Interview: AJ Schnack on Capturing the Thrill of a Home Run Chase for the Ages in “Long Gone Summer”

It’s telling that “Long Gone Summer” opens not with one of its two lead characters in Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, whose chase after Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 home runs in the summer of 1998 captured the imagination, but with Todd McFarlane, the creator of “Spawn” who used the money from his toy and comic book empire to buy the ball McGwire launched into the stands of Busch Stadium for his final #70. As McFarlane who paid $3 million to own a piece of history, says, he’d be unable to have that opportunity in any other sport, but “in baseball, as soon as the ball touches the bat, anyone could be part of that story.”

One such person is AJ Schnack, who couldn’t be there himself for #70 or the majority of other dingers that McGwire muscled out of the park that season after moving out from the midwest to start pursuing a career in the film business, but could feel the same sense of ownership that any number of fans had watching the sluggers from the Cards and Cubs one-up each other in a home run duel for the ages. During a year in which Major League Baseball might have no games as a result of the coronavirus, “Long Gone Summer” is an exhilarating substitute, taking audiences back to the last time the game had been put on hold as a result of the strike of 1994 and how McGwire and Sosa’s battle of the brawn single-handedly brought the sport back from the brink of losing its status as America’s favorite pastime.

Not only does Schnack offer a breath of fresh air for those who have been missing the game, having an intimate feel for the sights and sounds of a sport he grew up on listening to on the St. Louis affiliate KMOX, but you sense he provided that as well to McGwire and Sosa, who became friends as much as rivals during their chase and have rarely spoken of the experience since it happened when their home run records were tainted by talk of performance-enhancing steroids. “Long Gone Summer” doesn’t ignore the sad aftermath that has prevented McGwire from having greater consideration for the Hall of Fame and Sosa from returning to Wrigley Field after the deterioration of his relationship with the Cubs, but it places both its subjects and its audience squarely in the excitement of the ’98 season as it unfolds, capturing the sense of possibility that came with every at-bat and what it meant personally for the two men and culturally for everyday fans to be part of something far bigger than themselves.

Enlivened by an unconventionally rockin’ score from Jeff Tweedy and small, personal touches by Schnack such as taking detours to Midwestern landmarks such as the Billy Goat Tavern and Ted Drewes, “Long Gone Summer” offers up the hope that is unique to sports and taps into the fun of a season that few predicted would be anything special and before it airs this Sunday on ESPN at 9 pm EST, the director behind such films as the glorious history of They Might Be Giants, “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns,” and the wonderful Branson-set “We Always Lie to Strangers” (with David Wilson) spoke about how he managed to get McGwire and Sosa on board to tell their story when it proved elusive to others, having access to the organization he grew up rooting for and completing the film when the coronavirus had made a traditional post-production process unfeasible.

How did this come about?

I was talking to ESPN a few years ago about doing a project with them and this is such a big story in sports, I just assumed there must be reasons why it hadn’t been done yet, so I just [asked], “Well, hey is there a reason you haven’t done the home run race yet?” And it was like, “Well, why don’t you see if you can get Mark and Sammy?” I didn’t realize what a challenge that would be to set out to get them to want to sit down and participate, but it started a long journey a little over three years ago.

How did you sell Mark and Sammy on actually sitting down to talk?

I think it was partly my relationship to St. Louis. I grew up just outside of St. Louis and I was a Cardinals fan, and I have a lot of relatives in Chicago who were Cubs fans, so that rivalry is something that I grew up in the midst of. Then as I grew up, the Whitey Herzog Cardinals of the ‘80s were my team, so to get to ’98 where I was in Los Angeles, working in film, suddenly there’s this incredibly exciting thing happening between these two teams and it really connected me back to baseball and to my childhood, so that’s one of the things that I conveyed to both of them. It was a real personal story to me and I wanted to make sure that I conveyed everything that I felt during that summer the film also conveyed. It wasn’t like [immediately], “Alright, I’m in,” but it enough to get in the door to keep having the conversation.

When that’s the case, this essentially opens the door for you to talk to anyone ever associated with these two storied teams. Besides Mark and Sammy, was there anyone you were particularly excited to try to pursue for this?

We had almost a three-hour conversation with Tony LaRussa, [which] was really great because we got into things that I didn’t expect us to talk about in the film and he says some things in the film that no one’s ever heard before. But having grown up listening with my dad to the Cardinals season a lot on the radio, Jack Buck and Mike Shannon were the voices that brought you the Cardinals every night, so sitting down with Mike Shannon and hearing him talk about his relationship to Roger Maris was really special.

Were there directions this took generally that surprised you?

