© Written By Magazine, June 1997
by Nancy Kapitanoff
Robert B. Weide sits opposite Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Nolte in the back of a limousine parked in front of the Place des Arts in Montreal. Slouched in their seats, smoking, the author and the actor look like matching bookends. A few fans mill about the car as it idles on this comfortably warm August evening. "Thanks for all the great books," a woman yells to Vonnegut when the car door opens for another passenger. Weide knows how she feels. He has gone from being a fan to friend to collaborator.
Mother Night, the film starring Nolte based on Vonnegut's 1961 novel, which many consider his most personal book, has just made its world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival before an enthusiastic audience of over two thousand people, an entry in the festival's official competition. For Weide who wrote the screenplay and coproduced the movie, it is the accomplishment of a dream. Lately, he has taken to carrying a camera around, he says, to provide evidence that he isn't just dreaming, that he really did make a movie based on a book by one of his childhood idols.
When he was a seventeen-year-old high school senior in 1977, Weide taught a class on Vonnegut. Sunny Hills High School in Southern California's Orange County ran an alternative education program called "Open School," in which students with exceptional knowledge of a subject could teach their peers. A year earlier he had picked up Vonnegut's novel, Breakfast of Champions.
"Like many people that I talk to who are Vonnegut fans, after reading that first book I said, That's it, I found my author, and just went back and read every single thing that he had written and everything I could find about Vonnegutpress going back to the beginning of his career," Weide (pronounced why-dee) said. "If you go back and read my high school yearbook my senior year, the autographs will say, 'To the biggest Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen fan.' My personal Mount Rushmore."
Weide's Vonnegut course was a credited literature class; students got grades. Part way through the semester, the skinny, bespectacled professor with the big hair caught on that one of his best friends wasn't reading the books, he was reading the Cliff Notes. "Here I was having to tell my friend, I know you're cheating in my class and I'll have none of it," Weide recalls with a good laugh. "I confronted him and he got very embarrassed and dropped out of the class. And it didn't affect our friendship at all. I couldn't care less as far as our friendship was concerned." Twenty years later, after his friend saw Mother Night at a screening Weide had invited him to attend, he wrote to Weide: "Loved the film. Much better than the Cliff Notes." Weide knows how to make friends and keep them.
"We happen to be very close friends," Vonnegut says of Weide during a press conference in Montreal. His remark was in response to a reporter's comment that the film was unusually faithful to its source.
Vonnegut, author of over twenty books including Slaughterhouse-Five, the celebrated 1969 novel that made him one of the most famous writers in America, marked his seventy-fourth birthday on November 11 (1996). Weide was exactly half his age. Brothers under the skin, their age difference never got in the way of an ever evolving, vibrant friendship. During the past fourteen years, they've shared a lot of laughs and jokes (some of them pretty bad), much about their lives, even a crush on ABC news correspondent Cynthia McFadden.
"Of course he has lots of friends," says Nanny Prior, Vonnegut's daughter, about her father. "But this one, Weide, has really dug in deep. I love seeing my father having this pleasure of friendship in his life."
"When they're together they have a tremendous by-play of humor that goes back and forth," says Nick Nolte of Vonnegut and Weide. "Kurt views the world with a sense of irony and humor and he enjoys people that get that too. That's what the connection is.
"I think Kurt is looking back in his life a bit and Bob is looking forward a bit. And so there's thisI don't suppose it's a father-son, but it's a mentorship kind of thing. And it's really refreshing to see. It's developed into a wonderful relationship, a friendship, that's delightful to be around."
In Hollywood, friendship is rarely at the core of a movie deal as it was with Mother Night, the fictional tale of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nolte), an American playwright living in Berlin before World War II who is recruited to spy for the Americans by playing the role of a Nazi propagandist. On a handshake, Vonnegut gave Weide, a seasoned documentary filmmaker but neophyte screenwriter, the rights to adapt the novel Mother Night. That was in 1990. Nobody including Vonnegut got paid until the first day of principal photography on the $5.5 million film, five years later. It is not the way Don Farber, Vonnegut's New York attorney/agent for over twenty-five years, prefers to do business.
