Brett Morgen: The Making of 'Montage of Heck's Mad Scientist
Brett Morgen has been called the Mad Scientist of the documentary world with his latest film, the long-awaited Kurt Cobain biography “Montage of Heck.” Morgen certainly lives up to that billing, creating an explosive and totally unique visual and cinematic experiences out of the fallen rock god’s various creations.
I have known Brett since we were both 14 years old, having gone to high school and then college together, where we were in roommates. Since the first days of our acquaintance, I have never known anyone with such a firm sense of who he was and what he wanted to do, and that has only strengthened over the years.
However, what astonished me seeing “Montage” for the first time was how much his creative skills have grown as a director, so that wild, unstoppable sense of Brettism is now married to awe-inspiring technical superpowers, that have enabled him to produce what in my very-biased mind, will go down as perhaps the greatest documentary portrait of an artist ever put on film.
I sat down for a series of conversations with Brett to ask him those basic questions one never gets around to asking a friend on the topic of – just how did you come to be the artist you are today? The edited and condensed version of our conversations is presented below.
Part One: LA Boy
Morgen grew up in the San Fernando Valley through the 1970’s and early 80’s, on the fringes of the glamorous film world set just over the hill on LA’s Westside. In the history of mankind, there was probably no more permissive culture to grow up in than Los Angeles of that period, which for a child meant freedom unimaginable today. But the period also was noted for as a flowering of creativity, expressed through film in particular. Eventually, Morgen crossed the hills to attend Santa Monica’s now famous Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences, where he became a devotee of legendary film teacher Jim Hosney, who has served as intellectual guide to much of Hollywood.
Hitifx: Let’s start with what it was like growing up around the film industry.
That is so not the case. My father was a PE teacher in Studio City.
But you grew up surrounded by the entertainment world.
I take issue with the mythology that I grew up in Hollywood. In this town, that means your parents worked in the industry, And growing up in Studio City, where my father was a PE teacher, and going around on the weekends with him collecting quarters from laundry machines, because that was his job, that’s hardly growing up in Hollywood.
Fair enough. So what was that world like for you?
LA in the 70’s and 80’s was not particularly highbrow. And I grew up on Ventura Blvd. We grew up going to Disneyland, we weren’t really going to museums. My lawyer once said that I’m either the lowest-brow high-brow filmmaker he knows, or the highest-brow low-brow filmmaker he knows and he can’t figure out which one, and that for me is being a product of being from LA.
But I grew up going to the movies. I don’t think kids do this anymore but when i was growing up in the Valley in the 70’s, I used to ride my bike to Van Buys Blvd in first grade to the movie theater. I have three kids now and I can’t even imagine letting them do this by themselves but I would sit and watch one movie all day. There were movies like “The Sting,” when I was 4 or 5, that are burned in my mind.
When you came to Crossroads, and got to see a lot of gigantic Hollywood figures around, how did that shape your impression of that world?
I think if anything, having exposure. I wasn’t exposed to icons the way I have been in my career. I was exposed to producers and studio executives. And the occasional encounter with an actor. But being around people in the industry, you see them in a more humanistic light. So if there was an exposure to icons, it was from a more humanistic perspective. This is so and so’s dad, not an icon.
And you began to actually study film there, under Jim Hosney. What impact did that have on you?
Jim exposed me to this world of Karl Marx, Godard and Truffaut. So my aesthetic became a sort of a merging of high brow and this low brow. When Jim introduced us to the new wave, I couldn’t really understand the impact of a film like “La Chinois” when I was 14 or 15, but what I got was that there were myriad different ways to approach cinema. And film didn’t have to be anything singular.
You began making films in high school, immediately on a very ambitious scale. Your senior project, Too Far From Norm it was called, was a feature length musical.
Well, I take this today: if you enter a project with wild ambitions, you may not get there but you’ll get a lot farther than if you enter a project with modest ambitions. And I feel very strongly that I’d rather either swing for the fence or strike out. With “Too Far From Norm,” I was a kid who my whole life wanted to make films, but i wasn’t one of those kids who had a Super 8 camera, so I was a Johnny Come Lately . So here we are at Crossroads and I had to do this senior thesis. Here’s where being from Los Angeles was a real advantage: we went to a school where two stars of our theater department were Jack Black and Maya Rudlolph, and Andy Gross, future film composer, and they all worked on the movie. It was meant to be a punk rock musical adaptation of Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.” Which sounds ambitious, to be shot in one week and edited in five days.
