My Filmviews interviews… Director Kurt Kuenne

shuffle, dear zachary
Kurt Kuenne has written and directed several movies and documentaries, including Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. His latest movie Shuffle was recently released on DVD.

The idea behind Shuffle is a very unique one about a man waking up being a different age each time. It almost feels like something you’d see on The Twilight Zone.
What was your inspiration for it?
The concept came out of a conversation I was having with a development executive in Hollywood who had read a script of mine called “Mason Mule” that had just won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences at the time; he really liked my writing and was thinking about hiring me to write something for his studio. He had noticed from my previous work that I liked playing with structure, so we started chatting about ideas in which I could do that. “What about a guy who lives his life out of order?” was one of the ideas floated during that brainstorming session. I didn’t even know what the sentence meant, but I liked it, so I went home and came up with the outline for what eventually became “Shuffle”. It turns out that the exec I was talking to was looking for something more comedic in nature, so we parted ways on that particular idea, and I decided to go write it on my own.

Movies that play with time the way Shuffle does can be very hard to do. How much trouble did you have in writing, shooting and editing to make sure it is understandable for the viewer?
The most difficult thing in writing the film was not playing with time per se, but finding a way to build story momentum and keep the audience engaged with a character who was really being dropped in as an observer in his life on different days, and didn’t truly have the power to change much of anything (the same dilemma Ebenezer Scrooge has in “A Christmas Carol”). I finally realized that the protagonist had to be looked at as a detective, collecting information – about himself in this instance – as he was tossed around the timeline of his life for reasons he doesn’t fully understand until later.

In shooting it, there were many challenges to deal with in terms of keeping the audience oriented, and I had a brilliant crew that helped me pull it off. First, you have the production design issues of always being true to whatever period the character finds himself in. Next you have the issues of the character’s ages, and making sure that’s always believable; the movie uses extensive prosthetic old age make-up to accomplish this, and we were fortunate to have the Oscar-winning genius Barney Burman and his team doing all of our old age-makeup across multiple characters. Also, you often have to switch actors for the younger versions of roles, and you not only have to find actors who are physical matches for the stars, but dress them in a way that is consistent with the character, have hairstyles that track for that particular character, and then let the different actors work together to create consistent mannerisms across performances that create a feeling of it being one person. But the movie has to be clear in the writing from the get-go or you’re going to have a problem, so I worked very hard to make sure that the script was clear. Because I’d done all that work in the other stages, the editing was a breeze; nothing was altered structurally from the script at all.

Showing your main characters at different ages always is a challenge. How difficult was it to do?
My biggest concern in this regard was that during the middle of the film, my lead actor (TJ Thyne) disappears for about 12 minutes, to be replaced by the 10 year old version of himself for most of that time, then briefly by the 15 year old version of him, so I had to be certain the audience felt they were watching the same person, or the movie would be derailed. I did that by introducing both of those actors briefly early in the film, so that you’re accustomed to them by the time they come back, and also using the techniques described above.

Beyond the switching of actors, the job really fell to the make-up, hair and wardrobe departments to cosmetically convince you that the people were older, and the actors themselves in modulating their performances to complement that. It then becomes my job to watch for any “gap in the armor”, if you will, and make sure that it’s all coming off believably.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father was a very moving documentary and you have dedicated Shuffle to Zachary. How much of a connection does this movie have to Zachary, his father Andrew Bagby and Zachary’s grandparents?
I wrote the movie originally back in 2003 and 2004, right after the tragedy depicted in that film occurred, so the themes of “Shuffle” were very much informed by what I was going through at that time. Though it doesn’t appear like it at first (since it’s presented like it’s a big “Twilight Zone” episode), “Shuffle” is really a movie about overcoming grief and depression, and choosing to find a way to enjoy life again after something awful has happened. The film’s take is that you must choose whether you’re going to let a tragedy destroy you, or whether you’re going to look for the good in life again.

You seem to have a real “hands on” approach to every aspect of making a movie. Which part of it do you enjoy most?
In terms of the actual process, I think I enjoy writing, editing and scoring the most. Shooting is very stressful because of the constantly ticking clock, whereas in writing and editing, you have time to breathe. And scoring is so much fun because it’s always such a thrill to hear my music played by an orchestra on the scoring stage. It’s the closest thing to instant gratification that happens during the production of the movie, because every other element of the film takes a very long time to come to fruition after it’s conceived. But with music, you imagine it, you write it and they play it. It’s very satisfying.

Do you have any plans for future movies/documentaries?
I’m writing a couple of new scripts presently, and I have several other older scripts – including my Nicholl-winning script “Mason Mule” – that I would still like to direct at some point; I’m not sure which I’ll be shooting next, as my main focus is writing right now. I recently completed adapting the New York Times bestselling book “The Looking Glass Wars” into a musical for the stage – I wrote the script, music & lyrics for that – so I’m looking forward to that being mounted sometime soon, fingers crossed.
In my spare time, I’m working on a couple of very short documentary pieces as supplements to my other work: one is a 20 minute mini-doc about how “Dear Zachary” ended up changing bail law in Canada; people keep asking me what happened, so I figured it would be simpler just to cut together the footage I’ve got and have the story easily available to the public, since I documented the whole process. And the other will be a 30 minute journal covering the inception, creation and reaction to my short film series (some of which are on YouTube – my short film “Validation” just passed 7 million views this week), which will be included as a bonus feature when the series is released commercially sometime in the near future. But those are just little fun side projects. Writing new work is my main focus right now.

Why should people see Shuffle?
While I’ve been on the festival circuit with this film, I’ve noticed that people often come back to see “Shuffle” more than once, and often bringing their friends or family members with them when they return. That’s the best review anyone can give you, when they pay to see your film more than once and bring people with them the next time. The movie won 9 awards on the international festival circuit this past year, several audience awards among them. If you like “Twilight Zone”-style supernatural mysteries, if you like Frank Capra movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and if you like movies that step outside the box a bit and have fun with the way stories are told, this movie just may be up your alley.

You can check more about the movie Shuffle on the website of the movie.

17 thoughts on “My Filmviews interviews… Director Kurt Kuenne

  1. I saw Dear Zachary back in April 2011 and I reviewed it on my site at that time. It was actually recommended to me by a woman I work with who knows the director. It’s so heartbreaking. I still have trouble with what happened.

    Nice interview. I’ll look for Shuffle.

  2. Pingback: Weekly Weblinks: Shuffles and Charades | Morgan on Media

  3. Saw your blog over at the LAMB, very interesting interview. Dear Zachary had such a profound effect upon me and I’m sure Shuffle is another project worth a watch.

    • Thanks Ben. Dear Zachary does have an extremely profound effect on most people I’ve talked to about it. Shuffle is a proper movie so it is different, but in my opinion well worth checking out.

  4. I can’t believe I missed this. It’s a wonderful interview! Congratulations to getting it. And I definitely hope I’ll get the chance to see Shuffle at some point.

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