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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” Director AJ Schnack

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Kurt Cobain: About a Son" Director AJ Schnack

Director AJ Schnack‘s doc “Kurt Cobain: About a Son” is probably the closest thing to an autobiography by the former Nirvana lead singer as possible. The film draws upon a series of audiotaped conversations between Cobain and music writer Michael Azerrad over 1992 and 1993, recorded for Azerrad’s book “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana.” Just one year later, Cobain had killed himself. The film utilizes these recordings while artfully displaying Cobain’s upbringing in Washington State. Balcony Releasing opens “About a Son” beginning Wednesday, October 3 at IFC Center in New York followed by further roll outs.

Please introduce yourself…

I grew up in Edwardsville, Illnois, a small college town just outside of St. Louis. My parents were school teachers and summer camp counselors. I went to the University of Missouri for journalism school and worked for a bit as a reporter/anchor at the NBC affiliate there (which the school owned and operated). I realized in this context that trying to tell interesting, complicated stories in “sexy” 75-second TV news packages was not something I was going to enjoy so I moved to Los Angeles to pursue film.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I was always interested in being a filmmaker, but the sense of it when I was younger was that there wasn’t a clearly defined path. It’s not like we knew other filmmakers that we could ask for tips. It seemed very foreign. But the desire of storytelling, both in written and visual forms, was always present, thus the side journey into journalism. Once I had been in Los Angeles for a while, and had weathered a torturous stint work on television game shows, I got involved with music videos, and somewhat quickly, I was starting a music video division at a commercial production company. For the next seven years, I worked with a number of different directors as an executive producer at Bonfire Films, the company I started with my partner Shirley Moyers. At the end of that time period, I was ready to focus on my own projects, which is something that I always intended, but it was great to have that time learning by watching other filmmakers learn their craft.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

In addition to the projects I want to direct, I’d actually like to do more producing and executive producing. I’m EPing a documentary about the legendary singer Andre Williams right now. That process of working with other filmmakers was something that I really liked about my old music video days and it’s important to me, that sense of building a community.

“Kurt Cobain About a Son” director AJ Schnack (center) with Sidetrack Films’ Jared Moshe and producer Shirley Moyers at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival party for their film. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Please discuss how the idea for “Kurt Cobain: About a Son came about.”

When I was making my first film, “Gigantic (A Tale Of Two Johns),” I met the music journalist Michael Azerrad. He was profiling [the band] They Might Be Giants for the New Yorker and I interviewed him for my film. Later, we were at a dinner together and I asked him about his time with Kurt. Michael had written the book “Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana” and had interviewed Kurt at length about a year before he died. Michael told me that he had hours and hours of audiotaped interviews with Kurt. Knowing Michael’s book, I knew that these conversations were the most complete and intimate interviews that Kurt ever gave and were an important cultural document. About a year later, I approached Michael about making a film from his tapes.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film as well as your overall goals for the project?

Well, one of my favorite nonfiction films is Godfrey Reggio‘s “Koyaanisqatsi” and I’ve long wanted to do something in nonfiction that has the visual resonance that that film has. But I also wanted to take it in a different direction by creating a narrative within that visual framework, and when I started thinking about these audio-only interviews and Kurt’s story in particular, it seemed the right approach.

One of the reasons I was interested in doing a film about Kurt was because my then-13-year old nephew was starting to get interested in him and in Nirvana and I realized that for him, Kurt was always going to be this guy who was clouded by controversies of heroin addiction, a famous wife, endless speculations and conspiracy theories of his death. And I thought about this and it seemed almost bizarre that the Kurt Cobain all of us were introduced to had none of these things hanging from him. So the idea of stripping away everything that the audience could hold on to–the flannel, the cardigans, the performance footage, the bad early ’90s videotape archival footage–became very important to me. And this kind of visual imagery–the actual places where the man lived, his homes, the places he worked, went to school, played shows–the landscapes of nature and architecture and of human faces, seeing the world that Kurt saw, became an important way of re-introducing the audience to someone that they think they already know.

Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

As someone who is working squarely in the long tradition of films about music and musicians, I can’t help but be influenced by those who’ve returned to the form again and again, among them DA Pennebaker, the Maysles, Penelope Spheeris, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. But also, my contemporaries, people like Doug Pray and Grant Gee who seek to expand the nonfiction form. For this project, Reggio obviously, but also Gus Van Sant (particularly “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho”) and the photographers William Eggleston, Nan Goldin, Edmund Teske and Aberdeen, Washington native Lee Friedlander.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

I have a few more music films in me that I really want to do. Actually, I’d like to deal with music now and again for the rest of my career. But there are some other films that deal with more political and social topics that I have in mind, but I’d like to continue to work in non-tradition forms.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

Well, one thing that’s changed drastically since when I did “Gigantic” is that the number of distribution companies has shrunk. It was actually more difficult to get distribution for a film about Kurt Cobain than it was for a film about They Might Be Giants, which says something about the state of the industry, I think. I also think that aside from the bubble of success that occured for documentaries between 2003 and 2006, distributors are less sure now as to what will work and what won’t. Take “Helvetica” for example. When I was in New York last week during the IFP Market, people were talking about the amazing business this doc about a font did at the IFC Center and more than one person said to me, “you just never know.”

And I think the fact that (“Helvetica” director) Gary (Hustwit) actually turned down at least one distribution offer to go the self-distribution route was a very important part of that story. He knew who his audience was and he was convinced he could reach that audience better than a distributor could. I don’t know yet whether that’s a model for the future, in part because it’s still so difficult to book theatres, but with more filmmakers raised on a DIY model, it’s probably something that we will see more of.

I guess that’s the sort of thing that feels like independent film to me today. When you’ve got a ragtag crew like we have on “About A Son”–a production company in New York, a husband-wife filmmaking team in Los Angeles, a mom-and-pop distribution company in Massachuesetts and an indie record label in Seattle–all trying to get a movie to as many theaters in as many cities as we possibly can, on a (very) limited budget, while we get emails from kids asking us to please, please get the movie to Boise or to Fort Myers or to Ann Arbor. That’s pretty indie.

What are some of your all-time favorite films as well as some of your recent favorite films?

Aside from “KoyaanIwqatsi and the obvious touchstones of “Gimme Shelter,” “Don’t Look Back,” and “Stop Making Sense,” I’m a big fan of Hitchcock, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman.

Recently, I’ve loved “Billy the Kid,” “The Monastery,” “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)” and I still can’t get over Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy.”

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

My ability to open a wine bottle with a very large, very sharp knife at IDFA last year without injuring myself or others remains a point of pride. Also, my performance of Sham 69’s When the Kids Are United at BritDoc this summer was a highpoint of a very long festival run. On everything else, I’m still learning.

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