A Long Journey to the Screen

Film Premieres 10 Years after Its Intended Release Date

The historical drama film Confessions of a Sailor premiered at this year’s Door County Short Film Festival – nearly 10 years after it was supposed to be released. 

The delay was caused by an obscure computer error message that popped up when director and producer Kurt Krauss was exporting the finished movie. 

“It should have been a simple export, taking the finished product and just making it into a single movie file,” he said. “But for whatever reason, it wasn’t doing that.”

At first, Krauss tried to work through the glitch on his own. Then he called on a few tech-savvy friends. When they opened the file, they found only numbers and letters where a video should have been.

Nobody could figure out exactly what had happened, but one thing was obvious: The finished movie, which Krauss had spent years writing, filming and editing, was gone

Making the Movie

Confessions of a Sailor tells the story of a young nautical magazine writer who is sent to Sturgeon Bay in search of a story. He connects with an old local sailor who tells him about the Carl Bradley, a ship that sank in Lake Michigan in 1958, killing 33 of its 35 crew members. The community of Rogers City, Michigan – where most of the crew was from – banded together after the tragedy to take care of the deceased crew members’ widows and children.

Krauss directs a scene in Southern Door School. File photo by Robert Maves Jr.

While reading about the history of the wreck, Krauss – an actor and production crew member born and raised in Door County – was struck by how much it felt like a screenplay. So sometime around 2008, he started writing his first feature-length film based on the historical events. Filming took place in 2010-12, and by 2013, the movie was edited and ready to premiere in several locations on the peninsula – but that’s when Krauss’ computer had different plans.

“I was devastated,” he said of his lost work. And the multiple screenings he had scheduled for the summer of 2013 didn’t help.

Actors prepare to film a scene of Confessions of a Sailor. File photo by Robert Maves Jr.

“We had it all lined up,” said Chris Opper, director of the Door County Short Film Festival. “It was just a few weeks before we were going to show it when Kurt contacted me, like, ‘We have a problem here.’”

After postponing, then canceling, each screening, Krauss faced an even more difficult task: finding the motivation to edit an entire three-hour movie for the second time, and doing so alone. 

One of his co-editors stuck around for a while after the loss of the movie, but recognizing all the work that lay ahead, Krauss felt it was best to finish it by himself.

Finding Motivation

Motivation came to Krauss in unexpected ways.

A few months after the loss of Confessions of a Sailor, his friend Diego Dutra invited him to Nicaragua to shoot a fundraising-appeal video for a local clean-water project. Krauss jumped on the opportunity, needing a change of scenery as well as a break from editing. 

But another roadblock soon arose: While he was on a layover in Fort Lauderdale, the flight to Nicaragua was delayed because of an active volcano in the vicinity.

So Krauss spent about a week in Fort Lauderdale, waiting for flights to resume. During that time, he got to know Dutra’s mother, a sculptor, who told him about an unusual technique she used: She would place something special to her, such as family photos, in the heart of every sculpture she made.

Though sculpting and filmmaking are two very different art forms, Krauss applied her technique to his own work. 

“That was really what made the whole thing doable again – this idea that you have to put beautiful things into the heart of the project,” he said. 

He returned to the United States with that in mind. When he started working on the movie again, he went all the way back to its script and cut it down to just the heart, which turned out to be a 45-minute film. From there, Krauss filled in the script with parts he had cut, ending up with a finished product that ran an hour and 45 minutes.

Periodic changes of scenery, such as his trip to Nicaragua, helped him through the editing process. Over the years, he had bounced around many areas of Wisconsin, but in 2018, he moved back to his homeland of Door County, which helped him to feel more connected to his subject matter. Krauss stayed busy with other projects, too, such as a police drama that was written, shot and released before Confessions of a Sailor was finished. 

“The Wreck of the Bradley,” an oil painting by Maria Nier Christensen, was used in the Confessions of a Sailor movie poster. Here, the painting, poster and film prints are displayed at Northern Sky’s Gould Theater. Photo courtesy of Kurt Krauss.
(From left) Actor John A. Shakel Jr., Kurt Krauss and actor Zachary Lulloff united at the Door County Short Film Festival’s wrap party at the Sister Bay Bowl.

The Long-Awaited Premiere

By 2019, Krauss had a finished cut of the movie that he liked – but then the pandemic began. It disrupted in-person film festivals, but it also gave him a chance to make some extra changes before he submitted his film to the 2023 Door County Short Film Festival.

During that festival’s screening, Krauss tried to keep his superstitions at bay.

“It was wonderful and terrifying,” he said. “I kept telling myself, ‘They’ve got the copy; they’ve played it through; they haven’t had any issues with it. I just need to not be superstitious.’”

The premiere went off without a hitch, and Opper said it was worth the wait. 

“Anytime you can be done with something – a short film, a feature, whatever – that’s cause to celebrate,” he said. “But for Kurt to stick it out like that, it makes the finished product 10 times better.” 

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