Interview with Filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne
Updated: Jul 29, 2022
In 2008, the world was introduced to the documentary film: Dear Zachary, A Letter to a Son About His Father, written, directed, edited, composed, shot, and produced by filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne. The documentary follows the life of Dr. Andrew Bagby, his murder, and the son he never got to meet. Dear Zachary was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance, and a plethora of other events, has won multiple jury prizes, and currently holds a score of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it's much more than just a film, Dear Zachary made such an impact in Canada, that an official law was passed by parliament to preserve the safety of children in the legal system, titled "Zachary's Law." Not only did Dear Zachary change the world for the better, it also just happens to be one of my favorite documentaries of all time, and this week I was given the honor of interviewing the director himself, Mr. Kuenne. Without further ado, here are the words of Kurt Kuenne...
Rua: "Ok, I'm here with Mr. Kurt Kuenne, and the first thing I want to ask is: what got you into film in the first place?"
Kuenne: "uh, just as a kid I saw movies, in particular I remember seeing Star Wars when I was like 3 or 4 when it was physically in the theater, the original one in 1977. And I just thought to myself 'I want to do...that,' and as a kid you only see the actors and the story so at that time I wanted to write stories and I wanted to act in them, that's what I thought when I was like five. Then, I started writing scripts around that time, I bought a typewriter from my neighbor's garage sale across the street and taught myself how to write scripts when I was seven, y'know they're probably not anything anyone would want to look at today but I was trying. And I started sending them off to like agencies in Hollywood to see if I could get someone to read them, and there was this one guy who seemed very amused by me and he started corresponding with me, he sent me like the first ten pages of E.T. so I could see how a script was normally laid out and things like that. And then he said 'y'know, I hate to break it to you but no one's gonna make your stuff right now, so why don't you get a video camera and start making movies with your friends?' and I thought: 'that's a good idea,' so that's what I did and kept doing all throughout my youth and I'm really glad I did. I would shoot on VHS and Super-VHS a lot, and I kept all the original raw footage tapes as well as the movies themselves. I remember at the time my mom always used to say 'why do have all these boxes here? Do you need any of these tapes?' and I said 'you never know,' then after my friend Andrew was killed I said 'see? Aren't you glad you didn't throw those out? There's tons of footage of Andrew in there!' And I ended up sort of mining that for Dear Zachary later. But yeah, that's pretty much how it started I was doing it all through high school, some of the stuff started winning awards, and then for college I went to USC. And when I graduated from USC I raised money and made my first feature which nobody saw but it played film festivals, won some awards. Then I started waiting tables to pay for my first documentary and yeah, that's kind of how that went, just a very slow process, which continues to be slow sometimes but you do what you can."
Rua: "Wow, speaking of USC, it's such an incredible film school so my question is: how do you feel you benefited from attending film school? I've seen a lot of people say that it's not necessary to become a filmmaker but I was just wondering where you stand on that."
Kuenne: "It isn't absolutely. Y'know, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, those sort of filmmakers, they never went to film school. I mean, Steven Spielberg got rejected from USC three times so he just made his own stuff. George Lucas went to USC and he's their most famous alum along with Robert Zemeckis. So, there's no one way to do it, and here's the thing, USC is very expensive so what I did was transfer in as a junior after attending a community college called DeAnza College for the first two years because the film program doesn't even start until your junior year anyway so why pay USC prices for general education for the first two years when you're gonna be in large lecture halls of 300+ people and probably not have any direct contact with a teacher? Whereas at DeAnza, my class sizes were like 20-30 and a couple of my professors are still some of my two best friends. But yeah, I was only at USC for two years, thankfully I got a scholarship for part of it, and I was also fortunate that my parents were able to help out a lot so I didn't end up with debt, but I have friends that did. A buddy of mine, Jon Bokenkamp, who created The Blacklist, which I've directed a few times now, he had student debt from the two years he went, fortunately he's been very successful professionally and was able to pay it off within like five years, but I know lots of people who have debt that follows them around. So in terms of film school, I think you have to take a look at it financially and see what's worth it these days because you don't want it crippling you going forward. That being said, what did I get out of the two years I was there...a lot. I met some of the people that I continue to work with to this day who are just wonderful contacts to have. It's also a school that's very hooked-into the industry so we always had wonderful guest speakers. By far the biggest thing I got out of film school artistically was a class in the first semester where we had to make five short films over the course of the semester that we shot on Super 8 film which doesn't sync audio, we basically had to make give silent movies over the course of the semester. Four out of those five movies are available on my website. But that class was actually the most important class because I'd made a whole bunch of films on VHS, won awards for them, and taken so much time on the scripts and production, so I remember thinking: 'five movies without dialogue? This is stupid.' But that class ended up being the most important class I had because no one had ever forced me to take away the dialogue before and I suddenly realized that they were training us to communicate only with images. That was when I suddenly realized that a lot of my favorite films do exactly that and if you're able to turn the sound off and still tell what's happening, someone's doing a good job. Like, E.T. for example is my favorite movie and the first 7-10 minutes of that film doesn't have a word of dialogue, but the story is told elegantly, so that really effected the way I write going forward...
