Brett Morgen Presents The Kurt Cobain Mixtape
Before viewing Brett Morgen's new documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, I had to jump through a few online security hurdles in order to watch the film. Fear of piracy is so rampant that I got to see my own watermarked name in the corner of the screen the entire time, making it a uniquely personal experience.
As a guy who played in a band around that time, saw Nirvana play their first New York show to about a dozen people, and cried in a van while on tour when I heard about Kurt Cobain's death, I was a bit nervous to see Montage of Heck. I know Morgen's work, so I didn't think it would be way off base, but the whole way in which "punk broke" into the mainstream was clearly a difficult subject to tackle. I didn't need to worry. The film was given rave reviews by Cobain's family and friends, and it gets one by me—for its honesty and its respect for Kurt Cobain the artist. I had prepared a number of questions, but after my first one, Morgen started to roll and I tried (and failed) to keep up with my typing.
One thing that Morgen talked about was how he wants his films to feel like the experience of the person he's making a documentary about. In that spirit I'll try to let the filmmaker speak for himself. Before we began he begged me not to ask the same tired questions that everyone else had asked, and to focus on the craft for this particular audience. To skip over that boring stuff, he came to make the film after Courtney Love, Cobain's widow, saw Morgen and Nanette Burstein's 2002 film The Kid Stays in The Picture, and realized that he'd be the one to tackle this difficult task. The family and Universal Pictures gave him final cut, and he went to work.
My first question was partly a joke, but I also wanted to discuss ideas about access, perspective and media. I asked him, "What did Nick Broomfield think of the film?" (Broomfield made Kurt and Courtney, which suggests that Courtney hired a hit man to kill her husband.)
"I'm a huge Nick Broomfield fan and I used to get his films sent to me by a friend in London before things like that were accessible," Morgen notes. "At the same time I was asked by the True/False Film Festival to be on a panel with him and AJ Schnack [who made the Cobain doc About A Son], and I didn't see the point. I don't see much common ground thematically, tonally, aesthetically."
I then asked about the idea of access, and the typing started to roll (FYI: I did not record the interview, so what follows is something of a paraphrase.).
Kurt Cobain's Interior Journey
"My films are generally based on primary sources, and in this situation you're kind of limited to a certain set of materials," Morgen explains. "I often say to my crew, ‘That which we don't have is a blessing rather a curse.' When you have an archival element, there is very little that you can do to express yourself as an artist. You are limited to editorial choices, sound and color. When you don't have footage, you are forced to create the material yourself. That can yield exciting results.
"I've made a lot of films about people, but this was the first time I was afforded final cut by both studio and estate. I was left alone to make the film I wanted to make. When I went into the project, I was told that there was art and that intrigued me, the kind of canvas I would have, what materials would I have to work with. Once I looked at them and started to think about it, I felt like we were making a film that was Kurt's interior journey through life."
The Private Kurt
"Most documentaries focus on the external, on outside facing in," Morgen continues. "He was such an expressive artist who worked in so many forms of media. I've never encountered an artist who worked across so many platforms: spoken word, sculpture, cartoons, stop motion, drawings, poetry, writing. Kurt was an artist with a capital 'A.' If we believe that all artists are creating autobiographies through our work, our life experiences are embedded throughout our art, so working with these materials was a way to tell his life story.
"Film is 50/50 and sound is just as important as image, so the way Kurt worked with both offered us opportunities for a truly immersive experience, which is what I think films should be. That's what I try to do with my films: create an experience of that person. We had both aural and visual materials from him, and whatever he lacked in formal training he made up for in passion and honesty.
"I have worked with the amazing archivist [Jessica Berman Bogdan] on all my films. By the time we really started to work, we had assembled every frame of media we could get our hands on. We had everything that existed outside the families' personal archive. Plus, we had all the private materials."
The Public Kurt
"When we put that all together I found that the Kurt, in the '91 to '94 period, was very different than that publicly disseminated imagery," Morgen notes. "He struggled with media. For a guy who could so poignantly reveal himself in his art, he was very different in interviews. He largely deferred to Krist [Novoselic, the bassist for Nirvana], and he would mostly be withdrawn, but sometimes caustic, or he might be spinning a self-conscious mythology of his own life for the cameras. The cadence of his voice was very different in his own musing.
"At first it was going to be all Kurt, his voice and his art, supplemented by some of this archival. But it became clear to me that to really access him, we had to rely heavily on unorthodox sources, to things like audio of him playing with his mic, or answering the phone during recording."
