Sticks And Songs: AJ Schnack Talks About His They Might Be Giants Doc, “Gigantic”
by Jason Guerrasio
Known for their wacky live performances and bizarre songs, They Might Be Giants (John Flansburgh and John Linnell) have built a reputation as the quintessential independent alternative rock band since arriving on the East Village performance-art scene in the early ’80s. They became college radio fixtures, and are now known for writing and performing the opening themes for TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
From their famous promotional tool dial-a-song, the crazy props they use on stage, and the ingenious way they’ve used the internet to sell and promote their albums, TBMG are revealed in AJ Schnack’s documentary “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns.” A big hit on the festival circuit for the band’s fans and curious film buffs alike, the film is now in theaters from Cowboy Pictures (with a DVD to follow from Plexifilm).
AJ Schnack talked to indieWIRE contributor Jason Guerrasio about spending time with the very private two Johns, how September 11 played a part in the doc’s production, and how TMBG fans gave him the inspiration to make the film.
indieWIRE: How’d the project come about? Did you know TMBG?
AJ Schnack: I’ve known John Flansburgh for a number of years, we were doing music videos together but I never thought about doing anything about them on this sort of scale. I had done a short film and had gotten psyched about doing a longer project. I went to go see one of their shows and it just struck me that they would make a good topic for a documentary.
iW: Did you just approach them and ask if they wanted to do it?
Schnack: I went out to dinner with Flansburgh and we were having drinks and I asked if they’d be interested. I think he thought I was drunk or something, but I was persistent about it for a couple of weeks and they said yes. We started production right away.
iW: How long was production?
Schnack: We started shooting in March 2001 and shot for six and a half months and then spent another six months editing and then debuted last spring at South by Southwest.
iW: It was eerie to see the footage when the band played at the Tower Records store on September 10, 2001.
Schnack: One of the chronologies in the film was the making of their new album that was going to come out on September 11 and we were going to shoot up until the record release party the night before. It just ended up that the date had a lot more resonance in other ways than just the fact that their album was going to come out the next day. It did come out on the 11th, but clearly it wasn’t the most important thing happening that day. We were never going to shoot on September 11 — we were just going to shoot at that Tower Records store the night before — but it’s still an emotional moment.
iW: Did any music docs from the past inspire you to make this, or did any of them influence the way you shot it?
Schnack: The Giants do this thing with the genre where they want to tackle everything, they’ll do polka, and then they’ll do this very Burt Bacharach-y song and then they’ll do something else entirely different. So I thought that we should sample from all kinds of rockumentaries. We really didn’t use any one as a guide but used of all of them from the cinema verité style of Pennebaker to the comedy elements of “Spinal Tap.”
iW: Did you feel any pressure, this being your first feature?
Schnack: I didn’t feel a lot of pressure; I’ve done tons of production in the past in different roles either as a producer or executive producer so I wasn’t really intimidated or fearful of it. I knew what I wanted to do with it so it was mostly fun, it only got a little overwhelming in the editing process because my short film was a narrative and I’ve never really been in a position before of having to craft a documentary and clearly editing is one of the most daunting tasks involved.
iW: Did anything come up during filming that you weren’t prepared for, or anything that just took you by surprise?
Schnack: It was fairly straightforward. I was pleasantly surprised that things I planned for and hoped would work ended up succeeding in terms of people we were able to get interviews with and the stories they told. I felt once we started editing that the stuff we had shot, we had been really fortunate.
iW: How did the idea of putting in animation come about?
Schnack: That was one of the things that were there from the beginning. All the things that were stylistically different — whether the lyric readings or the animation — those things were in my initial proposal that I gave to the band.
iW: What kind of influence did TMBG have on the production of the film?
Schnack: I gave them an initial proposal before we started shooting and then that was pretty much it. We talked a little bit before we staged the concert in Brooklyn about what songs I needed them to perform but other than that they were exceptionally hands-off and very generous to let me do what I wanted to do.
iW: Was there ever a time when the guys didn’t want the cameras around?
