Meet the Filmmakers: Kurt Kuenne--'Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father'
By Tom White
Over the next few weeks, we at IDA
will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be
represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 8-14 in New York City and August 22-28 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share
the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles,
the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to kick off this series of conversations, here is Kurt Kuenne, director/producer of Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father.
Synopsis: On Nov. 5, 2001, Dr. Andrew Bagby was murdered in Pennsylvania; the prime suspect, his ex-girlfriend Dr. Shirley Turner, fled the US for Newfoundland, where she announced that she was pregnant with Andrew's child. She named the little boy Zachary. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, Andrew's childhood friend, originally began this film as a way for Zachary to learn about his father. But when Turner was allowed to walk free on bail in Canada and given custody of Zachary while awaiting extradition to the States, the film's focus shifted to Zachary's grandparents, and their desperate efforts to win custody of the boy.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Kurt Kuenne: I'm principally a fiction filmmaker, and that is still where my main interests lie. Back in 2000, shortly after completing my first fiction feature, I was approached about the possibility of making a documentary about the history of drive-in movie theaters. At that point in my life, I'd never even thought about making a documentary, and it sounded like a nice change of pace, so I said, "Why not?" And I had a blast. The resulting movie, Drive-In Movie Memories (2001), opened the Telluride Film Festival that year and went on to have a very successful festival life before going into rotation on PBS, where it still pops up occasionally. Making the film really opened my eyes to new ways of storytelling-both in fiction and documentary filmmaking. I had just completed Drive-In Movie Memories when the horrific events that led to Dear Zachary entered my life. Since documentaries were very much on my mind at the time, making a documentary film therefore became a natural part of my response to the situation.
IDA: What inspired you to make Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father?
KK: On the afternoon of November 7, 2001, I got a phone call from my sister, who told me to sit down; my best friend since the age of 7, Dr. Andrew Bagby, had been murdered. He had just turned 28 years old, as had I. (We were born one month apart.) He had been found brutally shot to death in the parking lot of a state park in Derry Township, Penn., about 15 miles from the hospital in Latrobe, Penn., where he was working. I pretty much fell apart upon receiving the news and couldn't imagine who on earth could have done such a thing. Andrew had more friends than anyone I knew and was loved by everyone; he was the only person I've ever met who was asked by seven different people to be best man at their wedding.
Growing up, I was one of those kids who was making movies on VHS from the time I could pick up a camera, and Andrew had appeared in all of my early movies, for which I still had the original raw footage tapes, so I had his whole life documented on tape. I decided immediately that it was my responsibility to put together some kind of a tribute film for family and friends, as I was the only one in the world who could. And then it occurred to me: I was never going to get to visit him at his hospital to see what he was like as a doctor; I'd never be meeting the rest of his family and friends at his wedding. So I expanded my tribute film into a quest, to visit the places that were sacred to him, to meet and interview everyone who knew and loved him. Since his friends were scattered far and wide, it would be a road trip of epic proportions. It was my grieving process.
But then news about his murder
started to come out. He had been murdered by a seriously disturbed woman he had
been seeing, who set him up and killed him after he broke up with her. She fled
to Canada before the US authorities
could get their hands on her. And then she revealed in February 2002 that she
was pregnant with Andrew's child. I suddenly realized that my responsibility
here was now much bigger: Andrew was going to have a son born after his death
who would never know him, and I might have the only means of introducing him to
his father at my fingertips. So I redoubled my efforts and set out, as I say in
the movie, "to bring a man back to life."
