Brett Morgen, Montage of Heck – a Portrait of Nirvana Frontman, Kurt Cobain
Director Brett Morgen has given us the rawest and most intimate portrait of Nirvana frontman, Kurt Cobain, the world has ever–and will ever–see in his latest documentary Montage of Heck. This groundbreaking and emotionally wracking film in which Morgen uncovers the real Cobain through his prolific creations, shatters all preconceptions of the enigmatic king of 90’s grunge rock. He reveals the boy and the artist behind the veneer of iconography, and in doing so demonstrates his own talent and vision as a director. And while Kurt is undoubtedly the heart of this film, it is Brett’s blood that pumps through his veins.
“And while Kurt is undoubtedly the heart of this film, it is Brett’s blood that pumps through his veins.”
Morgen has left an impressive trail of films and accolades in his wake. It all started with an ambitious punk-rock musical adaptation of Bertollucci’s The Conformist he put on with high school classmate Jack Black. Jump forward to his stint at New York University where Brett procured his first documentary, Ollie’s Army, that dealt with the exploitation of James Madison University republicans during Senator Ollie North’s 2004 campaign. Three years later, On the Ropes, which focused on the lives of three aspiring boxers and their coach, brought him an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. With numerous TV documentaries and awards in between, Brett’s body of work has examined the lives of icons from Robert Evans in The Kids Stay in the Picture, to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones in Crossfire Hurricane, which pieced together archival interviews conducted without cameras, to Cobain’s Montage of Heck.
“A lot of things that Kurt said or didn’t say won’t help you get to the core of who Kurt was, but through his art I think that you get to a deeper understanding of what who he was.” –Brett Morgen
It all started with a key–given to Morgen by Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, when she first approached him about making a documentary–which led to what were essentially Cobain’s archives: a storage room containing over 100 boxes, each filled with the remnants and revelations about Cobain’s creative self, and the boy behind the Nirvana frontman the whole world thought they knew. Endless notebooks filled with drawings, cartoons, poems, paintings, sculptures and video recordings.
“Some of these problems that started when Kurt was as young as two stayed with him, and as Kurt’s sister, Kim, said to me–and this isn’t in the film, but this is something she said to me quite often–was that Kurt was like an open wound.” –Brett Morgen
The documentary eventually passed from Courtney to Kurt’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, who came on as Executive Producer. The film’s development coincided with what was essentially her meeting her father for the first time through his prolific creations that Morgen pieced together with the skill of a detective-crossed-psychoanalyst. Kurt injected himself into his art, and it was through them that Brett was able to weave together a portrait of the artist that has until know been clouded in mystery. And even more impressive, use these archives and bring his creations to life through animation to allow Kurt to tell his own story in a heartbreakingly intimate portrayal that transcends the very meaning of “documentary.” Morgen’s unique vision takes his work beyond simply the recounting of a history. He creates an experience. In Montage of Heck, he cuts into the very core of Kurt Cobain, dissolving his iconography to reveal the rawest and most wrenching portrait of a human and an artist; a portrait that simultaneously reflects back on the artistry and talent of the director himself.
“There was a journal entry that says ‘I’m threatened by ridicule’ and it wasn’t enough to just represent that, I wanted to get to the square root of it, which was something that I think Kurt wasn’t able to do himself.” –Brett Morgen
CM: Why do you make movies?
