Saturday, July 9, 2016

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director A.J. Schnack Talks About His New Short Film 'Speaking Is Difficult'

In an exclusive interview, Speaking Is Difficult director A.J. Schnack tells Bailey T. Steen about the shocking world we live in. Whether that be the state of our finger pointing society or the tragic actions and inactions that are costing so many lives today thanks to mass gun violence. He kindly answered our questions about his much praised short documentary that just released this May.  You can watch the film and read my review HERE.

BAILEY T. STEEN:  First off can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself, where you're from, what got you into filmmaking, that sort of thing.

A.J. SCHNACK:  I grew up in the midwest, outside of St. Louis and studied broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri. After college I moved to Los Angeles and started a music video production company.  Eventually this lead to me making my first feature documentary about the band They Might Be Giants.  Once I made that film, I was fully into making nonfiction films.

BAILEY:  One of the things I appreciate about Speaking Is Difficult is you tackled the type of documentary I admire most which is reflexive. Stepping back from inserting your own narration, getting interviews from left and right wingers, using these wide, yet isolated shots of where these events took place. Making a horror film, essentially, with such a dark subject. Was it a challenge to take on that minimalist approach while making Speaking Is Difficult? Did you consider and feel compelled to approach the film another way?

SCHNACK:  A little over a year ago, the filmmaker Laura Poitras asked me to join her in launching a new online platform for short and episodic documentary work.  Laura and I have been friends for a decade and she viewed this thing, which we ended up calling Field of Vision, as a way to engage the documentary community to respond to real-time events in the world.  We’d just launched our first films at Field of Vision when the shooting happened at a community college in Oregon.  I realized that we were in this perpetual loop in terms of how we responded to these mass shooting events - horror then outrage then demand for action. That would quickly be followed by finger pointing on all sides and then nothing would happen.  Meanwhile the sheer number of events continued to build and escalate.  Dealing not with just one shooting but with the trend seemed like the right approach.

BAILEY:  Considering the recent events in Orlando with the Pulse shooting and the passing of Christina Grimmie, it’s undeniably tragic it took another massive event like this to spark another dialogue about these issues. Using that repetitive cycle in the film itself, listening to those police scanners, even watching Fox News you see them calling out for something to happen, and yet nothing comes to pass. I want to know what has been your state of mind throughout all this. What is your stance on this pattern in America, and how you and Field Of Vision applied this view to Speaking Is Difficult?

SCHNACK:  Well, the film is a living document in that we will continue to update it as these events continue to occur.  I’m actually updating the film right now in start with Orlando rather than in San Bernardino.  It will continue to get longer.

BAILEY:  I understand the film is presented in reverse chronological order. Can you elaborate a bit on this structural choice? 

SCHNACK:  What we found was that the further you went back the more these locations returned to be places where there were just faint echoes of what had occurred there, so early on you see all these memorials and then as the film builds, the memorials start to recede. And it made sense to end in Tucson, which felt, to me and our researchers, like a very important moment in terms of telling this particular story.

BAILEY:  A major take away for me about the film was the approach you took with visuals. Distinct shots of the locales, of passing school buses, this gorgeous, haunting atmosphere you let us experience watching it. What steps did you go through in the planning and shooting process?

SCHNACK:  Well, it’s kind of nightmare tour of America.  You really do see the entire country in the film.  These are regular, everyday locations, places that people walk by everyday - restaurants, movie theaters, salons that are still operating.

BAILEY:  I understand you asked several local cinematographers to assist you with the film. Could you go into that decision with a bit more detail? How you went about in the creating process, what you asked of them, getting the information about these events and how long the process took?

SCHNACK:  Will Lennon, who produced the film, and I asked our regular collaborator Nathan Truesdell to go to Seal Beach, California and film there.  We gave him a sense of what we were looking for: composed, architectural shots that showed the environment.  We then cut his footage into a selects reel that we sent to cinematographers that Will recruited to film in these locations all around the country.  Initially we filmed 20 locations and that took a couple weeks.  Since then we’ve had to add 8 more.

BAILEY:  Another take away was the final closing lines delivered by Gabrielle Giffords. What was it that compelled you to include Giffords? And have you spoken with her about the film at all?

SCHNACK:  I've made a number of films around politics and I’ve spent a good deal of time with politicians.  The event she went to - that kind of community meet-and-greet - is something that every member of Congress is familiar with.  It remains shocking to me that Congress couldn’t engage in a conversation around gun violence after one of their colleagues was shot and her staff members were killed.  That to me was a real turning point.  Also, her speech to Congress and those words “Speaking is difficult” have meaning on so many levels.  

BAILEY:  As a confessed film addict and being the occasional independent short filmmaker myself, seeing the success Speaking Is Difficult has been getting on Youtube, Vimeo and Short of the Week over just two months has brought a smile to my face. I wanted to get your take on the state of short films and how it’s reaching out to audiences in modern cinema, living online perhaps more so than it ever would in the theatre, particularly for young filmmakers. What’s your take away with this evolution in film platform especially for documentaries and shorts and how do you and Field Of Vision see this going forward?

SCHNACK:  It's an amazing time for nonfiction right now in that filmmakers are freed from some of the shackles of length.  Films can be 7 1/2 hours like the O.J. epic, they can be a 5 minute short, they can be 10 8-minute episodes.  That’s incredibly exciting.  I also think that documentary filmmakers are learning from videos that have success online, even stuff like Funny or Die or catching something happening and seeing it go viral, about length and about how a single idea can carry a film.  That’s one of the reasons I’m really glad to be working in the short-form space at Field of Vision.  We’ve made a 6-part series on Syrian refugees, a 25-minute film on protests at the University of Missouri and a nearly wordless 8 minute film about a surveillance blimp.  Each of those had the freedom to become the length and format they should be.

BAILEY:  I’m sure if you look online you can see me praising this film to high heaven, and I’m very curious to know what the future of this film is in particular. Will you be looking into more festival screenings and strive towards potential awards consideration this upcoming season? Where do you see this film potentially going down the line?

SCHNACK:  Unfortunately, right now we are deep in re-editing the beginning of the film to include Orlando and two other mass shooting events, so that’s our primary focus.  We are continuing to screen at festivals and that has been really gratifying that festivals are interested in showing the film, even though it’s had such an amazing response online. It’s especially meaningful because I think the cinematographers collectively did such terrific work.  It’s a very cinematic film because they took such care in the framing and composition of their images.

BAILEY:  Do you have any upcoming projects that you'd like to share with our audience?

SCHNACK:  I've been following the US elections this year and we’ll be making a few projects from our footage.  The first is a series that I’m doing with First Look Media and Vanity Fair. It’s called Nomination and we’ve published 6 episodes so far.  Next up are the two national conventions.

BAILEY:  And finally, I'd like to end by asking what films have caught your attention this year?

SCHNACK:  I already mentioned the O.J. film.  I think it's really terrific.  And I’m on record that I think Cameraperson is a film that we will be talking about for a long, long time.  I also really liked Weiner, which is an amazing portrait of a marriage.

We appreciate Mr. Schnack for his cooperation and his time. Speaking Is Difficult can be found on Short Of The Week and through YouTube and Vimeo under Field Of Vision’s respective channels, so be sure to share it.

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