Morgen’s senior project film, starring Jack Black and scored by Andrew Gross, has never before been seen online. We present the following except from it below, with permission of the filmmaker. The first scene features the aforementioned film teacher Jim Hosney and the conversation in this early work touches on themes that are at the core of Morgen’s work to this day. On filming the second scene, a musical number, Morgen recalls, “the shot was inspired by De Palma, Scorsese and Bertolucci. I wanted a long, single take tracking shot. But unfortunately, Jack had to lip-sync from an old rusty boom box in the trunk of the car that wouldn't keep time, hence the edits. To achieve that shot, we placed a camera in the trunk of a SUV, with the hatch down. We then placed two lights on the roof of the car and had a kid running alongside us with a smoke machine. It was shot on 8mm video. The entire budget for the 60 minute film was $237.” Warning: This film contains adult language.
Part Two: Hampshire College
After high school, Morgen attended Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. Still at a time when film studies programs were rare in undergraduate curriculums, the college hosted a program heavily geared towards the most obscure end of avant-garde filmmaking. Also looming over would-be film students was the shadow of Hampshire’s then most successful graduate, filmmaker Ken Burns, and his nostalgic documentary style.
Despite the clearly huge early ambitions, you then went to a college with film department that was the farthest pole away from commercial filmmaking.
I picked Hampshire because it was a place, in theory, where you got to make your own curriculum. I wanted to be a director but I didn’t want to be a go to an undergraduate film program, because then I’d be a filmmaker with a high school degree. I thought it would be better to go to an undergrad program where I thought I could learn pretty much everything I thought a director should know, then go to film school after.
That was a very mature notion.
It worked out great because my curriculum was Shakespeare, Euripides, literature, some art history and a lot of film criticism.
Did any film classes have an impact on you?
The one class that changed my career was a class I took in ethnographic film. You had to take two classes from each school and the only thing in the school of social sciences I was interested in was ethnographic film. That was my first introduction to documentaries and I got very lucky because the class I took ended up being an amazing survey course starting with Lumiere and going up to Ross McElwee and evaluating how the form of documentary evolved through the years, with the question: what is a documentary? So you went from things as fictionalized as Flaherty, up to this period of hardcore ethnographic filmmakers who would do diagrams of where the camera was in the room and all this data in an attempt to achieve this intense degrees of objectivity...
The class was taught by this traditional anthropologist named Len Glick. I found myself really drawn to more subjective films. There was a movie that was a 14 minute montage of this tribe in Africa and it was all shot asynchronously. So it was sound and these beautiful images, and I remember arguing that achieved a higher degree of truth than this objective approach. So that got me going with documentary and learning that, my God there were so many ways to approach it, but the thing i was interested in was experience, using film to create an experience as opposed to a lesson. Because i felt lessons are better served for books, but this is what films can do.
Did you decide then you wanted to be a documentarian?
I wasn’t committed at that point. What happened was I was doing a thesis film and I was running out of time. It was really hard to cast from Amherst, Mass, and we were getting very close to the shoot date. And one of my advisors said, why don’t you just make this as a documentary. Because the film was about small town America; there were characters but really I was interested in mythology, in John Ford. My thesis was titled John Ford: Inventing American Civilization. I was really about the towns, so it was easy to adapt to turn it into a documentary. So I went out and shot this documentary that was all talking heads. It was like the Citizen Kane of talking heads documentaries.
That was partially because when I knew I was going to make it, I went to the library and checked out a film by Ken Burns called “Huey Long” and watched it every day for 60 days to get a sense of how to frame a documentary.
After that I said, I would never do another talking head. Because i thought it wasn’t cinema, It's cinema, you have this whole frame and the only thing of substance are moving lips.
The reigning aesthetic of the Hampshire film department was militantly anti-narrative, with filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas being the gods. How’d that affect you?
