole life when this nightmare hit us. So in a sense, this is a film I've been making my entire life, I just didn't know it. Lastly, though it depicts a heartbreaking series of events that I hope will move people to action, I think it is essentially a real-life Frank Capra film -- a story of people two people who were hit with the worst life has to offer, but are still fighting to make the world a better place. In his review on cinematical.com, Erik Davis wrote that the film has "already inspired me to work on being a better person". I couldn't ask for much more than that. While my film started as a memorial, the conclusion I finally came to is that we need to take care of the living.
Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary will screen at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival on Monday, March 10 (9:00 PM) at the Alamo Lamar in Austin. It will screen again at the Alamo Lamar on Thursday, March 13 (9:00 PM) and Saturday, March 15 (6:30 PM).
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2414
originally posted: 03/01/08 09:17:55
last updated: 03/07/08 04:27:32