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Filmmaker Brett Morgen Pulls No Punches

By KJ Relth

Just four days after the theatrical premiere of perhaps the most Gen X biodoc to ever grace the screens of your local multiplex, filmmaker Brett Morgen was still riding the high from Cobain: Montage of Heck's opening weekend success. So when Morgen told us he had the time to sit down with Sundance Film Festival's Trevor Groth to have a conversation about his career in front of members of the IDA community, we couldn't have been more thrilled. The filmmaker and Groth wove their way through Morgen's career, starting with his feature debut On the Ropes and moving through The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10 and Crossfire Hurricane to his latest release, Montage of Heck, stopping along the way to show some select clips and share a few stories from the making of these intricate, genre-bending projects.

So what made Brett Morgen the filmmaker he is today? What allows him to make work that breaks all the rules of documentary filmmaking? How did he get Frances Bean Cobain to watch Montage of Heck six times? Transcribed from the event on April 28 at the Landmark Theater in West LA, the filmmaker offers some insight into his training, his passions, and his unconventional approach to storytelling.

The mentors who guided his path.

At Crossroads, which had a film curriculum, I had this amazing teacher Jim Hosney, who also taught film at the American Film Institute. What was amazing about Jim is that he would give the same lecture to his AFI students that he would to his eighth grade students. 90% of the time we didn't understand what he was talking about. But when you see the films of Godard and Truffaut and the masters at that age...that really stuck with me. It was the idea that film could be anything; it doesn't have to be the Hollywood thing. What Hosney did, in a way he gave us our eyes. Jim gave us our vision.

I went to Hampshire College, and all I wanted to do was make movies. In the school of social sciences, they had a documentary class. I had NO interest in documentary whatsoever; never thought of it for a second. This class was taught by this very serious anthropologist named Len Glickman. God bless Len Glickman, because he taught the single greatest class on documentary history I've ever had! He started with Lumiere and took us all the way through Ross McElwee. The question was, "What is a documentary?" Flaherty—is this a documentary? I found myself obsessed with what a documentary can be. It was tied into the French New Wave for me. It was like the Wild West; you could do anything!


He always asks what documentary can be.

We're going to an emotional truth. [In Cobain: Montage of Heck], this is Kurt's art. He performed it; he wrote it. To try and talk about facts with art, it doesn't make sense. Those experiences were real, that's why they resonate...Everything you just saw was Kurt: the drawings, the Super 8 film, the recording he did in 1988. He wrote it down, he performed it, he threw it in a box and then I found it in 2013. No one had ever heard it.

With The Kid Stays in the Picture, I thought that whole film was about documentary. It was about the question of, "What is a documentary?" Are we achieving a more immediate truth by allowing Bob to tell the story from his perspective, and embracing that perspective? It's not a film about Robert Evans; it is Robert Evans! The experience of the film is the personification of the subject. So when you sit there for 95 minutes, everything is Bob. That movie was a conscious attempt to direct the movie from Bob's perspective. That's why there's all the seductive camera shots and everything is sensual.

Filmmaker Brett Morgen during an interview for 'Montage of Heck.' Photo: The End of Music, LLC/courtesy of HBO

His approach: ‘intensive immersion'

I do this with every movie now, start off with a list of descriptions. How do I describe Bob Evans? You come up with five words, and that is the style. You take the description of the subject and marry it, and you have the perfect marriage of form and content. It's also called "intensive immersion," where you really try to mirror your subject. So you try to understand how they eat and sleep. With Montage of Heck, Kim Cobain [Kurt's sister] worked in our office for a year. Part of the allure of that is that I could turn to her at any time and ask, "What was Kurt watching? What did you guys have for dinner?" I wanted to really get inside there.

Every movie is designed in the rhythms of the subject. With the Stones film [Crossfire Hurricane], I really needed it to be ragged, because that's the Rolling Stones. Energy, montage, and creating a feeling through what cinema can offer us through this collage of sound and images. There's a lot of influence of Eisensteinian montage, with the way we're using commercials. My favorite thing is getting in there and digging and trying to create the sense that you're there with these archival bits which often times are seven or twelve frames—that's all you have to work with. So you're stitching this stuff together, and it's as much about the texture and the emotion. It's emotive, that's the goal.


