INT: Kurt Kuenne
Kurt Kuenne is a filmmaker. He decided to make a film that would be a tribute to his long-time friend. Dr. Andrew Bagby was the kind of guy that everybody liked. Both he and Kurt used to make films together starting at a young age. But when Andrew met a woman named Shirley, tragedy soon made way into everybody’s life that knew him. Kurt began his journey interviewing friends and family of Dr. Bagby. The more he found, the more he missed his friend. Thus, a documentary was born.
DEAR ZACHARY: A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER is his story. Or rather, Andrew and his families story. And it is easily one of the most important films of the year. It has all the elements of such fare that you’d find at the Academy Awards, except it is all true. And when I met Mr. Kuenne for coffee at a local Starbucks, I found him to be such a wonderful person. You’ve got to respect the strength and care that went into the making of this story.
Both Kurt and I talked for around an hour. We talked about many aspects of the case and what happened to the Bagby family. Some of this conversation I did not add here, I feel that the film should be viewed with little knowledge of what happens. Yes it is heartbreaking. It is beautiful. It is hard to imagine that anyone would do what this woman had done. I realize I’m being vague, but it is a film that should be experienced, yet that comes with a warning, this is a very painful story that will certainly strike a nerve with most viewers. DEAR ZACHARY is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Please look for this film. This is a film that Kurt worked very hard to make. He is a very talented storyteller. Hell, he started the interview…
The project was originally supposed to be more of a family and friends, Zachary himself, and members of the scholarship funds that were put in Andrew’s [Bagby] name and that was going to be it. I’m more of a fiction guy actually, I’ve done two feature documentaries. This one was an accident, obviously, and the previous one I was just hired to do off my first feature about the history of drive-in movie theatres. It was kind of a kitschy, nostalgia piece called DRIVE-IN MOVIE MEMORIES. It was very popular on PBS a few years back and still shows up a couple times a year. But documentaries are not my primary interest per say, but when I started making this one it was… okay, I’m just doing this for family or friends or whatever. I’ll just do it small and digital. So I got a little consumer camera and everything and I was just trying to light it decently so it would look good and sound good. But the reason it was shot on such humble equipment in the first place, I never foresaw anyone, except this group watching it. I never foresaw anyone putting it on anything bigger than a television screen. When we first started talking about putting it out, I was like, ‘What’s this movie gonna look like? The last movie we did like Beta SP and we blew it up to 35 and that looked decent…’ but as it turns out, it actually looks quite good on a big screen. It’s amazing what even a little 1 chip camera, you light it well and color correct it well and keep it top quality through all the stages, and you use a good projector… I’ve had people say to me, ‘…that was a 1 chip? I shot mine on a little HD thing and it didn’t look that good.’ Honestly, a lot of it depends on the projector too. But I’ve honestly been shocked that it looked as good as it did the first time I saw it.
So you originally went in with no real idea of what kind of film it would become…
No, I just was… well originally, before I even knew there was going to be a Zachary… my initial concept was, I had just finished making the previous documentary. Literally, it had just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September of 2001. Andrew was killed two months later. So at that moment I had documentaries on my brain so within twenty-four hours I had decided to put it together as a tribute film. Because also, he had been in every single one of my movies growing up, and I still had all the raw footage tapes from those, so not just movies themselves, but him being himself between takes. I had everything. His parents had little Super 8 footage, my parents had old Super 8 footage that he was in because he was around all the [time]. So I was the one who had all this stuff and I was the only filmmaker friend he had. So I was kind of like, well, I think it is kind of my responsibility to put something together for everyone here, because I’m the only one who can. And I’m kind of, you know, Andrew’s friends are really going to want this and I do too, and his parents are really going to want it.
