Branson, famous for its nostalgic interpretation of America, has a meticulously curated image, and Schnack remembers some early interviews being nearly unwatchable. Their subjects — politicians, entertainers, business owners — rattled off media-ready answers seemingly designed to showcase themselves and their town in the most flattering light possible.

"We weren't sure that they'd be entirely comfortable with people seeing all of it. When you go to Disneyland, you don't want to think about a 22-year-old kid in a costume who just got dumped by his girlfriend and has a lot of other stuff going on," Schnack says. "All you want to think about is, 'There's Mickey Mouse.' It's a similar thing. They just want you to have a great experience in Branson. Knowing that there's a custody battle or that someone is ill or dying, I think all of those things are not necessarily things they'd want people to see."

But over time the filmmakers became so ingrained within the community it sometimes appears residents forgot they were there at all. Strangers lets its audience take the passenger seat in cars, gives backstage access to shows, and an invite inside the kitchens and living rooms of some of Branson's legendary families.

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.

"At first, having David, AJ and Nate around was exciting and fun," Branson mayor Raeanne Presley tells Riverfront Times. "Who doesn't want to be the center of attention? Within a few weeks that changed into a pit-of-stomach kind of feeling: What was their true intent? Could I trust them with my own personal story, the story of the Presley family, and the town I love? Once we got past that then I genuinely looked forward to their visits. Like most of life, five years flew by."

Boasting more seats than Broadway and some $3 billion in tourism revenue per year, Branson is an entertainment behemoth. And in its star-spangled earnestness, it's also an obvious enough punch line. But We Always Lie to Strangers doesn't parody it as some backwoods Vegas. Instead Branson is seen as a quirky small town that has reaped the rewards of smart business decisions by risk-taking individuals who just want to make guests happy — even if it means poking a bit of fun at itself.

That eagerness to please also accounts for the film's cryptic title. The Ozarks region was once far more isolated than it is today. When outsiders would visit, locals would sometimes talk a little louder, exaggerate their drawl and spin tall tales known as "windies" — stories that put themselves, the simple country folk, as the butt of the joke for the benefit of tourists.

"They see their first duty as being good hosts," Schnack says. "They feel like, if you come there, they should give you a little bit of what you came there for — which might be a hillbilly — but they should give you the best entertainment that they can possibly give you. It should be a good value, it should be entertaining and you should feel very welcomed."

It's easy to think Branson's singers and dancers just sprout from the ground like so many trees in the Ozark Mountains. In reality, many are transplants, and each has a story. Though Schnack estimates he could have picked from among two dozen story lines, the film ultimately spotlights only four. In Strangers, audiences will get to know entertainer Chip Holderman, a gay, divorced father of two young boys; the Presleys, whose patriarch, Lloyd, is one of Branson's earliest pioneers as well as the mayor's father-in-law; the Lennon family, of The Lawrence Welk Show fame; and the Tinocos, whose business and livelihood, The Magnificent Variety Show, is flagging.

Even in the face of economic uncertainty, waning crowds and an undertone of homophobia, Schnack sees Branson as a "kind of amazing fantasyland" where performers get opportunities they might not in New York or Las Vegas. "Maybe they're not a perfect body size, or maybe they just want to have a good family life," Schnack says. "Whatever difficulties they may have on a day-to-day basis, I think all of them feel that Branson is a very special place that allows them to do something they couldn't do anywhere else."

As in Schnack's other documentaries, music plays the role of a character in We Always Lie to Strangers. Spare guitars and lonesome harmonies settle in as the camera sweeps over the Ozarks' vast wilderness. Another scene takes viewers into a dressing room as the Lennon Sisters belt out songs into plastic mixing spoons that serve double duty as microphones.

Branson, too, takes a starring role.

"I go into everything a little bit differently, but having a strong sense of place, making the location a character in itself, is really important in all of my films," Schnack says. "Certainly Branson and the Ozarks in Strangers, and Iowa in Caucus, but New York City looms over all of Gigantic, and Washington State is almost an equal-lead character in Kurt Cobain About a Son."

In Caucus, which also has its St. Louis premiere this week, Iowa's borders clearly define the setting. But documentary films require that directors toss out their road maps.

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