Interview: AJ Schnack (Speaking Is Difficult / Field of Vision)

AJ-Schnack Interview

Free of much of the industry hustle and bustle of most major film festivals, Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Festival is a sort of haven for the many doc filmmakers in attendance each year, many of whom return just for the fun of it rather than to present new work. Among the festival’s lucky visitors was AJ Schnack, founder of the Cinema Eye Honors, co-founder of Field of Vision, and director of the harrowing new short on mass shootings in America, Speaking is Difficult, which was presented as a portion of the Stand Beside Her and Guide Her shorts program. Despite the laid back atmosphere, Schnack had a pretty stacked schedule of Q&As for his own film, as well as moderation duties at various other events around the festival, including a Synapse Field Session Game Show. Plus, as a late addition to the fest, a short that was locally produced in Columbia on the racial tensions at Mizzou, Concerned Student 1950, which just made its online debut on Field of Vision, was to have its world premiere later that night. Somehow, in between screenings and celebrations of cinema we found the time to sit down over coffee to discuss his sobering new film, his continued involvement in Field of Vision and his currently-in-production project on the current primaries that follows in the footsteps of his previous election docs, Caucus and Midterms.

Jordan M. Smith: Your last few projects were feature length, though I know you’ve been involved with quite a few shorts recently through Field of Vision. What’s it been like for you working in the short form?
AJ Schnack: I have to say that my feelings about shorts have evolved. I think there was a time when I felt that a lot of the shorts I watched weren’t quite sure what they were – they wanted to be a feature or there were too many ideas for a short thing or there were not enough ideas for a 39 minute Oscar baiting thing. So, while there have been shorts that I’ve loved, as a genre or style of filmmaking it was something that I wasn’t completely drawn to until recently, before we started doing the Field of Vision stuff. Now I actually think that shorts offer so much potential and opportunity, because of them having an outlet that is not a film festival I think that people can wrap their brain more around what a short film can be. In a way, I think a lot of the viral stuff has contributed to non-fiction filmmakers and how they interact with the short form because they can see from watching things that aren’t documentaries the people’s sense of how much their attention span can deal with a short film. So, for me to work in it as a director is super exciting. My last four features have been vérité, which is something I deeply, deeply love, but to work in a constructed form, more like my film about Cobain, it was very exciting to work on something like that again.

Smith: I was surprised by the form actually. Formally, its basically a landscape film in the mold of James Benning or something. When you were thinking about the topic of this film, why did you decide to take this stylistic route?
Schnack: Backing up to some of the initial ideas that I had, kind of in the form of what we talked about for Field of Vision and what Field of Vision wanted to do – How does Field of Vision respond to a story that’s in the news, but not cover it in the same way that the news covers it, right? When the shooting happened in Oregon I noticed that there’s this cycle we have fallen into. It seems very driven by social media to a degree. First there’s the horror – not again – and then that gets into this sense of righteous anger – why can’t we do something? – then there’s finger pointing and then we all go back to our respective corners and forget about it. That kind of repetitive cycle, until there’s the next shooting, made me think, “Oh, if we did something where it was showing how this just repeats and repeats and repeats and repeats,” that was the initial idea, thinking about how to do that. Even in my vérité films I’ve tried to create a sense of place, I think sense of place is very important, and I wanted to see these places. I knew that some of them, like the Aurora Theaters had reopened and people were back to seeing movies there, I knew that was the case for some of them, but I don’t think I realized until we started going that most of them just go back to being normal places that you don’t even think about. So that became another thing in the film, with the further back in time you go, people are just walking along, going to get their hair done, going to get pancakes, without any sense of the horror that happened there.

Smith: At the screening you mentioned that once the film is up on Field of Vision you will add additional segments as more shootings occur. To me that’s really interesting, as it’s a short that could potentially expand to featuring, hopefully not, but it could. In that sense, it could be seen alongside the projects you mentioned that function as a test for a feature or a pitching tool. I know in some of the Field of Vision materials it was mentioned that the filmmakers will keep the rights to their projects and can expand upon them if they so choose. Have you been seeing that in some of the projects that you’ve been working on?
Schnack: There is definitely people who have ideas of wanting to continue on the themes that they are working with and we think that’s great, especially in certain cases where we’ve paired filmmakers on certain subject matter. So, the idea that they liked it so much that they want to keep working on it, that’s great! I think this is more of an exercise where The Onion is always republishing the, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” piece – that was our idea. Ok, if this is how this is going to be, our way of responding to this will just be to put it back at the top of the page with the new event. I think at a certain point it would become unbearable.

