In “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father,” director Kurt Kuenne pays tribute to his murdered friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby. The woman who killed Bagby was pregnant with Bagby’s son, Zachary, at the time of his murder, and Kuenne realized his film “would likely be the only way that little Zachary could one day see and get to know his father.” Part memorial, part true crime story, the film premiered at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival. It is being released through Oscilloscope Pictures this Friday, October 31 in New York City.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I know it’s a cliche of my generation, but the truth is the truth: I saw “Star Wars” when I was 4 years old and decided I wanted to make movies; seeing “E.T.” when I was 8 solidified that stance. I started writing and shooting them with whatever equipment I could manage shortly thereafter, then just kept making ’em one after another up until the present time. Hopefully I’ve improved over the years. :) I still have all the raw footage tapes from those early movies, which ended up being indispensable archive material for “Dear Zachary.”
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I’ve tended to do all or almost all of the behind-the-scenes jobs on my films – writing, directing, editing, shooting, composing the score, sound design – because I love personally handcrafting the details of a piece of work from beginning to end. A lot of people have told me that’s an unusual way to work (or symptomatic of a control freak :), but I sincerely just enjoy the painterly aspect of creating all of those elements.
“Dear Zachary” is my second feature documentary, but my principal area of interest is fiction, which is where I plan to spend most of my time in the immediate future. My key desire is to exhilarate an audience with a film, however that happens — and I’m excited to keep exploring different genres, different forms and discover new things about the language of movies. I’m always hoping to stumble on to a way of telling a story that I haven’t seen before, or that surprises me. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s exciting when it does.
Please discuss how the idea for “Dear Zachary” came about.
I had just finished my first documentary – “Drive-In Movie Memories” (2001) – when I received the news that my best friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, had been murdered. Probably because I had documentaries on the brain, within about 24 hours I decided to fashion a tribute film of sorts as a memory album for family and friends. When it occurred to me a few days later that I would now never get to visit him at his hospital, I would never attend his wedding and meet all his extended family & friends, I decided to expand my tribute into an epic road trip, to go meet and interview all of Andrew’s loved ones about their memories, as this would likely be my only excuse.
When more news about his murder surfaced – his ex-girlfriend was charged with the murder, she fled to Canada, then revealed she was pregnant with Andrew’s son, whom she named Zachary – I realized that my movie had a greater import than just being a memory album for those who knew him; it would likely be the only way that little Zachary could one day see and get to know his father, both through my old videotapes and the memories in the interviews. So it became the passion project upon which I worked in my spare time during the following years…though I never envisioned releasing the film publicly. Some people encouraged me to do so, but I felt that to do so would be exploitative. Later, however, that situation changed.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project?
There are a lot of crime documentaries out there about killers, movies that explore their backgrounds and motivations, whose appeal I cannot fathom; I wanted this to be perhaps one of the first told from the point of view of the victim, the usually faceless person the media generally glosses over like a statistic. I wanted to bring Andrew back to life, to make the audience feel like he was their friend, so that they would be just as furious as I am when they witness what was allowed to happen here.
Stylistically the movie is my best attempt to put you in my shoes emotionally and experience the unfolding of events in real time as I did. There were no specific influences upon it apart from that, though, I will say that I’m a huge fan of the documentary filmmaker Alan Berliner, his work has taught me a great deal about film language, and I’m sure there’s a stylistic imprint from his films that is probably visible in “Dear Zachary” for those who know his work.
My goals for the project changed multiple times during the course of making it. But the final goal is to create public awareness of the travesty of justice that unfolded here, and thereby promote support for bail reform in Canada — specifically, a law denying bail to someone accused of murder until trial, so that they don’t have the opportunity to repeat their heinous crime on more innocent victims until their guilt or innocence has been determined by a jury.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project
The biggest challenge for me came in the editing of the movie, because this film transitioned from a project intended only for loved ones to one that was intended for a mass audience. I wanted the audience to feel like they knew Andrew and his parents, but I also needed to keep the story moving forward, to keep the audience engaged. So walking the fine line of how much personal detail was needed to achieve that effect was very difficult, because if I went on too long (as I did in early cuts), it would become self-indulgent.
Securing distribution for this project, honestly, was the smoothest experience I’ve ever had with any film in that department. Doors flew open for this movie with ease that I’d always had to wrestle before. I had a wonderful champion in Josh Braun and Submarine Entertainment, and I’m tremendously grateful to them for everything that they’ve done to bring this film and its story to public attention.
How did the financing for the film come together?
I won a $30,000 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2002 for my script “Mason Mule,” and that became my shooting budget for the bulk of photography. When I got to post-production, I no longer had enough money to do all the things I wanted to do – like pay for the film’s single most expensive element, its orchestral score. So I cut a 10 minute “trailer,” which was the movie in miniature, put it on the web, and it caught on – YouTube featured it, the press wrote about it – and I raised the entire rest of the budget in donations from hundreds of people around the world who were moved and infuriated when they heard the story of what happened here.
So the entire film was financed by donations, and all of the producer’s (i.e. my) share of proceeds are going to two scholarship funds in Andrew’s memory; one at his hospital in Latrobe, PA, and another at his medical school in Canada. I must give a big shout out to the International Documentary Association here, who functioned as my fiscal sponsor, allowing donations to the film to be tax deductible.
What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
I grew up on the films of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis; still love ’em to death. In the last decade, I developed a real love of older films, particularly those of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and Frank Capra. I’ve said for a while now that I see “Dear Zachary” as a real life Frank Capra film: it’s a story about wonderful people to whom a horrible thing happened, and the love they gave to others comes back to save them in their darkest hour.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I have a series of short film comedies that have been playing festivals around the world for the past few years, and I intend to make a few more installments to finish up that series. My next slated project is to finally direct “Mason Mule,” the script for which I won the Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy; it’s 180 degrees from “Dear Zachary.” I often describe it tonally as Ferris Bueller crossed with Amelie by way of Monty Python. I’m working with some wonderful folks at a company called MediaPro, which is based out of Romania, and we’re looking to shoot sometime in the spring. I’m looking forward to getting back to something fictional and silly.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I have no idea what “independent film” means; Film Independent‘s rules for the Spirit Awards define it as a film with a production budget under $20 million dollars, which to me is a lot of money. I think you have an idea that excites you and you find a way to make it happen – however that occurs. Keeping unnecessary fingers out of your creative pot keeps it “independent,” I suppose. Labels are unimportant, except for marketing.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
You will hear a lot of clever advice about what you have to do to “make it” in this business, whatever that means. People emphasize technique, strategies, formulas, getting to know the right people, etc. The successes I’ve had, without exception, come when I tuned out the noise and just did what I knew to be the right thing in my gut, even if I couldn’t rationalize it to anyone else and many told me I wasn’t doing the “smart thing” or the “practical thing.” So do what your gut tells you to do, despite the negativity you get from those who don’t understand. But it’s important to DO it, not just think about it or talk about it. Get up every day and take some action toward your goals. It adds up over time.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
I recently received an email from a young man who had just seen “Dear Zachary” at a special screening. He said he had been depressed and suicidal, but that seeing this story — witnessing how many people Andrew had affected in his lifetime, seeing the good that one person can bring into this world whether or not he is aware of it — made him want to keep living, to try harder and become someone like Andrew, about whom so many people could say such wonderful things. I made this movie to hopefully save lives by changing bail laws to protect innocent people; I never dreamed it might save lives in other ways, by inspiring people. That letter was very humbling, and showed that, like Andrew, we will likely never have any idea in our lifetime the positive effects that our actions have on other people.