"I don't believe in free options," says Farber, adding that Vonnegut always asks his advice on such matters and usually listens to him. "I believe if someone wants to do a film or a play, if they can't come up with some money, they don't have an investment and it just doesn't happen. Kurt and Bob Weide became very friendly, and Kurt, because of this friendship, wanted to see what he could come in with. He believed in him."
"It was [this] basis of trust that enabled us to make this film in an unusual way," Weide says. "I didn't have to face that dilemma of having a studio own a film and possibly asking for major changes or putting on another writerwhich would have been their rightor not making it at all, which could have been the worst thing. By writing the script on spec[ulation], it enabled us to say, 'This is the script we want to do; yes or no?' Ultimately Fine Line [Features] stepped up to the plate and said yes. . . and the friendship survived, which is the other nice thing."
Surely in 1982 when Los Angeles-based Weide, then twenty-three, wrote his second letter to Vonnegut in care of his attorney (his first, written in high school, was not answered), he could not have imagined where it would lead him. But from their lengthy correspondence over the years, it's obvious he'd been preparing for that night in Montreal since he taught his Vonnegut class.
June 29, 1982
Dear Mr. Vonnegut:
Earlier this year I produced [The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell] for PBS.... I am currently developing a number of other film projects, all of them dealing with subjects that are of a personal interest to me. The films of the Marx Brothers, for instance, were among two things that kept me going through my high school years. The other thing that kept me going was the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The Marx Brothers now have their definitive documentary. How about allowing Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. to have his? . . . I'm certain that funding for such a project would be no problem. If the documentary had your authorization, I'm confident that I could arrange for financing immediately.... Thank you for getting me through high school. I hope to hear from you soon.
Robert B. Weide
"The first book of his I read was Breakfast of Champions," Weide says. "I just really dug his humor and I think that's still a big part of it. He's just so bright and so damn clever. What I came to love about all of his books is this combination of how hysterically funny Vonnegut was and how full of humanity he was. For all of his philosophical musings in his books, I think the bottom line is he considers himself a humoristsees himself as a joke teller."
Vonnegut replied to Weide's letter on July 27, 1982:
Dear Robert Weide
I've been out of town for most of this summer and so read your friendly letter of a month ago only this morning. It turns out that I already know something of your work. I saw the Marx Brothers tribute, and liked it a lot. Who wouldn't?
I am honored by your interest in my work, and I will talk to you some, if you like, about making some sort of film based on it. But there is sure no great footage to start with. Slaughterhouse-Five is the only good movie having anything to do with me.... Anything that is any good of mine is on a printed page, not film. Maybe you have some ideas as to what to do about that. I don't.... Give me a ring, if you like....
Since the enormous success of the novel Slaughterhouse-Five based on his World War II experiences in which he was captured by German troops at the Battle of the Bulge and survived the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 Vonnegut has received a lot of correspondence from young fans. Weide's letter stood out for more than the obvious reason that he wanted to chronicle the author's life.
"When he got in touch with me, he was already an accomplished artist. He was a colleague," Vonnegut says. "He'd already done good work about comics and I think that I was flattered to be treated as a comical person, which I've always tried to be. He thought I was funny and he was into funny men, and most people don't approach me that way. They don't usually comment on how hard I work to be funny. And he had read everything I've ever written, which is very nice."
Like the financing for most documentary films, it did not come immediately for a Vonnegut documentary either. Since that first exchange of letters, Vonnegut has written four novels and is working on another. Weide has produced and directed several documentaries on comedians including W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition. Nine years in the making, he is just finishing Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth.
"Little did I know it'd be six years before I could even start," Weide says, referring to a small amount of money he got for the Vonnegut project in 1988 from PBS' American Masters series. "Now it's 14 years later and it's still unfinished. It might be interesting for a documentary profiling someone to actually follow his life for ten years, although certainly if I had my druthers, I would have wrapped things up already."
When Weide received that first letter from Vonnegut, he was hesitant to call him. "I really didn't want to bother him," Weide says," but "Farber said, 'Oh no, you should call him. Otherwise he'll feel hurt that you didn't or that you changed your mind.