Schnack: When I went on tour with them it was pretty much free reign. I think there was one time that Linnell was sick and I was shooting him sitting and he was like, “OK, I think you have enough of me being sick,” but that was it. They were never like, “No you can’t use this,” or “No you can’t come to this thing,” but I think they knew it was never intended to be an expose. It was more to say, here’s a band that in my opinion has done this incredible thing which is to be truly independent for a long stretch of time. I can’t think of a lot of people who do what they do and yet they’re successful and able to keep doing it and support themselves.
iW: Are they with a label now?
Schnack: Everything seems to be a one off in some ways. Their album “Mink Car” came out on Restless and “No!”, their children’s record, came out on Rounder. Rhino just put a box set out of their stuff (“Dial-A-Song: 20 Years Of They Might Be Giants”). They do a deal with different labels at different times. So I guess you have to start with “R” or they don’t want to work with you.
iW: Were you amazed by how loyal their fans are?
Schnack: I liked the Giants back in college and then when I had become friends with Flansburgh it became more like, “Oh my friend is in this band and I like them and I listen to them occasionally,” but I was not a fanatic fan. So one of the things that gave me the idea was when I went to their show and the crowd seemed to be relatively young, a lot of early 20s and late teens, and they knew the words to every song. They knew dances to videos that I’m sure they never saw on MTV because the last time MTV played their videos was probably a decade ago. That was really amazing to me. At that time they didn’t have an album out, they’re not on MTV, they aren’t on radio stations and yet here’s this sold-out crowd of kids who are really into them in a way beyond how I’m into them so how did that happen?
iW: Tell me the purpose of dial-a-song.
Schnack: From their standpoint, originally it was a way to let people know about the band. It was this mysterious performance art way to promote the band. They’ve just kept it up through the years — now it can take an hour to get through because so many people call it. I think now it’s just a way to keep connected to their fans; it’s a window into their creative process. So many people will do it now on the Internet: someone will make a movie and keep a filmmaker’s diary on their website. This is their old-school way of saying, “Hey we just wrote this song, check it out.” That song may never appear in any other form, it may never be on an album and it may not even be good. I think it’s another way to encourage them to not censor themselves.
iW: Did anything surprise you about them while filming?
Schnack: I didn’t know until I started the research all of the stuff about their background in the East Village performance-art clubs and I think that explains them a lot. I think that the idea that they’re performance artists at heart explains why they have these dark themes and why they do things that are at times obscure or really interesting.
iW: Like the big stick?
Schnack: Yeah exactly. That was something that made things a lot clearer to me when I knew about the performance art.
iW: What did they think of the film?
Schnack: They didn’t see the finished film until a week before it premiered at South by Southwest so they were very trusting. I think they were surprised that it was a lot about their own relationship and how they work together. I think they were pleasantly surprised that that came through.
iW: Are you surprised by the success the film has had at festivals?
Schnack: I really loved the festival experiences that I had. I think that one of the really great things is being around other filmmakers. I feel like a part of a community of other filmmakers. As far as the reactions to the film, I think the thing that surprised me the most was that we haven’t yet gone to a town where we haven’t had a lot of people show up. We thought we’d do well in New York or maybe we’d do well on the East Coast, but we’ve had sell out crowds in Arkansas, Seattle, Florida. The response is from fans and also people who really don’t know TMBG but who get the idea of independent artists.
iW: Did anyone ever approach TMBG before to do a doc; they’ve been around for so long they must have gotten the offer before?
Schnack: It’s funny because no one had. It’s one of those ideas where you think, “Hey that would be a good idea” and then six months later you see someone else doing it. That’s what I felt would have happened if I hadn’t talked to them that week. I would have gotten a phone call in four months from them saying, “Yeah we’re doing this documentary and this director needs to interview you.”
iW: What are you working on next?
Schnack: We want to put out a very fine DVD product as well. There’s a lot of really good stuff that we weren’t able to put into the documentary and longer pieces, the concert we shot was a four-hour concert, there’s a lot of footage that can be incorporated with that.