Since 1982, Robert Weide has been working on a documentary about novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Now the Emmy-winning film and TV producer – whose credits include Curb Your Enthusiasm, an adaptation of Vonnegut’s Mother Night and documentaries about the W.C. Fields, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, among others – plans on completing it through his Kickstarter campaign. If funded, Weide says Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time could be done by the end of the year.
“The first book of his that I read was [1973’s] Breakfast of Champions, and the thing that struck me first was the sense of humor,” Weide tells Rolling Stone. “It’s the kind of writing that can make you laugh and cry at the same time. He wrote about man’s inhumanity to man but while being just so funny.”
The producer first approached the author after making a documentary about the Marx Brothers. Age 22 at the time, Weide got over any nerves about speaking to his idol purely because Vonnegut was interested in him. He worked on the documentary throughout the author’s life, and the two gradually became friends. And at the suggestion of Vonnegut scholar Jerome Klinkowitz, Weide is including himself in the documentary, which is now being co-directed by Don Argott (The Art of the Steal, Last Days Here), to show the nature of their relationship.
“Your first instinct when you meet someone who is that important to you is to tell them how important they are to you, and I find that creative people – artists of that caliber – aren’t terribly comfortable hearing that kind of flattery,” he says. “I got halfway through some statement about how important his work had been to me and he cut me off and said, ‘Boy, that scene [in Animal Crackers] where Harpo is punching Margaret Dumont in the stomach was about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.’ And that was it, so we talked about comedy.”
When the film is complete, Weide says Unstuck in Time – a reference to a line in Vonnegut’s 1969 breakthrough novel Slaughterhouse-Five – will showcase the author’s “simple Midwestern sensibility.” The producer, who describes Vonnegut as unpretentious, expects viewers to get the sense of “what it was like to hang out with him.” Moreover, he hopes that people who aren’t familiar with the author will find him interesting and pick up one of his books.
The producer compares the documentary to Richard Linklater‘s recent Boyhood, since he made it off and on over decades, never abandoning it. “We really enjoyed each other’s company,” he says. “Eventually, I thought, how do I pass this off as an objective journalistic documentary? Then it began to feel as though the film was intruding on the friendship.” It will be Argott’s job to “cover that meta element,” filming Weide as he works on his documentary and then wrapping it into the film.
Scenes in the documentary take place in Vonnegut’s hometown of Indianapolis, visiting the author’s boyhood homes, schools and landmarks, Iowa City, where he taught the Writer’s Workshop, and Buffalo, New York, where he attended the premiere performance of an operatic “humanist requiem” he’d written. Weide also accompanied the author to his 60th high school reunion and on a promotional tour for the novelist’s final book, Timequake, in 1997.
To raise the $250,000 needed to complete the film, Weide is offering many of his own Vonnegut treasures up as Kickstarter rewards. “I went through my closet and my attic and dug out anything Vonnegut-related that I felt I could part with, ” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff that he signed for me and part of me hesitates to give it away, but then part thinks, ‘Do I really need five of these?’ It’s all gonna be thrown out when I’m dead anyway.”
Among the rewards are signed posters and programs from the 2001 production of Vonnegut’s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which the author had asked Weide to direct. He’s also offering posters, the screenplay and other items related to the film adaptation of Mother Night, which starred Nick Nolte, Alan Arkin and John Goodman. He has limited-edition prints of a drawing that Vonnegut’s daughter, Nannette, did of her father. And, as far as non-Vonnegut-related items, he’s offering a signed Woody Allen poster, related to his doc, posters for his Lenny Bruce doc and pictures and DVDs signed by the principal cast of Curb Your Enthusiasm, including Larry David.
Incidentally, Weide is launching the Kickstarter at a date that coincides with two Vonnegut anniversaries: the 65th anniversary of the publication of his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect” (February 11th) and the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden (February 13th), in which the author survived as a prisoner in an underground meat locker called Slaughterhouse Number Five.
“He was the perfect writer for me to discover in high school,” Weide says. “I just connected with him the way some people would read Salinger or Kerouac and say, ‘OK, this is it. I have found my author.’ Vonnegut was the author who spoke to me and he has remained so.”