So I started thinking, okay, I’ve got to do something, we’ve got to put something together. And originally I was thinking that we should scramble and put something together for the California memorial service which was a month later because his parents were still back in Pennsylvania dealing with the police. He had five different memorial services around the world. So the California service wasn’t until December. But then it was like, I can’t put something together in a month, that’s crazy. But then I started thinking, why don’t I expand this tribute film into a journey where I get to go meet all these people. Because suddenly it hit me, he’s never going to have a wedding, so all these people that I’ve been hearing about in his whole life that I’d always hoped would maybe come together and meet him at the wedding… you know, I’d met several of his relatives from England but I’d never been to the places. I’d never even seen his medical school or the hospital… all those things that I was eventually hoping to see, it was like, there is never going to be a reason to do that. There is not going to be any event. So what if I turned this into like a journey where I go around interviewing people, being kind of a way to introduce all the members of Andrew’s circle to each other. Because they were never going to get to meet. By virtue of the fact that he had five memorial services because people didn’t necessarily travel, so there wasn’t like a congregation place either.
So I thought making this movie and interviewing them for this memory album is kind of a good excuse for me to show up and see these places and meet these people. You know, without everyone thinking, ‘is this guy really weird?’ So it was kind of my excuse to do that actually, so then I started planning it and I was going to wait a year, before starting to shoot. I wanted people to be able to tell their funny stories and laugh…
Without the heartbreak.
Yeah. Because he was a very funny guy and I wanted the film to reflect that. Right afterwards, no one could tell those stories. The way in which everything happened, it was just too horrifying. So four months into this I’m planning this, I‘m like okay I want to get a digital camera, I want to get a 16 because I want some celluloid in this too. Okay I’m going to shoot stills, you know. I was trying to figure out how to do this and kind of look interesting as well as be affordable with the money that I had. Because at the time I was waiting tables between movies. [Laughing] The drive-in documentary finished, literally I had kind of run out of money and I was at the Telluride Film Festival, on the phone to my old restaurant asking if I could have my old job back when I get back [Laughing].
There are seven hundred people over at Telluride at my premiere and I’m like, I’m out of money. But that’s the life when you do this sort of thing, you know. But it was fine. I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do which is great, I just find ways to do it. Point being, I had to keep this down because this was obviously a project that I was paying for myself. It wasn’t ever going to be released or make anything. And incidentally, the project in it’s current incarnation, where it has been publicly released, the entire thing was financed by donations… it is not making its money back. Because everything was financed by donations, I’m not making back the money I put into it because the donors aren’t either. So after expenses, all proceeds are going to the two scholarship funds in Andrews name. I didn’t really care what I was spending per say, I just wanted to do it. And I just went off and did it but I had to work in my constraints. And like I said, four months into this, Shirley [you’ll find out more later] held a press conference to announce she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Of course, none of us knew that that was true at the time, it could have been someone else’s child or whatever… we were all kind of… I was very hopeful because, oh my God, there is still some of him left in the world. How amazing is that. But we were all kind of skeptically waiting for when the baby was born and they did the DNA test and all of that. I didn’t put the DNA test in the movie although they do exist to prove that it was his child…
I figured that…
Yeah, the DNA test is actually in the trailer because it just worked better in the trailer. But in the movie, I was going to put that in, but it was just so much more poetic to dissolve between a baby photo of Andrew and a baby photo of Zachary. They look identical. And I just thought, it kind of ruins the poetry of that to cut to a document that says relative chance of paternity is 99.9999999941% [Laughing]. That kind of ruins the moment to do that. So I left it out of the film itself but yeah, there was no doubt.
There is a very strong sweetness to this film in the sense that emotionally, you can connect so well to these people because Andrew is so likable and what eventually happens to him and his family is so tragic. It just amazes me that you could go in there and tell the story without just losing it.
Well I cried every day while I was cutting it but I also… when putting together this particular version of the film, it was different from what I started out doing, although it a way that is debatable. I finished the movie that I started making. But the movie went in a different direction than I was hoping for shall we say. It was not acceptable, the outcome, which is why it’s been released publicly to try and tell the story and try and get some change. That’s the entire reason for its existence publicly. That’s the whole reason Andrew’s parents were supportive of it because they want their story told, they don’t want it to happen again. But getting through the emotionality of it, it was actually really rewarding because sitting down and editing everyday once all the footage was on my computer, was kind of like getting to sit down with Andrew, Zachary and their whole group of family and friends everyday. There were obviously horrible aspects of it, but it’s the story and I had to put those sequences together. But also, at the same time, I was like… well, how would this work to illustrate this point and I’ll sit there and watch an interview with Anthony, like about the photography and then he’ll just talk for twenty minutes about something. Obviously it’s not all going in the movie, but it’s like, man he’s a cool guy. It was fun hanging out with him that day [Laughing].
