Interview: AJ Schnack and Michael Azerrad, Filmmakers of "KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON"
I spoke with co-producer / music journalist, Michael Azerradand director / editor, AJ Schnack, about their nonfiction film Kurt Cobain About a Son. The film, which debuted at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, had its US premiere at the recent International AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, and also won the Best Documentary prize at the Starz Denver Film Festival. Schnack, along with his producing partners, Sidetrack Films, are currently on the festival circuit. Sidetrack's web site or the film's myspace page should have the latest schedule and appearances and there will be a theatrical release later this year. I talked to Michael over the phone from his home in New York City:
SIM: Are you happy with the film?
Michael Azerrad (MA): Yeah, I am happy with it. You know, those tapes and those
conversations are very dear to me and it was taking a considerable chance to
put them in the hands of someone else [the 25 hours of audio-taped interviews
between him and Cobain in 1992-93 that were the basis for Azerrad's book Come As You
Are: The Story of Nirvana published by Doubleday and the basis for Schnack’s
film]. It miraculously turned out far better than I ever hoped or dreamed, and
that definitely comes down to AJ’s and Wyatt Troll’s [the cinematographer] vision.
It was kind of amazing, everybody liked the idea and understood it. If it succeeds,
that’s part of the reason why – everybody got it.
SIM: How did you meet AJ?
MA: I was a talking head in AJ’s excellent and innovative documentary on They
Might Be Giants called Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns, 2002)… He was in town one
time and he said, “Hey, let’s have dinner.” We were talking and I mentioned that
I had these tapes. I kind of mentioned it on purpose because I had been thinking
about this film idea… He came over to my house, I played him a tape and he was
really stunned by the candor and intimacy of the tone of it. So he said, “That
was one of the better tapes, right?” and I said, “I really don’t know, I just
picked one off the pile.” He was impressed by that and he figured, if one tape
at random was good, they probably all had some gold in them. So, that’s how it
started. I had had the idea of using only Kurt’s voice on the tapes and then
having some sort of ambient music and some sort of ambient cinematography tying
it all together. I didn’t mention this to AJ, but he came back to me a little
while later and had an identical idea, but only better, aiming for shooting in
the three cities where Kurt lived his life, Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle. He
also had the idea of scoring the soundtrack with some of the music that Kurt
SIM: Tell me about the experience of actually making the film. What struck you most
during the production and creation of it?
MA: I was involved in a few aspects of it. I helped pick the sound bites. It
was funny, because AJ had selected his first round of picks and I had selected
mine and they overlapped, I would say, about 90 percent, which is kind of amazing.
That’s why we say that Kurt kind of wrote the film, because it was so clear what
should be in there. Again, that was such a great confirmation of the fact that
both AJ and I both had a similar feeling for how the movie should go. It was
such a good sign. I was also involved in choosing artists and particular tracks
for the soundtrack… [and] helping to line up Steve Fisk [the composer] for the
score. I’m kind of the dramaturge of the film, so AJ would ask me, “Is this right?
Do you think this is appropriate?,” things like that. As a producer, I mostly,
along with Shirley [Moyers, producer and co-founder of Bonfire Films of America]
was just encouraging AJ to pursue single-mindedly that unique idea that we had
at the beginning. I think that he really appreciated that and I think that’s
why the movie came out as uniquely and evocatively as it did, because we stuck
with the concept. If there’s any contribution that I’m most proud of, it’s that
I simply encouraged AJ to stick to his guns.
SIM: What were the barriers along the way?
MA: The only barriers were, I think, our own doubt. “Is this too weird? Is this
not going to be commercial? Will people get it?” At the end, we thought it was
just more important to pursue the vision, stay true to it and make something
that’s good. And if it’s good, people will like it. When you compromise on things,
that’s when they get mediocre. You just have to really follow through on your
vision and that’s what we tried to do.
SIM: What was your reaction when you saw the final cut? Can you talk about how you
felt and what kind of feelings the finished film evoked in you?
