By Francine Taylor
Filmmaker, writer and blogger AJ Schnack is just a year older than Kurt Cobain would be if the Nirvana singer, guitarist and songwriter hadn't died in April 1994. Michael Azerrad's Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana was published just six months before the death that rattled a generation. When the author mentioned to the filmmaker that he had 25 hours of audiotaped interviews with Cobain and had not been able to listen to them since Cobain's death, Schnack's interest was piqued. For the next year, Schnack worked on convincing Azzerad to share the audio tapes with him, while formulating his concept for a unique film about Kurt Cobain.
"I don't think I would have made a film about Kurt if the tapes didn't exist," Schnack says today. He wanted to make a film without the usual documentary tropes: interviews with contemporaries, relatives, friends; clips from concerts and rehearsals. He imagined a Cobain film without Nirvana music; instead he wanted a musical score by Steve Fisk, a former Nirvana producer, and just as intriguingly, songs by over 20 artists that influenced Cobain. Schnack's vision was to weave the audio and music with imagery of the landscape that Kurt experienced living in the Pacific Northwest. "I was intent on just letting Kurt speak for himself, once and for all."
Kurt Cobain About a Son has screened in Toronto, Edinburgh, more than 40 international festivals in all. It was nominated for the 2007 Film Independent Spirit Awards Truer Than Fiction Award and won the Cinematic Vision Award at AFI Silverdocs.
You had worked with Michael Azerrad before when he happened to mention the Kurt Cobain audio tapes to you?
I met him when I interviewed him for my first film, Gigantic, which was about They Might Be Giants, and Michael was doing a piece for the New Yorker about the band, and one of the reasons I wanted to make that movie was because I saw They Might Be Giants as sort of the quintessential DIY artists. They were constantly coming up with new ways of getting their art to an audience. Michael was kind of taking the same tack in his New Yorker piece. We saw them [Nirvana and They Might Be Giants] in similar ways. We were at a dinner; talking and talking about rock documentaries - ones we liked - and I started asking him about his time period around Kurt. And that's when he told me he had these tapes he hadn't been able to listen to in, like, 12 years because he found it too painful. And about a year after that, I proposed the idea for the film.
Did it occur to you that night?
The first thing I thought was, "How do I convince him to play me these audiotapes that he won't listen to himself?" I just knew reading Michael's book...
That it would be really sensitive?
I knew that they were really intimate and an important cultural document. And I was just kind of craving the opportunity to hear them. It wasn't until much later - and actually, my nephew at the time was starting to get into Nirvana and I realized that his view of Kurt was really clouded by all these controversies and sort of the dark period at the end of his life. And I was trying to explain to him what it was when I was first listening to Kurt and how it wasn't about... There was no heroin addiction. Courtney [Love] wasn't in the picture yet. There was certainly no question about his death. And that story of Kurt, I thought, was getting lost in the midst of this other haze.
Because you had experienced it first hand?
Yeah. And so that was kind of the initial thought - thinking about Michael's tapes. That would be a way of kind of stripping out the scandal and tabloid elements of Kurt's life and getting back to something that was much more complicated and real, in a way.
And from what I've heard, you made a conscious choice to keep out other points of view, to hear him directly.
The funny thing about Kurt is that there have been other pieces in both written and visual form that have drawn from a lot of outside commentators. Kurt's one of those people who others like to have had their moment with - to talk about their moment with him. Whether that is a reality of his life or not is always in question. There is a moment in the audiotapes, where Michael has gone out and done some interviews and he tells Kurt, "I talked to this woman and she talked about how she would really help you with your homework and took and interest in you." And Kurt said, "That's fuckin' bullshit. She's only saying that now because I have some level of fame."
When I heard that on tape, that was really a validation that this was the right approach. It was really stripping out all the iconography and mythology that surrounds Kurt and getting back to this really interesting, complicated guy who was, on one level, really ordinary and, on another level, had this extraordinary talent and these really crushing demons. And how did he, in his really short life, deal with all these things?
And I was actually struck by a thought last night, probably just 20 minutes into the film: Cobain doesn't sound the way I imagined him sounding even though I've heard sound bites and seen his photos. It was different from what I expected.
