Kurt Kuenne, Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father
Since he was a boy, making films has been at the very center of Kurt Kuenne’s life. He fell in love with the movies as a kid growing up in Silicon Valley in Southern California, and already at the age of seven began trying to emulate his heroes by shooting films on Super 8 and then later VHS cameras, using friends and family as actors. Kuenne studied film at USC’s prestigious School of Cinema-Television (where he won the Harold Lloyd Scholarship in Film Editing), and there wrote and directed the short Remembrances (1995), which drew praise from Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. After graduation, he completed a degree in movie music composing, also at USC. Kuenne made his directorial feature debut with Scrapbook (1999), an intense drama about two brothers, and followed it up two years later with the documentary Drive-In Movie Memories. In addition to scoring movies, since 2004 Kuenne has been working on a series of comedy shorts, including The Phone Book and Slow (both 2008), which have played extensively on the festival circuit and won numerous prizes in the process.
Kuenne’s latest movie, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, sees him return to non-fiction with one of the most searingly personal films in recent memory. It centers on the tragic story of Dr. Andrew Bagby, a lifelong friend of Kuenne’s who was killed in 2001, and follows the Bagby family’s quest for justice after the prime suspect – Bagby’s ex-girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner – fled to Canada to escape prosecution. The film loosely takes the form of a letter addressed to Zachary, Bagby’s son who Turner was carrying when he was murdered, as Kuenne interviews all of the dead man’s friends and relations in order to let Zachary know about his father. The film is essentially all Kuenne’s work – he wrote, directed, shot, narrated, produced, edited, recorded the sound and wrote the score – and because of his closeness to the subject he presents a highly subjective take on the story. This, along with the dramatic nature of the events depicted, gives Dear Zachary an incredible emotional power which is sustained over the course of this deeply memorable film.
Filmmaker spoke to Kuenne about his emotional journey while making the film, the importance of laughter, and how his film saved a 15-year-old’s life.
Filmmaker: How old were you when you started making movies?
Kuenne: I started writing my first attempts at screenplays, however that came out, at age seven and I was using a Super 8 camera back then, but I started doing it more when I was 11 and started getting my hands on VHS equipment. Around that time, it was like junior high or so, I got a paper route and started saving my money and buying the best VHS equipment that existed in the day and the best editing machines. Everything was much more difficult to put things together back then than it is now with computers [laughs] – those machines were very frustrating. I keep thinking, “Man, if I’d had this stuff when I was a kid, my life would have been so much easier.” There was never really a time when I wasn’t in the process of making something and that just continued on through high school and college and beyond.
Filmmaker: How did your friendship with Andrew Bagby begin?
Kuenne: I met him on the first day of first grade and I remember hanging out at recess. We just starting hanging out at each other’s houses and overnights with other friends at his place. That was also the genesis of his parents becoming second parents to me, because literally every other weekend we’d be over at each other’s houses. Eventually when I started actively making movies with whatever equipment I could get my hands on, I kept shoving him in front of the camera, forcing him to play all various manner of silly roles. The wonderful thing is that I kept all of the raw footage tapes in addition to the movies themselves, so in addition to him being in my films as a document for remembering him I still have all the tapes of him being himself between takes, which turned out to be the most valuable for me, personally and for this movie. We stayed friends all the way up through the time of his death.
Filmmaker: How soon after Andrew’s death did you have the idea for the film?
Kuenne: I decided literally within about 24 hours of getting news of his death that I was going to put something together because I knew all of the friends and family would want it, some kind of a memory album tribute thing, and I know I certainly did. I was the only one who could do it because I was the only filmmaker friend that he had and I had his entire youth documented in one form or another. Even when we weren’t shooting a movie, if it was just somebody’s birthday party or hanging out, I always had a camera around someplace. I had tons of tapes around so I decided to at least put something together and then I started thinking, “Why don’t I interview people about their memories?” So that was my original genesis: I was going to travel around and meet every last person that I could and collect all the stuff and have it in one place and have it for everybody who wanted it. Instead it being me, this weird guy, showing up to meet everybody, I have an excuse: I’m interviewing them for the film [laughs], so I don’t just look like this grief-stricken guy who wants to meet everybody. That’s what the original genesis of what we were going to do before there was any hint that there was going to be a baby.
Filmmaker: How difficult was it for you personally, in addition to all the usual challenges of filmmaking, to embark on this project and immerse yourself in this incredibly tragic event?
Kuenne: The shooting of it was really enjoyable and cathartic because I felt like I was doing something really important for people I cared about – Andrew’s family and Zachary – and documenting and rescuing all this stuff before it disappeared or before people’s memories faded or other people died and took their memories with them. So the actual shoot was pure pleasure because, if you think about it, it was me in a car driving around with my cameras and my lights, getting to meet a lot of really cool people and hear stories about Andrew. [laughs] And see all these places. So that actually was really wonderful. Obviously, there were horrible things going on at the time while I was documenting this that I kept hearing about through his parents. I was more upset and furious with the situation as it happened in life, and my movie was the way to make that liveable for me. There were two separate two-month blocks in the summer of 2003 and the summer of 2004 where I went on the road and just did [interviewed Andrew's friends and family[ for two months and those, honestly, were two of the most rewarding periods I've ever had. I look back on those and they were very, very special. I felt like I had left the rest of the world and I was just on this journey on my own, and it was almost like it's own bubble of time. I don't know how to explain.