Smith: How emotionally invested can you be in a project like this. Watching it feels really cold, and it has to be in a sense, but as someone who has spent a lot of time with that material I would think that it has to affect you at a certain point.
Schnack: Well, it’s a bit maddening. This sort of ties in with all the stuff I’m doing around politics. There are two reasons why we end with the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and her address to congress is that there’s a change in terms of the frequency that these things are happening in 2011. We don’t know why in 2011 is the marker, but the frequency triples – there are literally three times as many of these kinds of shootings since 2011. That’s one piece. The other piece is that I spend a lot of time around politicians and now at this stage, when you’re running for president you have a lot of guards around you, sometimes secret service, but for someone like Gabrielle Giffords or whoever the local congressmen is here or the senator from Arizona, you know, they’re going to have a town hall and they’re are probably going to have a 20-something aid staffing them for the day, maybe another person, and the fact that they saw this happen to one of their colleagues and they couldn’t get together to do anything, and not just about gun control, closing loop-holes, restricting certain kinds of weapons, or talk about mental health, but they couldn’t do anything. So, when people say it all changed in Newtown after we let kids die, to me it’s changed then because it happened to one of them and I’m sure the next town hall they walked into they were looking around thinking, “Is there someone here to do this to me?” There’s an aspect of it that is maddening to me and the fact that both parties – Democrats weren’t even talking about this issue until very recently – were just kind of content to let this be the way things are. As I’ve said to a bunch of people, I think it’s offensive to suggest that in America, the cost of doing business is that we are just going to have these things and we are not going to try to do anything about them. So, it is something I care a lot about, but mostly from the same point of the incompetence of it because I think there are very few things that everyone agrees the government should be doing, and one of them is offering security. Republicans and Democrats agree that there should be a level of security that the government offers and both parties have basically thrown up their hands and said, “Except on this topic.” It’s insane.

Smith: So, guns are the topic of your film, essentially, but it’s not the only film that has taken up this subject matter as its topic. It’s kind of a banner year for this topic, not just at Sundance, but here at True/False as well, even in the Neither/Nor series with films like The Killing of America and others. Do you know why this year seems to be the tipping point for the subject or any thoughts on its prevalence this year?
Schnack: It’s partially the amount of time it takes to make films and certainly Newtown inspired a lot of people in the creative community to think about why would something like that happen. If you go three years past that, which is the amount of time it takes for a lot of films to get funding and get access to do things, it may just be the matter of time. I think there are things out their in the ether somehow, in conversations people have or maybe it’s like someone wrote a magazine article that people don’t remember, but I do feel that there are things that, when we see these waves of topics that there is something in the air a few years ago that got everybody kind of got everyone pointed in the same direction.

Smith: One thing that happens with shorts when presented online is that they are almost always paired with other films. As a filmmaker, how have you felt about the way your film has been programmed with other films and how does it feel to see your film as part of those programs?
Schnack: I know, because the programmers have told me, that it has been a challenge for them to program my film with another film, I think it’s finding the film that comes after. I will say that the film Maman(s), that Sundance programmed after our film – its a fiction film because they do mixes – and it was a film that started a little bit slowly and built into this beautiful and powerful thing, and there is a moment in it that is harrowing and having it come after our film it actually underplays. It plays like, oh shit, what’s gonna happen now? Because we’ve just been through this thing and where is the dark, dark place that Sundance is about to take us? I think the best shorts programmers have the ability to do that, where you do feel like you’re on this rollercoaster and they’ve done that with this program (here at True/False) as well I think. They take to us to kind of a dark place and then they take us with the end (in this case These C*cksucking Tears) and get everybody to be like, “Yeah, that was great!” [clapping] Whereas, if the last film was something horrid, everybody would be like, “Man, don’t go to see that shorts program.” But to answer the other part of your question, the film hasn’t been paired with a feature yet, so I haven’t seen that element. I think it would be smart not to pair it with one of the gun features, and instead to pair it with something very different, but have the same concerns as maybe Maman(s) had for various reasons.