Friends and Family
"In talking with the family I realized I wanted to do interviews with the people in his life he was most intimate with," Morgen explains. "The five people who, had he been a school janitor and not a rock star, would have shown up at his funeral. His family has played such a tremendous role in his own mythology, but none of them had ever done an interview on camera. Wendy and Kim [Kurt's mother and sister, respectively] liked their anonymity. Prior to Nirvana's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, no images of Kim even existed online. She is a very private person. So is Wendy."
Making It Cinematic
"My films are made from the inside out," Morgen explains. "They are meant to be the experience of the subject, rather than about them or their history. What I'm interested in is, How I can do this uniquely, cinematically speaking? What can we do that can't be done as a book or a sound piece? If can be done as a book it doesn't interest me.
"I'm interested in exploiting the breadth and width of cinema. The Kid Stays in the Picture is not about Robert Evans; it is Robert Evans. It is the experience of Bob. At the beginning of the experience, I wrote a list of adjectives that described Bob: kitschy, romantic, seductive, brash. These became the catch phrase for style. While Montage of Heck is not a similar movie, they are similar in that attempt to provide an honest experience of the subject.
"Kid is fluid and almost all dissolves until the last reel. It's very digital and we didn't add grain to photo animations. Heck is the opposite. There are almost no dissolves; it's hard cuts, analog. His aesthetic was analog and rooted in a mixtape, underground aesthetic.
"We needed to really challenge ourselves to work within a vocabulary that was organic to Kurt; all of the department heads—sound, music, animators, colorists—had to work together.
"I went to listen to Jeff Danna's score; I've worked with him a lot and he's great. I asked him to arrange Kurt's music as film score, to serve two purposes: A film needs a score, and by doing Kurt's own musical writings, it's keeping him active and alive, and it gives us more appreciation for melodies by stripping them down.
"There was some flutes and stuff and I thought, 'Kurt would never use a flute; this is taking me out of the movie.' So Jeff and I had to study any instance, every time he used a non-rock instrument to see what might make sense. Jeff had to rethink his approach.
"Same with the sound mix. We had a very professional mixer do a pass, and it was all digital and clean, utilizing the same tools that he carries from film to film. It all felt digital and distant from Kurt; it would take us out of the film, so again we had to re-think it all."
Fathers and Daughters
"I could not have made this film 20 years ago," Morgen admits. "I wasn't there personally or professionally. Esther Robinson, a longtime friend of mine, moderated a Q&A, and she said, 'I've known you for 20 years and I can tell this was made by a father.'
"She was absolutely right. There are aspects that were particularly sensitive to me. For me it became very personal. For most of my career I have mostly made films about men in their 70s, many of whom came of age in the '40s, '50, '60s. This was the first opportunity that I had to tell a story about my generation, about someone who was surrounded by the same cultural influences. We were born a year apart, had similar issues in childhood. On that level it felt personal to me.
"There was a point of the project, many years into it, when I met Frances [Cobain's daughter, an executive producer on the film]. After speaking with her we went to a storage facility and we went through the material together for a few hours. It was her first time to dig in. She had been there before but never for any length of time. That was a tremendously emotional experience for both of us for different reasons.
"When I first met her, one thing she said pretty much right away was, 'You know, I just met you and I know you more than I know Kurt. I have no memory of him. He passed away when I was 20 months old.' Kurt has lived so largely in her life, and she hadn't been ready to start going through it all.
"I felt, observing all this from a father's perspective, one with three kids, that I wanted to make the film for Frances. I wanted to give her time that she wasn't able to have. When I was about to embark on the film, and I went to pitch her what about what I intended to do, before I could, she presented what she wanted, which was simply an honest telling of his life. She wasn't interested in glossing over or mythologizing.
"Two years later I showed her a rough cut, and she said, 'You made the film I was hoping to see, and you gave me a couple of hours with my father that I never had.'
"You make films to entertain, or at least most of the time, and you want to illuminate certain universal truths. I haven't involved myself in a lot of social-issue work since On The Ropes . Here, to have an opportunity to bring a daughter closer to her father was something very personal, and it was something that all of us working on the film were motivated by."
In closing, I asked Morgen if there was any way the process of making the film had changed him personally. For the first time he stopped talking. Then, after a long pause, he said, "There's a lot I could say about that, but I'd rather not, if that's alright."
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck opens in theaters on April 24, then airs on HBO on May 4.
Michael Galinsky is a musician, photographer, painter, writer and filmmaker. He played one show with the band Half-Japanese, opening for Nirvana about five months before Kurt died. It was an amazing show.