With a journalist's attention to detail and a cinematographer's eye for storytelling, Edwardsville native A.J. Schnack has become an acclaimed documentary filmmaker during the past decade.
He will return home to Edwardsville on Nov. 17 for the screening of both his recent nonfiction features, "We Always Lie to Strangers," a true story focusing on four performing families in Branson, Mo., and "Caucus," an inside look into the Republican candidates campaigning for the Iowa Caucus in 2012. They will be shown at The Wildey Theatre as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. He will participate in a question-and-answer session after each screening.
"My mom hasn't seen either film, so I am looking forward to watch them with her. I've been very fortunate to screen my movies at the St. Louis International Film Festival. It's very special to me. I think these films have a deep connection to my childhood, growing up in the Midwest," Schnack said during a phone call from his Los Angeles home.
"I'm excited. My family's home church is going to have a sausage supper that day. I can't think of a better day than that -- screening my movies in my hometown and whole-hog sausage," he said.
Schnack's movie is also the opening night program Thursday at SLIFF, with a reception, screening and performance by the Lennons at the Tivoli Theatre beginning at 7:30 p.m. (Doors open at 6 p.m.) His co-director, David Wilson, and cinematographer/producer Nathan Truesdell, also will be on hand.
Schnack's skills extend beyond directing to writing, editing and cinematography. It's important for him to be as much hands-on as possible.
"I love shooting. To actually have the camera in your hand and edit what you want without telling someone what you want done, that is really satisfying to me," he said.
After graduation from the University of Missouri with a bachelor's degree in journalism, Schnack moved to L.A., where he worked at broadcast outlets and immersed himself in film and TV projects. He worked on music videos and used the band They Might Be Giants for his first feature-length documentary, "Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns."
Using Kurt Cobain's personal history and scoring the images with his music, Schnack's documentary "Kurt Cobain About a Son" received much acclaim in 2006, premiering at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival and being nominated for a 2007 Independent Spirit's Truer than Fiction Award.
Equally passionate about music and politics, he has explored personal stories to illuminate a bigger picture, and show America a snapshot of itself in the early 21st century.
For the past five years, he has worked on the Branson documentary and also the Iowa Caucus movie, which both have been garnering rave reviews while making the rounds of documentary film festivals.
Those who have seen the films remark that they are not what you might presume. They are not condescending, rather presenting the subject matter with an intimate attention to detail, showing the humanity first and foremost.
"In the Branson movie, you might think it's going to be snarky, taking potshots at the rubes, but it is actually a warm portrait of the town and the people," said Cliff Froehlich, director of the St. Louis International Film Festival. "Obviously Branson is a huge phenomenon, a family-friendly Vegas. Like it or make fun of it, it is a significant piece of Missouri."
"I was surprised by 'Caucus;' he takes great care in representing everyone in it," Froehlich said.
Schnack attributes his interest in the news to his father.
"My dad loved the news. He watched the news every evening. He and I would watch 'Nightline' together every night. These are the stories that interest me, that had to translate to me as a kid," he said.
As for covering the Iowa Caucus, he was first there in 1988, covering it as a student journalist.
"Seeing the entire media and political circus, it was really something to see. It is an interesting piece of the American political process," he said.
With the 2012 election, and eight candidates slogging through the state's 99 counties, he had to record it for posterity.
"First of all, the personalities -- what an amazing cast of characters. The frontrunner would change all the time. We'll probably never see one like this for a long, long time."
Brandon Harris of Filmmaker Magazine said this about the film: "Veteran docmaker A.J. Schnack's 'Caucus,' a profile of six months with the Romneys and Santorums and Bachmanns and Cains and Pauls in Iowa, is one of the great political nonfiction films of our time; a worthy successor to Robert Drew's 'Primary' and Hegedus/Pennebaker's 'The War Room.'"
Branson piqued his interest early, particularly as an entertainment mecca in a place that's not so easy to get to.
"That was obvious it was an interesting idea."
"What interested me was the families, the people who do three shows a day. I wanted to make it about the people who live and perform in a tourist town. The brand of Branson was fascinating to me," he said. "I was touched deep inside by these real people and their real situations. Some of it is quite powerful."
The Lennons, who will perform at SLIFF, were special to him.
"Here are these liberal California Democrats who moved to the Ozarks. Where do they fit in? Isolated, they are deeply interested in the historic culture of the Ozarks, that part of rural Missouri. Bill and Gail are very interesting."
Schnack is working on his next project, but can't reveal it just yet. Meanwhile, he is traveling to festivals to present his works. He is a strong advocate for the documentarians.
"We're a community. We're a family. We support each other," he said. "I feel very lucky to be with like-minded filmmakers."