Got a little bit more sleep Tuesday night, so that I woke up on Wednesday ready to do (well, maybe not exactly totally ready) six hours of press before the first public screening of the film.
Generally, I like doing press, although doing so much in succession can be exhausting, particularly when you are already jetlagged and sleep deprived. But this was the first time I did so much press in another country, where I had an interpreter with me at times and where I faced a line-up of 25-30 photographers all screaming for me to "look over here, AJ" or "give us a wave AJ".
I think that the look on my face for most of the photos is likely to be bemused confusion, or "what the hell is this all about". I remarked to one of my festival hopes that I hoped that no one thought they'd be able to sell those pictures for any amount of money. But it was a striking reminder that Europeans take directors a bit more seriously than do their American counterparts. Whether or not this is a good thing is, I suppose, up for debate.
One nice thing about doing press is that you get a pretty good sense of how people are reacting to the film. Because About A Son is a different kind of film about a rock musician, I'm always interested in what people take away from it. One journalist was very about how I thought Kurt's daughter Frances would respond to the film (I said that I had no idea but that I hoped she would see it one day). One journalist and I got into a lengthy conversation about "subjective truth in documentary filmmaking", for instance, if Kurt says something in the film that isn't entirely true, is it still part of the larger truth about who Kurt was? (We also talked about Robert McNamara in Errol Morris' Fog of War.)
Then, after a short break for some dinner - there were two temporary, onsite restaurants by one of the top chefs in Rome as well as numerous cafes and bars (did I mention this was a perfect venue for a film festival?) - I met up with my host, Sergio Fant, and walked the red carpet in for the premiere.
Every single film had its first screening at the Auditorium Parco Della Musical, and each attending filmmaker and cast walked the length of the massive red carpet, posed for photographs at the end (more of me with a stunned and bewildered look on my face) and finally entered the theatre for their premiere. My own walk down the red carpet was much, much more subdued than the ones on previous nights for Nicole Kidman, Leonardo diCaprio and Monica Bellucci (thank God).
Our film was to screen at 11 PM, which is a bit later then I like the movie to play - it seems to give people the impression of a really rocking flick, when it reality it is purposeful and meditative. The theater itself was pretty big - 700 seats - and we had sold out (no mean feat, this, as the biggest problem at the festival seemed to center on inability to buy tickets the day of a screening, which led to many films being half full or less, even as people were still clamoring to get in). This didn't mean that the theater was totally packed - they apparently hold back about a hundred tickets for VIPs - but it did mean more than 600 people and our largest screening to date.
Because of the late hour, Sergio asked me to give an introduction to the film and talk about its three main elements - voice (Kurt's), music (none from Nirvana but instead from the bands Kurt loved) and visuals (the places where Kurt lived in Washington state). I tried to give a sense of the style and tone of the film so that the audience would be somewhat aware of what they were in for. I'm well aware that if someone walks in expecting a typical, archive-filled rock doc that they are likely to be disappointed. And for some, that's likely what happened, as we had about 30 people leave during the first act with confused looks on their faces.
As I watched the film, I wondered how people were reacting to listening to Kurt's voice, looking at the visuals and simultaneously reading the subtitles. But they seemed to do just fine, and in fact laughed in places where the audiences in Toronto did not.
Sergio had told me before the screening that we would not do a Q&A since it would be nearly 1 AM when the film ended and people would feel bad about not staying. But as the credits rolled, only about 100 people got up to leave, with the rest remaining in their seats. We told them that we would answer some questions if they had them, but understood if they wanted to go home and get some sleep. Not many left. So we ended up doing a 45-minute Q&A that continued out into the plaza after the film ended.
Sergio translated many of the questions for me, which was great, because people were really talking about their feelings in watching the film. One man asked, in Italian, about the contradictions in the film, that I had shown both that Kurt was conflicted, but also that he was both a good guy and a bad guy in the film. I responded, in English, that I wanted to do that both because it was true, but also that I didn't want to life him up higher but show that he did have flaws and beautiful things about him and to reveal his humanity. The man responded by exclaiming, again in Italian, "you have succeeded! Bravo!" And the audience broke out in applause. It was wonderful and, to my jetlagged, exhausted brain, somewhat surreal.
