“SHUFFLE” is film about a man who spends every day living in a different era of his life. He has no idea if he will wake up as an old man, or his younger self. THe film has become a darling of the independant circuit and has earned much praise. We talk with Director Kurt Kuenne about his film.
What inspired you to choose a career in film/TV; do you have any advice for people who are looking to get into the television and or film industry?
The first film I ever saw in a theatre as a child was the original 1977 “Star Wars”, and from that moment on, I never wanted to do anything else. I promptly began banging out screenplays on a typewriter purchased at a neighbor’s garage sale and began using the technology of the time – Super 8mm film, then VHS – to shoot movies with my friends, then pounded out scores for them on the piano. I eventually studied both film and music at USC, and have kept writing, directing and scoring films ever since. My advice for people who want to do this is, simply, to do it; do not wait around for someone to give you permission to make a movie. If you want to write, write. If you want to shoot, shoot. Decide exactly what you want to do, then find a way to make it happen. Find people you trust to give you honest feedback. I found studying at a school like USC to be a great blessing, as it surrounds you with like-minded people who can inspire you and push you to be your best. You need to be around people who are supportive, brilliant and honest, who will help you make your work the best it can be before it goes out into the world. And once you’ve got a piece of work you’re proud of, get it in front of everyone you possibly can — and eventually, somehow, doors will open. It may take a long time, it may take several films or scripts before you’re recognized in any way, and you have to be okay with that; persistence and determination are required. If you give up or get discouraged easily, movies are not for you.
What inspired you to do “Shuffle” and how did the idea originate and develop?
The concept for “Shuffle” came out of a conversation I had with a development executive who had read my script “Mason Mule”, which won the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences several years ago; he noticed from that script that I liked playing with structure, was thinking of hiring me to write something for him, and we started chatting about ideas that were structurally playful. When the notion of “a guy who lives his life out of order” came up, I immediately sparked to it and came up with the initial outline for what became “Shuffle”. The project did not come to fruition at that particular company, so I went on to write it on my own. Unfortunately, right as I finished my first draft, a similar project about a man living his life out of sequence sold to a major studio (that film has never been made), so “Shuffle” sat around unread for years, until some friends who were huge fans of it got me to dust it off and re-write it. After I made a short film called “Validation” with my friend TJ Thyne (who lived next door to me when we were at USC) that proved popular at festivals and on line (it just passed 7 million views on YouTube), he and I started talking about doing a feature together. I quickly realized that “Shuffle” was a perfect vehicle for him, re-wrote it for him and we shot it on his summer hiatus from his TV show “Bones” that year.
Tell us about the casting and what each actor/actress brought to the film to make the perfect for their parts.
Since it was a given that TJ was starring in the film, everyone else was cast around him. When Paula Rhodes came in – whom I cast as the female lead in the film – she made everyone in the room not only fall in love with her, but actually cry during her audition; I went back and saw her audition tape again recently when I was putting together the behind-the-scenes doc for the DVD, and was affected by it all over again. And it was amazing to see how many choices she made instinctually for the audition ended up being the choices she used in the actual film. This was the first time I’d ever cast multiple actors to play the same role at different ages, and I was fortunate to have a wonderful casting director in Pam Pearl who brought in so many amazing people. There are so many things to look for when matching multiple people to play the same part, but on top of that, you have to be sure you’re pairing actors at each age level that have chemistry. I was really fortunate with the discoveries of Dylan Sprayberry and Elle Labadie, who played young TJ and young Paula respectively, they were just wonderfully natural and had a terrific rapport with each other. (Dylan has since gone on to play Young Clark Kent in “Man of Steel”, the new Superman movie due out next year.) TJ suggested Tamara Taylor and Patricia Belcher, whom he’d worked with on “Bones”, for a couple of roles in the film, and they were perfect choices. A lot of the people in the movie, though, were people I’d worked with before, and it’s always fun to see where/if the people you’ve worked with in the past end up fitting into the new piece of material you’ve written. For example, Chris Stone, who plays TJ’s father in the film, was originally just producing the film with us, and I knew he was interested in the role of Orson, but it wasn’t until his audition – when he came in and blew everyone away – that we all realized that the perfect person for the role had been sitting across the table from us in production meetings every day.
