Wrapping up our series of Q&A's with DocuWeek filmmakers - thanks again to the IDA for their permission in reprinting these here (they are also available on the IDA website) - is a back and forth between Tom White and yours truly regarding my new film, KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON, which opens in theatres in early October.
Synopsis: Kurt Cobain About a Son is an intimate and moving portrait of the late musician and artist Kurt Cobain told entirely in his own voice--without celebrity sound bites, news clips, sensational tabloid angles or attempts to mimic a grunge aesthetic. Instead, filmmaker AJ Schnack has created something closer to an autobiography of Cobain--his successes and failures, thoughts and experiences, allowing the audience unprecedented intimacy with a legendary figure in popular culture.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
AJ Schnack: I studied broadcast journalism in college and worked briefly at a TV station as a reporter/anchor, but quickly found out that I wasn't interested in trying to sum up complex stories in "sexy" 90-second packages. Nor was I particularly interested in the TV news view of "unbiased"--finding one person on each "side" of a story to give their perspective.
When I finally decided to make my first nonfiction feature--Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), about the NYC alt-pop band They Might Be Giants--I was drawn to the idea that they had a lot to say about what it is to be a DIY (do-it-yourself) artist, to sometimes work within corporate structures and to sometimes explore new technologies as a way to get your art to an audience.
IDA: What inspired you to make Kurt Cobain About a Son?
AJS: Kurt was a year older than me, and I think one of the reasons that he made such an impact on so many of us (and continues to do so today) is because of his willingness to talk openly, sometimes angrily, about the social changes of the '70s and '80s and how they affected our generation. I view him as one of the most important social and cultural figures of the late 20th century because of his raw social commentary--the way in which he talked about violence, divorce, addiction, changing gender roles and the homogenization of the small town.
I knew that the audio interviews that inspired this film were the most complete and intimate interviews that Kurt ever did. And I knew that they were a window onto a young man (he was 25 for most of the interviews) trying to decipher the world around him in the midst of almost crushing world fame.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
AJS: The biggest challenge was the scale of our shoot. We shot on film in a great many of the locations that were central to Kurt's life--places he lived, his high school, places he worked, his record label, the mill where his father worked. I have to give total credit to my producer/partner Shirley Moyers, who not only had to convince people to let us shoot in their homes and places of business (people who were, quite rightly, protective of Kurt's legacy and suspicious of filmmakers coming in) and then to coordinate a schedule and a crew that would allow for shooting in six or seven locations per day, over the course of three weeks. I also have to credit my cinematographer Wyatt Troll and his crew for adapting to this "structured guerilla" style of shooting.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
AJS: I'm actually pretty surprised that the film has changed so little from my initial proposal. Even though I tend to be a structuralist in terms of nonfiction filmmaking, I also think that this was one of those rare cases when you know your material going in, and once I'd made the decision to only use this set of audio interviews and to shoot in this style, there was a certain sense of carrying out a structured plan. What changed was the locations that we shot in--finding out that a certain post office was the place where Kurt bought heroin or that a certain beach was the place where everyone would go to hang out. That and having some elements of the shooting be completely unplanned, such as the portraiture shots of people on the street.
IDA: As you've screened Kurt Cobain About A Son--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
AJS: We've had a wide range of reactions, from people who are very emotionally affected by the film to people who are confused that there aren't a lot of pictures of Kurt or interviews with his cousins. I think that the thing that I've been gratified by is the response from people with a strong sense of documentary history. They see the film in a context that I think casual viewers, or audiences expecting a typical rags-to-riches rock doc, might miss.
I tend to find almost everything about this process unexpected, but I guess I'm most surprised by the long, slow build the film has had. We premiered at Toronto last fall where, candidly, some of the folks didn't quite know what to make of it. I think the thought was that we were going to be this big rock star movie, and instead we're this meditative "death poem." But as we've traveled along the past year, playing a lot of film festivals and moving away from initial pre-conceived notions, people are constantly "discovering" the film. And that's a strange, wonderful thing.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
AJS: This is an almost impossible question for me to answer with any kind of brevity. I'm obviously inspired by the folks who make films about music and musicians, particularly DA Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Penelope Spheeris, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and Barbara Kopple. And on this particular film, I'm deeply inspired by the work of Godfrey Reggio and his Qatsi series.
But I'm also incredibly inspired by my contemporaries, the folks I run into at film festivals and whose work constantly impresses and motivates. While I could write an even longer list, I'll single out some of my favorite films of this year: Pernilla Rose Grønkjær's The Monastery--Mr. Vig and the Nun, Jennifer Venditti's Billy the Kid, Jason Kohn's Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) and Jessica Yu's Protagonist. I'm also damn impressed by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern and their back-to-back The Trials of Darryl Hunt and The Devil Came on Horseback. I'm honored to be a part of a community that includes these and so many other filmmakers.
Kurt Cobain About A Son is screening at the ArcLight Hollywood.