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

AJ Schnack
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.

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."

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.

"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.

"We have to be very patient and let the story tell itself without interfering or pushing it along," says Nathan Truesdell, the producer and cinematographer on both Strangers and Caucus. "With Caucus we had a built-in end date. Someone was going to win. With We Always Lie to Strangers, there was no third act to let us know when we were done. There was no first act when we arrived. The story continues where we left off."

Truesdell, who also graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia, earned a degree in computer science, which might account for his adeptness at taking care of the technical side of things, while he calls Schnack a genius at cinematography, keeping track of contacts, locations and planning.

"We also both edit, and, eerily, we're on the same page at least 95 percent of the time," Truesdell says. "It's extremely helpful to have someone with the same aesthetic to be able to bounce ideas off of in order to cut through the bullshit."

Schnack and Truesdell agree that documentary filmmakers are storytellers, not journalists. "We make film using real people and real situations, and then we take that material and craft a narrative from it," says Schnack, who counts Errol Morris, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers among the documentarians who have most influenced his filmmaking. "For years, people wanted to put the rules of journalism onto documentary, but we're finally starting to move away from that and getting to a point where people realize that nonfiction film can be anything."

The differences between Caucus and Strangers were perhaps at their starkest behind the scenes, when it came to the relationships that developed between the filmmakers and their subject matter. With Strangers, Schnack and his team couldn't help but become intertwined in the lives of their subjects, sharing stories and pictures of their own families and making what they consider to be lifelong friends in the process. Shooting Caucus, the crew took a different tack: It was far easier to get close to the politicians if the filmmakers didn't have to divulge what they were doing, says Truesdell.

"At one point a press person for one of the candidates asked me who we were with, and I replied, 'We're making an independent documentary.' He said, 'Oh. So you're secret operatives for the Iowa Democratic Party.' There was so much going on that it was much easier to not have to explain. We never asked the candidates questions and never got in anyone's way. We were just there. Always."

We Always Lie to Strangers had its first showing this past March at South by Southwest, where it received the Special Jury Recognition for Directing. Branson mayor Raeanne Presley was there for its debut, beaming as Schnack, Wilson and Truesdell strolled down the streets of Austin, sporting the Presleys' trademark sequined patriotic jackets.

And though she admits that it's difficult to be introspective, she also believes Branson is fairly represented in the film. She calls Schnack a great talent.

"I'd like to think we're not vastly different from most small towns — quirky, trying hard to make it a better place, loving our friends and families, funny, and, yes, flawed," says Presley.

When Schnack receives the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award this week, he'll join prestigious ranks. Past honorees have included Bob Gale, the cowriter and producer of Back to the Future fame; Jeremy Lasky, Pixar's director of cinematography; and actress Jenna Fischer.

Cinema St. Louis executive director Cliff Froehlich notes that Schnack is worthy of recognition for more than just his work behind the camera. For years Schnack authored All These Wonderful Things, a blog widely discussed and admired among the documentary-filmmaking community for its sharp insight and reporting. In 2007 Schnack also cofounded the venerable Cinema Eye Honors that recognizes artistic excellence in documentary filmmaking. Cinema Eye's seventh awards ceremony will take place in New York City in January.

"We've had our eye on AJ for some time because of his substantial body of work — not just his highly regarded films," says Froehlich. "We've played all of his previous films at SLIFF, and it seemed highly appropriate that he receive the award this year, given that he has two films playing the fest, including one on a Missouri subject."

Schnack's next doc is percolating. Though he isn't quite ready to unveil his idea, he says that if he gets to do it, it will be very, very fun.

"Standing there with the camera, filming a real event or moment as opposed to a staged one, and having something unexpected happen — or becoming invisible to the participants — it's exhilarating."