I was so living out the film department that I think I had to go to the school of communications to do my thesis because I was so ostracized by the faculty. They thought I was Hollywood, which was funny because I was making f--king documentary films and I went on to make some really experimental documentary films. I wanted to a project – an adaptation of Continental Op by Dashiell Hammett. So I wrote a script that I wanted to make and they laughed me out of the meeting. One professor said, how much is this going to cost? I said, $3500. And he said, why don’t you just give me the money then? Why are you wasting your time?
Why did they think it a waste of time?
Because it was fiction. And I didn’t end up making the film.
How did you start exploring the documentary world beyond Hampshire then?
Right around this time, I had this girlfriend who lived in Boston, and worked for Errol Morris, cutting. She worked on “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” So that was an amazing experience to see that coming together. I moved to Boston to be with her, and I went and saw Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger speak. And i remember they talked about how “Brother’s Keeper” was an attempt to make documentary that felt like fiction. In retrospect, its very rooted in a “Harlan County USA” kind of aesthetic, but there’s a lot of cinematic qualities to it in terms of structure. But those words really resonated with me, that really had a profound impact. Everything clicked. I could take everything I know about fiction that I’d spent my whole life collecting and apply it to non-fiction.
Part Three: Film School
After college, Brett began formal training as a filmmaker at NYU, where after a rough start his thesis project would carry him to an Academy Award nomination.
At this point, you were definitely headed to film. Why didn’t you come back to LA and go to USC or UCLA and be closer to the industry?
Because they were studio schools, and I didn’t want to make studio films. I wanted to make documentaries. I went to NYU because it was the only film school at that point that had an emphasis on nonfiction and at that point it was run by Christine Troy who was a documentarian.
Did you get along better there than you had with the program at Hampshire?
I had a very good class. Steve McQueen was in my class. John Hamburg, Lucy Walker. some really good people, but there was this old English director who hated me. We had to do a first year film, and I thought mine was really good, It was all experimental and non-linear, and he just hated it. I was almost kicked out of the program. I was literally the last guy standing, I think I was ranked 35th out of 35.
The following year I made this documentary about Oliver North’s Senate campaign. I did a 60 minute film while all my classmates were doing shorts, and it won all these awards at the NYU film awards. And at that point i was ranked #1 in my class, which was amazing from being ranked last.
What inspired you to make your Oliver North film?
One of the things at Hampshire I was really obsessed with was John Ford and mythology related to America. I really wanted it to be a film about grassroots politics, because I was really obsessed with Jeffersonian democracy, democracy on the local level, but I thought if I’m going to spend all this time making a film about grassroots politics, I should find a star to be in that film. So I started hearing rumors that Oliver North was going to run for Senate and I thought - great. Not only is he a star but the type of people who surround him are going to be fanatical in their support so it will be the perfect canvas for this grassroots story.
How did working with him, your first bigger than life protagonist, affect you? Did you get to know him much?
A little bit. These guys were...well they were fascists in intent. But I had no problem getting into their world. I didn’t misrepresent what I felt, but I would do a lot of nodding. I had the idea that i wanted to show the world from their eyes. I wanted to get in their space. So that was where as a filmmaker I got into intense immersion, where I end up mirroring my subject in lots of ways. I listen to the music they listen to. When I was with Cobain, I couldn’t listen to soul music.
John Ford said that you should be able to emphasize with every villain. That stuck with me, that really resonated with me, that was a powerful thing to hear when I was young. It seems obvious but as we know from popular culture, it’s not obvious. But that had a profound impact and I found myself having a really easy time slipping into different subcultures. I went from Oliver North to Bedford Stuyvesant, from there to Bob Evans’ Hollywood mansion. Some people may lose their identity in this but I feel that when I’m traveling these roads, the surfaces may change and the clothes may change but the center stays the same, because you’re always looking for the universal, for that one thing that transcends the subject, you tap into the universal, like going back to Shakespeare, the themes of betrayal and abandonment, these grandiose themes that you experience in your own life.
Part Four: “On The Ropes”/Breakthough
After his Oliver North film, Morgen took on a project that stands as a unique piece in his oeuvre, a film about three young boxers in the housing projects of Brooklyn, New York. The film also stands apart as a co-directorial effort between Morgen and his then girlfriend, Nanette Burstein.
How’d you come to “On the Ropes”?
