When he was younger, enthralled by his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Robert Weide wrote a letter to Kurt Vonnegut, proposing to make a documentary on the author. Surprisingly, Vonnegut agreed, and the two struck up a decades-long collaboration that grew into an enduring friendship. Filled with rare archival footage and interviews with family, colleagues and Vonnegut himself, Weide’s portrait offers a deep, intimate look into the life and work of one of the giants of American literature.
Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.
Those opening sentences of Slaughterhouse-Five crackle with the plainspoken cosmic irony that made Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) one of most beloved authors of the 20th century. Vonnegut’s sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five is a lightning-bolt of anti-war satire that was Vonnegut’s grand attempt to wrestle with his own trauma as a soldier in World War II. The title is a reference to an underground meat locker where he was held prisoner during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in 1945, when tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Vonnegut turned his experience into a wry, profound, wildly imaginative sci-fi escapade and provided an invaluable tool, especially for younger readers, for coping with the world.
One of those readers was Robert Weide, who in 1982 as a 23-year-old fledgling filmmaker, wrote a letter to his literary idol, Kurt Vonnegut, asking if he would authorise a documentary about his life and work. Vonnegut wrote back saying, ‘Anything that is any good of mine is on a printed page, not film.’ Nevertheless, Vonnegut gave his blessing, provided his phone number, and invited his young fan to call him. In his letter, Weide stated he could secure financing within a year. Thirty-nine years later the film is finally finished.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is a dazzling, worthy tribute to Vonnegut and a compelling introduction for the uninitiated. While a deep, intimate look into his life – the first of its kind in feature length documentary form – the film is also seen through the prism of Vonnegut’s long-evolving friendship with director Weide. An Emmy winner (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Academy Award nominee (Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth), Weide began shooting footage of Vonnegut as far back as 1988, having no idea that the filmmaker and subject would become such close, important friends to each other over the next two decades.
Their on-camera excursions took them to a public speaking engagement by Vonnegut at a Unitarian Church in Buffalo, New York, and to Iowa City where Vonnegut taught at the esteemed Writer’s Workshop in the mid-1960s. They would travel to Vonnegut’s home state of Indiana, where Vonnegut would visit his childhood home in Indianapolis and sit for an interview in his old bedroom. They’d also visit his grade school, his high school, the family lakeside cottage in Culver, Indiana, where the extended Vonnegut family spent their summers before the second World War, and the house in William’s Creek where Vonnegut’s mother would take her own life on Mother’s Day in 1943. Weide would also film Vonnegut at numerous public appearances, including a 1997 promotional appearance for Timequake, the author’s final novel, in New York City, and at his 60th high-school reunion in 2000.
Filming Vonnegut over the span of almost 20 years, the author was opening up to Weide in ways that surprised even his own family and friends – many of whom appear on camera – making for a rich and probing portrait. What Weide couldn’t anticipate, however, was that over the years, he and his subject would become very close friends (‘family’ to use Vonnegut’s word), as their lives became personally and professionally entwined. Vonnegut’s encouragement led to Weide’s decision to marry his then-girlfriend (now his wife of 23 years), and Vonnegut would credit Weide in print, for providing needed support during his sunset years. As nurturing as the friendship was, it would present an unexpected dilemma about the journalistic integrity of the documentary. Weide would have to decide whether it was the film or the friendship that would ultimately take priority.
In order to sort it out, Weide reluctantly entered the film himself, in much the way that Vonnegut would write himself into his books and interact directly with his characters. In doing so, Weide would find himself unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim, the unwitting protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five. Past, present and future cease to become linear as Weide strives to get an overview of his subject’s life and his own role in it.
Weide also invited co-director Don Argott (The Art of the Steal, Framing John DeLorean) into the process, who proved invaluable in shaping the narrative of Weide’s four-decade journey to complete the film.
Weide explains, ‘Vonnegut took huge social, philosophical, existential, and religious issues and filtered them through this great sense of humor, this sort of grounded, simple, Midwestern sensibility. He was a humorist in the same vein as Mark Twain.’
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is first and foremost a biography of a beloved American author. But it also documents a filmmaker’s odyssey as he examines the impact of a writer’s legacy on his own life, extending far beyond the printed page.
KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME
Directed by: Robert B. Weide, Don Argott
©: LLC B Plus Productions
Presented by: Whyaduck Productions, 9.14 Pictures
Co-executive Producers: Hugh Thompson, Nicolas Sampson, Kathryn F. Thorne, Omri Lavie
Produced by: Robert B. Weide
Associate Producer: Han Sung-yup
Coordinating Producer: Nancy Kapitanoff
Written by: Robert B. Weide
Camera: Don Argott, David Yosha, Joel Sucher, Buddy Squires
Animation: Vince Gorman
Edited by: William Neal, Bo Price, Demian Fenton
Additional Editing by: Claire Scanlon, Karolina Tuovinen, Emily Freund, Elyse Holloway
Colourist: Leandro Marini Original Music: Alex Mansour, Paul Cantelon Location Audio: Steve Fischler, Don Scales, Demian Fenton, Geoff Maxwell, George Shafnacker, Ann Thompson Brock, Mario Cardenas, Art Pisanski
Post Audio Mix: Ugo Derouard
Dialogue Editor: Mehrnaz Mohabati
Sound Effects Editor: Justin M. Green
Sam Waterston (voice over)
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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