AJ Schnack has made documentaries about music: “Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)” (2002) explored the world of the alternative rock band from Lincoln, They Might Be Giants; “Kurt Cobain About a Son” (2006) delved into the mental and physical landscapes inhabited by the self-destructive grunge star.
Schnack has also made documentaries about politics. “Caucus” (2013) followed would-be Republican presidential candidates campaigning for votes in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. And during the recent midterm election, he turned in up-to-the minute reports from battleground states for Al Jazeera America.
And in “We Always Lie to Strangers,” a portrait of the Ozark musical theme park of Branson, Mo., he makes a documentary about both. On the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Schnack talks about filming this combination of Las Vegas, Disneyworld, and the Grand Ole Opry nestled in the conservative heart of the Midwest.
Q. Why Branson?
A. I grew up outside of St. Louis and Branson was a place I went to as a kid. I have vague memories of amusement parks and horseback rides. My mother started going there when it became popular in the ’90s and she’d talk about going to three shows a day. It seemed crazy that there were shows headlined by famous people like Andy Williams and Tony Orlando. Then I met David Wilson, who’s from Columbia, Mo., and he said he wanted to make a feature film about Branson and asked me if I wanted to co-direct.
Q. Do you see Branson as a microcosm of economic and social changes in America?
A. When we arrived in 2007, things started going wrong. Gas prices went up and then there was the economic collapse in 2008. For a good decade Branson was able to get bus tours of the World War II generation, but at a certain point these people weren’t traveling any more. Some with a more entrepreneurial spirit thought of instituting a “Gay Day.” They’re still trying to figure out how to deal with the changes.
Q. Some filmmakers might have satirized Branson, but you take it seriously. Was that your original intent?
A. I don’t think it’s very interesting to reinforce already held beliefs. You want to bring new insight. Documentarians cover a lot of the world but there aren’t a lot of films about Republicans in the Midwest. It’s the culture I grew up in and when we have shifts like in 2010 and this year it’s easy to make generalizations about what happened and sometimes those generalizations are pretty uninformed. Democrats can be as dismissive of Republicans, as they feel that Republicans are dismissive of them. I prefer to stay in the middle and understand both sides.
As Albert Maysles says, the filmmaker’s heart should reach through the camera and touch the subject’s heart. That’s what feels real to me.
“We Always Lie to Strangers” screens Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, followed by a Q&A with co-director David Wilson moderated by local documentarian Jane Gillooly. For more information go to firstname.lastname@example.org.