Well, it is. For being such an iconic figure, he didn't do that many interviews, except for the occasional MTV quick interview. It's not like John Lennon where he went on Mike Douglas and did big press conferences and stuff. You know, actually listening to his speaking voice is a new experience for a lot of people. It's not something that they are completely familiar with. So that's just one of the unusual things about his life and how he became so famous so quickly. And yet the public only had this moment with him for two and a half years.
What made me curious when you spoke about your nephew - how old were you when Kurt died? Do you mind me asking?
Kurt was a year older than me, so I was 26.
So in a way, you experienced Nirvana as a peer, as opposed to me who was in my mid-30s.
Yeah, and one of the reasons I wanted to make the film was that Kurt was the first person of my generation to have a really large platform from which to speak. And while Kurt rejected publicly that he was this generational spokesperson, at the same time, he never turned down the opportunity to talk - strongly, sometimes very angrily and perceptively, of what it was like to grow up at the time we grew up. One of the stories that I tell is that when I was in first grade, my mother, who was a school teacher, was the only mom who worked. By the time I got to 8th grade, all but three of the moms in my class worked.
There was a great shift going on.
There was a huge shift that went on the 1970s and a lot of it was about family dynamics. It was during that time period that Kurt's parents divorced. Similarly, when I was in kindergarten or first grade, none of the parents were divorced and there were a bunch of divorces as we went along.
It became more acceptable.
Yeah, and you know, it's not in the film, but in the tapes, Kurt talks about Ritalin. What it was like to see the environment of his small town change and the businesses start to close. He talked about violence against women, he talked about gay rights. He talks about the world in which he grew up and he talks kind of angrily about how the hippies have not fulfilled what they were supposedly out to do. That was an idea that was just sort of starting to formulate amongst people of my generation and he talks about it in a very perceptive and very interesting way.
He does seem very perceptive for his age...
And he sounds like at least late 30s.
Yeah, he, to me, is one of the most important social figures and cultural figures of the last part of the 20th century, and certainly of my generation, and that was something I really wanted to come out in the film. As much as I love the music, I was even more interested in him on that level.
That brings up another question, because I read you grew up in a small town in Illinois. Did you identify with Kurt's discussion of his alienation, being an artist, etc?
I didn't have it in the same way because I grew up in a college town and the arts were important.
So it was a little more...
Actually, I had kind of a perfect childhood. The town was equally supportive of arts as they were sports. And I know how unique that is. My parents were hugely supportive of arts and music and things. I wasn't a jock and I wasn't in that particular group, but you could be in the drama club.
You didn't inherently feel alienated being a little more intellectual or a little more out of the box.
That was prized just as much, which I feel very fortunate about.
Which leads into another thing I was going to ask you. We're all shaped by our upbringing, and how we separate how much is our childhood, our friends, our neighborhood, the time in which we live. Often during the film, Cobain says things like, "I really needed to get out of Aberdeen, I really needed to get out of Olympia..." You've said in the press kit that he was probably pretty depressed a lot of his life. But beyond that, do you think if he'd started out in a town where he felt more accepted, he would have been a different person? In other words, how much was he shaped by the alienation?
Oh, yeah. I think that one of the things about the film, the way I shot it, the sense of where he came from was so important. Just the idea of what Aberdeen was all about and what Olympia was all about - these two opposite sides, one masculine, one feminine - battling it out for his soul. I think that that is crucial to who he was. And the thing with Kurt is, you could look at him and wonder if it would have changed the ultimate end of his story.
His dealing with chronic pain?
Yeah and the fact that he gets so famous so quickly. It's so unrealistic what happened to him. He was living in this place, in Olympia - and I hope people get that he wasn't Seattle-bound, he was Olympia-bound - you know, he's living in this apartment in Olympia and in less than a year he's the most famous rock star in the world and he's in the tabloids.
He didn't really get a chance to ramp up or get adjusted.
No, he didn't, and I've said to people: From a filmmaking prospective, you can want fame and want success, but you don't necessarily want to be Steven Spielberg. Some people just want to be Jim Jarmusch. If he'd had success more on the level of Sonic Youth or the Pixies, you could then say, "How would that have changed his story?" There are so many different places where you could say, "If this had been different or that had been different, maybe it would have changed the ultimate dynamic."