Smith: So, how is Field of Vision going for you? From the outside it’s an incredibly exciting, formally experimental new entity.
Schnack: Yeah, it’s like that from the inside too! We’re still figuring different pieces out, but this season which we’re about to launch [Concerned Student 1950 has since been published] I’m incredibly excited about. I think Margaret Brown’s The Black Belt [which just premiered at SXSW] has wonderful humor and also is a real direct look at race in America in a really brilliant way. And while I think it plays to a film like The Order of Myths or other things that Margaret has done, I think it’s also very different from anything she’s done, so I’m excited about it. Garrett Bradley’s film Like [which also debuted at SXSW] is this dreamy, sonic tone poem about how we interact with social media and where we interact with social media.

Smith: That sounds like the perfect venue for that film!
Schnack: Yeah! And we have two series that we are working on that are almost finished – something that someone came to us with, a cold call. We saw his material and we were like, “Yeah, we want to do the this as a series.” So, that will be a five or six part series.

Smith: I really liked #ThisIsACoup. It’s really well made.
Schnack: I know! It’s challenging to do the series because you’re doing the work of five or six projects at once, but it’s great! It’s so exciting, and thinking about it, because then you’re thinking episodic and how do you tell a story in chapters? How do you end a chapter to get people to want to go to the next chapter?

Smith: To me, #ThisIsACoup could have been a feature. What the project you proposed or where they working on it…?
Schnack: So, they were working on it. That wasn’t so cold cally in that they just wanted to get it out faster and we want to be there for those kinds of projects. And BRITDOC is one of the entities that had been working with them and so Jess [Search] reached out to us and said, “This is something we are working and we think we’d like to get it out in December. Is that something that you guys could be on board with?” And so it kind of became all encompassing for November and December, just making sure that we could do that. But I think it is a great way to play with the short form, to play with the episodic and to do things online and to get things out in shorter period of time. I was saying, when I went to school here, a lot of what you thought of documentary being on television certainly was the PBS stuff, but people like Peter Jennings and Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather would have a multi-night documentary series. It certainly was them hosting and you know, but #ThisIsACoup and this new piece run about an hour, that broadcast length, thinking about that as an idea and deconstructing it down into chapters so that people can watch it on their computers. I’m very excited about that as an idea. Certainly, with Serial and The Jinx and Making a Murderer and everything else, people really are interested in that idea of a story they can sit with for a while.

Smith: I think that is more a cultural shift overall, this idea that people are more interested in serial stories in all formats than they’ve ever been, where characters are built over time. It almost seems that there is less and less interest in the traditional feature film format for that specific reason.
Schnack: Well, certainly people’s perception of how you can watch stuff has broadened and that’s great. Certainly the challenge is to the traditional feature length film. We’ve always from the beginning have thought it might be interesting for someone who hasn’t made a feature length film who would deconstruct it for our purposes. It could still play festivals and have a theatrical experience with it, but ultimately we would publish it as something that is in seven parts or something like that. I don’t know. We’ll see if we get to that point. Oh! The only other thing I want to add about the season is this film that we are going to world premiere tonight, Concerned Student 1950which I’m incredibly excited about. I reached out to Robert Greene, whose teaching here now. As an alumnus [of the University of Missouri] I was very interested in what was happening on campus. When I went to school here, there were issues around race and how the university was responding to issues around race, and I saw sad echoes in what was happening again and in the even stronger student led response. I said to Robert, “You are there. Are you interested in doing it?” And he was like, “Well, my students are shooting.” So, the opportunity we have had to work with three students who have already been inside this student movement filming and being able to pair them with an editor in New York who could take their footage – they’ve created a half hour long film – it will be the longest thing we’ve published in a single chunk and it goes deeper inside that story than anyone has been able to do. It talks about race, it talks about this topic of safe spaces on college campuses, and it has a lot to say about Columbia as well. And we just finished it, so the ability to have a screening here, which we weren’t sure we were going to be able to do for a variety of reasons, one, I didn’t know if it would be ready, and two, of course True/False isn’t just going to program something just because it’s a local thing. But, they saw it and were like, “We need to show this.” In additional to all the films that I mentioned earlier, it’s something that I am incredibly proud of and I can’t wait to get them online.

