And So Friendship Goes

A California filmmaker is turning his admiration of Kurt Vonnegut into a documentary

By Marc D. Allan

The bookshelves in filmmaker Bob Weide's Southern California home office are bolted to the wall in anticipation of an earthquake. Just to be doubly safe, a rubber strip is strung across the front like a safety bar to keep the contents from falling out.

You'd take these suspenders-and-a-belt precautions, too, if you had what he has on those shelves -- 12 years of work and more than 30 hours of film that will be edited down to a documentary on the life of author Kurt Vonnegut.

His extraordinary stockpile includes family home movies. A 1988 interview aboard a train taking Vonnegut and his older brother, Bernard, from Albany to Buffalo, N.Y. Vonnegut walking through his childhood home on Illinois Street in Indianapolis. Footage from his Shortridge High School 60th class reunion.

There are touching stories that demonstrate Vonnegut's intense love for his family. Sad stories about his mother's depression. Hilarious stories about dogs that roamed his Northside neighborhood.

This record of Vonnegut's life has been compiled in Weide's off time, when he's not been making documentaries about W.C. Fields Straight Up, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth and Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, producing the film version of Vonnegut's book Mother Night or serving as supervising producer of Larry David's current HBO comedy masterpiece, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Those projects pay the bills. "Then I take whatever money I have left to finance my labor of love," Weide said in an interview at his home last month.

He expects to have a 25- to 30-minute preview reel of the documentary ready in the next few months. (Those wanting to check the progress can visit his Web site,, which Weide says should be up and running sometime this month.) Then he'll try to raise the $400,000 to $700,000 needed to complete the project.

If all goes as he hopes, the documentary will be completely finished by the end of 2002.

Among the many pieces of framed Vonnegut art in Weide's house is a plate that Vonnegut signed: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." The author could have been talking about the route that's gotten Weide this close to finishing the Vonnegut documentary.

A peculiar path
In 1981, Bob Weide had had enough. He'd been rejected from the University of Southern California film school for the third time.

He decided to quit, taking a job as a runner for Rollins and Joffe, who managed Woody Allen, David Letterman, Robin Williams and virtually everyone else important in comedy. For $127 a week, he ran errands and planned for his next move -- a documentary on the Marx Brothers.

The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell came out in 1982 and, when it ran on PBS, one of the people who watched and loved it was Kurt Vonnegut.

Weide, 41, didn't know that at the time. Like so many young American men, he'd discovered Vonnegut's books in high school and felt the need to read everything Vonnegut had written.

"The way some people have their musician or their painter or playwright or filmmaker, I finally found the guy who spoke directly to me, really got under my skin," Weide said. "I loved his humor, I loved how he approached these huge topics on the one hand with some sort of cynicism but all filtered through this wonderful sense of humor."

Weide wrote Vonnegut a letter and suggested the idea of a documentary. He figured the chances of a response were nil, but two weeks later, there was a letter. Vonnegut said, in effect: My work is on the page. There's no visual record of anything I do. But I'm flattered, and here's my phone number. Call sometime.

Weide did.

"I tried to do one of those your-work-has-meant-so-much-to-me speeches," he remembered. "I got about three words into it when he cut me off and said, 'That scene where Harpo's punching Margaret Dumont in the stomach, that made me laugh so hard.' He didn't want to talk about his work; he wanted to talk about the Marx Brothers."

Vonnegut impressed Weide with his down-to-earth attitude. "Everything is filtered through this Midwestern, friendly sensibility. There's no sense of celebrity or self-importance about him at all."

Over the next six years, they kept in touch. Vonnegut continued to write, while Weide made more movies and worked his way up in the Rollins and Joffe organization. (There, he began a friendship with a young comedian named Larry David, who'd written a dark but hilarious screenplay called Prognosis Negative.)

In 1988, the Weide-Vonnegut collaboration began. Vonnegut had written a humanist requiem that was going to have its world premiere at a Unitarian church in Buffalo. He and Weide boarded the train in New York City; Bernard Vonnegut, Kurt's beloved older brother, got on in Albany. PBS' American Masters series financed the shoot.

They talked about General Electric, where they'd both worked (Kurt in public relations, Bernard as a scientist). Bernard talked about a baby sitter who surreptitiously took him to Union Station so she could pick up her boyfriend (Bernard blew her cover by imitating the sounds of trains he heard). Kurt recalled the firebombing of Dresden during World War II.

Weide asked about the impact that had on Vonnegut as a young man. His response: The dogs in my neighborhood in Indianapolis where I grew up have had more of an effect on who I am today than anything that happened during the war.

"It was a great adventure in my life and something to talk about," Vonnegut said in one clip, "but it has nothing to do with my character. It was too quick."

"Kurt won't admit to anything emotional," Weide said. "He'll talk about things anecdotally -- he'll talk about what happened to him during the war, which is pretty gruesome. But if you ask him how it made him feel, he'll just clam up."

The train ride and filming of the requiem provided Weide with a jumping-off point. Over the years, he continued to film Vonnegut in many places, but particularly in Indiana -- at the schools Vonnegut attended, at his childhood home, at Lake Maxinkuckee in northern Indiana, where the extended Vonnegut family spent its summers.

He showed Weide where the immediate family put its handprints in the cement of the Illinois Street house and pointed out the children's initials in a leaded-glass window. Vonnegut's father built the house in 1923, the year after Kurt was born, and it's a place the author remembers with great affection.

In one funny recollection, Vonnegut tells of two mean dogs, Boots and Beans, that prowled the old neighborhood. The dogs killed the Vonneguts' cat, so Kurt Sr. called their owner.

"Father said the next time the dogs are on my property, I'm going to shoot them," Vonnegut said. "And (the neighbor) said, 'If you do, I'll shoot you.' And so Boots and Beans died of old age, as far as I know. They had free run of the neighborhood to kill anything they wanted."

In the final cut, Weide will intersperse these current-day remembrances with home movies that Bernard Vonnegut had been keeping for years. He has footage of young Kurt -- maybe age 5 -- sitting in a wagon with Bernard and their sister, Allie, or playing with dogs outside the house.

"If you look at these home movies, 60 percent of them are him playing around with dogs in the front yard," Weide said. "He says he probably enjoys dogs more than people. He used to write that his greatest joy in life was getting on the floor with a dog and just wrestling with it and playing with it and pulling it down. He says the dogs would always get tired of it long before he would."

To get a take on Vonnegut's contributions to literature -- from Player Piano to the classic war novel Slaughterhouse-Five to his final book, Timequake -- Weide will go to people who've written about him and other authors. "If I ask Kurt," he said, "it'll either throw him for a loop or (tick) him off."

Tribute to a friend
Weide has a few more interviews to do to finish the documentary. Then he'll raise the money and try to find the time to finish.

He expects the film to have a limited release in art-house movie theaters, perhaps a showing on PBS and definitely a life on DVD, where he'll be able to include extra footage that won't make the final cut.

Weide is treating the project with the utmost care. For one thing, Vonnegut is 78 now, and "I really want this film to be finished while he's around to enjoy it and receive whatever accolades he might get from it," he said. "I want to give him my personal thank-you while he's here to appreciate it."

For another, he and Vonnegut have become friends. He wants to make sure the documentary is an excellent and appropriate tribute to a man who's had a tremendous impact on his life.

"It's an amazing kind of validation for me in my life that this guy who I worshipped -- in the same way I worshipped the Marx Brothers or Lenny Bruce or Woody Allen -- is a friend of mine," Weide said. "No matter what would happen in this town that I live in, with some stupid executive or studio person, it's like, hey, Kurt Vonnegut is my friend, so you guys can't touch me."

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