He did make a remark about being broke enough to sell their amps to eat corn dogs, yet they were becoming this famous band. Plus, he says he was happiest just going from town to town playing - almost as if he could have lived beyond the poverty level, but played without all the baggage. It didn't seem as if he was necessarily searching for fame, but for an audience, that he connected mostly to that.
Yet I think, growing up in Aberdeen, his idea of being a successful musician was to be Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant or Ozzy Osborne. That was something he never lost.
You think this played into his comments about, if I play punk then I can't play pop - that identity question? Can I do what I want to do and will I get an audience? Do you think he saw it at extremes of either you're living in a small town, unknown, or you're a well-known musician and nothing in between?
I think that he ultimately looks at other people as far as a path, whether it's Iggy or later Michael Stipe. Other people who have different levels of fame, but are all really well-known and playing stadiums. He had the opportunity in Olympia to only aspire to being a band that would only exist in a small circle of fame and he could have chosen to stay on K Records, and he clearly chose to sign with a major label and was meeting with other major labels and was looking for someone to help them go out to a bigger audience.
So it was a pretty conscious choice. He did speak of the meeting with Capitol Records and their excitement over Laker tickets, and concluding, "This isn't the right label for us."
Yeah, it wasn't the right label but he does go and sign with another major label. If it hadn't been Geffen, it would have been somebody else.
So when it came to the 25 hours of audio that you got from Michael, was it difficult that there was that much to listen to and the process of taking what you wanted for the film? To create this kind of coherent story or sample of who Cobain really was?
It wasn't really that difficult. Michael's book, in addition to being about how Nirvana really formed, and each of the back stories of the individual musicians, really dives into all the songs and the writing of the songs and the recording of the records. And because I knew that wasn't the focus of the film, and it wasn't about Nirvana, there was a great deal of material that was pretty easy to excise from the beginning. Of the stuff that remained, I had asked Michael, "Will you go through and pull the parts that you think are really Kurt?"
Because you trusted his sense of having spoken to him at that time, and not simply listening to the tapes?
Yeah, and having become friends with Kurt. And I meanwhile, was going through the tapes and pulling things that I really liked, and when Michael sent me his list, it was 95% the same.
Kind of a Venn diagram of what you both liked.
Yeah, it was really obvious when you listened to the tapes the things that Kurt really wanted to get out. Either he reinforced them by talking about them at different times, or they were the best stories, or they displayed his humor. Michael's really fond of saying that Kurt really wrote the film or helped write the film, because we both feel that the material we used was kind of obvious on its face. And that should be in the film.
Was there anything you didn't use that was particularly interesting? Something that didn't fit, but that struck you?
There's a whole time period when Kurt and Courtney live in Los Angeles and there is a lot to do with them losing custody of their daughter for a bit. There's this whole battle with LA Child Protective Family Services. And actually, because I really liked the linear idea of this natural three-act structure, and I think that at the end of the second act, we have this feeling of foreboding before the third act that's lying ahead, I didn't want to have this interlude in Los Angeles, and I wanted to keep the film set in the Northwest. I don't think we left out any material in terms of important reflections on his life. He definitely deals with how he feels about the press during this time period. How he feels about trying to get custody back of his daughter.
Which makes me feel, "Oh, that might be interesting," but you didn't feel it added to the...
I think it's similar to what he's dealing with in the third act. The third act is really about how he looks at the world and how...
He feels like a cartoon character?
Yeah, and he's feeling under siege from all these different sides. It's in the film - we just didn't take that geographical angle.
I read about how you were influenced by Koyaanisqatsi and you wanted the visuals juxtaposed with his spoken voice, creating a sense of that landscape, what it looks like from the little seedy bars to the beauty of the sunrise over the mountains. Did you have definite ideas of what you wanted to shoot as you were filming? Did you have a kind of storyboard based on the audio you were using?
Once we got the audio together, then I got a visual book and I'd gone up there several times. I'd shot photos and digital video. I went into the mills and shot some things I wanted to have and then I put everything together. So when we went up there and were actually shooting, it was pretty organized.
Because if you were on 35 mm...