After “Ollie’s Army” I spent three years traveling around Texas, setting up a loose adaptation of a "Friday Night Lights" type story. That was going to be my big project but my girlfriend, Nanette, at the time started boxing, and she suggested doing a boxing documentary. When I first heard about it, I was against it for a few reasons. I was at a point where I wanted to do something a bit more irreverent. And it was clear that “On the Ropes “was going to be much more earnest than I generally am. But it was an amazing story, so I decided to jump in.
It’s your one non-icon film.
It was outside my wheelhouse, but I was a huge boxing fan and at that time I was a huge UFC fan and we used to watch fights all the time. I liked the fighting world and there’s reason why documentarians gravitate towards politics and boxing, because they have built in narratives, so when you’re constructing a film that’s a huge advantage. The kids were amazing. And it worked really well with having a coed directing team. It was crazy because at the time I started making that film, Nanette was my girlfriend, and by the time we finished, I couldn’t see her in that light at all. We were colleagues.
How is that for a relationship, working on a documentary together?
We’re both obsessed with work. Listen if you’re going to blow up your relationship you might as well leave an Academy Award nomination in its wake. So it was a healthy sacrifice. The fact that we were boyfriend and girlfriend meant the creative fights were outrageous. It was helpful in the sense, that I didn’t have money. I was in school, and I couldn’t pay someone to work 7 days a week, nor could she. So it worked out well.
How did this movie change your career, or give you a career?
This was my thesis film and her second year film and we were very much into packaging this boxing documentary as a real movie. It was a big undertaking for a thesis film and we worked pretty much as a two person crew. The goal for that film was, we thought if we could get it into Sundance, that would be tremendous. And it did get into Sundance, and it won the jury award there. And went on to win all these other awards and received an Academy Award nomination that year.
Part Five: The Kid Stays in The Picture
After the success of “On the Ropes” Morgen found himself suddenly thrust across the universe into the world of legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans. Comedy writer Pam Brady brought Morgen in for what was to be a documentary about her collaboration on a comeback film with Evans, who was then living largely out of the limelight, his days at the top of the Hollywood pecking order behind him. However, Morgen would learn his first lessons about the challenges of working in Hollywood as he dove into this outsized project. Morgen moved home to Los Angeles and spent four months embedded at Evans’ mansion preparing for the project when he one day received a call.
I get a call from one of my agents and he says, we just got a call from Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair, Apparently, he has the exclusive fiction rights to Bob’s life. And I say, what?
So I call up Bob, and say, "Evans, I just got this crazy call that someone named Graydon Carter has your exclusive non-fiction rights." And Bob says (doing Evans imitation): "Well, uh, is that a problem?" And I said, "Yeah! It sounds like it’s a huge problem."
I drove up to Bob’s house, and he said, "I’m so sorry. i promised Graydon Carter 'The Kid Stays in the Picture.'" And "I‘m so sorry but I’m not going to be able to do your movie." Bob’s one of those people who could tell you something like that, and somehow you feel bad for him. So I left his house and I was totally distraught. That was a surefire movie. It was financed, everything was great. A big move forward in my career.
So how did Kid then come about?
I go back to my apartment in the Valley and the phone rings and it’s Evans, and he says, "Graydon Carter will be here in a half hour, get your ass over here." I drive over to his house feeling like I’m in some Bob Evans story.
So I met Graydon and told him what I was doing and he told me what he wanted to do, which was "Kid Stays in the Picture." And I said, "It seems like we’re doing these films where they won’t compete, but we can’t have them going out at the same time. So do you have a director? So why don’t we do both?"
We agreed "Kid" would be the first one and then we’d do the next one.
Many years later, he obviously never made the film with Pam Brady, and by then I know there was no way he would ever allow himself to be shot for a verite film so I asked him, "Bob, were you ever planning to do that film with Pam Brady?" And he said, "Of course not."
How’d you begin to shape this book into a film?
Graydon had the book in Word document form, and I attacked it and was cutting and pasting. But the thing about the book is it's a series of great anecdotes with a thin narrative holding it all together. With most biographies you don’t need a thruline of action. So i was having to turn that book into a narrative and in the process I would have to write dialogue for Bob, and I’d say about 30 percent of the final film I wrote with bob in mind based on my conversations with him. All that time I spent with him at his house was so helpful in getting into his voice and knowing how to write for him. He’s such a great character to write for because he has such a unique cadence. That story had all the elements i love, it was funny, it was romantic, it was aggressive.