Smith: What exactly is your role within the Field of Vision team?
Schnack: Craft service. [laughs] I get the coffee. Um…We all work together. It’s part of the interesting thing with us is that we’re still also doing other things. Laura just had a major show at the Whitney Museum, and I’ve been out filming politicians. So, part of that is that we have a team so we can continue doing that stuff, that we’ll still be able to make these films and get them done. The ideas come from all of us. We’re trying to pay attention to what’s happening in the world and I think I push that a lot just in terms of, “Here’s a weird story.” That was certainly true of Margaret’s film – this is an interesting idea and Margaret would be a good filmmaker to do it. Charlotte has always had her ear to the ground about what’s bubbling up, both in terms of what filmmakers, as well as projects that people are working on. So, Garrett was someone who Charlotte really wanted to work with and Garrett and Charlotte talked, and Garrett presented a bunch of great ideas. And Laura is Laura. Laura has a super keen sense of the edit. I think more than anyone else I’ve known, Laura has a sense of where a project is in terms of its completion on whether it’s close or not. The three of us are trying to be open to ideas and filmmakers and we’ve got the ability to greenlight, so when we all agree we can just move forward.

Smith: So, after seven or eight months of doing this, is it working like you wanted it to work, or is there anything you are striving for that isn’t working quite yet?
Schnack: There are some differences in terms of perception and what we’ve been able to do. I think we’re ending up spending more time because the films deserve it and we’ve just decided not to rush.

Smith: I remember the initial announcement was something like 50 projects a year and I thought, holy cow, that seems like a lot!
Schnack: Right, and to say like 40 or 50, that would include six episodes. That’s a thing, and I think we’ll get close. We’ll certainly spend our budget. [laughs] We might do a little bit less than that, but I think we will have spent more time because the films deserve the attention and care, not just, “We’re gonna put ’em up because we need to put something up this week.” As opposed to, yeah, we can take another couple weeks to make sure it’s right.

Smith: I’m curious about Field of Vision shorts being externally distributed because obviously they are playing at some festivals. Are you getting any interest from people wanting to show them outside of the online venue?
Schnack: I think especially for our series we’ll be working with partners to get them more broadly seen. Whether that’s in a digital space or some combination of digital and terraforma, I think we’ll do what’s best for each film. You know, we want the films to be available on our site. We want people who want to be able to see Field of Vision films to be able to go to a place and see them, but they don’t have to start there. They can certainly start somewhere else.

Smith: I saw on Twitter that you had a crew at a Trump rally shooting and I’m wondering what you are personally working on currently.
Schnack: I’ve been following the last few elections in a variety of ways. As you know, in 2011 and ’12 we made a film about the Republicans in Iowa [Caucus] and I did a series [Midterms] for Al Jazeera America, rest in peace.

Smith: I actually haven’t seen that, as I couldn’t track down a copy.
Schnack: No one has seen it. [laughs] Hopefully I have a copy somewhere because otherwise I think it’s going the way of the dinosaurs. But, we followed the midterm elections in 2014 and I honestly wasn’t sure if we would do something this electoral cycle or not, but then it just kind of…last spring there were enough people who were asking what we were going to do and then it just seemed like a really interesting cast of characters. So, we started filming in the spring and have been going a bit non-stop ever since. It’s turning out to be a bigger than project than any of the previous films and what it becomes I can’t quite say. I think we have some exciting possibilities about what it could be, but yeah, on Super Tuesday we had eight filmmakers in eight states and I’m getting to work with a bunch of really amazing cinematographers who have become almost as obsessed, or maybe as obsessed about this election as I’ve been. I know where we’re going, but the final chapter has clearly not been filmed yet.

Smith: Will your future projects be distributed through Field of Vision or…?
Schnack: The other thing that Laura and I decided was that we will do stuff for Field of Vision, like Speaking is Difficult, but not everything we do is going to go through that, both for the reason that we want to work with filmmakers, we didn’t do this to have our own personal distribution outlet. [laughs] Oh….there’s a purse over there with money! We have a larger company, First Look Media, who had a very good weekend last weekend [Oscars] because they were one of the companies behind Spotlight and so First Look wants to do stuff and they’re curious and they’ll do fiction and non-fiction and they’ll do a bunch of other things. I’m working with them on the primaries project and they worked with Laura on her Julian Assange series which we’ll be hearing more about in the future. So, yeah, there are opportunities to do projects within our parent company, but with Field of Vision we want to keep working with great filmmakers, some who we know and some who we’ve never even met.