Yeah, Shirley [Moyers], my producer, and I had this idea of it being like structured, guerilla filmmaking. Because we would go in with this small crew that worked incredibly fast.
No, if you see the credits at the end of the film, we always had permission. It was Shirley's work to convince all these people to let us dash in, shoot for an hour or two and then leave. And we would shoot at six or seven locations a day in order to get as much done as we could. I would have gone into the mill, for example, and I would have ten shots that I wanted to get, referenced, and then I would always, as my own A.D., allow myself an estimate of what it would take and then give myself another half hour or 45 minutes in each place. So that when I got there, Wyatt [Troll] and I could say, "Let's get that."
So it allowed for a little spontaneity and creativity.
Yes, within a structured thing. Because we shot almost all natural light, we had the ability to really do that. But we had a tiny crew, a couple of camera assistants. We had a grip, a gaffer and a swing. And they were amazing. They all worked really, really quickly. And really got what we were doing.
Looks like you shot quite a bit. At least for the 97 minutes we see.
Oh yeah, lots of locations. But in every case where it's specific, like an apartment, it's where Kurt actually lived. There's a time lapse shot of a sunrise over a lake shot from the place the interviews took place. So it's the view that Kurt and Michael had as they were doing their interviews, going into morning. [All of the interviews took place between midnight and sunrise.] So I think everything in the film that is specific - places that he worked, where his father worked - they are the actual places. The library in Aberdeen, things like that.
And some of the people we see, we see them looking at the camera. Are these people who lived in the area? Were there any people who were significant or was it to give the audience an idea of the locals and the kind of people you'd run into if you were in Aberdeen or in Olympia?
I'm a big believer that when you're talking about landscapes, landscapes can be nature, architectural, but also the human face, which is the best one of all. I love portraiture and my cinematographer Wyatt is an amazing portraiture photographer. So that's something I knew that I wanted to have as part of the film. It's part of the whole notion of Kurt being sort of this ordinary figure. In the time period before he became this shooting star, he really was a guy you would walk past on the street and not think anything about. We walk down the street all the time and pass people who have extraordinary talents. They're mourning the death of someone close to them; they're undergoing a terrible break-up. They've just had a child. All sorts of joy and wonder and sorrow pass us by all the time and we don't even stop to think of it. In each of these towns, there was a guy and people passed him by without even thinking. And the notion that you were going to stop these people and say, "We're going to shoot your face - just look into the camera and let us study who you are and look into your eyes."...
I found that very compelling.
To me, it's one of my favorite things in the film.
Michael Azerrad was your producer. Because of his connection to Kurt, did you rely on him through the whole film?
Once we put the audio track together, Michael kind of wasn't around. He wasn't around when we were shooting. He came around one day towards the end of our shoot. I would ask him questions about things. He would be in Seattle before we shot and we would say, "I want to go see where the house is, where you did the interviews," and he helped me find the house. So there were certain things that he could help illuminate, the importance of something. But Charles Peterson [who shot still photographs] and Steve Fisk, who both knew Kurt, were helpful in that way as well. For instance, they told me that this post office used in the film was the place where everyone went to score heroin. And that there was this phone booth that everyone went to. So there is this whole sequence where Kurt is talking about his drug use and you're seeing all these shots of the phone booth and post office where people went to score.
And the audience won't necessarily know that, but there is some sense of a connection of the visual with the audio.
There is a thing on the phone saying, "Because of criminal activity, the police are asking that this phone does not accept incoming calls." I think we made a conscious decision ultimately that even though the vast majority of the stuff in the film are things directly related to Kurt and the things that he saw, it seemed unwieldy and unseemly to constantly be saying "actual place." I hope that people in the end get a sense of it.
I think that not knowing allows you to go with the flow of the film and it's not as distracting from the audio. Kind of a layered-together thing like two notes of a chord. And less what we think of like a traditional documentary. Would you call this a documentary or a nonfiction film?
I call it a nonfiction film. I actually think that nonfiction is a larger definition that I tend to use generally. When I think of documentary, I think of more of a traditional, journalistic approach of something.
This is more poetic, for example.
There are a lot of films that have nonfiction elements to them, which are maybe in my brain. And actually, I write about nonfiction film - sort of my side gig.
