Growing up near the Sierra Nevada in California, Kevin Kerslake found a passion for filmmaking at an early age. Seizing hold of his family’s Super 8 camera, he began making ski films on the resort where he lived, and documenting his interests in the surrounding communities of skate and surf. Upon graduation from film school, Kevin soon joined a lucky handful of directors who would be formative in capturing and shaping the MTV generation. He created award-winning videos for era-defining musicians, along with numerous intimate music documentaries, notably Nirvana: Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, and Soundgarden’s Louder Than Live.
Kevin has since developed a body of work that has infused his passionate and energy-driven documentation into larger themes, namely addressing his love for adrenaline sports. However, with his most recent documentary film, As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM is a return to his connection to music, capturing the highs and lows in the wild biography of Adam Goldberg, known to many as AM. Exploring all aspects of AM’s life from his upbringing, sudden rise to stardom, and desperate struggles with addiction, the documentary captures the frenetic energy and tragedy of his life, with an incredible balance of adrenaline and space for introspection. The film is sure impact both fans and audiences alike, uncovering the story of one of the most profound electronic musicians of our generation.
With the film’s recent premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, we spoke with Kevin to learn more about his filmmaking process, the intricacies of telling a posthumous story-about-a-storyteller, and those rarely found characteristics that make a musician truly great.
Hi Kevin. Let’s start from the beginning. Can you take us back to how you got started as a filmmaker?
My parents gave our family a Super 8 camera back in our teenage years, and I hijacked it from my brother and sister. At the time, we were living in a ski resort in Sierra Nevada, California, and I started shooting Super 8 ski movies. And then when I graduated from college, I was really lucky to have been starting my career right at the point when MTV was starting to blossom. So, I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, and I had the incredible opportunity to make a lot of music videos at a time when videos were really crucial—it was just the perfect storm of circumstances.
Then you kind of segued that into more of the documentary style that you’re doing now?
Throughout this entire time, I did a lot of music documentaries for bands. It’s a format that I really like, because it’s telling a story that has real-life elements. But especially with As I AM, the forensic of tracking somebody’s life and death was really interesting to me. I think part of that was rooted in another period of my life where I put myself through school by doing forensic videos and photography.
Wow. Tell us more about that.
I did that for four years, and every day I was shooting some crazy accident, or reenactments of accidents or crimes. There was this incredible attention to detail required to break down a timeline microsecond by microsecond.
I think some of that interest was brought out in the film As I AM, because there were these different timelines that were going on, and sometimes they were synced up in his life, and sometimes they were at war with each other. It was intriguing to track the dynamics of his life and the impact of those dynamics on him and on his fate.
On that note, when editing all of these different clues and narratives to bring your story together, how did you decide what to pull forward through that combination of music, narrative, and imagery? What point of view or feeling do you hope to convey to your audience?
DJ AM was hugely passionate about music and about all genres. As you know, he was an Open Format DJ, which embraced an “anything goes” approach to creating his sets. He’d drop genres that had no business being together, side by side, and he found commonalities among various genres where nobody else saw them. I think that his sets were really about celebration, and the tribal element of just getting an entire community to move together and experience something that was fairly euphoric.
After his plane crash in 2008, a series of his mixes started to get darker, and his song selection started to express something that he was feeling more deeply inside. And in a way it was a travelogue of where his psyche was headed, and what he was feeling deep, deep down. It became very personal in terms of the songs they would select—because of the lyrics mostly—about feeling trapped and feeling a precipitous slide toward an end that was haunting.
It’s interesting. So you saw him taking his work from an outward story of trying to impact other people, to bringing it more into a type of an audio diary?
Yes, that’s precisely it. That’s a very good way of putting it, because that was the form, and when you look at those mixes that way, they’re really ominous.
How were you visually interpreting those feelings for a film audience? It’s interesting too because the film is like a remix – especially in the way that it’s edited.
I really wanted to do something that was reflective of AM’s life in every sense. Narratively, you know what his life story is about—but when it came to the style and form of how his story was going to be told, I felt like I was almost obligated to do something in the same style that he mixed music. So Joel Marcus and I—Joel is my editor—we really worked on creating that sense of being in his head throughout every stage of the film. I think it tugged on both of our music video histories, because you have the freedom to play in that form probably more than any other format around. And AM had his foot on the gas the whole time. He just never let up. I think it was really fun in one sense to have that velocity be vital to telling a story.
Yes, definitely. How was it different, telling his story versus other stories that you’ve told, where your hero is an active participant in the collaboration with you?
The difference is that you have a concrete ending in this case, and I think that really informs how you approach every stage of the film. I mean of course when you’re doing other films there’s an ending of sorts, but I think there’s nothing as definitive as a death. It was really interesting to find that even though we knew what AM’s life was like, we still encountered a lot of periods of deep discovery—deep diving into something that happened in his life where there wasn’t any footage to tell it. When we’d start to dig, all of a sudden this entire universe revealed itself to us.
When we’d start to dig, all of a sudden this entire universe revealed itself to us.
As a documentary filmmaker, you have to be intentional in choosing a compelling subject, but flexible enough to see where it takes you. What was it about this particular subject that spoke to you, and made you feel that you needed to explore it?
There’s a lot about AM’s life that would be alluring to a filmmaker. On one hand, there’s the sex and drugs and rock and roll. It’s like the 2015 version of that: no guitars, but turntables, and having those other two components in spades. The other thing that I found even more alluring about his life was the tragic dimensions of it were really Shakespearean in scale. And that was one of the biggest challenges: how do all these things fuse together into 90 minutes or so? I really like that chaos, all those dialogues happening at the same time.
That being said, as a filmmaker I do like trying to see order in that universe. So, being able to pick apart those different elements and then put them back together in a way that is cinematically expressive is one of the things that drives me in terms of picking stories, to see that potential.
The story definitely stays with you. What did you learn as a storyteller, and as an observer, of other peoples’ lives? How did that weigh on the task of presenting a person’s legacy to people?
As a filmmaker, one of the first things I learned early on is that real life has a lot of surprises in store for you—when you get on the set things aren’t going to be exactly the way that you want them to be. There’s the weather, or not having the location that you wanted, or people just aren’t behaving the way you thought they would. So, early on, I learned that it’s really important to have an open mind, and an open heart to all the possibilities that are going to present themselves. The process of making the As I AM doc constantly reinforced the notion that you always have to be open to what you think is true. To have the patience and the discipline to stay open to all the possibilities was a lesson especially, and one I was surprised to have at this stage of my career. That was one thing that gave a freshness to the whole process.
Having done so many of these kinds of deep profiles on musicians, what do you think it takes to have that kind of artistic genius? What are the characteristics of that kind of person?
I think it always starts with somebody’s heart, their soul and intellect, because if you don’t feel those things yourself, you’re not going to be able to convey much. You don’t always know what you’re trying to express, but I think great art in whatever form—music, paintings, film—always comes out of an experience that is appreciated in all its dimensions. That’s the most important thing.
If you can convey a feeling, and marry it to technical skill, that’s when great talent comes forward.
Before anybody picks up a guitar, or a pen, or a paintbrush, or some turntables, if you can convey a feeling— and marry it to technical skills— once those two start talking, then that’s when great talent comes forward.
We couldn’t agree more.
As I AM: The Life and Times of DJ AM is currently making its way through the film festival circuits.