How did the format come together?
Barry Diller financed it through Universal Pictures so I felt we had to do something larger than life. We couldn’t just do a bunch of photographs. There were a couple of series on at the time – "E! True Hollywood Stories," "Behind the Music." And to get people to come to a movie theater, we were going to have to do something special. And it was based on that that we started exploring different approaches to telling Bob’s story.
The challenge was, Bob made it very clear, he would not be on camera. Bob didn’t have final cut but he very cleverly understood that if he was narrating the film, that if he did say it, it doesn’t get into the film. There were a few instances where I outfoxed him. I’d like to think so, but you cant really outfox the fox.
What about the visual style?
We started doing some investigation and I came across this thing called After Effects, that at the time were being used for film titles. With them I had the ability to do stereoscopic imagery that I’d never seen before. And the reason it was so fitting is "The Kid Stays in the Picture" is a movie about seduction, about image making. The line from “Liberty Valence” – print the legend – we quote in the first line of the film. I don’t mean to say that Bob was lying or dishonest, just that we embraced his version of events, with the understanding that by doing so, we’d get closer to who he is. Trying to achieve a higher truth. We were pursuing a truth in the same way that any documentary filmmaker does. I was going to get him from a different angle.
The first shot of that film are the curtains parting, That is no accident The whole idea is that Bob’s world is a stage. his reality is a theatrical stage. I love the idea that the curtains rise and normally you’re in a theater, but this time you’re in real life. This is an immersive subjective experience.
This was your first time working with major big money backers. How did they respond to these devices?
The studio hated it, Absolutely hated it. I was told that I either fix it or they were going to burn it.
What did they want?
After they saw the film, they wanted me to do talking head interviews.
Is that the note you get on every film you do?
Yeah, for the most part. Doing the OJ film for ESPN, I almost lost the film for that. I told them, "Look you guys can take the film back, no hard feelings, but I’m not doing interviews." And when the studio told me they wanted me to do interviews, I explained to them that if you put interviews in this film it becomes an "E! True Hollywood Story." That what made it work is that it’s all Bob, and you get the full immersive Bob experience. And the exact words were “Fix it or we’ll burn it.”
What did you do?
I brought in an editor who worked with Oliver Stone. We were in awe that we got him to work on it and he did some incredible work on the film, and a lot of not so incredible work on the film. There were about 2 or 3 scenes that I really loved, but there were a lot that seemed like experiments and just like a mess.
After he was done, I got the call from the studio and they said, "We think this is incredible. Don’t touch a thing." And it was at that point I realized nobody had watched the film. I can tell you absolutely with confidence, they had not watched the movie. So I did the smart thing, and I told them, I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s all done, we’re locked. And let’s go to Sundance. I then reverted the film back to what it was, keeping the changes that I liked. And the next time the studio brass saw the film they were sitting in the audience at Sundance. And the next time they saw my face was after our prolonged standing ovation, they were lining up around me saying, "See! I told you not to touch anything!"
Did they ever realize you had gone back to the original?
No, if they read this it will be the first time that they learn that the film was not the film they thought it was going to be.
Part Six: Director
“The Kid Stays in the Picture” became another great success for Morgen, propelling him to the ranks of established documentarians. However, finding and setting up projects remained an eternal challenge and in the interim between films, Morgen supported himself by becoming a successful director of television commercials.
How did the success of "Kid" change things for you?
The funny thing is about this business and maybe I’m schleprock, but that people seem to think if you get your film into Sundance that everything changes. And it doesn’t really do anything. And I’ve been to Sundance 4 times, twice with breakout films of the festival. I never got job offers. You have to generate your own work in this town. You can not sit around and wait for the phone to ring. It doesn’t ring.
What do you learn doing commercials?
When I first started, the thing that appealed to me was getting to work with these incredible crews. Because what people don’t realize is on a commercial set most of the crew are getting paid more than on feature films. They’re there for a short amount of time, so generally everyone is really happy, you’re dealing with the top technicians in the world. These incredible filmmakers. And cinematographers are the single greatest craftspeople. Over the course of 15 years, I’ve gotten to work with the best. So you learn how to be a professional.
