In December of 1992, writer Michael Azerrad began a series of interviews with Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain that would form the basis of Azerrad’s book on the band, “Come as You Are: the Story of Nirvana.” During the interviews, most conducted at Kurt’s home by Lake Washington during the late evening hours on until the morning, Azerrad and Cobain talked about everything from Kurt’s youth to his drug abuse to his outlook on life. Honest, revealing and all times human, the audio presented a picture that was more man than icon. Most important, it was a record of Kurt being Kurt, in his own voice. A voice that was silenced when he took his own life in April 1994.
Now, 13 years after the final interview was conducted, Michael Azerrad has re-visited the conversations on the tapes, co-creating a documentary with filmmaker AJ Schnack entitled “Kurt Cobain About a Son.” The film is, in the strictest sense, entirely the words of Kurt Cobain. While imagery of Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle rush by on the screen, it’s Kurt’s spoken words that do all the storytelling, elevated by a soundtrack featuring songs by his musical influences (from Queen to the Bad Brains), and a gorgeous score composed by Pacific Northwest musical heavyweights Steve Fisk (Pigeonhed, Pell Mell) and Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie, Postal Service).
During the film’s festival run, producer Michael Azerrad, director AJ Schnack and co-composer Steve Fisk took the time to talk to Film Threat about the genesis of the project, who Kurt Cobain ultimately was to them and the final humanizing of an icon.
Interview with Producer Michael Azerrad:
After writing the book, did you ever think you’d pull the audio tapes out again? What made you think of making a film with them?
Those tapes are very special, and it would have been very naive of me to think nothing would ever happen with them again. A few years after Kurt died, and I could look at the whole experience with a little objectivity, I had this idea to use the tapes in a movie that had ambient cinematography and ambient music, so people could sit in the dark and watch open-ended imagery while listening to Kurt speak directly to them. I got to be friendly with AJ after I appeared in “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns,” his excellent, innovative documentary on They Might Be Giants, and one day we had lunch and I mentioned the tapes, mostly just to see how he’d react — maybe he’d be a good director for the movie. He was very excited about them and a couple of weeks later he pitched me an idea for a film using the tapes, and it was identical to what I’d always envisioned. The time was right, too — after all those years of mythologizing, Kurt really needed some humanizing. AJ is an extremely thoughtful, sensitive person, and I knew the project was in good hands. So we went ahead and did the film.
It’s also worth noting that some other really special people believed in the unique approach of this movie. The truly legendary photographer Charles Peterson helped invent the Seattle scene; he’s a very discerning and skeptical guy, and he thought enough of this project to participate in it. So did Steve Fisk, whose Northwest underground music credentials are deep, long and vast; he collaborated on the score with Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie. And Kurt’s close friend Mark Lanegan, who, as far as I know, hasn’t had anything to do with anything Nirvana- or Kurt-related since Kurt died, graciously allowed us to use one of his songs. I can safely speak for AJ and say that we are both deeply honored by the trust those people had in what we were doing.
How many hours of tape was there? Did you have an idea or memory of certain conversations you felt would work for the film, or was it a complete re-discovery of the audio?
There are 25 hours of interviews. AJ and I both had the same feeling, that the dialogue should feature Kurt’s perspectives on his life, his generation, and his music, rather than nuts-and-bolts biographical data. I hadn’t listened to the tapes for over ten years, but since I’d transcribed them myself and then written a book based on the quotations, I still recalled a whole lot of the conversations. Pretty much everything I wanted to go in did make it into the film. I insisted on including the part where Kurt talks about how flies pestered him all the time.
Not showing Kurt until the end of the film allows 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. How shocking do you think this will be to people who think they know him from his years in the limelight?
It does present countless sides of the man previously seen only by people who knew him pretty intimately. My sister saw a clip of the movie and e-mailed me: “His voice is so sweet. I had no idea.” Even basic stuff like that is going to be pretty revelatory to a lot of people.
The film uses the environment of Washington State to illustrate story as much as it uses the audio to tell it, and it brings the question of whether Kurt Cobain could’ve come from another environment, another state and perhaps turned out the way he did? How much of Kurt is Pacific Northwest?
To answer the second part of the question, people are the sum total of many different factors, not just where they come from; for instance, Kurt would probably have turned out a little differently if his childhood home had been painted blue rather than green. As you can hear in the film. Kurt had an Aberdonian lilt to his voice, he was certainly influenced musically by Northwest bands, and he certainly developed some of his worldview as a reaction to both hard times in the Northwest logging industry and the macho lumberjack mentality that he perceived there. He was very much of whence he came, and yet he could have come from anywhere in the United States. A lot of people related — and still do relate — to his experiences growing up, and how they affected him later. There are Aberdeens everywhere.
Do you feel Kurt was truly using drugs as a self-medication, or was it a convenient excuse, or perhaps a bit of both?
A bit of both. I’m convinced he suffered from crippling stomach pain; he was self-medicating not only for that but for depression too — after all, opiates are euphoric — and that becomes very obvious just from listening to Kurt’s own words in the film. I don’t think he was doing heroin just for kicks; he was in several varieties of serious pain.
Do you worry about the conspiracy theorists who are going to watch this movie waiting for something they can use about Courtney or Dave and Krist so they can further their own agenda?
It’s funny you ask that, because I was just discussing this very topic with Elvis the other day. We decided that it’s better to live your life and do your thing and not try to second-guess what crazy people might think.
At the end of the day, who was Kurt Cobain to you? What perspective did you walk away from the film with?
The Kurt in the film is about as close to the actual Kurt as anyone can experience now that he’s gone. And that’s only possible because of the unique approach of the film — letting him speak for himself, and not letting the pictures or sound distract from or distort what he has to say. The music, the visuals and Kurt’s words all add up to much more than the sum of their parts, it’s kind of extraordinary. It’s going to prompt pretty much anyone who sees it to do some major reassessment of a lot more than just their thoughts about Kurt. It’s intensely moving. I dare anyone not to cry during it. Except Donald Rumsfeld.
What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
I hope audiences come away from this film with the sense that Kurt wasn’t just an icon but also a very complex human being; some of the things he says in the film are stunningly insightful, some of the things he says are shockingly self-destructive; sometimes he’s remarkably poignant, sometimes he’s funny; but he’s never less than staggeringly candid. The film is an intense ride, and maybe it’ll give people just a little bit of a sense of what it was like to walk in Kurt’s shoes. I hope people also come away with a better sense of what made Kurt such a powerful artist; the film outlines all the feelings so many people had but maybe couldn’t express, that Kurt translated into music with such stunning directness.
Do you have any other projects currently in development?
I’m the editor-in-chief of eMusic, the world’s #2 music download service. eMusic specializes exclusively in independent labels, so it’s very cool stuff. And you can play eMusic downloads on an iPod. That gig takes up a lot of my time. I’m researching a really great idea for another book but it’s nothing I can talk about yet.
Hear what co-producer and director AJ Schnack has to say in Part Two of Michael, AJ and Steve: About a Doc>>>