"I remember that initial phone call; every now and then I would try to say something about how meaningful his work was. And he wouldn't have any of that. All he wanted to do was talk about the Marx Brothers. There is a scene in Animal Crackers, which is in the documentary, where Harpo is basically beating up on Margaret Dumont. Well, I'm trying to say something to Vonnegut about the importance of his work and all he kept saying was, God that was funny when Harpo was fighting Margaret Dumont. I thought I was gonna split a gut. He broke into one of his typical laughs which starts off as a laugh and then goes into this cough from smoking Pall Malls since he was sixteen. You're wondering if you're going to have to call 911."
Shortly after the phone call, Weide visited Vonnegut in New York. "You hear that it's not always good to meet your heroes because they can be disappointing in real life," Weide says. "But Vonnegut was basically everything I had hoped him to be. It did take a while to really feel comfortable around him. Primarily because I had worshipped him so out of any reasonable proportion. I'm still somewhat deferential around him, but now it's become almost like a father-son thing where I'm somewhat protective of him around other people.
"The first trip I made to his house, I remember just trying to act calm but inside being a wreck. And it reamianed that way for a while until finally I became what I pretended to be. Eventually I did get calm around him. What I relied on initially, conversationally, to keep things comfortable is this love of old movie comedians like W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy. The first few times we got together, most of our conversations revolved around those topics because I knew it was common ground that we could both feel comfortable with."
During that first visit, Vonnegut suggested possible interview subjects for the documentary. One former colleague had gone on to head the Eagle Shirt Manufacturing Company. "I remember [Vonnegut] saying to me that up to that time, basically a man's shirt was just white, or maybe light blue," Weide says. "And then when he got into the business, suddenly there were all kinds of colors and patterns and different designs.
"There was this pause and Vonnegut said, 'God it was an exciting time to be a man.' And that struck me as very funny. That's his Indiana roots coming through. It's heartland humor, but with an ironic eye. There's an intellectual element observing the fact that he knows he's just a Hoosier from Indiana."
In search of his author, Weide trekked to the heartland before 1982 was out to meet with Vonnegut expert Jerry Klinkowitz, professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. In the mid-1960s, Klinkowitz was in graduate school in the middle of a seminar on Chaucer when a philosophy student gave him a shabby little paperback by a guy named Kurt Vonnegut. He read the book, which happened to be Mother Night, gave up Chaucer for life, and decided to study Vonnegut's work. "At the time there weren't a lot of market opportunities for Vonnegut experts," he says. That changed after Slaughterhouse-Fives publication. He is currently working on his seventh book on Vonnegut.
Weide arrived in Iowa with a book Klinkowitz had just finished called Kurt Vonnegut which Vonnegut had given him. "He was still in his Boy Wonder phase," Klinkowitz says of Weide, a college dropout. Enrolled at USC, he had tried three times to get into the university's respected film school. Three strikes and USC was out. He took a job in the film business. "It was his first trip to the Midwest and he'd never been in cold weather. He had gone to the Salvation Army or something to buy the most ridiculous overcoat. I mean this guy was dressed for the North Pole because the overcoat came down to his shoe tops. He looked like some immigrant off the boat at Ellis Island a hundred years ago. But beneath this shabby, moth-eaten overcoat was this very hip, L.A. guy, so I brought him home.
"The mere fact that he was trailing this resume behind him with the Marx Brothers, which I'd seen myself on public TV, I knew this guy was accomplished. And I could see he was very enthusiastic about Vonnegut. People who are enthusiastic about Vonnegut are a dime a dozen. Bob seemed to be someone who could channel this enthusiasm into something that was gonna happen."
November 16, 1983
I thank you for your Armistice Day greeting. I trust that you joined me in one minute of silence as the second hand ticked off the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month.... I hack away at a new novel called Galapagos.
December 20, 1984
You've been on my mind lately because there's a new woman in my life, and during that early exploratory period where you're sharing significant influences on your respective lives, I've introduced her to your work. Started her out with Cat's Cradle, then on to Breakfast, figuring if that didn't scare her off nothing would. Her favorite line from Breakfast was also my own favorite: "Make me young! Make me young!". . . I've had some guilt about the slow pace with which I've progressed on the film we've discussed.... Having recently reread my past correspondence to you regarding this project, I realize this has been going on so long that its' starting to sound like a joke. All I can say at this point is that I'm still working on it and I still desperately want to do it. I've also had a few exploratory conversations regarding a feature film based on one of your books. I've developed something of a gameplan which I'd like to discuss with you next time I'm in New York ...