Stuff like that, you know, it was really kind of fun to almost relive my road trip and also, going through all the old tapes and everything of when we were kids. Honestly, the thing that was most difficult for me was when I was going through all the old tapes, of watching and listening to myself. Because I was directing him and all my other friends in these films that we were making and I, of course at that age took it very seriously, I still do when I am making fiction pictures, and they were just having fun. And I didn’t really like the way I was talking to them. I was kind of like a slave driver a little bit. So it was kind of like, why are you being so mean, be nice… it was almost making me cringe that I was ordering people around so much. It was like, oh God, I don’t like how I sound here. I called up my friend Chris who made films with Andrew and I, and I was like, ‘Man, I was just watching these tapes… was I really that much of a jerk? I’m surprised that you kept showing up to make more of ‘em.’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, but it was awesome. We made fun of you behind your back so we had a good time.’ [Laughing].
So that was almost for me the hardest part, it was like, wow I wish I was speaking to them nicer here. But clearly they kept showing up and we remained friends to this day, the whole group. They’ve all forgiven me, they said, ‘You were only like that when you were shooting, when you knew what you wanted and you needed to get it and you kept doing take after take. Yeah, we got a little tired of that. But as soon as the shoot was over we had a blast hanging out. So we all forgot about it, like in five minutes so…’ So I guess for me that was the hardest part of watching the old tapes. But it’s wonderful to have that record of him. In fact I would keep watching the edge of every frame and think, is that him for a second, or is that his voice off to the side. Because you couldn’t just fast forward through the tapes and just find him. Sometimes he might’ve just shown up and be working crew for me that day so you could hear him telling a story off to the side. You know, some hilarious story while the camera was running or something. It was neat that you’d keep looking for all these little bits and pieces here and there, so… And I would do that when I went to visit his friends because, like his med school friends, they had home movies and we would sit through all their tapes and sit through and find something. So there is a lot of that stuff in the movie too.
Now when you were working with Andrew’s parents during their journey to Canada, that must have been so difficult for them to deal with this woman every day.
Did they ever share with you how they could possibly handle talking to the woman?
They’ve been asked that question a lot in the last few years. And there’s two short answers Andrew’s dad gives to that. One is, we hated her but we loved Zachary more. And the other is, he said you don’t really know what you’re capable of until you’ve been to war as it were. He said, the goal was worth it to give him a good start in life. I remember he was asked that question at Silverdocs in Washington DC by someone, and he pointed to somebody, it was an older woman who’d asked the questions and he asked if she had a child, and she answered yes, ‘Do you have grandchildren?’, she said, ‘Yes.’. ‘Is there anything you wouldn’t do for your grandchildren?’ and she said no. “Exactly!’. So that was the answer.
At the time I remember he called it like “Ice Mode”, he’d go over there, do the job, make sure Zachary sees peace and harmony in his universe. The goal being, for him to become comfortable with him so at the time she finally went to prison, he could be with him full time. You know, so he could know them and feel comfortable with them instead of some weird transition. So that was the goal and the reason, and also to demonstrate to the courts they were perfectly capable of being the proper grandparents of this child. So it was all those things. They were just very, very careful. The entire time they were there they didn’t even drive a mile over the speed limit. They didn’t want to have anything that Shirley could try and use against them to say, oh look at that, see they’re not safe. Whereas, she had a charge of first degree murder from a homicide. You’d think that would be a little more than a speeding ticket or something…
Apparently not in Canada.
Apparently not. From our experience here, I know it seems that a charge of murder there is treated with no more such a proportionality than a property crime. Which there is a big chasm in the proportionality there of the risk of letting this person out awaiting trial. So that’s why people will be talking about this issue and this presumption of innocence and our thought is, yeah that is essential at trial. In the meantime you have a grey area where this person has a very high likelihood of having committed murder. I mean, people don’t just randomly get charged with murder off the street. People build up a very detailed case and have a very, very good reason for thinking this person is the one who probably did it. To stretch the concept of presumption of innocence to the point where it allows an actual murderer to repeat his or her crime while awaiting trial is lunatic.