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
KK: I didn't have much money when I first conceived this massive road-trip/journey, so I wasn't sure how I was going to leave my job for months at a time and go on the road. But I had the good fortune to win a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences just at the right time, and that $30,000 fellowship became my resource from which I began shooting. The original shooting of it was pure enjoyment; I was seeing the country, meeting wonderful people, hearing stories of Andrew. That part was great. The horrifying part was that back in Canada, the woman who had murdered my friend was being allowed to walk free on bail and have custody of the baby-whom she had named Zachary-while the excruciatingly slow extradition process dragged on for months and months. Andrew's parents had moved up there to fight for custody of Zachary, and were forced to interact with this monster on a civil basis in order to see their grandchild. When I arrived in St. John's, Newfoundland, where all this was transpiring, we had to be very careful to make sure that this woman did not (a) know that I was in town or (b) know that I was making this movie. It was a scary and horrifying time, with a murderer on the loose who could show up at the apartment at any time, but you just had to buckle down and get through it. It was an important and necessary thing to do.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
KK: The biggest change is that this movie was never supposed to be released to the public. I was creating it solely as a personal project for Zachary, friends, family and the recipients of the scholarship funds that have been created in Andrew's memory. But at a certain point, the enormous injustice of what was being allowed to happen here-an accused murderer walking free with a baby; my friend's grieving parents being tortured emotionally on a daily basis by the government of Canada, which allowed this situation to exist; multiple lives being recklessly endangered-it all came to a breaking point one day when both I and Andrew's parents decided there was no other choice but to take the gloves off and go public.
At that point, the movie's intention changed significantly because I was now crafting a story to involve a general audience. For that reason, the most difficult balance to find in editing became the question of, "How much information about Andrew is too much?" I wanted the audience to feel like they knew him and his parents, but not give them so much information that they got bored and tuned out. I also didn't possess the financial resources to finish the film on my own-and I wanted all proceeds from the film to go to scholarship funds in Andrew's memory, so I didn't want a production entity getting involved either creatively or financially. So I cut a 10-minute promo trailer, put it on the Web and raised all my completion funds purely through donations from hundreds of wonderful people around the world, both friends and strangers. The entire movie was funded by donations, and the producer's (i.e. my) share of proceeds after expenses will all be going to Andrew's scholarship funds. I must give an enormous thanks to the IDA here, which was my fiscal sponsor through that process.
IDA: As you've screened Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
KK: The reaction to the movie at festivals and in reviews has been staggering. I doubt I'll ever see reviews and responses like this again in my career (and I would throw them all away in an instant to have my friend back, so I dearly hope I never have the opportunity to make a film like this again). Just about every festival screening of the film has received a two-minute standing ovation; it goes on longer if Andrew's parents are present, and I feel the ovation is really for them, for their strength. I've been getting e-mails almost daily from people telling me the film has changed their lives in some way, made them appreciate their loved ones even more, or made them so mad they're putting pen to paper this instant to write Canada's government in support of bail reform. My hope is that this film will influence reform in Canada's bail system-specifically we would like to see the Canadian government pass a law denying bail to people accused of murder, so that the appalling situation that occurred here won't happen again. When we held the Canadian premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto, the citizens of Toronto literally hissed the government officials on screen when they either refused to speak to me or backpedaled with bureaucratic doublespeak. Many Canadians have written us saying that they're ashamed something like this was allowed to happen in their country, and have copied us on letters they've sent to Parliament. I'm planning to hold a screening for Canadian Parliament later on this year; the timing still needs to be worked out.
But my favorite response to the movie was when I overheard a woman describing the film to a friend, and I realized she was talking about Andrew as if she had known him. Many people have told me afterward, "Whatever happens with this film, thanks for letting me meet that guy. I feel like he's my friend now too." And that was the film's original intent back when I first started-to introduce Andrew to those who never got to meet him. Given the type of person Andrew was, it's just like him to be making thousands of new friends almost seven years after his death. :)
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
KK: For me, in the documentary world, Alan Berliner is in a class by himself. His filmmaking and cutting style taught me so much and opened my eyes to new possibilities in both fiction and documentary filmmaking that had been previously hidden to me. When I first saw his film Nobody's Business (1996), it was like someone had opened a curtain on a new stage I didn't know was hiding in plain sight. I had the good fortune to meet him many years ago while I was first shooting Dear Zachary, right after he saw Drive-In Movie Memories, and our conversations gave me a lot to think about that became relevant in the completion of this film. I hope to share it with him soon; he's in the film's "Thank You's."
Last but certainly not least, I'd
like to thank the good people at MSNBC Films, who have picked the film up for
broadcast later this year, and who have made our inclusion in DocuWeek possible-and
Josh Braun at Submarine Entertainment for bringing us together in the first
Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father will be screening at the IFC Center in New York and the Arclight Theater in Hollywood.
the DocuWeek schedule in New York City,
purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the IFC
the DocuWeek schedule in Los Angeles,
To purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the ArcLight Hollywood, visit www.arclightcinemas.com.