SKSM: May you introduce yourself to our readers?
Kurt Krauss: My name is Kurt Krauss and I am the producer of “The Last Rung on the Ladder” short film adaptation from the 1978 Stephen King short story. I’ve been very blessed. I’m going into my eighth year full time in the industry as a producer, director, production coordinator, writer and actor.
I grew up watching a lot of the Hollywood classics such as Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird etc. but it was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather that was to me that perfect meld of story, characters and cinematography–all of them brilliant–that inspired something inside of me to get into this business. To this day I believe it is the greatest film of all time.
SKSM: When did you know you wanted to become a producer?
Kurt Krauss: I’m not sure I ever had that moment where I said I want to be a film producer.
Producing was an important skill set that I developed early on out of necessity as a very young, ambitious-on-a-shoestring-budget filmmaker. When I was in college, I knew a lot of enthusiastic, creative people wanting to make films, but almost none of them ever finished and some never really got started. In those groups of creatives, everyone had big ambitions and a lot of talent, but there wasn’t anyone willing or perhaps aware of how to take on the often unpleasant tasks of overseeing the project as a whole, from start to finish, and executing it. I think all of us in the industry love the creative aspects of film, but a majority of producing is the other side, the less fun but essential: budgeting, fundraising, scheduling and logistics.
In defense of anyone aforementioned, when I jumped into my first producer role years ago, it was out of pure survival mode for that project. It was sink or swim, and at times it may have even been comical to watch me try not to sink! I had very little knowledge during my first go at it, but I just was not ever going to let myself or the project drown. I was blessed beyond belief to have received a lot of help along the way!
Once you successfully finish your first project, you know what worked and what didn’t. The projects that follow aren’t as scary, but you always keep a vigilance knowing anything can change at any moment.
Outside of film, I enjoyed five years in the slightly more predictable world of TV commercials and corporate/industrial videos with Creative Edge Productions (2015-2020) as their production coordinator.
SKSM: What interests you most about video production?
Kurt Krauss: What most interests me about video production is creating something special that lasts.
I started my career as a stage actor. What I loved about the live theater was that the performance was meant only for that audience in that moment. The audience cannot be 100% sure what the show will give them nor can the show be certain what the audience will give back. That is the true, exhilarating magic of the stage.
There is a magic in film too, but it’s crafted differently. It’s an orchestration of writing, acting, edits, and soundtrack, meant to be unwrapped and marveled over for the first time like a gift on Christmas morning. It’s also one to be enjoyed years later with a certain sentimentality and new takeaways, over and over again.
SKSM: How did you become involved in ‘The Last Rung On The Ladder‘ Dollar Baby film?
Kurt Krauss: I was a late addition to the project actually. I was driving back from Milwaukee, WI, in late 2022 with co-star and actress Melonie Gartner after an ADR day on the Jordan Schroeter film “The Rose of Sharon”. Up until that point I’d never heard of a “Dollar Baby” script. Director Jeff Blankenship and the team had been working together for over a year, received an extension, but were having trouble getting traction on production. Jeff had reached out to Melonie in hopes of recruiting her as a producer. She’d successfully produced/directed a handful of short films over several years. Melonie was already committed to producing her next film, so she told me about the predicament. She said I should get in touch with Jeff. At that time, I was not looking for another project to produce–at all. Melonie was quite the salesperson, however, and in an hour and a half car ride, she’d convinced me to call him and at least talk with him.
The initial conversation with Jeff was very honest and to the point. We had to name some tough challenges including that time was running out on the contract. From there we went to work. 2023 was a sprint from start to finish, but I am super proud of what we and our stellar team accomplished. I’m also very grateful to Melonie for the suggestion.
SKSM: What do you think it is about the story that attracts people so much?
Kurt Krauss: When I share the story with people, especially when I introduce the Carnival Barker of Despair, the universal comment I hear from people is: “Wow! That’s me!” or “We all have that voice.”
The Carnival Barker of Despair, brilliantly portrayed by actor Brian Belz, is a physical manifestation of that voice. He shows up at the awards banquet meant to honor psychologist Larry Gatlin, and haunts him continually, not letting Larry forget his sister who was in need and left to fend for herself.