And the other thing that’s great is you’re talking about budgets of 200 - 400,000 a day, so anything you can dream of you can make happen.
You have now done films on and with some of the most outsized personalities on Earth. How did you learn to look those people in the eye and not get intimidated by them?
Your ass is on the line when you do a film. Mick’s going to be fine at the end of the day, Keith’s going to be fine. But my ass is on the line. And when I talk to them, we’re not talking about music, we’re talking about filmmaking, so that gives me a certain confidence. I know what I need to do to make this good and when you’ve done it on a couple occasions then you build confidence as a filmmaker to be able to go and stand face to face with these iconic subjects, because you need to protect yourself.
So they cease being icons, Keith Richards in five minutes felt like you’d want him to feel, like your randy old uncle. And I also really fall for my characters. I get feelings for Bob and all of them, Kurt, and in “On the Ropes”, and those Republicans..they get very deep in terms of affection for them. Especially characters like Evans who people on the outside see a certain way but once you get past that and their vulnerabilities are exposed.
What people think will make them look good is almost always wrong. How do you get past people’s misguided visions of what their story should be?
The most difficult thing to convince someone is that their transgressions are a feather in the cap. That’s what makes a compelling narrative. Ron Howard would probably make a boring documentary and he probably is psyched about that. But successful child actor, successful teen actor, successful director, seems like a really nice person who raised a good family; amazing and something we should all celebrate. But can you make a movie about that? Not like Robert Evans’ life probably
Most people have issues, but that’s not why they are coming to me, to be able to expose those issues. But that’s what you have to say, for this film to be successful, which you want, we need to be vulnerable and you can’t just be stating all these wonderful things that happened to you, that’s not a movie.
Part Seven: Cobain
In 2007, Morgen was brought into a project involving the work and personal material left behind by grunge icon Kurt Cobain by his widow Courtney Love, who was a fan of “Kid Stays in the Picture.” Despite the interest of all parties, the project was caught up in legal disputes over the rights to the materials for four years, until Morgen was finally granted access to the archives and began work on what would become his most complicated, personal and sprawling film to date.
When you first got access to Kurt’s archives, how did you proceed?
Eventually I got the keys to the storage facility. It’s well preserved but in boxes. And so I started going through it and very assiduously documenting everything. Everything he touched, we photographed,
For a month, I had a small army of people with me, They had to leave their cell phones and I put them in these white jump suits that had no pockets because I was real frickin’ paranoid.
This was a privilege to be in that room. Of course people were going to wear gloves and treat this like it was a relic from Egypt or something. What was interesting about that was I didn’t have the time to stop and process each object. I had to move, and get this done as fast as possible. One of my jobs was taking pictures of the journals, I didn’t want anyone else touching the journals. So you open these up and the intent is to do it in a methodical manner but then you couldn’t help reading the pages you saw. But we had 4000 pages to capture.
What leaped out at you the most when you first went through it?
The real surprise for me was the audio because Courtney had never mentioned there was audio, and I didn’t even know if I was allowed to touch it. So we brought in these Pro-Tools and we were recording them, and we had a rule that you couldn’t stop. These were old tapes and you didn’t know when you would find something, many of them weren’t even labeled.
There’d be stuff where you’d have to put the headphones on and try to hear, or there’d be stuff where there was silence, but you had to preserve it, because you don’t know what’s going to be on those tapes and occasionally a gem would surface. And that’s how I discovered Kurt’s audio autobiography. It was just some random tape and I had no idea what was coming through and suddenly I hear the story.
What was that like being the first person to hear that ever?
He’s communicating through his art. In terms of his ephemera, I was filled with his music. I don’t mean the music of his songs.The music of his art, it was surrounding me in every way. I’d be surrounded by his paintings in this room. The epiphany I had there was that everything that exists in this room was the real Kurt and everything that existed in the imagery that was disseminated from ‘91 to “94 was Kurt as Rock Star Kurt. But this was the shit. If the movie was going to be made it was a movie with this stuff.
The losing his virginity story, and his telling of that, is a pretty uniquely unflattering moment to have in the words of your subject.
The first version of the film, I gave notes for the assembly of here’s how I want it. And my editor put it all together and it was a mess. It was really bad. And one of the things that was just terrible about it was that it was just random. It was just bleh, and I was pissed. And I was determined to find the center.