November 3, 1986
. . . Well, I spent three days in Cedar Falls and I imagine your ears must have been burning. Loree [Rackstraw, English professor at the University of Northern Iowa and a Vonnegut scholar] was a sweetheart and she showed me your impressive drawings and the Requiem which was inspiring. [A secular, humanist requiem written by Vonnegut, it is his antidote to the venomous source of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem," the fifteenth-century Council of Trent.] Let it be a lesson for those who label you a pessimist. You are a "wimp" by true pessimist's standards. Now the Council of Trent, there's a group of guys with an attitude problem! Good for you for making a stab at correcting something so boneheaded. I would like to see the premiere....
December 27, 1987
How can I not be touched and flattered by your continued interest in my work? I now have a videotape, by the way, of the only visible thing I've done worth watching, an onstage performance at a fundraiser for PEN a couple of years ago.... As for Laurel and Hardy [Weide was considering producing a documentary on the comedy team]: to find yet another excuse to televise their perfect works has to be OK, like doing the Nutcracker yet again at Christmas time.... Two other comedians who are in the first rank with Laurel and Hardy: Jack Benny and Buster Keaton. All humanity is the audience they were able to keep in mind. Almost nobody can do that, so I tell writing students of mine not to try....
January 11, 1988
Nice talking to you the other day. I'm thrilled that we'll be able to film the Requiem and the speech.... Once you know how you'll travel to Buffalo (train, plane, etc.), please advise. I might like to shoot a little film of you on your way up there, provided you don't feel your privacy would be invaded or that we'd be in your way.... My girlfriend of the past three years and I have sort of thrown in the towel on our romance but we remain great friends. I got her reading your books when we first started dating.... I'm really looking forward to March. I'll speak to you before long. Thanks. Regards to Jill [Krementz, Vonnegut's wife] and little Lily [their adopted daughter].
In March 1988, with the PBS funds, Weide and a film crew accompanied Vonnegut by train to Buffalo, New York, where a Unitarian church choir would perform Vonnegut's requiem. Written in English, Vonnegut had it translated into Latin and hired a composer to score it. Weide interviewed Vonnegut and his older brother, Bernard, on the train and also covered a speech by Vonnegut in Buffalo and the requiem performance.
"It was the trip to Buffalo where things entered a new phase. That was a point where I felt, O.K., we really are friends now. It's not about fan and idol or filmmaker and subject so much as we really are good friends," Weide says. "A lot of it was just the amount of time that we spent and the fact that we were in this town together and had the evenings too. There is this guy thing about sitting around at night and having a couple of drinks and opening up. We'd reveal things about ourselves and I'd talk about women stuff I was going through and a lost love at the time, and he would counsel me about that. We talked about the highlights and the disappointments in our lives and just really talked like two friends opening up to each other.
"After close to a week, we were almost like college dorm mates. Even the difference in ages started to fade away, and then we just started to hang out. At this point, it had been five years that we had an acquaintanceship and over this five years I didn't do anything to betray his trust. In fact I haven't until now," he says, referring to this interview.
Vonnegut has a theory that it is the youngest member of a family that usually turns out to be the funny one, the joker. "It was the only way you could get attention," Vonnegut says. "My brother is nine years older than I am. When I was six he was fifteen, so he had all kinds of exciting things to talk about. My sister was five years older than me. She had really exciting stuff to talk about and I had little crap."
Weide graduated high school having been voted not only the most likely in his class to be famous, but class clown. He is also the youngest of three children. "That might be part of our bond," Weide says. "Everyone in my family is sort of funny in their own way, but I certainly exploited it more than anybody."
"It seems like a complicated relationship," says Keith Gordon, thirty-five, Mother Night's director and co-producer and a close friend of Weide's since Gordon moved to Los Angeles in 1982. An actor turned director, he had leading roles in John Carpenter's Christine, Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill, and in Back to School. He first met Vonnegut when the author came to the set of this Rodney Dangerfield movie to do a cameo appearance. Gordon took a small acting job on the Nick Nolte film, I Love Trouble, just to get the Mother Night script to the actor. Nolte's agents had turned down the project years earlier.