Yeah, yeah. But it's like, and I actually just wrote this, that I don't know if I could explain what the difference is.
Nonfiction just feels like a better description?
Like Billy the Kid for example. I think I feel comfortable calling it a documentary, but it feels more like a nonfiction film to me. Because I think there are things that [Jennifer Venditti] did that affected how she shot that film and how she made that film.
There's this great movie I just saw, great doc, The Mosquito Problem. To me, that's a classic example of something than is more of a non-fiction film than a documentary. Because it's so composed and structured, and taking advantage of all the skills one can make as a filmmaker.
In the last 10 years, people are taking more interest in, whether you call it documentary or nonfiction film, with cable channels and more theaters willing to distribute - for example, after the success of March of the Penguins. It's an evolving form.
March of the Penguins is a great example. That's one I would classify more as nonfiction than as documentary. Here's something that is a scripted piece with narration and they are taking real events as they study them and turning them into this love story, or the story of family, that is constructed from what they've seen.
Which is why these films may be finding more of an audience. I've always loved documentaries, but used to get frustrated when they were nominated for Oscars yet you couldn't see them. It seems like a great time for nonfiction films because they can take on more identity and have more creative freedom.
You look at what Brett Morgen is doing you look at what Jason Kohn did in Manda Bala. These are people using real film technique and telling real stories. They aren't afraid of using every cinematic skill they have to tell these stories. That to me is the most exciting thing in terms of what is happening in nonfiction. That doesn't mean to say that I'm not blown away by a film like Taxi to the Dark Side. It has stylistic elements that are really great. But it's a very classic, journalistic breaking down of a story.
The Devil Came on Horseback, very similar. Those are exciting to me. But I would probably classify them - if I were making these determinations - I probably would say they are more the world of documentary.
Do you expect that Courtney Love and Francis Cobain will see your film? Or have they seen it?
I don't know if they've seen it. They have it and I don't know if they will see it.
You've given them a copy? Did you have a contact that allowed you to get her a copy?
We actually met with her people a long time ago and kept them abreast - and the people who represented the estate for some time - of what we were doing. Michael was friends with both of them for some time.
And obviously, he hasn't gone around exploiting the tapes. Anyone else who didn't have that trust and attachment to him could have easily sold them years and years ago. Michael was even afraid to listen because it was such emotional territory.
Yeah, and to me, once he decided to do it, we just wanted to let them know that we were doing it and this was how we were going to do it. They were kind of aware of it.
You hope they will receive it well?
Sure. Michael has a stronger reaction to this question than I do. But I do think I can imagine how difficult it would be, or maybe I can't imagine how difficult it would be, to say to someone, "Hey I've taken these very intimate conversations with your husband and when are you going to block out time to sit and listen to them?"
And for his daughter, too.
And for his daughter to have this experience. I mean, with everyone and his immediate family, band mates, so many of his friends who are seeking closure in their relationship with him. The goal is that we hope that we've have given a true sense of him.
Though none of us can be objective about ourselves, but honest conversations in the sense that they were intimate?
Warts and all. Not trying to grace him up to being a larger icon or figure. But to really see the whole truth.
I thought it was poignant, something Cobain said about his father not being around. He spoke a lot about parents and parenting - connecting to your kids, family relationships. He said something about Francis and his hope to be around for her in ten years or so. I found that to be one of the most poignant experiences of the film given what happened.
When you hear about him talk about that, it's incredibly sad. You hear people talk about, "You make the same mistakes your parents make," or you make them in different ways and you can spend your whole adolescence raising your fist and saying, "I'm gonna be different when I have a kid" and "I'm gonna do things differently." And then you end up committing some of the same kinds of transgressions. So yeah, while he does clearly foreshadow his death in the film, in a way we haven't done before, I think that it's sad for the audience and poignant for the audience because you know the ending of this story and he doesn't. Maybe he has a sense of it - somewhere in his head - how it's going to end, and that's just one moment, but anytime where that's referenced, where you know where it's going and he maybe doesn't, I think is incredibly poignant.
Beyond that I think there are a number of places where there is dramatic irony.
Like at the end of the second act, where he says, "I haven't had any stomach pains since I started doing drugs."
