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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Nov. 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM

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An interview filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, director of DEAR ZACHARY

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Two words:  “Star Wars”.  I was 4 years old when I first saw it (the original 1977 “Star Wars”, that is) and immediately decided I wanted to make movies.  I began writing stories, got my hands on whatever camera equipment I could and began shooting.  I’ve never stopped.

What films have influenced you?

If “Star Wars” made me want to make movies at a young age, “E.T.” is the movie that made me realize what they could do.  It was my favorite film as a child and remains so to this day.  I grew up on Steven Spielberg and Bob Zemeckis - “Back to the Future”, “Forrest Gump”,  “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Jaws”, etc.  I was fortunate to grow up at a time when “popcorn movies” had Oscar-caliber screenplays and direction, and were not cynically manufactured products.  As I got older, I became an enormous fan of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder;  in that group, I’d have to cite “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Sullivan’s Travels”, “Rear Window” and “The Apartment” as making a big impression.  I see “Dear Zachary” as a real-life Capra film, as it’s about good, decent people who strive to make the world a better place even in the face of insurmountable tragedy.  I also realized later in life just how much Jim Henson and John Hughes had made an imprint upon me without my realizing it;  though I enjoyed it as a teen, I never fully appreciated “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for the classic that it is until my late 20’s. 

What led to the creation of DEAR ZACHARY?

On November 7, 2001, my sister called to tell me that my best friend Dr. Andrew Bagby had been found murdered in Pennsylvania.  After I picked myself up off the floor, I decided to make a tribute film for family and friends.  I used to force Andrew to star in all of my aforementioned childhood movies, I still had all the original raw footage tapes from their creation, so I had his entire youth documented on tape and it was my responsibility, as I saw it, to put something together as a memory album for those who loved him, as I was the only one who could.  Then information about his murder started to come out.  A woman he had been seeing was charged with his murder, she fled to Canada and then four months later held a press conference that she was pregnant with Andrew’s child.  At the time, we didn’t know if she was telling the truth - it turned out that she was, and she named the boy Zachary - but upon hearing the news, I realized that I now had a bigger responsibility here than ever before.  My movie would likely be the only way Zachary could ever see his Dad walk and talk, and really get to “meet” him.  So I decided to interview everyone who ever knew and loved Andrew, to try and collect every memory for him before they faded from memory.  At this time, however, it was only a project for Zachary, friends, family and recipients of the scholarship funds established in Andrew’s memory.

When did you realize that this film was going to be for the public and not just a private remembrance?

Canada let Andrew’s murderer walk free on bail awaiting extradition, a process that dragged out for almost 2 years.  All the while, she was granted custody of Zachary - the child of the man she was accused of killing - and Andrew’s parents, who moved to Canada to fight for custody of Zachary, had to endure a civil relationship with her in order to see their grandchild.  I never intended to document this side of things in any way shape or form, but when the outcome of the case was, shall we say, unacceptable, Andrew’s parents began speaking out for reform to Canada’s bail system.  I realized that since I had been documenting these goings-on from the beginning, I had a responsibility to take the footage I’d amassed and make a film that would tell this story to the public to advocate change.  Andrew’s father wrote a book called “Dance with the Devil” as his argument for change, which upon publication in Canada became a national bestseller. 

How did you cope with the emotional pain of confronting the issues in this film?

A lot of people think that this film must have been an emotional nightmare to complete, but the honest truth is that this was the most fun I’ve ever had making a movie—because, if you think about it, what was the shoot?  It was me driving around the continent by myself meeting lots of cool people and hearing stories about Andrew.  Editing was a similarly pleasurable experience because once all the footage was in my computer, it was like getting to hang out with Andrew and his whole group of family & friends every day.  Now, I grant you, the story has a lot of horrifying elements to it, and putting those sequences together wasn’t enormously fun, but I felt like I had a mission to get this story heard, so that powered me through it every day.

Were you able to delve into WHY the authorities in Canada ignored Shirley Turner’s past? 

