(This is one of several posts detailing the making of my new film, Kurt Cobain About A Son, leading up to its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10, 2006. A recap of all my previous blog posts on making the film can be found here.)
I first met Wyatt Troll, my director of photography on Kurt Cobain About A Son, more than a decade ago when we were both starting out in production. We were both making music videos - I was an Executive Producer at a company that made low budget clips for indie rock bands and Wyatt was a DP and photographer just starting to make a name for himself.
Flash forward to last spring as I was thinking about who should shoot this film and I got in touch with an old friend asking for advice. “I need someone who can shoot really beautiful portraits and landscapes/cityscapes but can also work with a small crew and move really, really quickly.” When Wyatt’s name came back to me, I knew almost instantly that it was the right choice.
Almost a year ago, Wyatt and I got together for drinks at the Edendale Grill in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles to plot out our approach to making the film. We knew it was an unconvential for nonfiction filmmaking in that we would shoot on 35mm film, we’d have extensive storyboards and photographic references, we’d have a crew of about 8-12 people with us throughout the 18-day shoot. It was more like a low-budget narrative than any of the documentary stuff either of us had done previously.
This week, Wyatt and I returned to the Edendale to have some more scotch and reflect on the experience:
AJ: So, we were here about a year ago and just starting to talk about the film and how we would shoot it. Did the process turn out the way you thought it would?
Wyatt: We are. We are litarally in the same exact place a year latter, same Talisker, same beer, same bar. We are a year the better, yes, yes... Did it turn out the way I thought it would...? Of course not or else I wouldn’t have bothered doing it.
AJ: I like that ‘cause it was a total discovery. I feel like, in some ways, we knew it was going to be this new way of working. It wasn’t a traditional documentary shoot at all, in terms of interviews or verite shooting style. It was more structured, but yet we also had, I think, a real freedom to discover as we were going.
Wyatt: I have to say you may be right (which, by the way, is what WC Feilds said to all his fan letters, good or bad) but really some of the most exciting things are things that happened because we were there and open, but the structure got us there and allowed us that leniency.
Was there something that happened that was unexpected (camera wise) that changed your perspective of lensing or even your process?
AJ: I’m really glad that we had the chance to go up and shoot for a few days last September in a non-pressure environment. [Note: This was a scout/test shoot with Wyatt and my producer Shirley Moyers.] I really think that that experience gave me a good idea what was working and what could change. For example, just trying out different film stocks on that trip made me realize that each city really needed its own look. But even when we got into shooting, I felt that it only took until the 2nd or 3rd day for us - both you and I and the rest of the crew - to get a handle on how we were working. From then on, I felt like we were operating in a really comfortable place.
I have to say, that it was one of the happiest work experiences I ever had. I was describing it recently to someone and they interupted me and said, “wow, you really love what you do.” And while that’s true, I also feel that it was part of how everything worked from both from a production and also a shooting perspective. Our crew really bought into this “structured guerilla” form of working. The overall experience completely changed how I want to approach nonfiction filmmaking in the future.
Wyatt: I was constructivly nervous before we went up the first time as to what overall perspective to take. As I read Michael (Azerrad)’s book I came to this realization that Kurt never solidified the lyrics to a song until 5 minutes before recording them. FUCK! Thats amazing. I thought, what if I took this total zen/anarchist will to create and just let it happen...so I approached the shoot in this manner. In a way it’s so ballsy, but it seemed the way to approach it. Really, you gave such an open view into this world to give us the opportunity to go out on this raw limb. It truly was a rad open creative time, maybe we can do some re-shoots....
AJ: Definitely. We’re premiering in, like, 10 days, so we should definitely shoot some new stuff.
Did the spirit of Kurt’s story affect affect the way we shot the film? And, subsequently, did you notice any change in our styles as we progressed furher into our journey?
AJ: Well, I think the decision to divide the film into three acts allowed us to make the third act more dream-like in a way - more use of camera movement, time-lapse, slow-motion - because we know that when we get to the third act that the story, Kurt’s story, is coming to an end. I think that how we viewed the three towns differently - not just the decision to shoot each city with different film stocks, but also recognizing that there was a huge change in color palette as we journeyed from Aberdeen (grays and greens and browns) to Olympia (pastels and weathered colors) to Seattle (primary colors and steel and black) - this definitely was something that was reinforced as we went along.
On one level, I always knew that I wanted more of the third act to take place at dark, but just being in Seattle, this also seemed like the right choice aesthetically for what we were experiencing. Actually, that - the ability to experience the environment and change certain approaches as we moved forward - was one of my favorite things of shooting.
Let me ask you, on a purely technical level, it’s so unusual to be able to shoot a documentary on 35mm film. And also, the approach of having things storyboarded and scheduled in the way that we did. It was almost like a narrative process. Did you feel that?
Wyatt: Boy, did I fuck up! I thought the whole thing was a dream sequence!
Technically speaking I’d say you set up, dare I say it again, a dream sequence - of course most docs dont get the privilege of shooting 35mm, but because we had a specific narrative to jump out of or back to we really didnt waste a lot of stock searching for things. That said, we also had the leeway to let random encounters happen. For instance that 5 mile logging ship named ‘Youth Spirit’... Come on, you couldn’t have scripted that!
[Wyatt is describing a massive ship that was carrying logs from the largest mill in town to Asia. The ship basically entered our shot - it dwarfed nearly everything in town - and seemed to go on forever. The ship's name was "Youth Spirit".]
Since were speaking technically now what was your favorite shot I did for you?
AJ: Hm, now you’re putting me on the spot because I also edited this and so I’ve really spent a lot of time with the images and have fallen in love with so many of them. But I’ve really come to love the portraits. I really feel that those people - randomly grabbed from the street - say so much about the cities in which they live. One of the things that I’ve always loved about your work is your skill with portraiture. That music video you shot with Patti Smith is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And I was glad that an element of that came into this film.
Speaking of our music video backgrounds - you having shot many and my having executive produced many - we first met more than a decade ago when we were both starting out. Don’t you think that our shared history - certainly knowing one another but more specifically having that particular experience of having made lower budget music videos helped us enormously on this shoot? I don’t think that I could have made this film without having been on set for music videos that were all about let’s get to location quickly, shoot off a bunch a shots, move again. That was so imperative for this film, which had a small crew, relatively contained shooting schedule but numerous locations. Without having had that experience, I’m not sure I would have even thought such a thing was possible.
Wyatt: Totally. We’ve fought those wars of needing the shots with so many lame/impossible parameters/morons hovering over us, that to be able to enter any situation and know that we’re gonna be able to walk out with at least a mediocre if not brilliant image gave me a solace, even if my steadfast swarthy crew of five and two PAs were being thrown out of bars left and right.
AJ: That reminds me of our first trip to Aberdeen. When we walked over the bridge to have a drink at the PourHouse and it was like, what, 10? And even though we could see the sign when we left the hotel and it was on, by the time we crossed the bridge, the sign was turned off and the whole place looked abandoned and we theorized that they knew that a couple dudes from Los Angeles were coming over and told everyone to hide. And then we went to another bar and were thrown out because we had out of state ID’s and the bartendress said, “I’m not gonna get jacked by you
guy’s again,” thinking that we were liquor control coming to bust her with our fake California IDs. And she threw us out. That doesn’t really have anyting to do with shooting the film.
Maybe we should have another drink.
Wyatt: You may be right.