I also entered the scoring program at USC during my senior year and was able to meet Disney legend, Buddy Baker who wrote all these iconic songs for Disneyland and those sort of things, he passed in 2002 I believe, but he's also one of my biggest influences going forward, just everything he taught me about orchestration was so valuable. So yeah, I got a ton out of my first two years at USC, I don't know if it's necessary to go for more than that, particularly to a school that expensive. Especially since prices are going up, if it's gonna put someone in debt I'd just tell them there are other ways of going about it, but I'm very glad I had the experience I did."
Rua: "You've been particularly recognized for your unique editing style, I was wondering how that came to be?"
Kuenne: "I don't really know honestly, but when I was making those Super 8 films even though they were super low tech the cutting style was unique enough that I ended up winning an editing scholarship that year. I think from documentary I've gone sort of beyond that in terms of editing like trying to give it a sort of narrative feel. I don't know, the way most documentaries are cut kind of bores me, it just seems kind of slow and obvious," I like there being some editing and purpose to the things I do. One of the guys who really influenced me was a guy named Alan Berliner, and the way he utilizes footage that unrelated the subject but is thematically similar to underlying themes was something that really opened my eyes, it made me see cutting in a whole new way."
Rua: "I'm definitely gonna check his stuff out now. Also, I don't know if you know this but in the past year, Dear Zachary has gotten quite a bit of attention on Tiktok of all places."
Kuenne: "Oh wow, no, no, I didn't know that."
Rua: "Yeah there was this sort of challenge for a while to watch the documentary without looking up what it's about beforehand. Does that sort of attention surprise you at all?"
Kuenne: "Well, it's interesting that people on Tiktok, which I'm assuming is quite a younger crowd is still looking into it because the movie has been out for over 13 years now, and most movies that are out for that long stop getting talked about, so it's surprising to me that it's being resurfaced in that way."
Rua: "Interesting, well from someone who works in a movie theater I was wondering if there are any recent movies that you've enjoyed so far? I know there's a few big ones about to premiere."
Kuenne: "Oh, absolutely, I've seen Licorice Pizza like three times already, have you seen West Side Story, the new Spielberg one that just came out?"
Rua: "I've managed to get the last ten minutes when I'm like cleaning the theater. It looks great but it's not selling very well despite the amazing reviews because there's a boycott going on right now against Ansel Elgort who plays Tony because the guy has a bunch of sexual misconduct allegations against him, some of which are from minors."
Kuenne: I just heard about that yesterday, I had no idea beforehand.
Rua: "Well, the reason I bring it up is because I'm currently in the middle of an article about separating the art from the artist and I'm very curious about your opinion on that as someone in the industry."
Kuenne: "I mean, it's tough, sometimes I wonder if it's okay to see things as they were before they got all these allegations. It's something I struggle with quite frankly because there are things I still want to see by y'know, people we shouldn't support, I try to watch those for free as much as possible. One of the reasons I struggle with it is that the problematic artist isn't the only person who worked on that movie, there's tons of other people who are not problematic whose work is wonderful, so I almost feel like it's unfair to negate the contributions of all those people because of one person who was in the mix, y'know what I mean?"
Rua: "Okay my next question is: what are some differences between creating fiction and non fiction that you think a lot of people will be surprised to hear?"
Kuenne: "Well, I don't know, I remember something my Dad said to me while I was putting Dear Zachary together, he asked 'not to denigrate what you're doing, but who is going to be interested in this movie if this is about someone that just our family knew?' and I said 'Dad, when you go into a narrative film, you've never met those people before but you get wrapped up in the story, because you meet the characters, you go on the journey, it's the same thing, think of Andrew, Kate and David as characters in a movie.' And then when the movie came out, people were getting engrossed in it and he said 'y'know, you're right, I just never thought that strangers would be interested in people we know and love but...they are.' So I think for me, I see movies and documentaries as one in the same, it's just with one you're working with existing footage and the other you're creating it from the ground up, but the same principles apply in terms of storytelling, pacing, painting the characters that make them very human, that sort of thing."
Rua: "Now tell me, are there any projects currently in the works on your end?"
Kuenne: "Well, the one I've been working on for two and a half years now is about Huey Lewis from Huey Lewis and The News, which was my favorite band growing up. Huey unfortunately had a situation almost four years ago now where his hearing collapsed during a show. He has a thing called Ménière's disease where his hearing sort of fluctuates up and down, some days it's good, some days it's bad. So he's been dealing with that for almost four years now, trying to navigate his life. Right around when this first happened I read an article about it and it was so heartbreaking to me, so I found someone who knew him and reached out and judging by my other films he agreed to me making a documentary on him, so I've been following him around for two and a half years now, interviewing all his colleagues, and just sort of documenting his life. So yeah right now I think I've got a pretty terrific little movie in the can here now I just need to start editing."
