Thursday, August 02, 2007

AJ Schnack About A Movie

AJ Schnack in Silver Spring, MD, June 2007
Schnack speaking after receiving an award from the SilverDocs film festival for his film Kurt Cobain About A Son
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In June I spoke with director AJ Schnack about his wildly creative documentary Kurt Cobain About A Son (blog, MySpace), which is about the deceased Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. The film uses elements of recorded conversations/Cobain speaking and visuals from three Washington state cities to reveal aspects of Cobain's life that may be unfamiliar to many audience members. See my review of the movie here. This interview happened during the 2007 SilverDocs film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, about an hour before About A Son won the Cinematic Vision Feature Award from the fest.
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Sujewa: AJ, thanks a lot for taking some time out for this interview. So, how did you get into filmmaking & why have you focused thus far on punk/indie-rock related acts?
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AJ: I studied journalism in college, mostly because it seemed like an easier route in my life then saying that I am going to be a filmmaker. Every small town in America has a journalist, not every small town in America has a filmmaker.
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Sujewa: Where are you from?
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AJ: I am from Edwardsville, Illinois, which is a small college town right outside of St. Louis
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Sujewa: So you had an ambition to become a filmmaker from an early point on, but you figured that journalism was the doable route.
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AJ: Yeah, and you are also trying to figure out who you are. I knew I wanted to tell stories & that I was interested in real stories as well as fiction stories and so journalism seemed viable and also something that I would really enjoy. And I did, I worked as a reporter, an anchor for a little while, but ultimately, particularly with television news, you are locked into telling stories in a minute and a half, which I am incapable of doing. So, pretty much, as I got closer to graduation, I knew that I was not going to be doing that for a living, so I moved to LA and started pursuing being a filmmaker and not knowing what that road would be. It's kind of a fluke that I made my first feature documentary [Gigantic, A Tale of Two Johns, about They Might Be Giants] about a band. It was not a planned thing that I was going to do that. But looking back I clearly have always been interested in the strand of nonfiction that includes the great music films, that's obviously a very rich heritage, from Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese to Maysles brothers, Barbara Copple; great filmmakers, love to make movies about music, and I've always been interested in that and that's sort of where I've fallen.
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Sujewa: So, when you contacted They Might Be Giants about making Gigantic, had you already made some short films that included musicians?
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AJ: Actually, with my partner Shirley Moyers, we started a music video production company in 1995, which was a music video production company for about 6 years. We did over 80 videos & commercials and did work with a lot of bands and a lot of different directors and one of the directors who we worked with was John Flansburg, who is 1/2 of They Might Be Giants, and we became friends so it was never a situation where I would think that I would make a movie about my friend and his band but I was so struck by, and this sort of relates to what you write about and the whole essence of what we were discussing, which is what it is to do-it-yourself. To me they are two of the greatest DIY artists that we've seen in the last 30 years. They are constantly coming up with new technology or using old technology in new ways to find avenues to get their music out that is not filtered through the big machinery.
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Sujewa: Their old dial-a-song was kind of like pod casting or kind of like music downloads, but many years earlier right?
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AJ: Exactly, it's clearly a forerunner and the fact that they were the first major band to sell a full album on the internet and they've been pod casting now for two years and they are seriously smart about finding new ways to reach fans directly without having to rely on a label to say that we are going to put out your new album at a specific time.
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Sujewa: Their stuff is so quirky, to use an overused word, but I would imagine that had they stayed with the regular label route they would have to change their stuff over time in order to appeal to a wider & wider audience.
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AJ: Possibly. if they had become superstars they could basically do whatever they wanted, they could keep that up, I don't think they saw that in their future in the beginning. They were always East Village bohemian in a way and they come out of that East Village art scene and I think what they were hoping for was to become successful enough to pay their rent and which, in a way, is the thing that Kurt talks about in the film, that that's his initial goal, just pay his rent, have his apartment. That I think is for a lot of artists, even though it seems like such a minor, minimal goal, but in reality for many, many artists that is like a key point. They feel that if they can reach that, that they don't have to work at some other job, then that's a major accomplishment.
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Sujewa: So, back in the pre-Geffen days of Nirvana, were you a fan of the band or were you aware of the band?