Filmmaker: You wrote, directed, narrated, edited and produced this film, as well as writing the music, so basically made this on your own. Was it important to you that this be a solitary venture?
Kuenne: Kind of, yes. I tend to do that anyway, and I have a short film comedy series that's playing festivals all over the place at the moment that I've been doing for a few years, but I literally do all those jobs on that too. I've done that for a while and I guess I kind of like handcrafting something from beginning to end. I just enjoy doing all those jobs. I try to look at it like creating a movie the way a novelist writes a book: it's your own thing from beginning to end as much as is possible. I guess I just enjoy that, but this movie was, basically, “a gift,” if you will, and as such it was nice to be that personal gift from one person to another.
Filmmaker: What prompted you to decide that the film should be public, rather than just for friends and family members?
Kuenne: The outcome of this case was totally unacceptable and that's when Andrew's parents began speaking out in the media about bail reform in Canada and I felt very strongly about that as well. When I realized that Andrew's father was writing a book about everything that had happened too and that they did want their story told publicly, [I shifted my focus]. We never really had a specific conversation about it, it just sort of became implicitly understood that I was going to put this movie out there. I remember one day when I was shooting an interview with Andrew’s folks and we were taking a break. Andrew’s mom was saying to somebody on the phone, “We’re really hoping that when Kurt’s movie is finished it can really be something that can help the cause and be one of the first crime documentaries told from the point of view of the victim.” I was hearing this and thought, “Oh, they do want me to put this out.” [laughs] It just sort of evolved into that, it was an inescapable conclusion after what happened. If there had been a different outcome to the case, you wouldn’t be interviewing me now.
Filmmaker: Your film is a very subjective portrait of what happened, which is almost inevitable given your closeness to the events. How did you feel about breaking that documentary norm of relative objectivity?
Kuenne: That didn’t bother me at all because I felt the only reason this movie has any depth at all was because I have a very strong opinion and very strong feelings about what happened here. I felt like I wanted everyone to see what happened from our point of view. I hope [the movie] will make people as upset as we are about what happened and make them do something about it. I felt like if you just read the basics of something, you don’t maybe get it or are moved to do anything about it, but if you know the people involved it’s a completely different thing. You care and you want to do something, so my goal was to make people fall in love with Andrew and his parents the same way I had in real life. For me, it was completely about my subjective experience and I wanted to give the audience the exact experience I had through this in real time, knowing what I knew at each stage. As far as the case was concerned, I tried to give the facts as we were going through it and as far as the legal aspect was concerned give you the facts, but it’s also pretty clear how I feel about it. I also have a belief that, as much as people say certain documentaries or fiction films or news reporting is objective, I really think that inherently everything has to be subjective because it’s always being filtered through your point of view. And so I’m just fully admitting that, if you will. [laughs]
Filmmaker: The series of comedy shorts that you mentioned are polar opposite to this film, and I was surprised when I read about those.
Kuenne: Dear Zachary is an anomaly and a one-off for me. I have done another feature documentary before this, a very different documentary called Drive-In Movie Memories, about the history of drive-in movie theaters – a fun, upbeat, kitschy nostalgia piece – but, in general, fiction’s much more my interest. I’m more in the Frank Capra, Preston Sturges realm of things. My principal interest is in creating movies that exhilarate people and are highly entertaining. I guess my work started taking a more comedic bent after Andrew was killed, I think because I’d been doing that was a little more serious before that and I sort felt like, “You know what? Life is sad enough. You don’t need to create fictional scenarios to make people upset.” [laughs] In Preston Sturges’ movie Sullivan’s Travels, at the end of the movie the character in that says, “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. That’s all some people have.” I went through a bit of a [period of thinking] “Oh, my God, what am I doing with my life? He was a doctor and he was healing people, and here I am just making stuff up, Is there any value to this?” I finally came to the conclusion that a doctor heals the body and keeps people well, but after they’re well they want to have experiences that inspire them and lift them up and thought that maybe the best thing I could focus on was making people happy and adding to their life in a positive way.
Filmmaker: What’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever received?
Kuenne: That would probably be an email that I received a few weeks ago from a 15-year-old who had attended a screening of Dear Zachary. He wrote to me and said that he had been contemplating suicide and very depressed and that seeing Andrew’s story and the kind of person Andrew was and how many people he affected made him want to keep on living and try to be that kind of person that could affect that many people. Knowing that this film may have stopped somebody from committing suicide really – that’s probably the best thing that somebody could say to me.
Filmmaker: If you could hand out an Oscar to someone who’s never won, who would you give it to?
Kuenne: He’s not living anymore, but Alfred Hitchcock. I’m a very big fan. Rear Window is my favorite of his and I also love Notorious – I just think that’s a wonderful movie and a wonderful love story. Vertigo‘s great. To Catch A Thief. There’s so many.
Filmmaker: Finally, which film do you wish you had directed?
Kuenne: E.T. is my favorite film, so why don’t we say E.T.? I was eight years old when I first saw it and I still love it as much now as I did then. It was my first memory of being moved to tears by a movie at any time and there was just something so wonderful about the entire arc of the story and it kept surprising me from every angle. I think one thing that’s so powerful about that movie, and maybe why it did so well all over the world, is that it is a basically a love story and relationship that is told with almost no dialogue. That’s so hard to do. On top of that there’s Spielberg’s direction, which is phenomenal, and John Williams’ music, which is my favorite film score – the package for me has never been topped.