MA: It was amazing. In a simple sentence, it was a dream come true. I dreamed
about this kind of movie and the movie itself is very dream-like, and so I really
felt so immersed in experiencing Kurt’s whole persona… The whole experience just
came swimming back in a really great way, because the whole idea of the film
was to sweep aside a lot of the really traumatic stuff that happened at the end
of his life and try and get back to the person that he actually was. That was
the joy of it for me – remembering the Kurt that I knew, as opposed to all the
awful things that happened at the end. It was kind of a triumphant moment, a
feeling of great relief and happiness that this storm cloud that had loomed over
my memory of him was pushed aside by something really special.
SIM: Going back to your time with Kurt, and first getting to really know him, what
surprised you the most about him as a person?
MA: I think the thing that surprised me the most about him was that I related
to him so much. When I first met him, all I knew about him was that he was a
junkie who screamed and smashed guitars. He was a bit younger than I was [Cobain
was 25 at the time of the interviews] and I wasn’t sure if we’d click, or if
I’d understand where he was coming from. But about ten seconds into our conversation,
I thought to myself, “Oh, I understand him. I’ve known people like him. I know
what he’s talking about, I completely understand where he’s coming from.” That
was probably the most surprising.
SIM: So there was a kinship immediately?
MA: Yeah, there was a rapport immediately and, I think that was part of his genius,
that people could relate to him and he could take whatever point of relation
there was and convert it into really rocking, catchy, evocative music. Not too
many people can do that. It was really for real. And this whole movie, everything
he talks about, is like an overture or a synopsis of everything that he covers
in his songs. He talks about being into the Beatles, he talks about his parents
divorcing, he talks about being an alienated teenager, he talks about discovering
punk rock after he was into mainstream rock for so long. All those topics that
he touches upon are in the movie and in his music as well, so it’s like a back-story
to his songs.
SIM: Do you think about where he would have gone had he lived, where his career would
have gone, where he would have gone as an artist?
MA: He was a born musician, there’s no doubt about that. He would have done amazing
things the rest of his life. He would have had peaks and troughs in popularity.
I think he would have gotten pretty experimental, maybe something more in the
chamber music type of realm, not in terms of classical music, but expanded instrumentation
and things like that. And I think he would have made a pretty ambitious record
that maybe very few people would get. He might have done two or three albums
in that mode and then come back and would have done something really popular.
I think he probably would have crested and troughed out like that for the rest
of his career, making interesting music for a very long time. People would have
followed his work and taken it very seriously.
SIM: What’s happening with the film now? What’s planned for the next few months?
MA: We’re talking to a bunch of distributors, just trying to figure out who’s
basically the most enthusiastic about it and hopefully, there will be a deal
signed soon. We’re hoping to put the movie into theatres. The first time I saw
it was actually on a TV screen and it was a great experience, too, a very intimate
thing. The movie works beautifully in the privacy of your own home with the lights
low. That kind of intimate, late-night experience works great because, of course,
that’s when the conversations occurred too… But in a theatre with a big screen
and great sound, and seeing the gorgeous cinematography writ large is a different
experience and that’s also incredibly beautiful.
SIM: Is this your first experience as a film producer?
MA: Yeah, it is. Going to these festivals has been funny. I’ve been to many music
industry conventions. The movie crowd is different.
SIM: How so?
MA: They dress better and they’re more tanned. (laughs)
SIM: What was your biggest lesson as a filmmaker – in terms of what you, personally,
learned of how something like this comes together?
MA: I actually was very skeptical about the cinematic art because it is so collaborative,
there are so many cooks involved. I was very dubious that a singular vision could
emerge from so many different people. It turns out that it’s definitely possible
for every person of any consequence on a production to all be on the same page.
That was very surprising to me. That’s why this came out the way it did. It’s
a singular vision pursued to the nth degree, all the way down the line, consistently.
It opened my eyes to the possibility of how films do have a singular vision.
The auteur theory is plausible now because I can see how, despite the fact that
dozens of people are involved, the director’s idea can actually survive and flourish
and it really depends on everyone understanding the concept and agreeing to work
with it. . . . I can’t stress enough that it’s not like any other film I’ve ever
seen, and I think it’s important to make it clear to people that it’s really
just Kurt talking, with ambient visuals and an ambient score juxtaposed with
songs from everyone from Leadbelly to Queen. Sonically alone, it’s very interesting.
Visually alone, it’s very interesting. And just listening to Kurt is very interesting.