‘Color is a weapon.'

The thing that I love about film is it's a world of possibilities. With each frame, I'm constantly asking myself "Am I maximizing the value of this frame?" Sometimes that means restraint, and sometimes it's saying "How can I further embellish the emotion of this scene to make sure it's coming through to the viewer?" In archival filmmaking, we have a limited palate. You have color grading, sound design, montage. And those are your tricks. That's what you have. Color is a weapon. It creates energy. If I see a movie that has low chroma, I have low energy. It's an important thing when we make films to really maximize our limited palate. Every frame counts.


He loves his subjects.

I've been blessed in that I feel like I've left all my subjects better for the experience at the end. That's not the goal. But I love my subjects. I wouldn't spend that much time working on a film with someone that I didn't love and want to be around; you're around them all the time. A movie like On the Ropes is not really about boxing. It's set against the world of boxing. I think that's the thing with all my films: they are very personal narratives set against epic backdrops. I always find something I can tap into, even with the villains. You find something you can relate to, even in the most despicable characters. I can get over someone's ideology to look for what's beneath it and try to connect with him.

[On Montage of Heck], every day was a revelation. It was personal. Kurt and I are the same age. I'd spent the better part of my career making films about men in their 70s, from my parent's generation. This was my opportunity to do a film about our generation. In a way I kept thinking, "This probably might be one of the first Gen X biographies, because everyone's writing their script!" He never talked about his problems. But it's all in his art. That's where he talked about it. That's where he communicated. Kurt revealed himself so intimately in his art. It seemed like the best way to get to know him. I remember feeling at a certain point that I know him more than I know my friends because I'm not having these conversations with my friends about our deepest thoughts and fears.

He's uncompromising about his vision.

I sort of have that attitude, which is that you can't let anyone compromise you. The situation on Montage of Heck was brutal. The sound team didn't prepare enough. So we get to the mixing stage and we go through ten days, and I'm on reel two. I've got six more reels to do! The bond company calls, and they say we're out of time and money.

The thing is, everything up to that point is an audition. It doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is what's on the stage. You have to live with these films the rest of your life. If they aren't exactly how you feel them, then you can't even sit and ever experience your film.

So I called the bond company and said, "Listen, I'm gonna make this real easy for you. I'll sign your waiver, I'll cover all overages from here on. Just leave me alone. Because I'm not stopping."

There's a pattern here. You don't get like this by rolling over. You gotta stand your ground. You can't get bullied by people who are just not as invested. These are our lives. We have so much invested in this. I think it's just so important to be able to just stare someone down. I get called "difficult" for this. It's amazing! If you stand your ground, you're difficult. It's important I think to stand your ground. You can't get pushed over. Your ass is on the line. The Stones are going to go on and be fine. But I make a bad film, I'm the one who takes it on the chin and has trouble getting my next film done! If you don't care enough, then you shouldn't be making films.


He's passionate and dedicated.

When I make a film, I can't even think of anything else, really. It's all encompassing. I actually do not understand how people do it. It's just totally outside my sphere. I love Solomon Burke, the soul singer. I haven't been able to listen to him in three years! I'm hoping I can start to listen to him again soon. Because when I'm in this world, I'm in this world and that's all I can do. When I'm between projects I'll try to take lots of meetings and see what sticks, but once I'm on, I'm on. That's my commitment to everyone involved: I am all in.

I've always said I'd rather strike out trying to hit a homerun than get to first base. I never want to do anything safe. Sometimes it works. It's hard to get emotionally and mentally prepared for that. That's why I've never made the same film twice. I get asked to do The Kid Stays in the Picture over and over again. I did that film. I don't want to do anything close to it.

This is such a privilege, what we do, and such an honor. I've always felt that if you can just entertain someone for two hours, that's enough. That's fine. But when you can bring a daughter closer together with her father, and you can inspire a couple people not to go down this road, the whole thing is so amazingly rewarding. Every day is a challenge, and that's what makes it so wonderful. You never know what your day's going to be. It's worth fighting for, this stuff's worth fighting for. I am so blessed I took that [documentary] course. We're so blessed to be working in the field we do.