Well I love the quote they give in the film in regards to her killing the person she wanted to kill, therefore nobody else is in harms way.
Well yeah, ‘cause they were saying guilt or innocence hadn’t been proven at that stage, but her argument was that the crime with which she was charged was a violent and serious one, but it was not directed at the public at large. You know, what does that mean? That she didn’t walk into McDonalds and start shooting? She decided she was angry at somebody and picked them and later she was mad at other people too. The guy she was dating after, he was a target. Andrew’s ex-fiancé, she was a target. Shirley was showing up on her doorstep at one thirty in the morning. She was leaving her creepy e-mails and phone messages. I mean, she feared for her life. She didn’t go anywhere without an escort for like a year and a half. Then one day, she decided to go out by herself. She went down to the mall and walked around the corner and there was Shirley. Other classmates of [Andrew’s] received phone calls from her which were threatening and a discomforting nature as well too, and they put up restraining orders as well in the court.
I know there was a time where you didn’t want Shirley to see your car…
Actually that was Andrew’s parents van. I drove it out to them and then flew home. Because they had gone out there and they didn’t have a vehicle. They had been lent this old junker by somebody and thank God somebody lent it to them so they could get around. But they were like, we miss her, me miss our car. Can you bring it as long as you’re coming up? So I was like, cool, sure, I’ve got a vehicle with enough space to use. So we parked away because [Shirley] would occasionally drop by the house with Zachary and she’d say, oh, I’m gonna go out and party… here, you guys take him. Which they loved because they wanted to have him. But the reason we didn’t want her to know that I was in town was two-fold. One is she was just out of touch with reality enough that if she knew that I was in town, she might say, ‘Oh Kurt’s here, I wanna see him.’ Not realizing that I would want to strangle her the moment I saw her. Number two is, if she had known that there was a visitor, she would know that visitor wants to see Zachary and she’d make up excuses like she did with previous visitors and say, oh you know this week isn’t really a good week for us… we’ll bring him over next week to make up for it. So I had a feeling that might happen if my presence was known. And the whole point was to go out and see him so we just didn’t want to risk that, basically.
Did you ever think about contacting Shirley for an interview?
Nope. Because to me, as the title says in the movie, “a letter to his son about his father” not a letter to his son about his parents, I was trying to capture the person who was taken for Andrew. Shirley was not the person taken, she was the taker. So I didn’t care what she thought or what she had to say, what her motives were. Because at the time, I wasn’t making a documentary trying to do the case. I was memorializing the little boy’s dad. The last thing I wanted to do was even see her, let alone talk to her. So no, that was never something that I considered.
Some people have asked me why I didn’t go more into her background about her motives and things, but what does your motive matter when you use it as an excuse? I mean, murdering an innocent person because they didn’t want to date you? I don’t care what your motive is, that’s not excusable. I don’t care if you grew up in a bad neighborhood and didn’t have a lot of money. That was a choice [she made]. So then I feel like what is there to know really? There is a police officer who, this state trooper in Pennsylvania who was really wonderful to Andrew’s parents after he was killed. And they were out there in Pennsylvania and Andrew’s mother kept saying, ‘Why? How could she have done this?’ and his answer was, ‘You know what? I used to wonder that when I started this job. What makes these people tick? How can they possibly do that? What’s going on? You know what I finally realized is that you’re never going to figure out. There is no satisfactory answer. You know, they’re crazy, just the best you can do is get them off the streets so they can’t do it again.’
So that’s why in the movie, I don’t look into her mindset. I don’t care quite frankly. And I think our media tends to spend too much time on, in my opinion, on killers and the inside of the mind of killer and why do they do what they do. It makes me kind of ill that so many people in our culture can say serial killers names by heart, but not the names of the victims. I want this movie to celebrate the victim, the person who really should be remembered. The person who is going to be doing something positive in society, not the person who took something away.
Thank you Kurt. Send questions and/or comments to JimmyO@JoBlo.com.