"When Bob's passionate about somebody," Gordon says, "he's very communicative, but he's not like, let me kiss your feet, let me treat you like God, which I think would probably scare Kurt off. I think in Bob he probably found someone who could really talk about a lot of things he cared about without feeling everything [he says] is being taken as gospel. They both have very wry senses of humor. They both enjoy the weird juxtapositions of existence in life. Even in [Bob's] documentaries, what he focuses on about people is the contradictions in their lives. And I imagine that there is a connection there too in that I think there's probably more sadness than either of them is very [willing] to let on to other people."
January 16, 1989
On the reverse side find a copy of a note from Bob Elliott. I wrote him saying that my best Christmas present came from you: those PBS tapes [of comedy duo Bob and Ray], all of which I've played twice.... The Bob and Ray stuff is one part of an adventure in Jungian synchronicity which has enabled me at last to get going on another book with some enthusiasm. For two years I wasnt getting anywhere and then those tapes gave me permission to be, like them, intelligently ridiculous....
November 13, 1989
Dearest Whyaduck [Weide's production company name]
Where indeed is your Slaughterhouse-5? Have you considered cutting off an ear and sending it to a prostitute?
These things take time. Remember Herman Melville. Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was completely out-of-print when he died so young.... It seems to me that your permanent contributions to civilization have been substantial, although the paymasters, being thugs, may never come to see that. Or care....
Love as always,
August 22, 1990
Well, I'm sorry that we weren't able to hook up in New York, but I'm especially glad that we got to see each other in L.A.... I've been giving a lot of thought to something that I'd like you to consider: I'd really like to get a great movie made from Mother Night. No glitzy special effects, no 20-million dollar budgets, no overpaid stars -- just a great script and the right director. Keep it small and stay true to the book.... Keith Gordon and I would like to write it for Keith to direct.... He's a big fan of yours and his sensibilities are perfect for this piece.(I'm including a few reviews of his film, The Chocolate War which he adapted from Robert Cormier's novel).
Now there's a favor involved for which I call on your trust.. . . I want to ask you for a very brief option. The idea being that once we have a script, we could set up financing for the film within four months' time. We can negotiate in advance what sort of payment you would want for the rights with the understanding that such payment would be made once our financing becomes available.... Give it some thought Kurt....
November 15, 1990
I am so thrilled about Mother Night, the truth is I found myself too embarrassed to call you for fear I'll gush all over myself thanking you. I was going to call on the 11th to tell you that my birthday present was the promise of a first-class film.... I've already started on a first draft script. I intend to keep as close to the book as possible because it's already so cinematic.... Again, my deepest thanks for the trust you've placed in me. I'll do good by you.
"Anybody who adapts a work of minelike Stephen Geller, who did Slaughterhouse-Five, did a wonderful jobI just told him and I told other people who are doing adaptations, just think of my book as a friendly ghost around the house and make a new work of art for God sakes, or it won't be any good," Vonnegut says.
Gordon was an impressionable eleven-year-old when he attended the New York City premiere of Slaughterhouse-Five with his father, acting coach Mark Gordon. The lead actor in Slaughterhouse, Michael Sacks, was one of the elder Gordon's students.
"I was floored by the movie, and also this was probably the first R-rated movie I'd seen, so Valerie Perrine's breasts were also a big moment in life, but beyond seeing a half-naked woman and that being a thrill, it was also a movie that even at eleven was very powerful to me and very moving," Gordon says. "I don't think it was long after that that I determined I wanted to read the book it was based on. I was probably about twelve or thirteen. I think the next thing I read was Cat's Cradle and then I started working my way through all of them."
At the end of 1990, Gordon was preparing to go into production on A Midnight Clear, based on William Wharton's autobiographical novel about his World War II experiences. So Weide started to write the script on his own.