Nonetheless, you’re going to walk into the film and it’s not going to be like
anything you’ve ever seen before. And you’re going to walk out of there with
a lot of your assumptions about a lot of things rearranged. It’s very moving
and kind of intense and people are often just very silent afterwards. It’s pretty
SIM: I think it is that intimacy that is so affecting. He was such an iconic figure—meaning,
that I don’t think anybody really bothered to understand or wanted to understand
the person that he was. It’s a beautiful memorial because you’re basically celebrating
his art and his life.
MA: No, he wasn’t just some sort of cardboard icon. He was a real guy and when
you meet him, I think you’re going to understand a lot more about the nature
of celebrity, the nature of rock music and how it alchemizes, and the nature
of his talent and what he drew upon to make the music that he did. And all those
things, I think, are really sorely in need of exposition.
SIM: I imagined Kurt watching this and being very, very happy about it.
MA: That’s really all I wanted. I wanted to make something that he would see
Two days later, in Los Angeles, at The Downbeat Café in Echo Park, I sat with
AJ over coffee and killer peanut butter cookies. It was very apparent that the
genesis of the synergy to which Azerrad refers, started when Schnack listened
to that first Kurt Cobain tape with him back in 2003.
SIM: This is a project for which Michael feels a great amount of passion and is so
close to his heart. Tell me about the first conversation you had with him about
AJ Schnack (AS): We first had a conversation about Nirvana and about Kurt and
the book he had written [Come As You Are]. I had read it years ago and I was
curious about his experience. In that conversation, he mentioned that he had
these audiotapes and told me that he hadn’t really listened to them [since Kurt’s
death], and that people had asked to use them before and he’d always said “no,” and
that, at some point, he wanted to do something with them. My initial desire was
not that I wanted to make a movie, my initial thing was, “How am I going to convince
him to let me listen to them?” I just wanted to hear them because it would be
amazing! A little bit after that, I came up with the basic idea of this project,
but I wanted to wait until after Michael had seen Gigantic [which debuted at
SXSW in 2002]. It was a few weeks after Michael saw it at a screening in New
York that I again mentioned his idea of wanting to do something with the tapes.
We had an email exchange back and forth for about a year and then in 2003, we
had lunch and I really laid out what I wanted to do. He told me that it was something
that he’d be really interested in.
SIM: At that time, had you thought about who was going to shoot it? Or using Charles
Peterson for the portraiture? How much planning did you do in advance? Michael
mentioned that he had been thinking of a film project but never having done one
before, felt it was essential to find the right person, not necessarily the right
vehicle… and that you two were in sync almost from the very beginning.
AS: I think he was happy that a) I was interested in those tapes being the sole
source for the film, and b) that I was very interested in the visuals being not
really direct. From the beginning, I was saying that I wanted to use Charles’ photographs
as the only archival element. That was a pretty natural conclusion. The audio
is coming from a single definitive source, the archival stuff should come from
a single definitive source, as well. At the time, I hadn’t yet thought of Wyatt
to do the cinematography or Steven [Fisk] to do the score, but I knew what I
wanted the score to be like. They just ended up doing something that was even
better. Much of the idea was pretty much there from the beginning. Then, it was
all of us constantly reinforcing each other – not just me and Michael, but my
producer, Shirley Moyers, the guys at Sidetrack [Films], everyone was just reinforcing
the idea of, “Yes, we are going to make this non-traditional film.”
SIM: What was your budget? What did it end up costing?
AS: Under a million. It’s a big budget for a documentary, but not as much as
some of the higher-profile music docs that are probably twice that. We had enough
to do exactly what we wanted to do, we were never constrained, but we weren’t
exactly able to be too liberal with funds, either.
SIM: In terms of the shoot itself, what were some of the biggest lessons or moments
of personal growth you experienced in structuring and creating this piece?
AS: Even with my first film, I was interested in pushing the form of non-fiction.
But with that, I did it in fairly small ways. It’s pretty much a traditional
film with the interviews. It was more in our structuring and pacing that was
more like a comedy than a traditional rock film. Making this film made me realize
how much that excites me working in non-fiction. We’re at such an amazing point
right now. I was just reading today that Sundance is going to open with the Chicago
10 documentary that Brett Morgen directed. Geoff Gilmore’s line in talking about
the film, was how Morgen uses animation and all these other elements to tell
his story, how he pushes the form of non-fiction. So, I think that’s where we
are and now let’s see how far we can go. The lines are blurring on what you,
as a non-fiction filmmaker, are “allowed” to do in a documentary.
