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When blog trumps film

Doc filmmaker AJ Schnack's online persona has been getting all the attention.

October 05, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

The juggling of multiple and often conflicting responsibilities has become an integral part of the multi-tasking life. A whole new set of issues can arise when those separate duties intersect.

For AJ Schnack, the collision has come between his work as a documentary filmmaker -- his latest, "Kurt Cobain About a Son," opens today at the Nuart -- and a blog he started called All These Wonderful Things (edendale.typepad.com).

The movie is an artful, emotionally engaging portrait of the life and times of unlikely superstar Kurt Cobain, who as a member of the landmark group Nirvana was a figurehead of alternative rock before he committed suicide in 1995. The film is narrated in a sense by Cobain, with audio culminated from some 25 hours of interview tapes conducted by the journalist Michael Azerrad while working on his 1993 book "Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana."

The film's visuals, examining the spaces where Cobain lived and worked, become a hypnotic counterpoint to the bracing and often self-lacerating way in which Cobain discusses his childhood, his influences and the struggles of the rock life.

"It's not really about Nirvana at all," Schnack said recently at Dusty's restaurant on Sunset Boulevard near his Echo Park home. "It ends up being about this guy with severe depression."

Though the blog began in the summer of 2005 as a direct outgrowth of working on "About a Son," it has since taken on a life of its own. Schnack has become something of an authority figure for the world of documentaries, covering various issues faced by nonfiction filmmakers. In particular, he has written about the recent changes to the Oscar qualifying rules for documentary features, giving close attention to the newly mandated 14-city theatrical rollout for all potential nominees. Unlike many in the documentary community, Schnack has largely been in favor of the rollout, because it promotes theatrical exhibition of documentary films.

Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said that the rollout rules will likely be "streamlined" for next year, in no small part because of the response the academy has gotten from the documentary community, both online and in a series of meetings between AMPAS governors and filmmakers.

One sign of the growing influence of Schnack's blog is that while "About a Son" has played at more than 50 film festivals, the filmmaker has begun to be accredited as a journalist at some festivals where his work has not been shown.

It was while attending the influential Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina with "About a Son" this past spring that he really began to understand the way in which his online persona was beginning to bump up against his real work.

"I didn't really know who was reading it," he said of the blog. "I thought my friends and people looking for news about their own film, but when I got to Full Frame so many people came up to me who I'd never met and who are avid readers. People I would consider among the most powerful in our community in terms of being able to greenlight a project or grant money to a project. To find out they're reading was a bit surprising."

The downside to that interest, was that his own work as a filmmaker was taking a back seat. "The reaction to me was, 'I love your blog' and then they would be, 'Oh, right, your film is playing.' Not like they didn't know but it was kind of the secondary idea in their head."

There is now a second blog strictly for "Kurt Cobain About a Son." When he started All These Wonderful Things it was without any intention of creating a sounding board for issues within the documentary community. A graduate of the University of Missouri with a degree in broadcast journalism, Schnack's instincts were toward more reported work, and he naturally gravitated toward the issues that affect him as a filmmaker.

"It started as a kind of supplement to working on the film," he said, "and having an access point for people who'd be like, 'Oh, what's this new movie about Kurt Cobain?' And then it just continued to evolve and ends up being this other thing, almost exclusively about issues in nonfiction filmmaking. I don't really consciously think of how it splits up, but I think it's like 40% journalism, 40% advocacy and 20% my personal experiences in this world."

For Schnack, the issue of writing about the race for this year's documentary feature Oscar has already become a tricky one. In previous years he has extensively covered the buildup to the academy's announcement of a pre-nominations shortlist, handicapping the chances of various contenders. This year, he is largely having to beg off for fear of appearing to put his thumb on the scale for "About a Son."

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