From Print to Screen: Q&A with Bob Weide, Writer of the Film Adaptation of Mother Night
Image: © WHYADUCK PRODS./C. MINNICK
Robert (Bob) Weide is a screenwriter, producer, and director known for his work as primary director of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Most importantly, however, Bob was close friends with Kurt Vonnegut, Bob’s literary hero, and is currently creating a documentary on their time together from the 1980s until Kurt’s death in 2007.
Weide will be at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library July 16th and 17th for a screening of the film adaption of Mother Night, which Weide wrote and produced, as well as the opening of an exhibition with memorabilia from the filming.
I recently shared a phone call with Bob Weide to discuss the exhibition and what else he has in store for Vonnegut fans.
How did the film version of Mother Night come to be?
I had been working on my documentary about Kurt since 1982 and began filming in 1988. Along the way I always had my eye out for making a feature film based on one of his books. Kurt and I spoke and made a deal that I would write the script on spec. That means I would go ahead and write it first, then try to sell the finished script and fund the movie. Keith Gordon is a close friend and also a Vonnegut nut, and be became the director of Mother Night while I would be the writer and producer. I finished the script in 1990 and it took another five years before we found financing.
Why did you choose Mother Night?
When I read Mother Night in high school, I thought “That would make a good movie.” It is typical of Vonnegut in terms of themes he is covering in the context of good and evil that human beings are capable of. It poses the moral question of “If we do evil in the name of good, are we in fact doing more evil than good?”
It’s also a fairly conventional book, at least in terms of his canon. There are no intergalactic battles or sci-fi elements and there is nothing that in the adaptation of the film takes a lot of special effects outside of it being a period piece. Which is why we were able to film in on a modest budget of just $5.5 million.
What was the biggest challenge to adapting the screenplay?
The biggest challenge was setting the right tone. You’re dealing with World War II, dealing with the holocaust and Nazis. And yet, there are moments from the book that are very funny.
Kurt referred to himself as a joke writer, I refer to himself as a humorist like Lenny Bruce. His books are a mosaic of jokes and punchlines, but also a lot of serious issues. Ultimately everything crescendos to a joke which releases you of the burden of having to take an issue too seriously by allowing you to laugh.
A lot of my concern in writing the screenplay was stuff that I had to cut out but that were very funny scenes but tangential to the primary story – like Hitler playing ping pong. A lot of the comic tone in the book comes from Campbell’s first-person narrative. A lot of that stuff gets cut due to the very practical concern with editing and keeping the run time down.
You have to be realistic and practical. I had done enough writing prior so I knew I couldn’t include everything from the book. The first draft of any screenplay is typically too long. Even after that gets edited, scenes are filmed that are cut from the theatrical version.
How involved was Kurt during the screenplay and production of Mother Night?
Kurt used to tell me, “Think of the book as a friendly ghost hanging around the house.” What he meant was that I could choose to pay attention to it or not. He gave me permission to stray wildly or adhere to it.
When I was writing, I would ask questions about historical figures or references to time periods. He would answer those type of questions. Very rarely I would run something by him and when I did his response was very consistently to tell me “This is your script you can do what you want. Revise what you want, drop what you want. The book is the book and remains on the shelf for anyone who wants to read it. The movie doesn’t change that.”
He did give me one idea for a scene that I thought didn’t work, so I didn’t use it. But he gave me a couple of jokes that I ended up using in the screenplay.
What did Kurt think of the film?
I have read personal correspondence between him and other people where he stated that he enjoyed the film. This mattered a lot to me because we were very close friends, and so to hear him tell other people he liked it meant he wasn’t just being kind to me.
Kurt and I talked about commercial viability of the film which we knew wouldn’t break any box office records. He used to say “Generally, when you tell a story that is about something people won’t show up.” But we were both pleased with how it turned out.
How has the Mother Night story aged?
Kurt’s books still hold up quite beautifully. The book was written in 1961 and the screenplay was written in 1990. In fact, he was the same age when he wrote the novel as I was when I wrote the screenplay.
In the 90’s he and I were talking about the book, the only thing he hadn’t anticipated was that the right wing Neo-Nazi’s would be armed to the teeth.
Will younger people encountering the book today have the same reaction you did when you first read it?
For the most part, any story you tell is not about that particulars of the plot, but themes that are relevant. Thematically, the book and film that takes places in a certain time, but the themes are the same ones we read about in the newspaper today.
This is a piece of fiction that is also a period film. As to what conclusions anyone draws in the contemporary is up to them, but neither the film nor the book shove it down your throat.
What kind of objects will people see in the exhibit?
I used to hang on to everything. The exhibit has movie props, correspondence between Kurt and me on the script, shooting plans, set photos, posters. I even kept the vintage typewriter that Nolte’s character uses to type his memoirs. It even has that special SS key, and that typewriter will be on display. We have original variations of the movie poster that were submitted but weren’t chosen for one reason or another.
Twenty years ago this fall we were filming up in Montreal. I always had a camera with me. I wrote and produced Mother Night, but since Keith [Gordon] was director, I had time to shoot photos on set which are great to look back on.
Bob is currently finishing his documentary, KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME, which he commenced filming in 1988. You can view a teaser of the film below.