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AJ: I knew about them but I have to say that Bleach didn't resonate for me at all, not much at all, I liked it OK but I didn't find it transcendent in the way that I did when I heard Nevermind. So I can be accused of being someone who enjoyed things when they got much more commercial maybe. I just think his song writing got so much stronger between those two records and continued to get stronger. I think In Utero is in many ways a better record and a more interesting record than Nevermind, but maybe that's a part of the sadness of him dying at that point because you just felt that maybe that was just the beginning of him tapping into his considerable talents.
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Sujewa: In Cobain's mind, and this question will make more sense to anyone who has seen the movie or after they see the movie, there seemed to be a battle in Cobain's mind between playing to a certain community, being self-sufficient - like within the Olympia scene perhaps vs. becoming a "real"/mainstream rock star; leading that life of fame & wealth. So do you think the world wide popularity of Nirvana and the wealth that came with it contributed to Cobain's depression?
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AJ: I think he just was depressed. He was clearly. One thing I hope that the film shows quite clearly is that he was someone who suffered from a crippling form of depression. He sets up these goals for himself throughout the film, where he says that only if I can have X or Y then I'll finally be happy, and he always gets it, he always achieves X and Y and he's still not happy. And he says this over and over again until sort of the end which I won't reveal here and for me is the most poignant moment, he says that only if he had something, and it's quite clear that he does have it. And the irony of that is that he is so removed from it, even though at the time of that interview he's not doing drugs, he's arguably in a happier state of his life, has money, is getting his daughter back, has a wife who loved him, the band is doing well he can do whatever he wants pretty much, to some degree. I think it just sets up that people who are that depressed, who suffer from depression in that way often do really self-destructive things, and I feel that if people get that sense of him out of the film, I would be happy about that.
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Sujewa: One thing that your movie demonstrated to me was that he was pretty much an ordinary guy. Very talented, but an ordinary guy. So was that something that you wanted to convey to people who had a misconception about Cobain?
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AJ: Oh yeah, sure. There was actually a guy last night [at the post-screening Q & A at SilverDocs] who took offense at that I thought of him [Kurt Cobain] as ordinary and I thought that was very weird, I didn't know where he was coming from, but that's the thing about Kurt that's so interesting, he's - I guess you could say this about a lot of artists, what I felt about Kurt was that he was turned into this God-like figure, this tragic God-like figure, that he's been stripped of all his humanity, and part of what's involved in humanity are flaws and defects and he clearly had those. I wanted to do a portrait of someone who is not set up to be a God or perfect. And in a way maybe that is one thing that is different about the film than maybe a lot of rock bios because you are ultimately trying to lift up your subject matter. Gigantic is a celebration of who they are, their partnership and kind of like you should know who these guys are and what they do because it's inspiring. And this is more a film about the star you think you have an idea of who he is, but he is someone else. And this is what it is to be this man. And hopefully that comes across. And people do get a sense of him as being an ordinary guy. That's in fact why he continues to live on in so many people. That's because they identify with him as this underdog. This ordinary guy who is different from the jocks and different from other people, didn't know quite what to do with his artistic talents.
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Sujewa: When you were introducing the film yesterday at SilverDocs one of the things I was reflecting on is how artists, myself and other people, we, at a certain point, we take a stance, some of us, on how we are going to relate to society, but majority of people, over time, change to make life easy for themselves; that black and white, us vs. them thing goes away, in 10 years after high school, 20 years after high school, it is no longer a problem. But on the plus side, having a kind of an antagonistic relationship with the rest of society does make you want to create things that push your perspective or celebrate the kind of things that you like, so do you think that some artists refuse to "grow up" as they get older or do you think - well, let's try another angle - some of the things that Cobain was complaining about in the movie - the hatred of the jocks, the hatred of society, the hatred of people so ordinary, a lot of people eventually mellow out on that stuff, but do you think his art work was so compelling and interesting because he held on to that antagonism or do you think that an artist can be better integrated into society and still make stuff that is different and appealing and or shocks or repels people?