I have no other choice. I’m terrible at everything else. I really don’t know how to do anything else in life. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do from the time I could speak, I wanted to be a director. I had a terrible speech impediment as a child, and I physically could not speak until I was five years old and from five till 16, I was in therapy. Prior to that, my earliest childhood memories were in the cinema, and it felt like the womb to me. I always felt comforted. Outside of the cinema kids always made fun of me, they thought I was mentally challenged. It was a fairly cheap, my childhood, in that regard, but I always felt comforted in the cinema. It wasn’t watching stuff on television, it was being in the cinema. I guess maybe I should’ve been a film critic critic but I don’t think I knew it that was because I just like going to the movies, but then the obvious next step is I want to make movies but there is this big leap between wanting to make movies and having the skill level to make movies. And when I first started making movies, it didn’t come naturally to me, but what did come was the impression. The first movie I ever made was in high school starring Jack Black–who was a class made of mine–it was a 65 minute punk rock musical adaptation of Bertolucci’s The Conformist and it was shot in a week and edited in a week and it was all original music and all original score and extremely ambitious. And I was just talking to Jack the other day about it, and Jack really loved Montage of Heck, and I said Jack, see it’s not that different in the sense from what we made in 1987 when we were 17 years old. I was really interested in playing with form and part of that came from that exposure. I was very fortunate that Jack and I went to a high school in Los Angeles called Crossroads, school for the arts and sciences, which in the 80s was one of the only high schools and junior high schools in the country offering film criticism as a major from seventh grade on. So in eighth grade, I was exposed to after having grown up on Star Wars, to to Truffaut and Godad, Bertolucci and the French New Wave. And when you’re that young you can’t really understand all of the implications, the political and social implications of those films, but what you get is that energy, that enters into that sort of approach, and that has always stayed with me throughout my career.
“Every project is particular, but with each film, I am always looking for the universal.” –Brett Morgen
CM: Are you trying to reveal something universal through your films, or is every project particular?
Every project is particular, but with each film, I am always looking for the universal. The one thing that transcends the subject matter. It’s Aristotle’s poetics. It’s Shakespeare. Those reasons that we still read Shakespeare 500 years later, the reason he was better than any other playwright because he was able to tap into those universal things.
I think that with my subjects they are generally very intimate stories set against rather large backdrops and when you’re dealing with an icon like Kurt Cobain or Robert Evans or Mick Jagger or Keith Richards, you need to find that thing which the viewer can connect to outside of their iconography. The movie is not about a band or even about a musician, it’s about a boy named Kurt and his journey through life. And it’s a family origin story and I think at that level it’s something that anyone can relate to, whether they like One direction or Nirvana. And also to the people who like both.
“Kurt provided me with this sort of organic, oral and visceral autobiography of his life, and I thought it to be so much more intimate and revealing than anything I ever heard Kurt say in the interview.” –Brett Morgen
CM: Did you ever feel like as if you got to the root of it all, of his pain and who he was?
Nobody can ever fully know… It’s hard enough to know yourself right? I was placed in a very privileged position in which I was given access to primary source material that no other biographer a filmmaker had the privilege to experience, and Kurt was more than a musician he was a prolific artist and artist with a capital-A and he worked in every form of media that he could get his hands on. Spoken word poetry, short fiction, he sculpted, he painted, he drew, he did cartooning, comic strips, sound collages, all the stuff, and through each of those pieces, Kurt was able to sort of externalise his interior space, his interior world, probably more effectively than just about anybody else from my generation, so in a way Kurt provided me with this sort of organic, oral and visceral autobiography of his life, and I thought it to be so much more intimate and revealing than anything I ever heard Kurt say in the interview.
CM: Why did you make the decision to bring his paintings and journals to life?
Because I was making a movie and the one thing I do when I’m making a film is I stay to myself “how can I exploit the medium I’m working in?” If I were doing a book, I would push the subject in a certain way, and if I were making a movie, then you have to get a cinematic adaptation. You can’t just show journal just sitting there; you have to find the cinematic equivalents of what that journal would look like in the realm of cinema.
“For me, this is the Rosebud of the movie: it is the story of when he loses his virginity.” –Brett Morgen
CM: What did his artwork reveal to you?