Like trading one thing for another.
There's a lot of that. I think it's revealing.
You were listening to his music before he became famous, from the beginning?
I had heard Bleach, but I'll fully admit that Bleach didn't resonate for me in any particular way. I thought it was okay. I thought it was fine. But I would not have heard that and thought that their next album would make them the biggest band in the world. They seem like just any number of bands like them, sort of in the punk rock scene. Really loud and there were one or two of their songs I liked more than the others. But when I heard Nevermind, it blew me away. I was in a particular place, working at the worst job I ever had in my life.
What was that?
I worked at Merv Griffin Entertainment, which was... I wrote a blog about it.
Do you want this to be off the record?
No. I didn't talk about it publicly until the man died. It's not his fault. It was the worst.
You weren't in the right place.
And that's when Nevermind was coming out and there was some insane sexual harassment going on and awful treatment of women and at the same time the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill hearings were going on. And then, comes this album, which seems so full of righteous anger and perspective. And when I heard it...
You really connected? Kind of life-changing?
Yeah. In a way.
Do you mind sharing the details of when you heard of his death?
I was at work.
[Laughs] No, I was running a music video company and we were doing indie rock videos. The owner came down and said, "Kurt Cobain just killed himself." It had been a strange time, with AIDS and all. There was a lot of rumor and speculation about what was going on with celebrities. I was listening to KROC and it was reported that Michael Stipe had died. And there was this weird thing that they had no confirmation of it. I remember when I heard about Kurt, I didn't necessarily believe it was true. It was the first time I remember using the Internet. This company had the Internet and I'd never really tried to use it. So I decided to go to to the [Associated Press] to check. I literally went back every 10 or 15 minutes to refresh and find the story. It wasn't on radio or TV. For a good two hours, there was nothing. And I was like, "Oh yeah, this is another one of those rumors that isn't going to be true." And then I refreshed again and read, "Body found at Kurt Cobain's house."
Had you known he was in rehab in Los Angeles?
At that point, everyone knew he was doing heroin and that heroin was part of his life. I think that they reported he was in rehab after the fact and the tour was cancelled. They were supposed to be doing Lollapalooza and it had been cancelled. So there was clearly some trouble in the Nirvana camp and Michael's book had come out and Kurt had spoken about the fact that he had done heroin.
So you knew stuff was going on. But like everyone, now, seeing the film and hearing Kurt talk very specifically about killing himself and killing himself the way he did, now it doesn't seem that surprising. But I as a fan, as well as people close to Kurt; they may not have thought he was long for this world. The perception was that he'd OD. I don't think anyone was anticipating he'd commit suicide. I think that you felt there was fragility to his life at that moment, but I don't think anyone was prepared for finding out that he had killed himself.
Do you see a legacy for him? I know that's an overused word and very broad, but how do you see he will be perceived in the future and how will the film contribute to that?
My goal with the film is to let people connect to him in a more direct way that isn't clouded by all the other things.
Rumor, conjecture or conspiracy theories or whatever. Or people having a sense of knowing him. So many people make such declarative statements, like "This is who Kurt was," and I think they aren't often correct. So that's one level on it. I think the thing about Kurt is that he embraced outsider culture in a really big way. To say like, "Yeah, I'm an outsider, and not only that, I don't care if the other insiders get me, or buy my records or are interested in what I do at all." He's certainly not the first rebellious figure in popular culture.
But for my generation and people after, it remains a very appealing idea - the notion that you say, "I'm going to do what I want to do." It's pretty clear listening to the tapes that Kurt cared very much about what people thought about what he did. But to say, if you don't like gay people, fuck you and don't buy my record. If you're going to treat women badly, then I don't want you coming to my concert.
Or, as he said in the film, "You can suck my dick and spend $10 on my album."
Yeah. So that's an element that has a lot of appeal. He spoke out. And I think that will always be part of his appeal and for anyone who feels they have an artistic impulse in them that's not seen by others, or that they're part of a community that unfortunately doesn't value art in the same way, or value diversity of thought or opinion, he will continue to have a huge influence on all those people. I hope that this is a project that once and for all, people can look at as his statement of life and they will be able to take something meaningful from it.
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