The Kurt Vonnegut Doc Is Finally Here After A Nearly 40 Year Delay

“I don’t suggest that anybody spend 39 years on a film, but at the end of the day, it’s much richer,” says film creator Robert B. Weide
514

Kurt Vonnegut was asked years ago if he’d ever watched Curb Your Enthusiasm, the acclaimed comedy series co-created by his much younger friend, Robert B. Weide. “No, that’s on HBO,” the literary icon demurred. “You have to pay for that stuff.”

Which got a laugh from Weide, who, when he won an Emmy for directing an episode in 2003, got a playful phone message of congratulations from Vonnegut: “I thought you were a failure. How wrong I was.”

Weide and Vonnegut’s friendship had started decades earlier, when the director was just 23, and wrote the author to propose filming a documentary on Vonnegut’s life and career. Fortunately, Vonnegut had just watched Weide’s first and only work as writer-producer, 1982’s The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell, loved it and agreed to participate in the project.

Now, after 39 years of starts, stops, struggles and distraction, Weide’s Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time has finally arrived in theaters and on streaming services. And during those decades, what began as a traditional documentary about the beloved American novelist and humorist has evolved into an intimate portrait of the director’s friendship with his subject. In the end, the film is about both Vonnegut and the meta-story of Weide’s struggles to complete it.

“I don’t suggest that anybody spend 39 years on a film, but at the end of the day, it’s much richer,” says Weide, now 61, whose home in the San Fernando Valley is awash in Vonnegut’s eccentric artwork and personally inscribed copies of his books, including Breakfast of Champions, the 1973 novel that turned Weide into a fan when he read it in high school.

"Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time"
(A still from “Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck In Time”) via IFC Films

Weide began filming the documentary in 1988 as the author traveled by train to a public appearance in Buffalo, New York, during which Vonnegut discussed the defining trauma of his life: the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, which he witnessed as a POW during World War II and recast into his 1969 breakthrough novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

There were trips to Indiana, where Vonnegut toured his childhood homes and attended his 60th high school graduation reunion. In 1998, the author invited Weide to spend a few days at his summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, and watched a VHS copy of Duck Soup. “We laughed like a couple of morons,” says Weide.

Along with the hilarity, Weide also captured Vonnegut’s gathering self-doubt, as he sensed his audience, and maybe his gifts as a writer, fading with the years. Many critics had turned on him in the 1980s; now, he suspected that he’d been completely forgotten. “My books are a garage sale on the edge of a high-speed superhighway,” he told Weide. Vonnegut later experienced a renaissance as an essayist enraged and inspired by the wars of George W. Bush, in magazine pieces collected in 2005’s well-received A Man Without a Country. At the time of his death in 2007, Vonnegut was at work on a new novel and sent Weide excerpts.

Although he received seed money from PBS, Weide funded Unstuck in Time out of his own pocket as he worked on other projects. In 1998 he was nominated for an Academy Award for Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, and soon after joined Curb Your Enthusiasm, directing episodes that defined the show, including “Beloved Aunt,” “Krazee-Eyez Killa” and “The Car Pool Lane.”

All the while, the Vonnegut project was often on hold. “I either had time to work on the film and no money or had money to work on the film and no time,” he says, but when he left his fulltime producer’s job on Curb, and with some money saved, the time finally arrived. Then Vonnegut died.

“Once he died, I really sort of lost my way and I was no longer certain what the film was or how to complete it,” Weide says.

By then, the director had begun to feel that he and Vonnegut’s friendship could no longer be ignored.

“It seems a little unfair to try to just pass this off as another author documentary when by the late ’80s, he and I were pretty close friends,” he says. “And as the years went by, we became exceptionally close, really like family.”

While not a fan of documentaries where the filmmaker appears with the subject Weide’s resolve shifted when friends suggested that could be an extension of Vonnegut’s literary technique; starting with Breakfast of Champions, the author began putting himself into his novels to interact with his fictional characters, including Kilgore Trout, the struggling science fiction author and Vonnegut alter-ego.

To provide counterpoint to his own presence in the film, Weide recruited co-director Don Argot, a prolific documentarian (Framing John DeLorean) who interviewed Weide and others and focused on the parallel stories of making the documentary and the deepening friendship between Vonnegut and Weide.

“There’s a feeling of not wanting it to end–because if you’re completing it, you’re closing a chapter on something that meant so much to you,” Argot says of the project.

With the film finally released, Weide sees much of himself in what the documentary became—and his own place in Vonnegut’s story; that first letter he wrote as a young man to his favorite author is now among the Vonnegut papers stored at the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington.

While still filming, the director hosted a work-in-progress screening at the Paley Center in New York and invited Vonnegut to attend. The author begged off, suggesting he’d be “like Tom Sawyer crying at his own funeral.”

Weide can relate.

“Watching the film, I’ve got that feeling myself: Tom Sawyer at his own funeral.”


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.