When you consider a script or a potential TV or film project, what elements do you look for in the story and character and what types of projects would you like to do in the future?
I’ve written everything I’ve done, and I hope to continue to do so; I simply try to write the movie I would most want to go see if I were flipping through the newspaper deciding what to go see on a Friday night. I like stories that surprise me, that have mystery, that have characters I find fascinating and want to sit with for long periods of time, that have high highs and low lows, that make satisfying connections and that are ultimately exhilarating in some way. I went through some personal tragedy in the previous decade (if you’ve seen my documentary “Dear Zachary”, you know the situation I’m speaking about), and that experience made me decide that life is sad enough; I don’t need to invent fictional stories that make people feel worse. I lean towards the type of storytelling philosophies that Frank Capra is remembered for, where you look for the good in any circumstance.
What were some memorable moments from filming and what can we look forward to from you going forward?
One of my favorite moments in the shooting of “Shuffle” was the second to last day of shooting, which was when we shot all of the material where TJ was playing his character at 92 years of age. He spent 5 hours in the make-up chair of Barney Burman, the Oscar-winning genius who, along with his team, created all of the old-age make-up in “Shuffle”. And I’ll never forget the moment when Barney walked TJ onto the lit set; TJ entered in character, infirm and weak, and Barney helped lay him down onto the bed gently. The whole crew fell silent when they entered. Barney had done such a brilliant job aging him, and TJ was so inside the character at that moment, that there was a genuine sense of awe in the air. It was a magical night. In terms of what I’ll be doing going forward, I recently finished adapting the novel “The Looking Glass Wars” into a musical for the stage, writing the script, music and lyrics, so I’m hopeful that will be mounted sometime soon. I’m presently writing two new scripts, but it’s too early to talk about them. I can say that they both have fantastical/mysterious story hooks like “Shuffle”, but are totally different kinds of movies. I’m also assembling two short documentaries on the side; one is going to be a DVD bonus feature for my short film series (“Validation”, etc.) about its inception and reception, and the other is about the journey my documentary “Dear Zachary” made to change bail law in Canada in 2010. (So many people keep asking me what happened, so rather than keep telling the story over and over, I’m just going to put the short doc up on the web and be done with it.
As a follow up, what was working with your cast like?
This is a boring answer, but they were marvelous and everyone was a pro. When you cast the right people, you don’t have to do a lot of “directing”. You stay alert for when things are going off course, or find solutions for when things are not working…but I honestly don’t have many memories of moments like that. The biggest challenge was working with the animals! (We had over a half-dozen dogs, multiple rabbits and more on this film; American Humane was there almost every day.)
When you’re not filming, what do you like to do and which shows and movies are you looking forward to seeing?
When I’m not filming, I’m writing, editing, composing or thinking of something new to write, edit or score. My favorite pastime is to go see old movies on the big screen, preferably outdoors. (I made a documentary about drive-in movie theatres years ago, so I’m obsessed with outdoor movies.) Oscars Outdoors, which the Academy just started up this past summer, is the best outdoor movie venue I’ve ever seen. Living in Los Angeles is gold mine for revival cinema; for instance, I just saw a stunning restoration this week of Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” in 3D, which has almost never been shown in 3D, remastered from the original “left eye” and “right eye” negatives. Where else are you going to find that? As far as new movies, my favorite director is Steven Spielberg, so I’m obviously looking forward to “Lincoln”. I can’t wait to see Robert Zemeckis’ return to live action filmmaking, “Flight”. And I’m extremely excited to see the touring company of “The Book of Mormon” here in Los Angeles this month.
If you had carte blanche, what type of film would you do, who would you cast, etc?
I’ve been dying to do my Nicholl-winning script “Mason Mule” for years, which is kind of a tonal blend of “Amélie”, “Ferris Bueller” and Monty Python; I originally thought I was going to be directing it during the summer we ended up shooting “Shuffle”, but then discovered the company that had it under option did not, in fact, have the money to do it at that time, so we put “Shuffle” together quickly instead. I’ve written numerous scripts across multiple genres that I’m itching to shoot — and have numerous other stories that I’m writing as time allows. And I want to do all of them. I can’t pick one.