And I went back to that story, and as I listened to it for the umpteenth time and he made that statement – "I went down to kill myself on the train tracks."
To understand Kurt, you can’t make a film like this and not give the audience the tools they need to arrive at their own conclusions. Kurt, using heroin is a form of suicide. The one record we have of Kurt talking about killing himself is from that story. And the reason is really telling. And it was like the moment in “The Usual Suspects” when all the pieces come together. Suddenly in my mind it was like flashing to the journals - Ridicule! Shame! And it was like the thruline just sort of materialized.
How did you get to the animated treatment of that passage?
For a long time, it was a blank screen in my edit, because I didn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I never wanted to animate Kurt. I had thought the film would be much more expressive, like “Pink Floyd - The Wall” animation. With someone as iconic as Kurt, it’s really dangerous to try to animate and I didn’t want to go back there. So I tried to figure out workarounds. Orson Welles’ version of "Heart of Darkness," everything is point of view. Then I thought, maybe I’ll just have black because I love projecting my image and my fantasy onto a scene.
But then I discovered this awesome artist from the Netherlands, and he was a fellow pirate. I got really lucky in the sense that the two animators I brought on to work on this approach film the way I do - all in. 24/7. And I love working with people like that, it’s like going to war. And you want to be able to rely and depend on someone. Both of them really embraced it because it was Kurt and nobody wanted to f--k that up.
This was your first film to use talking heads since college.
Well, we cut the film to picture and then we did the interviews. I did not want to make a talking heads film. So I said, if we have picture for everything, we’ll never have to rely on the interviews. The original intent was no interviews. But after I listened to all the audio tapes, I thought I didn’t want them to carry all the story because then it would become too experimental and too pedestrian. And I thought it’s best to have people in his life close to him saying how to contextualize Kurt’s art.
When you cut from the very vibrant, fluid world of his art to the stillness of these interviews, it’s a very stark contrast.
From a visual standpoint, they’re formally composed. They were meant to live outside the film,
When I thought about how to use them I always came back to Bob Fosse’s “Lenny.” And it’s interesting that Fosse had such a profound effect on me because when I think about Fosse, there’s a choreography in his montage that I think Fosse did better than anyone. So movies like “Lenny” and “All That Jazz” were seminal films in my development in terms of aesthetics and editing. He uses those scenes in faux documentary footage to tell the story of the film. And I loved the intimacy, that it was just the people closest to him telling the story - the manager, the wife and the mom. There are millions of talking heads documentaries and the one place I went to was a fiction film.
I adopted this idea that all the videos would look like they had taken place in the course of a day going from day into evening, so we would change the lighting set-up for various questions. I remember the editor saying to me as we were running out for the shoot, what if they are talking about something that happened when he was young when we have the dark setting, and I said, "We can’t use it. That’s our limitation." So when I was doing the interviews. someone would start to talk about something out of place and I’d have to stop them no matter how emotional it was and say, "I’m so sorry, we have to come back to that." They’d be really emotional. Wendy, Kurt’s mom was in her daylight setting and suddenly she’d start getting emotional and I said, "I’m so sorry."
The way those shots are composed, the people seem truly haunted.
Editorially we created space in the interviews so you didn’t just cut in and they were talking. I wanted them to catch them in thought: pensive, haunted. To me the subjects of this film were the five people closest to Kurt Cobain in his lifetime, the people who were most affected by him, and would have been even if Kurt had been the custodian of Aderdeen High. I don’t think anyone’s really gotten over it or resolved their feelings about it.
Were you frustrated not being able to ask Kurt questions?
He left so much behind and to be honest, no. Because I heard interviews with Kurt and I don’t think he was always honest in his interviews. And so I think that in a way going to the primary source is more revealing. You’re probably going to get closer to truth reading someone’s diary than you are from interviewing them.
What’s the one question you would ask Kurt?
That’s too personal.
What do you mean?
Because I’m thinking of what that question is and it’s too personal. I could lie to you and come up with some other question, but the real one is too personal. The thing that jumps to mind as you say that - I’m not going to have an opportunity to ask him so it doesn’t matter.
You steer very clear of the standard "Making of the Band" documentary tropes.