I think somewhere I hadto be honestan attitude of well, he'll write the first draft and then I'll rewrite it, Gordon says, "because I'd done two films where I had written the scripts and I assumed in some self aggrandizing way that I would of course need to fix Bob's script." I read it and went, Oh, there's really not much I'd do to this. This is pretty terrific. At that point, my biggest contribution really became more of an editor than a re-writer."
March 8, 1991
To Bob Weide
From Kurt Vonnegut
It looks like a good script to me. I didn't realize that you yourself were going to write it. Comment:
Hoess and Hess were two different guys.... Campbell's broadcasts, still to be written, should be worth listening to.... Maybe somebody out there can dig up transcripts of Lord Haw Haws' broadcasts. His real name was William Joyce and he really was entertaining in an awful way....
"When I first wrote Mother Night and submitted the script to Kurt was when I started to realize that he's just not very effusive about his opinions," Weide says. "He will tell you in a few words what he thinks. From his initial comment on the script, I thought Gee, maybe he was just saying that to be polite, because he never got into much detail with me. Part of how I learn about how he really feels is through third parties. It's the same way perhaps my own father won't pay me too big a compliment, but then I hear from somebody else at a dinner party he went on and on about something."
"We had the script and we started sending it out and that became our five-year strange trip through the halls of money in Hollywood," Gordon says. "We had all sorts of interesting adventures and misadventures and deals that weren't deals and deals with people who didn't really have money and deals with people who had money but backed out of the deals. The usual rollercoaster."
In March 1994, while they were still experiencing whiplash from their Mother Night merry-go-round, Weide spent his own money to continue the Vonnegut documentary, meeting Vonnegut and a film crew in the author's hometown, Indianapolis. Vonnegut reminisced as he walked around his elementary school and high school, and Weide conducted interviews with him at his boyhood home and inside the house where his mother committed suicide on Mother's Day when he was twenty-one.
Vonnegut invited his daughter, Nanny Prior, to join them. Then thirty-nine, the artist, wife and mother of three had not traveled alone with her father since she was fifteen. When she accepted her father's invitation to meet him in Indianapolis, she didn't know a documentary filmmaker was coming along too. "Dad sort of left out that little detail," she says. "I didn't want to go in that case because it suddenly struck me as being part of his celebrity life. I'm very shy and I didn't want to have to meet a lot of people and I really wanted him all to myself."
When she first met Weide, she says, "I told him, 'I don't trust you people.' I had to get that out of the way when I first met him, 'cause there are a lot of scumbuckets out there. I'm a little too mistrustful, but that's what happens to us kids of famous people. But Weide just laughed.
"When I saw how they were together, it totally put me at ease. I really hate seeing people fawn over my father or be scared of him or that whole bigger-than-life thing. I realized this is somebody who has some depth, who really loves my father, who really knows him and cares for him."
Nanny Prior's time in Indianapolis with her dad and Weide turned out to be fun. "I have a twelve-year-old son and I would say maybe they were in the range of between twelve and fifteen in [that] they were really good together. They would bop each other over the head with a newspaper, have stupid little disagreements," Prior says. "This was an especially poignant part of the documentary because these are my father's roots. There was a lot of joking and I think that really does put my father at ease. You can't ask him too many serious questions, so there was this balance of being funny and then the next minute, talking about taking bodies out of rubble in Dresden or his mother's suicide.
"Also it was funny to me to see Weide tell him to do things over and over again. I don't know that much about filmmaking, but he had him keep walking down this corridor or throw this paper airplane, and Dad was like putty in his hands. Now Dad can sometimes get a little grumpy and I didn't see any of that. I think Dad was having a great time and somehow I saw Weide working magic with him."
When Weide received the letter from Vonnegut saying the Bob and Ray tapes had gotten him writing again, Weide felt that if he does nothing else in his life, he had contributed something because he helped get Vonnegut unstuck on a book that eventually came out (Hocus Pocus). "Conversely," Weide says, "if he's done nothing else, he got me started drinking martinis."
Ambling around Indiana, they got to talking about their different generation's drinking habits and Vonnegut said, "In my day the big thing was martinis." Weide told him he'd never had a martini in his life. Vonnegut made him promise that that would come to an end while they were still in Indiana.