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AJ: I think all artists are different. I think the thing about Kurt, and one of the reasons that I wanted to make the film, is to me he looked around him, and not just about the jocks or the macho loggers in Aberdeen, he looked around and he saw what he felt was a disintegration of what America used to be. America used to be a happy place in which everyone was together and everyone was happy and you could be in your back yard and America was all these happy communities and he sees the destruction of that and he relates that directly with the disintegration within his own family. He makes family and country the same, in a sense. And because, one of the things I've always said is that I am a year younger than Kurt is, and when I was in first grade, my mom, who was a school teacher, was the only mom who worked, and by the time I was in eighth grade, all but two moms worked. And that was a huge change. That was a fundamental change in how families operated - whether there was food on the table, whether there was someone waiting at home when the kids got home, whether families stuck together, that was a massive change in our culture. And he talked about that. And he voiced that in this really articulate, pissed off, purely angry way and I think that is the thing that made him so interesting. He saw the changes that had happened and he put that in his art. I think that - in a sense - it was not that he was angry that made him the artist he turned out to be but he saw something that not everyone else saw and he talked about it in a way that no one else was talking about it, at least not at that level. I think that's why he became such an important voice. More so maybe than he wanted.
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Sujewa: But many people would argue that the further that you go back in American history that more horrible it is for women and minorities in America. And also maybe if you are not rich. People who would typically have easy access in life; powerful, connected, wealthy - kind of people who are not like the young Kurt Cobain - had less of an incredibly overwhelming advantage over everyone else in post-1970's. So do you think the fact that Cobain believed that post-70's America was worse than pre-70's America - he [Cobain] does not seem to understand - I mean we had lynchings, and women could not get jobs if they wanted to...
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AJ: Right, but you have to separate the issues. To me that's his lesson from Aberdeen, his lesson when he gets to Olympia and suddenly he is involved in a relationship with a very strong woman, he's around bands that women are in, as opposed to the very testosterone driven rock of his childhood, he comes across men who are feminine, and suddenly he becomes a champion for women, for gays, and questions the whole role of gender in our society. So I think it's actually kind of fascinating that he takes one lesson from Aberdeen, and I don't disagree with your point, I think that he sees the difference as being that it was better that these small towns had healthy, locally run industries, and were not dominated by the same chains that you see everywhere else. So on one level he saw that there was a disintegration, and yet on another level he was clearly one of the most vocal champions of women and gays that existed in my generation, for many years.
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Sujewa: So what you are saying, and it makes sense, is that when he was young, as it is for most of us, his local reality dominates his world view. And as we get older, most of us hopefully, will see a bigger picture, and that's what he saw.
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AJ: He was also one of the first to see a certain level of hypocrisy out of the hippie movement of the 60's.
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Sujewa: And also the indie rock movement of his time.
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AJ: Exactly. The interesting thing about him was that he wasn't, he didn't just see things on one level. He would look at how everyone would say you had to be a certain way to be an indie rocker and he would rebel against that and he would look at people in Aberdeen who were aging hippies and were running around cheating on their spouses and having divorces, getting drunk and doing drugs and he looked at that and thought that was contemptuous. So it's interesting that he had such a critical eye on so many things, but also it does not help his depression to see everywhere he looks to see nothing but failure.
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Sujewa: One of the things that he voiced, and I agree with, is how certain segments of the independent scene are almost unrealistically opposed to fame and wealth. In a way that playing for your underground audience is the highest point that you want to get to, but he says that he wanted to be world famous but he didn't know how to do it so at one point he adopted this position that to not be famous is better.
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AJ: Right. One of the strange things about that is, again having basically grown up in the same time as Kurt, I am well aware of the old notion and saw it happen so much that people would like a band until they became popular. And I like to think that idea died with Kurt. And that now, if you are a fan of a band, like say Death Cab For Cutie, you don't go like "oh they sold out by signing with Atlantic" but you embrace the fact that they are on television and that more people are finding out about them and that maybe they can now do other things. I think that's a much healthier position both for people who consume art as well as for the artists who make it.
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Sujewa: If it's good the more people who know about it the better, as long as artists can manage the new responsibilities that come with wider acclaim.
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AJ: Exactly.
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Sujewa: Final question, what do you want people to get out of About A Son? Besides what they will get out of it on their own, what are some of your own hopes as to what people will get from the movie?
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AJ: I feel that people have an idea about who this guy is; and I mean that both people who are relatively fans and also people who go "yeah I know about him, he killed himself and I know he had a crazy wife", and I hope that - the conceit really of the film in a way is to deny the audience any physical connection with him, by looking at him, until the very end of the film, and then when you finally do see his face that you feel like you are looking at a new person.
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Sujewa: That happened to me.
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AJ: Yeah, well, that's the goal of the film. When people, when they see his face for the first time that they feel that they are seeing him freshly and newly, that's all I hope for.
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Thanks AJ!
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- Sujewa

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