SIM: You never actually met the subject of your film, Kurt Cobain, although I would
think that you got to know him pretty well after listening to those tapes. How
did your views on him change during the course of making this? What impressed
you the most about Cobain?
AS: There’s a strange element to listening to the 25 hours, which is that I’m
alone listening to these two people have a conversation, one of whom is a friend
of mine and sounds exactly the same on the tapes as when I talk to him on the
phone. That’s really the beauty of an audio-only source and one of the reasons
why I didn’t want to bring in all these archival elements because you really
are struck by the immediacy of it, despite the fact that it’s 12, 13, 14-years
old. And I would forget that it was that old. Then I would realize that it is,
and that he’s gone, this voice that sounds so vital. Even though I thought of
him highly as an artist when starting the project, you can’t help but to really
care about someone when you are listening to him like that for hours and hours
in a room by yourself.
The thing that I think that I learned, or what was most exciting to me about
it, was discovering that he showed so many facets of his personality in the tapes.
A friend told me that one of the best things he liked about the movie, is that
we let Kurt be an asshole, we allowed our protagonist to be sort of a jerk sometimes.
He’s also funnier than I expected. He’s only 25 and really wise beyond his years
in a way that I was not at that age. And at the same time, he’d be really childish
about something in a way that would surprise me. I’m just really happy that there’s
a complete human being there.
Another thing about the audio-only source: I think it challenges our notions
of what we think we need to feel that sense of immediacy and intimacy. It’s like
those hours-long phone conversations you would have with a friend in high school
just talking about any subject, it didn’t matter, all you needed was their voice.
This has a similar quality. You’re not seeing his face, you’re just hearing him,
and I think it really challenges you, in a good way, to connect in ways that
you normally are not called upon to do in non-fiction films that are biographical
SIM: Tell me about your location scouting in Aberdeen, Olympia and Seattle. How did
your interpretation of those places come into play to coalesce with the soundtrack
of his voice describing his childhood and formative years?
AS: That was part of my original idea with Michael. It was this notion that some
things would be directly related to what he would be talking about. But also
some things would not be so directly related. And some things would be directly
related to his life, but not necessarily to what he was saying. But all the visuals,
in some way, are intimately connected to him. . . . I hope for a lot of people
there is that discovery of all those layers to Kurt.
SIM: While we don’t see Kurt’s face, we do see a series of extremely intimate filmed
portraits of the people that populate those places in Washington state. The camera
lingers on those faces in extreme close-up for several seconds at a time. That
was the most jarring, discomfiting element in the film, for some reason.
AS: Yeah, there’s something very intimate about the human face. Something that
always strikes me about a place is the people that you meet when you pass through.
What’s the ethnic makeup; what kind of clothes are they wearing? Do they have
a particular sense of style? All that says so much about the community. These
three different cities are only about an hour’s drive from one another and it
was interesting to see the differences in the people in those places. There was
definitely a slight un-ease to it for a lot of the subjects that were filmed.
SIM: Who are some of the people that have influenced your filmmaking sensibility,
your expression as an artist?
AS: For this film in particular, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy was probably
the most influential, I mean down to how we worked. He had Philip Glass compose
and then edited to his compositions. I did the same thing. I had Steve and Ben[jamin
Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie] compose to Kurt’s audio and then I edited the visuals to their score.
It was a really beautiful way of working. That definitely made a massive impression
on me when I watched that in a friend’s basement in high school. I’m influenced
and inspired by a lot of photographers – Nan Goldin, Lee Friedlander, Edmund Teske, among many others. The way that they were looking at the world, composed but
still modern – that was very much what I wanted to achieve. Musically, you can’t
help but be influenced by [DA] Pennebaker and the Maysles [brothers, Albert and David], Martin Scorsese and Jonathan
Demme, just because they always approach their subjects in such an interesting
way. It’s just great filmmaking, approaching a particular subject in such a customized
way and that’s what I try to achieve in my filmmaking, as well. I’m incredibly
blessed to have worked with the team that I did on this film. I’m well aware