Rua: "I've gotta know, is he aware that there's a Borat character named after him?"
Kuenne: "Yes, yes he does. The whole Huey Lewis reference in American Psycho is kind of interesting too because Huey's never actually seen the finished movie. Their team asked if they could use one of his songs in the movie, and he agreed but when they approached him to put it on the soundtrack and he just thought it sounded so crappy based on the other songs that he said 'no.' So then for promotion, the American Psycho team, I guess to help promote the movie said that 'Huey Lewis was so offended by the violence in American Psycho that he pulled his tune from the soundtrack.' And Huey just got really pissed off because he's still never even seen it, so he boycotted the movie because he was just upset that they lied about something like that. When he heard about the scene years later on a talk show with y'know the whole speech that Christian Bale gives about him he said 'actually, yeah that's a pretty accurate assessment of our work" so I've always found that really funny."
Rua: "What are some of the differences between working on a major collaborative project vs. something that you do mostly yourself like Dear Zachary?"
Kuenne: "In a way it's nice to have a lot more help and support on something like a movie, it just makes your life a lot easier. However, there's something really special about working alone because the subject doesn't have anyone else around to make them nervous, it's pretty much just a conversation. They're two different animals but I'd say narrative is harder, quite frankly because you have to create anything from scratch, with a documentary you're
Rua: "Were documentaries something you always wanted to make or were you more interested in narrative films?"
Kuenne: "I've never been interested in documentaries actually, I really was only interested in narrative movies, like I made my first feature right out of film school, it played like at like small regional festivals and won some awards but other than that it didn't really get seen much unfortunately, but interestingly enough I got hired to make my first documentary and I only took it because I was waiting tables at the time and thought it would be cool to get back out there and go be a filmmaker again. The doc was about drive-in movie theaters, so I spent a year sort of in that world and the film actually opened at the Telluride Film Festival, that was the first movie of mine where I would bump into people at functions and they would recognize the work I'd done. After that, I didn't really think about making documentaries again at all, I just kept writing until a script I wrote got a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy, and I made a few musical short films that ended up being a huge hit at festivals around the world. I was trying to just get back on track and turn that script I wrote into a film but that never really worked out, and then after my friend, Andrew was killed I had just made the drive-in documentary so docs were just kind of on my mind at the time, so I figured I could take all the grief I had at the time and turn it into a documentary."
Rua: "Out of all the movies you've seen, which ones can you say have influenced your style the most?"
Kuenne: "Y'know, it's interesting because my top five movies are probably like, E.T., Forest Gump, Back To The Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and It's A Wonderful Life, and I've come to the realization that basically everything I've ever made is kind of a riff of It's A Wonderful Life. Like, Dear Zachary is essentially It's A Wonderful Life, of Andrew, like terrible things happen in it but it's all just a celebration of being a good person. I also recently watched the Oliver Stone movie JFK, and it's been one of my favorites for years but it wasn't until recently that I noticed I got basically half of my editing style from that movie. It's one of the best edited films I've ever seen just in terms of how the sound design and cutting work together so beautifully. That movie really influenced the last third of Dear Zachary a lot, because there's a sequence where I'm constantly repeating the same sentence over and over again, which I got from JFK."
Rua: "Are there any like general pieces of media you can recommend to our readers at this time?"
Kuenne: "Definitely Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, especially the audiobook. You mentioned The Umbrellas of Cherbourg earlier, I just feel that anything by Jacques Demy is worth looking at if you can find it like The Young Girl of Rochefort. I feel like I should have a lot more ideas but definitely all of Alan Berliners documentaries that you can find on The Criterion Channel. All of the original Muppet movies made when Jim Henson was still alive."
Rua: "Okay so lastly, did you ever watch Inside The Actor's Studio?"
Kuenne: "I did occasionally, yeah."
Rua: "So you know what I'm about to ask you..."
Rua: "What's your favorite swear word?"
Kuenne: "My favorite swear word? Umm... shiiiiiiiit, but it has to be dragged out, it has to have like an attitude to it. Sometimes I'll just pick up a phone call from my friends and go 'shiiiit, man.'"
Rua: "Well, this has been beyond incredible, thank you so much for appearing on our site! If you ever need an intern to get coffee on set just let me know!"
Kuenne: "Sure thing, take care!"
I'd love to thank Mr. Kuenne one last time for agreeing to be interviewed here on Cinemasters, it was definitely one of the most valuable experiences of my life, be sure to check out his next documentary when it's released and once again, thank you for reading Cinemasters.net!