"There was a night in Indianapolis where there was a reunion of the surviving Vonneguts still in Indianapolis. It was at this very Gentile country club called The Woodstock Club," says Weide, who is Jewish. "When the waitress came by and asked, 'What would you like to drink?' Vonnegut answered for me and said 'He'll have a martini.' I took a few sips and Vonnegut leaned in and said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'This is really nice.' It also made the evening go a lot smoother too.
"There was one point at dinner, I think Cousin Richard, who's in his eighties, started going on about Jews. It wasnt an anti-Semitic rant; he was just expressing some observations about the Jews. I certainly wasnt offended, but I think Richard's wife suddenly looked at me and then looked at Richard and started nudging him and suggested he shift topics. Nanny [Prior] was there, sitting across the table, and we were exchanging glances. When the waitress came around again, Vonnegut ordered Weide another martini. Now I really love martinis. I told him, 'Now I understand your generation."'
They drove back to New York together in Vonnegut's Honda in one long shot, taking turns driving and snoozing. The gee-whiz side of Weide is still there: "It was a lot of fun being on the road and talking with him and listening to the radio," he says. Weide had the final shift into the city and took Vonnegut's instructions to follow a bus. The next thing they knew, he was driving up a ramp in a municipal bus parking lot, surrounded by rows of buses. "We both started to crack up. I kept saying, 'another fine mess you've gotten us into.' It took me about twenty minutes to figure out how the hell to get out of there."
The next day in New York, they tried to make a date with Cynthia McFadden. Weide had discovered her on Court TV covering the Lyle and Eric Menendez trial. "I would always tune in to watch her. I didn't care about the Menendezes," he says.
Before their Indiana trip, he met her at the Cable ACE Awards ceremony. McFadden had been nominated for an ACE award for her trial coverage. Weide had produced Larry Gelbart's political satire Mastergate and stand-up comedian Rick Reynolds' one-man show, Only the Truth Is Funny, both for Showtime, and was nominated for two awards.
At the awards ceremony, Weide went up to McFadden and introduced himself. In conversation, she told him that someone recently told her that Kurt Vonnegut had a crush on her. "I got real jealous," he says. She suggested the three of them get together for lunch in New York and told Weide she was in the phone book. He promised to call.
Within hours Weide was on the phone to Vonnegut. "The first thing I said was, 'Well Kurt, it's pistols at dawn, we're both after the same woman.' To which he said, 'Cynthia McFadden?' So that confirmed things. I was telling Kurt, 'You may be famous and have all the money, but I'm closer to her age.' We were playfully fighting over her. I told him about the lunch invitation. He said, 'Sounds great. Well have to do that when we come back [from Indiana]. "'
Weide looked up McFadden in the phone book and called her from his hotel room. A man answered who "sounded like he had been napping on the couch," Weide says, and begrudgingly took the message that Bob Weide and Kurt Vonnegut were in town and wanted to have lunch.
The next day when Weide arrived at Vonnegut's home, the first thing he wanted to know was if he'd reached McFadden. Use my phone, call her again, Vonnegut said. "I got the same guy again," Weide says. "This was on a Saturday and she had recently left Court TV to go to ABC. He said she was at work. I said, 'Boy, they really got her busy over there at ABC, huh?' He said, 'What are you talking about?' I said, 'Isn't she at ABC now?' and he goes, 'She works in a toll booth.' Well, I got the wrong Cynthia McFadden out of the phone book.
"When I told Kurt, he got hysterical. We were both laughing. Coming into the city we probably saw her, seeing as we went through every toll booth on the Eastern Seaboard. The Cynthia McFadden was out of town on assignment. They have yet to have lunch with her.
The final script is a knockout. There are a lot of funny lines I wish I'd written but didn't. One reviewer said she didn't think there was anything funny about concentration camps, and something was seriously wrong with anybody who did.
In the fall of 1995, Mother Night was shot entirely on location in Montreal. Vonnegut visited the set just once to shoot his cameo appearance. Leaving the film to the filmmakers, he was still interested in being informed about the progression of the project. "He was like a little kid calling me up every week and [asking questions like], 'What's going on?' and 'How's Nolte in the role?' and 'Are the studio people behaving themselves?"' Weide says. "He was thrilled with Nolte. He says he cannot imagine anybody else besides Nolte playing the role, which is the ultimate compliment."