All of the questions were so thoughtful and interesting. One asked why I didn't use any Sonic Youth or Pixies music (Sonic Youth was involved in Last Days and the Pixies was just one of those bad timing things). One asked why I wrote that Kurt had committed suicide when there is debate on that (I said that listening to the tapes, I felt that suicide was the reasonable conclusion and that I hoped the film did a good job in demonstrating that). One said, "This is not an American film, this is a European film. How did you do that?" Another said that she wanted to go home and listen to Nirvana, but that listening to Kurt's voice, she felt like she hadn't felt since she heard him the first time - angry, passionate, wanting to change the world. A girl told me that she loved that we respected his speaking voice, that we didn't try to overwhelm it with Nirvana's music or harsh, quick-cut visuals. Most wanted to know if we would play theatres in Italy.
Then, a few days later, I got this letter from Francesca, who had been in the audience that night:
I was one from the lucky viewers of your About a Son, at the Festa interanzionale del cinema di Roma. I feel really grateful to you for this chance to see those places and, overall, his voice. I read his journals, thence most of what Kurt was saying in your documentary I had just known, but having the chance to listen to these things directly from him… I think it’s a unique and precious gift from his interviewer and you.
Your work reminds me of the birth of cinema – people could travel, see and know the life on the other end of the world only by paying few coins. About a Son lets me know the places where Kurt lived, even the “animal contest” where he was bound to be “forged”.
Probably, what I’m going to say sounds odd, but most of the people I know still thinks that USA is a place where there are wonderful suburbs with green, well-cut front gardens, sun-shining over a proud flag, neat highways from block to block. People are rich, that’s why they are opulently fat. They are always waving and smiling to the neighbourhood, always running after power and success, though sometimes they end up loosing control, making a slaughter or decide to show their muscles to other nations through endless wars.
How simple is to reduce the importance of Kurt Cobain figure, a puppet who couldn’t afford success, the spoilt son of a loving society!
Kurt is not only a pretty face of the void star-system who wanted to give death a young and handsome body. Showing those places, you show an essential part of the roots of his frustration, annihilation, and rage.
More than one scene really touched me. The last oasis of huge pine-trees was interchangeable with smoking chimneys of wood factories, the grey light which covered the sad river cutting in two Abardeen, the hills of rubbish just in the front-garden, the library without any reproduction of the Arts, but only anatomic corpses hung on the walls staring dumb at the readers, the bare yard in front of the sawmill where he spent his “happy” weekends with his divorced father.
The song he used to repeat and repeat on the car-radio was the number 8 of “News from the World” by Queen, as I heard. But it should be “Sleeping on the sidewalk” – one of my favourites too! – and not the number 10, that was playing on the score, “Too late”. Why?
The faces of the people along “About a Son” were humble, simple, distant miles away from the stereotype TV stars – directing has always something personal and subjective, as when after a walk down the street you only recall those faces according to your mood. Well, was it the same for your aesthetic choice? I mean, you did a premeditated selection to let understand those places atmosphere or not?
I really appreciate the animation part which melt with the landscape. Those images remind me Kurt’s drawings. What he used to tell about being the lost child of an alien nation, well, it was not only like my own mad thoughts, but like those of Francois Truffaut, Terence Stamp and, lately, John Frusciante. “About a Son” makes me feel a little bit less alone in this world.
Thank you. And really, thanks to Sergio Fant (pictured below) and everyone who I met and talked with in Roma. I really had an amazing experience, and it was so wonderful to share the film with you in the city where Kurt performed live for the final time.
I really think that what the festival in Rome has a bright future. Much of the lead-up was focused on the feud with the Venice Film Festival, but I hope that in its aftermath, everyone will realize - filmmakers, distributors and festival veterans alike - that there is room for a festival like this, and that Rome, with its venues and community support, is well positioned to grow into being that festival.
For myself, I'm so happy that we had our international premiere there and I'm looking forward to our US premiere next weekend in Los Angeles.