To whatever degree, each of us gets visited by that voice. It is that voice that won’t allow us to enjoy life’s goodness. It makes us feel guilty for having a moment of happiness because it says we should be feeling bad for some previous wrongdoing. It tells us we’re undeserving of kindness and love, and tries to coerce us through fear.
SKSM: Mental illness is what’s going on. What were your thoughts after reading the script?
Kurt Krauss: We can know of a person’s mental illness, but we can never really know those people’s demons as they do with their memories, triggers, and responses.
Through this well-written short story and film script adaptation, first Mr. Stephen King in 1978 and then Max Blaska in 2023, we can share a little bit more of that world through the characters and their struggles.
SKSM: What was it like to work with Jeff Blankenship on this film?
Kurt Krauss: Jeff Blankenship is a gem. I first had the privilege of working with him when I was cast in a supporting role in the film “The Stone Carver” which he directed. Jeff has a big heart and cares a lot about the people he’s working with.
Jeff also has a world of respect for the work of Stephen King, and that was very evident in my conversations with him, and also the quality he helped create in “The Last Rung on the Ladder” adaptation.
SKSM: How do you communicate with a director to carry out the production process for a film?
Kurt Krauss: Sharing the same vision is key, especially early on. Each director is different, so the challenge is figuring out how the director best communicates, and trying to adapt to that. The director has the creative vision, and then it is my responsibility to make sure that we deliver on everything that brings the vision to life.
The director and producer put together the team, and what a truly amazing team we had! I also give much credit to my predecessors who helped bring a number of key people together. Our team stayed committed and delivered each day of production. This particular group is very special to me.
SKSM: Were there any funny things that happened while filming (Bloopers, etc)?
Kurt Krauss: I don’t remember anything especially funny happening during filming, though I was often doing any number of crazy things behind the scenes, and may have missed out on some shenanigans as they happened.
SKSM: Can you tell and explain to me what “Kurt-fuffle” means?
Kurt Krauss: A “Kurt-fuffle” is an endearing term that was coined by director Jeff Blankenship, actress Kayla Kelly, and production coordinator Cola Engel sometime during our first weekend shooting together in Land O’ Lakes, WI. It caught on, and was then used throughout production in 2023. To my understanding, a “Kurt-fuffle” could be any number of mishaps that I was directly responsible for as producer, but particularly if I was missing from set, and no one could get ahold of me.
In my defense, there was usually a good reason for it. Because those first two production days ran on a skeleton crew, my producer responsibilities included meals and craft services as no one else could be spared. I’d first make sure the production was up and running at the specific location, and then I’d set out to get food, water etc. for the cast and crew.
Land O’ Lakes is a very beautiful, small town, located right on the Wisconsin/Michigan border, surrounded by dense forest. It is a popular tourist destination, especially in winter with outdoor sports, however there are no grocery stores in Land O’ Lakes. There is one highway that runs through town. The closest grocery stores are located in towns 20 minutes to the north and 30 minutes south of Land O’ Lakes. Consequently, just outside Land O’ Lakes township in either direction, there is no cell phone service. Inevitably, while in the deep woods in the dead of winter on a food run, I’d lose cell service and discover I’d set out for the wrong town. Not only would I show up to a town that was closed up for the night, I’d have to backtrack for that additional hour on the road, just to get to a grocery store. When any of the crew would try to call me, they couldn’t reach me. Only once I was in the city limits to do our grocery shopping was I able to reconnect with them over the phone. Those silent periods were first known as the “Kurt-fuffles”.
SKSM: What did you think of the film adaptation itself and are you satisfied with the result?
Kurt Krauss: Early on, I liked the script. When I’m producing, I read the script two different ways initially. I first read through and note locations and try to envision what it will entail production-wise to see if it’s even realistic to do with the budget. If it’s not realistic, and won’t be reworked, I’ll pass, and not invest myself into it anymore. If it is, or can be, I read and re-read it many times to get the heart of the story. Now I’m invested.
It was smartly written character development and dialogue telling the story, taking place at Larry’s awards banquet with flashbacks to the family farm, his high school graduation, and a series of vignettes of Larry’s sister, Kitty.
