Exclusive interview with director of new documentary

As reported earlier by this website, and by NME in December 2005, a new Kurt Cobain documentary is in the works. It is rather unique as it will be 'narrated' by Kurt Cobain himself - based on more than 25 hours of interview tapes recorded by author of Come As You Are: The story of Nirvana, Michael Azerrad, between December 92 and March 93.

I recently concluded an interview with director AJ Schnack to get more details on the film.

The idea of a documentary started when AJ found out that Michael Azerrad had tapes of his interviews with Kurt and wanted to do something special with them. AJ explains:

"At about the same time [of learning about the tapes] my nephew Justin was really getting into Nirvana, but there was so much mythology built around Kurt, particularly around the last months of Kurt's life, and Kurt himself was such an iconic figure. I really wanted to try to break some of that away, get back to something more simple."

Or, as he told the Aberdeen Daily World in November: "Kurt has become this huge, larger-than-life figure. You're completely unable to relate to him because he is such an icon. That's not how I felt about him when he was alive, and I feel like that's been lost. Especially because of the circumstances of his later life, and his death, I think now it's not really about the music or the fact that he really was just a human being. So I really wanted to deconstruct that a little bit, and what better way than to just let him talk?"

Consequently, the documentary will try to show the more 'real' side of Kurt - the human being - as opposed to the iconic figure that many people regard him as. That will be achieved by letting himself speak. Enter Azerrad's interview tapes.

"These tapes are so personal and intimate, it's just two guys talking in a kitchen at 2 in the morning. Over the course of the 25 hours, he's a fully-rounded man - funny, angry, bored, excited, amused - someone that I think has not been seen widely at all. Listening to it, I think you forget that he's (at the time of the interviews) the biggest rock star in the world, and you forget that he's gone, too."

AJ worked closely together with Michael Azerrad to determine what to use from the many hours of available interview footage on the tapes, and how to boil it down to some 95 minutes. "It was a really great process. First, I went through all the tapes and highlighted stuff that I liked. Then I began to build these interview bites and create a narrative that was a little less then two hours. Michael came to Los Angeles and worked with me for a week, honing that down to around 95 minutes. It was great working with Michael because he could say to me - 'that's a key story, that says a lot about Kurt' or 'you really need to make sure to include'. It was a wonderful creative partnership." AJ also notes that he was struck by how Kurt reveals so many different aspects of himself and his personality on the tapes.

Two crew members inside the last house where Kurt lived in Aberdeen

To accompany the interview footage, the crew has been shooting in three key locations: Olympia, Seattle and Aberdeen (all in Washington State). They would shoot visuals to reflect the tone of the themes that Kurt is talking about on the tapes. Other times they would shoot images that "are very specific to places or things Kurt was interested in (or obsessed with) even though he may not speak about these things in the audio." But the main goal is to convey a sense of place for the three cities. To that end, they want to show the current state of those cities, instead of how they were at the time that Kurt lived there. AJ explains more specifically how this was achieved:

"Sometimes we shot in places that were specific to Kurt - places he lived or worked - and sometimes we shot in places that didn't exist until a year or so ago. We didn't want to create something that was completely stuck in the early 90s, not just a nostalgia piece.

Sometimes, we chose a specific place because Kurt is talking about it (a hotel he worked at for example or the Aberdeen library) but other times we just chose a place that represents the tone of what he is saying. Hopefully, seeing these three cities will help to illuminate who Kurt was, the places he came from and his environment."

As for shooting in Kurt's native Aberdeen, for example: "We've attempted to show the places that had some influence on Kurt Cobain's life, while at the same time trying to show the place that Aberdeen is right now, all facets, and what it is to live and grow up there." (quote from AJ's blog and not my interview with him)

Sunrise over the mills and river in Aberdeen

The three cities are characters on their own in the film: "The sense of these three places as characters in their own right is a big part of this film, and I feel like we were able to capture a true sense of that in our work and travels." (this quote was also from the blog)

AJ continues: "At various places in our film, we're mirroring events or moments in Kurt's life by finding real people who are doing the same thing in 2005."

"For me, the audio and the video are in some ways very separate ideas, conveying different thoughts and emotions, but hopefully together they will make something great."

Charles Peterson and AJ Schnack in downtown Aberdeen, WA

The documentary will not use any archival footage and there are no interviews with "talking heads" or "so-called experts", according to the Aberdeen Daily World.

When it comes to a documentary about Kurt or Nirvana, music is of course a key element. As for this project, there will be an original score that runs throughout the entire film. AJ talks about it in his blog:

"The composers have taken the edited audio interviews (along with my shoot notes) and have [created] the musical underscore for the film. Although they had a general sense of what we were shooting, they are not composing to picture, focusing on the interviews themselves. Their score and the resulting audio mix will weave in, around and through the other music in the film."

In addition to the score, nearly 20 songs by artists that were important to Cobain during his life will be used. Although they haven't been named at this point, AJ tries to explain how they were chosen:

"Kurt was influenced by so many different styles of music at various stages of his life, and we really want to represent all of it within the film, a cross-section of some of those bands and artists. It's really amazing the bands that have already agreed to be part of this film, humbling actually."

This will not be a documentary about Nirvana, but rather one about Kurt Cobain as a person, and the environment he lived in. Thus, it doesn't focus on the inner-band dynamics, the albums and so forth.

"Although Kurt does talk about touring and how he feels about the band and about fame in general, it's not a film that focuses on 'and then we played this show in Dallas...' or 'so we called up Butch Vig'."

Essentially, the film can be divided into three segments or 'acts' if you will: Act one and two reflect on his days in Aberdeen and Olympia while act three focuses more on what is happening at the time the interviews took place (late 1992 to early 1993) and the turmoil in his life at that point.

The filmmakers hope to premiere it at a major film festival in the fall. After that, they hope to screen it in threatres around the world and eventually release it on DVD.

"I just want to reflect him fully, good and bad. You know, a few people who were close to Kurt have heard the edited audio, and each of them told me, 'yeah, that's him.' That's all I really want."

AJ Schnack has previously done a documentary, "Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)", on the New York band They Might Be Giants. It played in 65 cities in the US and Canada, as well as other places around the world. AJ's also been involved in music videos. His company did about 100 videos between 1995 and 2001. His biggest inspirations include D.A. Pennebaker (who has made many films about music, including Bob Dylan's 'Don't Look Back'), the Maysles Brothers (documentary legends who made the Rolling Stones at Altamont film 'Gimme Shelter') and Jonathan Demme. He is also inspired by photographers, artists and other musicians. You can find AJ Schnack's blog here.

Posted in NFC news section at on 02-27-2006 @ 12:36 PM (GMT).

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