Focused Home: Documentary filmmaker and Edwardsville native AJ Schnack just can't shake the Midwest -- never mind his LA address

Focused Home: Documentary filmmaker and Edwardsville native AJ Schnack just can't shake the Midwest -- never mind his LA address
Jennie Warren
AJ Schnack

Outside of Branson's Osmond Family Theater, the cast of The Magnificent Variety Show waves howdy to carloads of vacationers crawling along the town's main drag. They're downright shiny, these performers, with their gleaming white smiles, sequined dresses and iridescent sport coats. Yet few of the motorists on 76 Country Boulevard seem to pay the entertainers any mind. Later the cast will resort to plying tourists with discount vouchers and brochures hyping the revue's seven decades of music, comedy and dazzling costume changes.

If the night turns out to be a typical one, only a couple of people will redeem the coupons, and the increasingly empty seats make the future of The Magnificent Variety Show slightly less magnificent.

"I don't know how this works. How does" singer and dancer Ryan Walton wonders aloud, his face still bright as daybreak.

Rick Santorum on the stump in Iowa, from Caucus.
Rick Santorum on the stump in Iowa, from Caucus.

Location Info


Landmark Tivoli Theatre

6350 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: Delmar/ The Loop

Wildey Theatre

254 N. Main St.
Edwardsville, IL 62025

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: Collinsville/ Edwardsville

Plaza Frontenac

1701 S. Lindbergh Blvd.
Frontenac, MO 63131

Category: Retail

Region: Frontenac


We Always Lie to Strangers
Directed by AJ Schnack and David Wilson.
Opens Thursday, November 14, at the Tivoli.
A prescreening reception at 6 p.m. features a Q&A with the directors, live music and complimentary drinks.
The film screens at 7:30 p.m.

Directed by AJ Schnack.
Opens Friday, November 15, at 6:45 p.m. at Plaza Frontenac.
Additional screening on Sunday, November 17, at 4:30 p.m. at the Wildey.

That scene, toward the end of We Always Lie to Strangers, a new documentary about the people of Branson, is emblematic of filmmaker AJ Schnack. As in Schnack's Caucus — which follows the GOP's nine-month stump through Iowa prior to the 2012 presidential election — the director's tightly framed shots and close-up interviews could be called simple, were it not for the little flickers that reveal the most, like when a subject allows a split-second frown before forcing a smile.

See Also: Caucus, Reviewed

This week the St. Louis International Film Festival opens with Missouri's premiere of We Always Lie to Strangers. And on Thursday SLIFF will honor Schnack, who grew up in Edwardsville, Illinois, with its Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award, an accolade given to local figures who've made their mark within the film industry.

Fitting, then, that Schnack's latest two films are the ones he considers most influenced by his Midwestern upbringing.

"They're really the most direct connection to my childhood and the relationships I had growing up in Edwardsville," says Schnack by phone from the California home he shares with his wife, Shirley, and daughter, Madeleine. "The sense of community, family and the ever-presence of music was a chord I felt deeply in Branson. And going to Iowa and being amongst the people there really reiterated my core connection to the Midwest."

Schnack's foray into filmmaking began in front of the camera as opposed to behind it. As an undergraduate studying broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri, Schnack was an occasional weekend anchor at KOMU-TV (Channel 8), Columbia's NBC affiliate that gives journalism students their first on-air experiences. It wasn't a great fit.

"I always knew I wanted to do long-form pieces," says the 45-year-old director. "Working at Channel 8 was my realization that I couldn't just go do local news somewhere. The quick hit on something wasn't really long enough to tell the stories I wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell them."

Even so, he graduated in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism and then moved out to LA. There he found a job doing entry-level work for a few game shows, including Ruckus, a program that would go down in history as game-show guru Merv Griffin's only flop. (Schnack recalls that it was mercifully canceled after just a few months.) Later he worked for the music-video division of a production company, a job that hewed closer to his interests and helped reinvigorate his search for the right documentary project.

"I love music — whether the film's subject is music or not, and whether it's a composer or licensed music — it's a character in the film. You're saying something very specific with the music that you choose, and that's something I think about a lot," he says.

Music figured front and center in two of Schnack's earliest directorial works. In 2002 he released Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), a feature-length documentary about the pop duo They Might Be Giants. Four years later Schnack followed up with his best-known film to date, Kurt Cobain About a Son, a documentary based on 25 hours of interviews between the Nirvana frontman and journalist Michael Azerrad. The film earned a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award, with the Los Angeles Times calling Son an "artful, emotionally engaging portrait of [the] unlikely superstar."

See Also: Highlights of SLIFF's First Week

Forget flying or telepathy: Ever since he can remember, Schnack's superhero power of choice has been invisibility. Through his scrupulous approach to filmmaking, he has managed to come as close as possible to achieving it.

In November 2007 Schnack and his Strangers codirector, David Wilson, and producer, Nathan Truesdell, made Branson their second home. They would intermittently spend the next five years there working on the film. But first Schnack and his crew had to convince the locals that they weren't just there for what he calls a "drive-by shooting" — that is, to show up for a weekend, film and then bail.

"That really meant becoming a part of the community," Schnack says. "The first summer we were there, there was huge flooding, and we went out to help clean up some of the damage. And people were like, 'What are you doing?' And we're like, 'We live here. This is our community, so we have to take part.' We took it seriously that we were going to honor the folks who participated in the film. Which isn't to say we whitewashed Branson," Schnack insists. "We wanted to show a true look at it from how we thought of it during the time we were there."

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