In 1988 I was finishing post-production on a film I had just directed called "Pulse" (Columbia Pictures). It had been a hell of an experience. It was my first feature film, and I had been given complete control of it. The President of Columbia, David V. Picker, was a good friend, and he trusted me to make the film we both agreed we wanted to make. My Executive Producer, William McEuen -- who was also my Manager, my partner, my close friend, and (in the best sense of the word) my "protector" -- gave me equally crucial support and independence. From a first-time director's viewpoint, it doesn't get any better than that.
But when Bill approached me with a suggestion for my next film, I listened with growing skepticism. There were already two other Producers "attached" to the project. Bill would make it three. It was an adaptation, so add the original novelist to the list of strong wills already involved -- all of whom would probably have their own "visions" of the final film. The only plus factor in the equation was the identity of the novelist: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
I had read "Cat's Cradle" when it first came out in paperback -- and become an instant fan. I hit my local bookstore and grabbed everything else he'd written: "Player Piano" was okay (especially for a first novel), but "Sirens of Titan" was every bit as good as "Cat's Cradle" (maybe even better -- with its amazing vision of all of human history shaped by outside forces for the purpose of constructing gigantic objects which when viewed from space would spell out messages to a voyager from Tralfamadore who had been stranded on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and would be rescued only when Earth's history finally contorted itself enough (like this sentence) to send a rocket to Titan with a seemingly random object carried by one of its passengers, an object that just happened to be the missing part needed to get the voyager's ship up and running again...) Whew!
Vonnegut's vision -- his "voice" -- has always seemed to me to be that of his Trafalmadorian voyager -- viewing our quaint customs and socializings with a truly outsider's eye -- sculpting figures who, even when they're alone, seem to be playing out their lives for the benefit of some unseen camera.
I've never had a lot of "Heroes" in my life. But Kurt was certainly one of them. And the chance to meet -- maybe even work with -- him was completely irresistable.
There was, of course, one other little fly in this particular ointment: the book that this array of producers wanted to produce was "Breakast of Champions" -- a great piece of writing (and drawing) but probably the least adaptable of Vonnegut's novels to any kind of film. It was a book filled with humor but light on scenes and action, a book whose climax had its main character going berserk, rubbing his homosexual son's face to a pulp on a piano keyboard, and generally beating up all the people around him who cared for him the most.
Still, it was Vonnegut... So I signed on and headed to New York to meet my hero. I came early and overdressed to our first meeting and decided to spend the extra time before the meeting sweating in my three-piece suit in the Park Avenue heat outside his agent's offices, waiting to perhaps catch a glimpse of my favorite writer arriving.
Down the street -- in one of life's telephoto shots -- I saw a big man shambling toward me. His shoes were torn, his clothes rumpled, and he genarally gave the impression of someone who had just stumbled out of his Amana freezer carton home around the corner. But I knew who it was, and frantically wondered if there was somewhere I could stash my jacket and vest. Oh, well...
It would be the first of several meetings during which Kurt would prove to be as charming and funny and smart as his books. There is a part of Kurt Vonnegut that will always -- no matter how famous and successful he has become -- be Kilgore Trout, permanently en route to show the "smilers" of our world something they don't want to see.
To my immense relief, I learned in that first meeting that Kurt had liked the film of his novel, "Slaughterhouse Five," as much as I had. There is an incredible passage in that book -- a description of the fire-bombing of Dresden shown in reverse -- as if a movie projector was running backwards -- picturing all the horror and bloodshed sucked back into metal-sheathed "eggs" vacuumed up into the sky by bombers flying backwards, brought safely to earth at an English airfield, transported to factories where the "eggs" were carefully disassembled, and their components carried away so they could be safely buried for all time deep in the earth. It was the kind of passage that you know can never make its way into any kind of film adaptation, and I was surprised when Kurt told me that the film's director, George Roy Hill, had actually tried to include it. But it just didn't work as beautifully (and touchingly) on film as it had in words. I took Kurt's point and cherished it: books and movies are different things -- do what you need to do -- I'll be writing my next book while you make what you can with this movie of yours.
I was disappointed (and maybe secretly relieved) that Kurt had no intention of being involved with the writing of the screenplay. But if it was going to be the comedy that I wanted it to be -- that I felt it had to be -- then I wanted a partner to write it.
Long an admirer of his work with the "Firesign Theater," I had just become friends with Peter Bergman. I asked Peter if he'd do the script with me, promising him that in addition to the money, he'd get to meet Kurt and that I'd do my best to protect him from the trio of Producers -- who had now, with the addition of a "money man" become what we would call the "Gang of Four."
If you know the book, you know what extraordinary liberties Peter and I took with its story. But we tried to keep as much of the feeling of the book as we could -- Trout's moldy tuxedo and "miner's lamp" of a caged parakeet -- his cross-country dialog with the truck driver who had used the pages of one of Trout's stories as toilet paper in the Libertyville jail -- Lyle and Kyle shooting ping-pong-ball sized bubbles of industrial waste in the "Sacred Miracle Cave" -- Peter and I didn't invent those things. Kurt Vonnegut did.
At a later meeting -- the first time that Peter and Kurt got to shake hands -- we sat in the neutral ground of a coffee house near Central Park, and Kurt asked what actors we saw for the principal parts. When I told him my number one pick for Kilgore Trout was Gene Hackman, his face lit up and I think that for the first time he began to believe that we were all actually talking about the same story.
Months later, when we met with Kurt -- in Beverly Hills this time -- after he had read the final draft of the screenplay, I was nervous. After all, Peter and I had made enormous changes in the story. Sure, they were all changes that we felt we had to make to turn a supposedly "unfilmable" novel into a difficult but at least do-able movie -- but the big man who stepped out of the elevator at the "Beverly Hills Hotel" was still one of my very few heroes, and I cared a lot about what he thought about what we had done.
He smiled when he saw me and gave me the book whose cover and frontispiece I have reprinted at the beginning of this website. And when I read the inscription, I felt very relieved -- and very happy:
I won't bore you with the details about the months that followed, or tell unkind stories about the "Gang of Four" and how we all managed to not make a film out of a script that the "money people" actually wanted to make. It's enough to say that I don't make movies any more.
And it's enough to say that Kurt Vonnegut is still one of my few heores.
God love him!