As far as ignoring her past goes, I think it was a combination of disorganization and laziness.  Shirley had an accusation of child abuse against her from the early 90’s, but that didn’t come out until 2006 because the accusation was made during one of her previous marriages, so she had a different last name at the time;  if files had been properly organized, it would have been quickly obvious that it was the same person.  As far as ignoring the records of her behavior during her brief jail stint from 11/14/02 - 1/10/03, the fact that no one in the prosecution asked for them or presented them was inexcusable.  That’s why I’m a big proponent of victim’s rights, because you didn’t ask to be in this situation - you were attacked - and yet you have no control over how thorough a job the prosecutor is doing on your behalf.  As far as the bail-granting judges ignoring the warnings of her past behavior collected by the Pennsylvania State Troopers and handed to the Canadian Prosecutor (not to mention the overwhelming evidence in the crime with which she was charged)’d have to ask them, I’ve never received a satisfactory explanation.  I asked those people for interviews, as I show in the movie, but they wouldn’t speak to me.

Was it difficult to decide what footage and interviews to put into the film?

The difficult part in editing was deciding how much of Andrew was too much;  I wanted to keep the film moving at a good clip in order to engage you and keep you interested, but I also wanted to make sure you felt like you knew Andrew & his parents, so I didn’t want it to be “all plot”.  This was a really tough line to find, but I think I finally did.  I ended up chopping the film down from 120 minutes to 90 minutes after testing it, where I found that it was dragging in spots for people.  Cutting 25% of the running time was a tough pill to swallow, but it was absolutely the right thing to do.

How has the film been received on the festival circuit?

It has been received with enormous passion and enthusiasm;  almost every festival screening of the film this year received a standing ovation, and if Andrew’s parents were present, it went on longer.  It won the Audience Awards at Cinequest in San Jose, Sidewalk in Birmingham, and was the #3 audience favorite at Hot Docs in Toronto this year.  It also won a Special Jury Award at Cinequest and was nominated for the Writers Guild Award at Silverdocs in D.C.  I’ve been receiving a constant stream of emails all year from people who’ve been tremendously affected by the film, some have even claimed it has changed their outlook and made them appreciate their lives more.  Many have written Canada’s Parliament in support of our cause - a law denying bail to people accused of murder pending a speedy and fair trial - and have copied us on the letters.  My two favorite parts of the festival tour have been 1) seeing the outpouring of love Andrew’s parents receive from audiences - there is literally a line to hug them after each screening - and 2) the number of people who have told me they feel like they know Andrew after watching this movie.

Is it hard to understand and come to terms with what has happened? 

I’ve accepted that what happened did happen, but I’m still furious about it.  After a lot of soul searching in 2003-2004, I realized that asking, “Why did this happen?” doesn’t get you anywhere, as there is no answer.  The question I’ve learned to ask myself is, “Now that this terrible thing has happened, what can I do about it?”  Making this movie was my answer to that question.

How are Kate and David today?

They’re back in California and doing about as well as could be expected.  I see them regularly, as do all of Andrew’s old friends.  I’ve been keeping them hopping with festival appearances all year, though I’m glad we’re winding down on that front for the meantime, as I think I’m starting to wear them out with all the travel.  smile

Have any of the people involved in this miscarriage of justice been disbarred or punished for their role in this? 

John Doucet, Shirley’s personal psychiatrist who posted $65,000 bail for her while she was his patient, was found guilty of professional misconduct for “adding a dimension to the doctor/patient relationship which ought not to have been created”;  he was fined and had to undergo psychiatric counseling, so he’s paid his debt now.  No one else has been punished or disbarred, no.  Judges don’t have to answer to anyone except higher courts.  And, in my view, punishing certain individuals would not solve the larger problem, as more than one judge made the same erroneous determination with regard to bail in this case.  In my opinion, law needs to be changed in order to fix the problem and keep it from happening again.

What is your next project?

A comedy, thank God.  smile  I wrote a script called “Mason Mule” a few years back for which I won a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and it looks like I’ll likely be directing it in the late spring at long last.  I’m working with a company called MediaPro out of Romania.  Wonderful people.

Do you plan to make more documentaries in the future?

I’m not going to say I’ll never make another documentary again, but I have no plans to do so at present;  fiction is my primary area of interest, and I’m very excited to jump back into something silly after spending so much time on something so intense.  “Dear Zachary” is my second feature documentary;  my first was “Drive-In Movie Memories” (2001), about the history of drive-in movie theatres, which played a fair amount on PBS during the past few years.  I was hired to make “Drive-In Movie Memories”, which was a lot of fun, but I don’t know that I would have generated it on my own.  And “Dear Zachary” came about out of necessity, so I didn’t seek out making either of them.  We’ll see what the future holds, but for the meantime, I’m looking forward to rejoining the world of make-believe.

DEAR ZACHARY opens November 7th at the Laemmle Sunset 5 and will be there for a limited engagement.


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