To me, you’re on an emotional journey so what's relevant are the beats in your thruline of actions. What goes wrong in biopics is people feel the need to hit all of these signposts and once you decide not to go there it’s entirely liberating, but you have to know what your thruline is.
The rise of the band is such a well trod path.
That was the part of the film I was least comfortable with. I wish I didn’t have to go there at all. I wish I could’ve said – and then "Nevermind" happened and we’ll pick it up on the other side.
I was like, how do you do the rise of a band without being cliche. I’ve already done rise of the band myself. I did it in the Stones film. That’s how cliched it is.
I have a sign in the other room that says, "When the directions say make a right, make a left." I’m contrarian by nature. I don’t want to wear the same shoes as you. That’s my defense mechanism. It’s helped me a lot.
So you don’t see them being signed by Geffen in this film, you see the phone number. And you get it or you don’t, but who cares? There’s another narrative of Kurt’s in which the courtship of Geffen would be huge. There were so many bricks, so many potential narratives. But I had to select the few that I thought were necessary to tell this story.
Is it hard to not play the hits, as it were?
In “Crossfire Hurricane”, there’s no Number #1 hits, it’s about the journey, about donning the black hats. And I remember telling Mick Jagger, first phone call I did with him, he said he wanted to make a film rather than a multi-part series, and I said, "You understand if we’re doing a film there’s a good chance we’ll never mention the word 'Satisfaction.'” And by that I mean, it may be the most important moment of your career from a Wikipedia standpoint, but it would serve no purpose here, and that’s liberating. When you’re dealing with an iconic subject, you know there’s books and books and books on them. So my job is to create this immersive experience. Go read a book about Kurt and you can read all that stuff, but I’m making a movie.
Spending all this time with Kurt and literally walking among what he left behind, did you ever literally encounter his ghost with you?
Let’s hear it.
This sounds like I’m a lot flakier than I am. I was here one night really late, watching the film for probably the third time that day, it was probably two in the morning. And I didn’t look, but I felt a presence over here, and it was warm, and this is going to sound f--ked up, but it made me feel like I’m on the right track. But like I said, that was me having a fantasy that Kurt’s approving of everything I’m doing.
Did it have physical form?
Yes, a little bit but like I say, I don’t believe in that, so for me that’s just my ego saying, you’re doing a good job.
Did you ever feel him again during this project?
There was another moment in the sound mix on the last day, when we were really trying to get the sound done. And there was something in there that hadn’t been in it. And I said, "Stop!" And my sound editor said, Oh that’s the Kurt effect – because we had these effects that we’d pulled in from Kurt’s library; I don’t know how it got in there. Seven minutes later, there would be another one. And we’d been listening for four months and these had never surfaced before. And this was the last day and I’m up against it. And after the fifth or sixth one of those, I yelled, "Will you f--king let me finish the movie, man? F--k!"
Did they stop then?
I think they did.
Finally, tell me how what you think about the documentary landscape today. How has it changed?
It’s the best time to be working in non-fiction. The quality of the work renders someone like me useless. I went into this game with a chip on my shoulder to try and challenge the aesthetic foundation of the genre. And somewhere in the 2000s, the genre exploded, and reality television had a huge impact on the aesthetics of non-fiction. So you had reality television, starting in 2000, influence the look and feel of cinema. And then you had films like “Kid Stays in the Picture”, “Supersize Me”, “Bowling for Columbine”, employ visual effects. And suddenly in the genre as a whole it became less noticeable to use techniques of cinema in documentary.
A film like “The Overnighters” really stands out in its purity because there are no effects. It’s just one man with a camera and his microphone. And there’s an awesomeness to that, a beauty to that. The entire aesthetic approach of non-fiction is at a level that I don’t think any of us saw coming in the 1990s. And it’s more challenging now, more difficult when you’re trying to play with the dimensions of the genre, there’s hundreds of other people playing with it. So I have to work harder at it every time. If I had released “Montage of Heck” in 1999, it would have looked like it had been dropped from Mars. But at this stage, people enter into a film like this with a certain degree of conditioning. They enter into the arena informed by the past experience with the genre, so intercutting animation into live-action isn’t jarring anymore.
And it’s not revolutionary anymore; it’s part of the fabric. It’s a really extraordinary time and I feel very privileged to still be employed these days.