Interview with Director AJ Schnack:
How did this project get started?
I met Michael Azerrad when I interviewed him for my last film, “Gigantic”. Some time after that, we were both at a dinner and got to talking about Kurt and Michael’s time writing the Nirvana book. And Michael told me that he had all these hours of interviews – and that he hadn’t listened to them since Kurt died, but he’d like to find a project in which they could be used. He’d actually been approached a number of times before but had always turned people down.
My first thought was, “wow, I’d love to hear those tapes. I wonder how can I get Michael to let me listen to them.” But pretty soon after that, the idea for this film came into my head. I actually waited a little while to ask him. I wanted him to see “Gigantic” first and make sure that he liked it. It turned out that the idea that I had for the film was similar to something that was gestating in Michael’s mind, so there was a bit of synchronicity.
Michael was obviously pretty knowledgeable of the contents of the audio tapes, but was there anything specific you were looking for the first time you heard them?
I had a feeling that they would be pretty great, but I wasn’t really prepared for how revealing and intimate they were. Or the fact that most of the tapes were really these conversations between the two of them, not formal question and answer interviews.
I remember the first time I heard any of the tapes, I went over to Michael’s apartment in New York and he put one of the cassettes in and right away I was totally swept up in it. Not just the excitement of actually hearing from Kurt, but the fact that he was so multi-dimensional. Within the first ten minutes he was really funny, really smart, really delusional, really paranoid, a whole person. And he was talking about his drug use and Krist and Courtney in ways that I’d never heard. I was convinced that Michael had pulled the very best tape from the collection, just to knock me off my feet. Later, when I mentioned this to him, he said, “oh, no I just grabbed the one that was on top.”
And that was true. They were all like that.
How do you go from making a documentary like “Gigantic” to something like this, which is less traditional in the “someone talks about an event or person, here’s footage” type of documentary?
Well, I think on “Gigantic” I had been trying to do something that was a little different, in that I tried to incorporate a bunch of different stylistic forms of nonfiction filmmaking, similar to how I felt They Might Be Giants could incorporate different musical styles. But ultimately “Gigantic” was an oral history, with lots of interviews, and so the tinkering on that was mostly in the margins.
On this project, making the decision to focus on a single source – Michael’s audio interviews with Kurt – opened up a bunch of possibilities, which surprised me a bit. In a way, it’s similar to Matthew Barney’s work or that Von Trier film “The Five Obstructions” in that within constraint you find freedom. And while the constraint here to only use the Kurt interview, no interviews from friends, colleagues or other sources, was a decision that I made consciously, the decisions that flowed from that – shooting on film entirely in Washington state, using music by artists that Kurt loved, not utilizing a lot of stock or archival materials – were both organic and sometimes surprising.
But I think if there are similarities between the two films, it’s in a desire to push the form somehow, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in large ways.
Speaking of pushing the boundaries, it was a bold choice not to show Kurt until the end of the film, to allow the audience to build a picture of Kurt from the audio as opposed to via the perspective we already had from the years on MTV. The contrast is shocking, even down to the sound of his voice. Do you think fans or audiences are ready for what is going to be a very different view of this icon?
I think it depends on what people are looking for. If they want a more traditional rock doc, something that is big and loud and has Kurt’s grade school pictures, then they might be disappointed. But I felt like hearing his voice throughout a film was such a new experience. I mean, I think you are right that the sound of his voice, his speaking voice is almost shocking. You realize that you are not that familiar with it, unlike say John Lennon or Elvis or Dylan.
Beyond that, hearing Kurt’s voice is so intimate that I think you forget that these conversations are more than a decade old and sometimes you forget that he’s dead. And I felt that adding lots of pictures or archival video would remind you – oh yeah, I was in college when I saw that. Or, wow, look at everyone in their flannel, that’s so early 1990s. So part of the decision was to not break the spell of listening.
But also, I just felt like everything has been built up so much with Kurt, particularly the violent end of his life, that the humanity of him has been lost or nearly lost. I thought that maybe by having the audience focus on the voice and to see and hear the world through his eyes and ears, that at the end of the film, when you see his face for the first time, you could fill it with everything that you experienced in the previous 90 minutes. And hopefully that is a more direct and honest view of the person.
Has Courtney or anyone from Nirvana seen the film?
To date, neither Courtney, Krist or Dave have seen it, but we tried to keep them all aware of the project, to let them know what the film was.
What about other friends? How has it been received by those that knew Kurt?
People who were close to Kurt seem to be happy and a bit relieved when they hear about the film. I can’t tell you the number of people whose reaction is, thank God it’s just Kurt and not the same folks telling the same stories, trying to put Kurt in some kind of context. Of course, Michael, Charles Peterson (our still photographer) and Steve Fisk (our co-composer) all knew Kurt and I think that their feeling is that this was the right project for them to give their heart and soul to. I know they feel they did right by their friend by doing this, which is wonderful for me, since I never met him.