I am very pleased with the final product, and excited to share it with Mr. King, his organization, and audiences for the first time. From start to finish, this incredible team brought their best to work, and it paid off in a big way!
SKSM: If you could produce or direct another Stephen King story into a (Dollar Baby-)movie, what would it be and why?
Kurt Krauss: There would certainly be a number of amazing Stephen King short stories to choose from if I ever took on another “Dollar Baby” script. During the production of this one, even before the King organization discontinued the Dollar Baby program in 2024, I’d said this would be a “one and done” for Dollar Baby films for me. Producing “The Last Rung on the Ladder” has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Not only did we get the opportunity to create an adaptation from Mr. King’s short story, but did so with this second-to-none talented team, and so many of them volunteered time, talents and gear. Everybody’s heart was in it to make it a success! After completing The Last Rung, I planned to let future filmmakers have their fun participating in their first Stephen King Dollar Baby short film. I believe it was meant for me once as a singular opportunity. I was blessed with this invitation, and I’m grateful for it.
SKSM: What do you think about the existence of a Dollar Baby community? Were you aware of this before?
Kurt Krauss: I think having a Dollar Baby community specifically is a wonderful thing, though admittedly, up until working on “The Last Rung on the Ladder” in late 2022, I had not heard of the Stephen King “Dollar Baby” program or the community. To the contrary, seemingly everyone else in the independent film world was well aware of it, so maybe I was the last to know.
Community is such an important part of independent filmmaking. It’s why we attend film festivals, celebrating one another’s work, discovering other kindred spirits, and offering support and resources in our craft.
I know adaptation writer Max Blaska reached out to the Dollar Baby community many times throughout pre-production and production for advice and included it in our crowdfunding too. Their response has been truly heartwarming.
SKSM: Are you a fan of Stephen King’s work?
Kurt Krauss: I am a big fan of King’s work, though I must admit the movie “IT” terrified me so much as a child, that the young version of Kurt would be very surprised the adult version of Kurt would ever be doing an adaptation of a King short story. My all time favorite King story made into film is The Green Mile followed by The Secret Window.
I really came to appreciate his writing when a friend lent me a collection of Stephen King’s short stories while I was on a trip to San Francisco, CA. Besides great stories, I found inspiration in the intro which spoke of how this collection came together and the struggle of a young, unknown (at the time) writer who was just trying to make it in a world of new ideas and fast deadlines.
SKSM: What is in the top 5 on your bucket list? (Everything is possible and nothing is too strange)
Kurt Krauss: 1) Fly in a Hot Air Balloon. 2) Swim the English Channel. 3) Work on a Martin Scorcese feature film. 4) Work on a Stephen King blockbuster feature film. 5) Win an Oscar.
SKSM: What are you working on nowadays?
Kurt Krauss: I am very early on in pre-production with my next independent feature film “Amphibious” which I wrote in 2021.
SKSM: What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
Kurt Krauss: Swimming is really how I keep sane during productions. The constant rhythm of breaths, strokes and kicks becomes instinctual while swimming freestyle laps, and it allows me to think through a lot of things. I will swim a mile, sometimes two, non-stop, and usually have several things pretty well solved when I’m finished or at least have a much clearer mind.
SKSM: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Kurt Krauss: In five years I’d like to be working regularly as an actor on one of the TV networks or streaming originals.
SKSM: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Something you’d like to tell our readers?
Kurt Krauss: It has been a privilege to work with this cast and crew on this adaptation from one of the all time greats, Stephen King. It is a very special thing to create something that Mr. King and his organization will watch, and not only know who we are as artists, but speak to something he was saying through the message of his story.
Our time on this Earth is a gift. Our passions, relationships, struggles, faith, story–everything is a gift. Through our work in film, we can help people on their journey. That’s something I really hope we accomplish through this adaptation.
SKSM: Do you like to add anything else?
Kurt Krauss: I’m grateful to God for this amazing team, cast, crew, property owners and managers who opened their businesses and farms to us, and donors who shared their financial resources and production equipment with us to create “The Last Rung on the Ladder” adaptation! I am truly, forever grateful.