AJ Schnack


AJ SCHNACK is a nonfiction filmmaker, artist and writer based in Los Angeles.  He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a native of Southern Illinois.

His nonfiction film work includes Lightning vs. Thunder (2019), Speaking is Difficult (2016-2018), Caucus (2013), We Always Lie to Strangers (2013), Convention (2009), Kurt Cobain About a Son (2006), Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (2002) and several acclaimed vérité series on American electoral politics, including the 6-part Primaries for Fusion (2016), the 10-part short form series Nomination for Vanity Fair (2016) and the 3-hour series Midterms for Al Jazeera America (2014).

His latest short documentary, Lightning vs. Thunder, which he directed with frequent collaborator Nathan Truesdell, had its World Premiere at the American Film Institute’s 2019 AFI DOCS festival in Washington, D.C. The film tells the story of the inspiring friendship of a 23-year old Afghanistan War veteran and a 9-year old girl from Minnesota.

In 2016, Schnack directed Speaking is Difficult, a nonfiction short on mass shooting events that had its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and was the subject of write-ups in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Indiewire for its unique format of being constantly updated to include recent mass shooting incidents. The film was most recently updated in March 2018 following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida and was published by the New Yorker. Speaking is Difficult screened at True/False, Full Frame, Sheffield, Los Angeles, Camden and more than two dozen other international film festivals.  It received the award for Best Documentary Short Film at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at AFI FEST in Los Angeles.

Over the past decade, Schnack has specialized in films about the American electoral process. Schnack’s work in political vérité has been hailed by the NY Times as “a testament to the power of observational documentary”, by the Washington Post as “not just delightful watching, but required viewing” and by Vanity Fair as “a bittersweet ode to the disposability of political dreams; a salty slice of Americana.”

In 2018, he adapted his footage of a decade in American politics to create “Ritual Political”, a multi-screen video art installation at the Eaton Workshop Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Schnack has discussed politics and filming politicos on NPR's All Things Considered, MSNBC, ABC News/Yahoo!'s PowerPlayers, HuffPost Live, Washington PostTV, Al Jazeera America, Young Turks and Current TV in addition to multiple national and local radio programs. 

His most recent works in the political field are Nomination (2016), a 10-part documentary short-form series for Vanity Fair that was nominated for an International Documentary Association award for Short Form Series, and Primaries (2016), a 6-part half-hour television series for the Fusion network.  Both Nomination and Primaries covered the 2016 presidential race and include more than a year on the campaign trail filming the Republicans and Democrats seeking their party’s nomination and both premiered while the presidential contest was still happening.

Prior to 2016, Schnack was the Director and Executive Producer on Midterms (2014), a 3-part political vérité series for Al Jazeera America that chronicled four pivotal 2014 Congressional races in Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina.  Airing in the fall of 2014 while the elections were still to be decided, Midterms was notable for its bipartisan access to high profile candidates (including Republican phenomenon Joni Ernst and sitting North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan) in the midst of several hard-fought races that tipped the balance in the US Senate.  

In 2013, he debuted his acclaimed film Caucus, a cinéma vérité portrait of the 2011-12 Republican race to compete in the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucus.  Caucus had its world premiere at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto and celebrated its US Premiere in June as the Closing Night Film at the inaugural AFI Docs in Washington, D.C.  Schnack won the award for Best Director at the 2013 Philadelphia Film Festival for the film.

In 2008, Schnack teamed with co-director David Wilson and producer Nathan Truesdell to film We Always Lie to Strangers (2013), about four families dealing with change and economic challenges in the tourist town of Branson, Missouri. Strangers debuted at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, where it won the jury prize for Directing.  In 2017, it was named to the US State Department’s American Film Showcase diplomacy program.

Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Previous nonfiction works include the ensemble documentary Convention (2009), which was released by IFC Films/Sundance Selects; Kurt Cobain About a Son (2006), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was released theatrically in North America, France, Japan, Brazil, Australia and aired on More4 in the United Kingdom; and Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (2002), which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and was released theatrically in North America by Cowboy Pictures and Plexifilm.

In addition to the 2013 SXSW and Philadelphia Directing Prizes, Schnack was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Kurt Cobain About a Son and was the first recipient of AFI Silverdocs' Cinematic Vision Award for that same film.  

In addition to directing, Schnack often photographs and edits his films, as well as those of other filmmakers.  He was an editor on Michael Rapaport's Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Producers Guild Award for Best Documentary, and a cinematographer on Robert Greene’s acclaimed Actress (2014), which was nominated for the Gotham Award for Best Documentary.

In 1995, Schnack and Shirley Moyers opened the LA-based production company, Bonfire Films of America, which would produce a number of iconic and award-winning music videos in its first decade, including clips for blink-182, Incubus, Papa Roach, eels, They Might Be Giants, Edwyn Collins, the Connells, 311, Cake, Knapsack and Ben Folds Five. In 2009, Bonfire would produce seven landmark videos for OK Go, including their Rube Goldberg-inspired This Too Shall Pass and the Grammy Award nominated All Is Not Lost.

From 2015-2017, Schnack partnered with Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) to create and Executive Produce Field of Vision, an online platform for cinematic short-form journalism. The first films in the series had their public debut at the New York Film Festival.  In its first year, Field of Vision won the Short Form Series Award from the International Documentary Association, the News and Politics: Series Award at the Webby Awards and was nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy for Best Short Documentary.  Through the summer of 2017, Field of Vision films have screened at Sundance (Peace in the Valley, Project X), True/False (Concerned Student 1950, Best of Luck With the Wall), SXSW (Like, The Moderators), Full Frame (The Black Belt, Timberline), Sheffield Doc/Fest (Gatekeeper), New York Film Festival (The Vote, The Above, Birdie) and Laura Poitras' feature documentary Risk had its World Premiere at Cannes Directors Fortnight. 

Schnack is the Founding Director of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, which held its 10th annual ceremony at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City in January 2017.  From 2005-2011, he wrote the popular nonfiction film blog, All these wonderful things.  He has served on juries at Sheffield Doc/Fest, CPH:DOX, DokuFest Kosovo, Los Angeles, AFI Silverdocs, Miami, Sarasota, Denver, Ashland and the Independent Spirit Awards and he has curated panels and at the IDA’s Getting Real Conference, Sheffield Doc/Fest, AFI Silverdocs and True/False.