Do you think about, or even remotely concern yourself with, the conspiracy theorists who are going to watch this movie waiting for an off-hand negative comment about Courtney or Dave and Krist so they can further their own agenda?
It’s hard to say, because I think for some people, they need for there to be a certain story that needs validating. It’s a little weird for me since I don’t know any of them (Courtney, Krist or Dave), so I am totally directed by the things that Kurt says. Maybe that will or won’t confirm someone’s previously held beliefs, but regardless I think it reflects a level of truth in that it’s Kurt’s truth. You can choose to agree or disagree with him. All I can hope is that people will at least feel he’s on the record.
I do hope that by hearing from Kurt directly, the film helps clear away some of the conspiracy theories, mostly because I think they do a lot of damage to the person he was. I hope we can bring some honesty to that, but ultimately these things tend to have a life of their own.
The soundtrack of influences is amazing, as is the original score. Where did you come up with the idea to go with musical influences instead of Kurt’s own music?
My idea from the start was to use music by bands that Kurt loved, mostly inspired by Kurt’s own well-known name checking and t-shirt wearing of other artists, but also because one of Kurt’s triumphs as a musician was in taking his influences and incorporating them into his own work yet still making them fresh and not derivative. I thought that if I could get a bunch of those songs, it would be one of the most amazing soundtracks, and I still can’t believe that so many artists agreed to let us use their songs. Says a lot about how they feel about Kurt, and also about Michael.
The other musical element was that I wanted to have a score that basically ran the entire length of the film. This was inspired by Philip Glass’ score work for Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi” films, which was also a huge inspiration visually.
There was consideration of using a single Nirvana track and having it play at the end of the film under Kurt’s photographs, but emotionally it felt really wrong. The end of the film is a quiet, almost lonely moment, it’s really fragile and hearing them at that point really toppled the balance. Steve and Ben wrote a piece of score that was much more perfect for that particular moment.
I do hope that people go home and put on a Nirvana record when they get home, preferably “In Utero,” as he was recording that when these conversations took place. That would make me happy.
Steve Fisk and Ben Gibbard did a great job composing the score, and the fact that they are Pacific Northwest musicians really brings a nice touch to the film. How did they come to be involved? Were you pushing for one over the other?
I actually couldn’t decide between the two of them at all and I was kind of leaving it down to meeting them and seeing how we related to each other. I thought that there was something nice about each of them individually – Steve being the Northwest veteran, someone who produced for Nirvana, as well as being a talented musician in his own right, and Ben being someone who makes music that I thought could lend itself to a film score as well as being in a position of knowing what it’s like to go from being a kid who dreams of going to Seattle to see shows and ends up becoming a huge star.
Anyway, I resolved that I would tell both of them that I hadn’t decided between the two, and it just so happened that I met with Ben first and his response was, “why don’t Steve and I do it together,” which just made sense immediately. Then I just knew I’d have to convince Steve that it was a good idea.
Ultimately, I can’t imagine it having worked in any other way, and you’re right, I think they’ve written a score that brings a level of beauty and sorrow and fun to the film that is immeasurable.
At the end of the day, who was Kurt Cobain to you?
I always had this idea of Kurt being a kid from a small town who played in a band that may have been like any number of other bands at the time and for whatever reason, and against almost incalculable odds, ended up being the biggest rock star in the world. And I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to Gibby Haynes or Bob Mould or Mac McCaughan if it had been them. So I always looked at him as this kind of extraordinary ordinary guy and I tried to let that influence the way I made this film, to always remember that, in some ways, he’s just this kid from Aberdeen.
But I think the thing that I am left with is this is not a cartoon character or a one-dimensional portrait. A friend of mine who saw the film said that the thing he took away was being surprised that you feel compassionate toward Kurt, but that you also are struck that he could be an asshole. It reminded him of older rock films which were less praising and more willing to let their protagonists show their flaws. And I guess that fits into my desire that people see him as a whole human being, or as he said to Michael Azerrad – “the whole truth is the best truth.”
What other projects do you have coming up?
In nonfiction, I’d really like to continue to explore the use of single source narratives and I have a couple of subjects in mind. The exciting thing for me in nonfiction work is that it seems like a time when the rules have sort of been thrown out, that you really can push the form in new ways.
I’ve also been working more on narrative projects, doing some short form stuff with people that I know. I’d like to do more of this in the next few years. Maybe even find ways to bridge the gap between narrative and nonfiction.
Plus, there’s my blog “All these wonderful things,” where I write about a lot of stuff, but mostly focus on nonfiction film. I’d like to keep doing that and maybe find a way to expand beyond a simple blog format.
Mostly, I’d like to do something else with the folks I worked with on this Cobain project. It’s been such an amazingly rewarding creative experience, I would like to keep it going.
Read more about the production of “Kurt Cobain About a Son” as we talk to co-composer, and Pacific Northwest musical mainstay, Steve Fisk in Part Three of Michael, AJ and Steve: About a Doc>>>