"He is a wonderful actor," says Vonnegut, "and what he did to get up for this part was very smart. He thought of it himself. He got a whole bunch of tapes of Arthur Godfrey broadcasts."
After the Montreal premiere, says Nolte, "[Vonnegut] said to me, and Bob was with us, 'It's unsettling, it's rather disturbing.' And I said, 'yes.' He said, 'That's good.' Rather than the normal reaction you get, 'Oh, that's a great ending of a film, I feel so great.' He saw that to be disturbed, to be perplexed, to be moved is important.
"It's a very nervous proposition to sit there and watch work that we've all done. I feel very good about the film, about grasping the spirit of Kurt's work and putting it on film. So I felt really good just to be sitting with those guys. The difficulty is when the lights come up because now you fall out of the story that was being told and now you're kind of naked and people are staring at you. Kurt and I immediatelyhe went for his Pall Malls and I went for my Marlboros."
Though Vonnegut had seen an early cut of the film on video, he had not seen the finished film until the Montreal premiere. Invited to earlier screenings in New York, he didn't want to go, he says. "It was just too scary. I finally went to Montreal because that was my responsibility. You feel responsible for what the actors are saying and doing. Very guilt inspiring; my God, did I do this to these people?"
Nanny Prior did attend one of the early screenings of Mother Night. There's so much in that movie, and so much of my father, of his essence and his humor," she says. "It's incredibly romantic and incredibly dark and that's how I could describe my father in a nutshell in growing up with him. This movie really captures what my father meant to put across in his books. I think Mother Night is really the most personal of any of his books."
I think there's an awful lot of Kurt Vonnegut in that character, Campbellsomeone who appreciates the paradox of language and the accidents of race and the horror of war and who feels it so deeply," says Loree Rackstraw, a student of Vonnegut's at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop in 1965 who became an authority on Vonnegut's work. She retired this year as professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa.
"He lives the paradox of life so close to the surface, and by that I mean the contradiction that is true," she says. "His whole life he's had to face that in one way or anotherthe paradox of being a German American during World War II and the accident of being captured in the Battle of the Bulge and ending up in prison and getting blasted by your own air force. I think there have been crazy accidents in his life that have put him in a position of almost being two persons at the same timehaving to face his mother's suicide on Mother's Day. One irony after another. I think his vision is quite dark. To keep yourself alive by having a way of laughing when you're at your very lowest point requires an enormous amount of energy and intelligence."
March 3, 1996
Home from Sacramento to find your FAX awaiting. I have no illusions about the prospects for Mother Night as a money-maker, nor about the attractiveness of properties of mine written so long ago. My life at this point is a garage sale on the edge of a high speed superhighway.... I will be the luckiest man in the world again if you write a script for Sirens, and you are crazy enough to do that....
Love as always,
Vonnegut refers to Weide's next project, adapting Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan He wants the same deal: a handshake and the opportunity to write a spec script faithful to the book, without interference from Hollywood executives.
March 3, 1996
I just stepped in at 1:30 A.M. Saturday night (Sunday morning) and found your very moving fax which has left me a bit choked up on several counts.... By writing Sirens now, I'm only attempting to keep the illusion going a little longer before people find out that I have no original ideas of my own. Fuck Hollywood. The fact that all your books are still in print means a lot more than whether some asshole studio executive knows the difference between Mother Night and Night, Mother. If I had a dollar for every college kid who flips out when he learns I know you and swears to have read everything you've ever written, I could finance these movies myself.... So, in fact, it is I who am the luckiest man in the world. Secondly, for the opportunity to collaborate with you and throw our bastard children out into the cosmos in an attempt to warp yet more minds.... but primarily for our friendship....
"The amazing thing now is he acts as though he's indebted to me for putting in the time and effort [to get] Mother Night made into a film," Weide says. "I could never write anything like that from scratch. I feel like he allowed me to use his genius to leapfrog myself into the feature film business." Since Mother Night, Weide has written the screen version of Lois Lowry's The Giver for Jeff Bridges. "[Vonnegut's] always writing me and telling me just how grateful he is to me, and I just think that's the funniest joke in the world."