Just in terms of the research, I had forgotten that Sammy had passed Mark in August in a game they played at Wrigley Field, and I hadn’t remembered the number of times they were tied and then Mark would hit another home run that evening. [The home run chase] really was close for the last month-and-a-half of the season — that was really surprising. The other thing is that Mark has not done longform interviews around this topic or around his career in two decades, so when he sat down, he really talked about things that I haven’t heard him say before and I don’t think people have heard from him, so I don’t want to say that was surprising, but I was really pleased and excited that he felt comfortable enough to open up the way that he does.

You can really feel that. I wondered for both Mark and Sammy, when everyone knows the conversation will eventually wind around to the aftermath of that season and steroids, did it feel like an elephant in the room?

I had spent time with both of them off-camera for a while leading up to the interviews, so we talked about how we were going to cover everything, and “I’m going to ask you about steroids and supplements” and things like that, so by the time we sat down, I wouldn’t say it was totally light, but I think we were all comfortable with one another. Then when we finally got to those questions, I don’t think it felt like we were walking on pins and needles.

The film also has a really special energy from the score that Jeff Tweedy put together. How did you get him aboard?

Yeah, when I first started talking to ESPN about it, I said I’d really love to have Jeff do the score. I didn’t know Jeff, but he grew up in a town about two towns away from where I grew up at the same time I did and I know he’s a baseball fan and now lives in Chicago, so it felt like he would be coming from a similar place as me. Luckily, he said yes [when we asked] and it was an incredible experience. Music in film is so important to me and the ways in which the score is such an integral part of the storytelling, so to be able to do that with his music, particularly with some of the tracks he did for this, which I think are really brand new and exciting, I’m super excited for people to hear it. I woke up on the morning of my birthday last year and checked my e-mail and there was like 20 songs from Jeff ready to go for the movie and I was like, “This is the best birthday present one could ask for.”

It certainly contributes to one of the most beautiful sequences I can remember seeing in some time when you hear a jangly guitar accompanying McGwire’s 61st home run. What was it like to cut that scene together from so many various angles?

Yeah, I love that section of the film. So much of our memory for those of us who love baseball and followed that storyline, we remembered 62 when he finally passes Maris, but really for me, Jack Buck’s call of 61, everything that happened around that was the emotional and weighty equivalent of 62, and it’s the one we don’t remember as much. There were just some magical things that happened in that game — Mark talks about getting his 61st home run on his father’s 61st birthday, and [in] Sammy’s first at bat, he pops up to Mark, so there’s just something about that game that’s really special and the piece of music that Jeff had written really underlined what makes that moment stand out. It was really fun to cut that.

Anyone that follows you on Twitter knows that this post-production process has been somewhat nuts when you were no longer able to spend time with your team after the pandemic hit to put the finishing touches on this. What have the last few months been like for you?

Oh man, it’s [still] not finished. It’s crazy. I took over the editing because my original editor had gone on paternity leave in January, so I was already cutting to finish the film to get us ready for [a planned premiere at] Tribeca and in early March, I was actually in Chicago working with Jeff when we found out that South By was going to cancel. When that happened, I was like, “Okay, is Tribeca next?”

Within a week, it was pretty clear there was not going to be a film festival where we were going to have our premiere, so we stopped for a second thinking, “Well, we’ll have this time because the film isn’t going to air until later in the summer.” Then a few weeks later, ESPN came and said, “We’re going to move ‘The Last Dance’ up and start playing that in April and we want to show your film in June,” and we thought, “Ok, well, that’ll be interesting.” It’s been a lot of figuring out how to share screens with technologies I haven’t worked with before with my collaborators and a lot of time by myself in the edit room, so it’s definitely a very challenging way to finish a film and something I hope we don’t have to repeat. But I’m super grateful to everyone on the team for figuring it out, though everything is much more complicated than it would normally be.

Has it been interesting to be making a film about how baseball came back from a devastating lockout when there’s a prospect of history repeating itself coming out of this pandemic?

It’s hard to believe we may not have baseball for this season, or it may only come back for a limited stretch and who knows what that’ll look like, but one of the best side effects of making the film was I went to so many baseball games last year and through the winter, I was like, “It’s going to be so great to go back to games and have the film out.” So it’s weird to think about this essentially lost season and I’ve seen some people say, “Long Gone Summer” could also be the description of this baseball season in 2020, which is certainly not something that we anticipated when we named the film last fall.

What was it like grabbing B-roll for this when you’re a fan already?

It certainly was fun to shoot in the stadium. I had never been to Wrigley before and it’s such a great stadium to shoot in, [especially] to film during games. And certainly, it’s always great to be back in St. Louis at Busch Stadium. There’s a couple shots in the film where I was shooting and we have this very wide lens and to be in the bleachers with everybody drinking beer around you on a Saturday afternoon and you’re just shooting this beautiful widescreen footage for an ESPN movie, it was pretty fun, I’ll admit it.

“Long Gone Summer” premieres on ESPN on June 14th at 9 pm EST and made available on ESPN+ immediately after its premiere.

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