I think the most revealing piece of material I discovered was an audio tape–an auto biography of his teenage years–and it was something he had skipped out and went through a couple of different takes and then recorded and when he recorded it, he performed it. That was very unusual for Kurt, often times when he would do spoken word. He would just get to the microphone and just let the words out, or laugh his way through them, but in this particular instance he actually performs it and the story in light of what happened to him. For me, this is the Rosebud of the movie: it is the story of when he loses his virginity to a mentally challenged to girl and is ridiculed by the kids at school as a result. And then he says “I couldn’t handle the ridicule, so I went down to the train tracks to kill myself.” I think it’s one of the few times where we have an instance of Kurt actually describing a suicide attempt at a young age and the cause–the route of that; the reason he wants to commit suicide–is very much at the centre of the movie: the idea of Kurt’s sensitivity to ridicule.
Nobody likes to be criticised, but people have different ways of dealing with it. Kurt, and I definitely relate to him with this, was really sensitive to criticism and the movie documents where that came from. It wasn’t enough for us to just establish what Kurt did. There was a journal entry that says “I’m threatened by ridicule” and it wasn’t enough to just represent that, I wanted to get to the square root of it, which was something that I think Kurt wasn’t able to do himself, and I believe that was because of the drugs. I think the drugs created a buffer that distances you from really being able to connect inside. Kurt could tell you that he couldn’t take the ridicule, but he couldn’t tell you why and if you can’t figure out why, you can’t really evolve. I think that some of these problems that started when Kurt was as young as two stayed with him, and as Kurt’s sister, Kim, said to me–and this isn’t in the film, but this is something she said to me quite often–was that Kurt was like an open wound.
I do feel that at the end of the day I got to know Kurt better than I know just about any of my friends. And let me also tell you this, something that Krist Novoselic [Nirvana bassist and co-founder] said to me: he said “I didn’t know that Kurt had problems at home until I heard him talk about it in the press.” And that makes perfect sense to me because when you’re 22 years old and you’re drinking beer in a park with your friends you don’t generally sit there and go “you know man, I’m really threatened by ridicule.” I think that a lot of things that Kurt said or didn’t say won’t help you get to the core of who Kurt was, but through his art I think that you get to a deeper understanding of what who he was. For example I have seen a couple of interviews now that question the intimacy of the film, that Kurt was a very private man and it would have made him very uncomfortable to watch this. This idea that Kurt was very private man, comes from Kurt saying that he was a private man and demanding people to respect that, but this is a guy who sat for 25 hour interview for an authorised biography of his life. And that he was 24 years old, and you would never have found Bob Dylan doing that when he was 24 years old. This is a guy who took his child with him when she was three weeks old down the red carpet, that’s not something you would’ve seen Bob Dylan do. So I think that it’s true that Kurt said he was a private person, but I think that in many ways his actions belie that. And in fact most of the intimacy related to this film that the audience experiences is coming through his journals and his art, and unlike a lot of people, Kurt’s journals were not sanctimonious, he didn’t leave them hidden under lock and key, they were usually just left out in the open and when there was a party in the house there was a party in the house.
“Never compromise. You have to make films for yourself first and foremost, and we are our own best audience.” –Brett Morgen
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Never compromise. You have to make films for yourself first and foremost, and we are our own best audience, and I think we have to respect that, and I think that particularly in film, which is unfortunately a very crash commercial medium, everyone you encounter is going to want to compromise your work. That goes from your collaborators to the studio. That’s how I have experienced it for 20 years; it’s like the fucking war. Because someone who says “oh man it’s Friday night, I have plans to go out to dinner…” well yeah it’s Friday night, I don’t care if it’s Friday night, or Tuesday night, we have a film to make! My point is that I think that it’s rare to find collaborators who can approach your work with the same level, nobody can be as invested as the director of the film because as a director you don’t care about your own salary, you don’t care that it’s a Saturday or Sunday; it’s a 24 seven vocation. I shoot commercials, thats how I make my living, and I can go 36 hours straight, it’s not a problem for me because I’m feeding off of that energy, but I look over at the crew and they’re giving me that look like “dude we got to get home” so I think to also finding and trying to identify people who are as committed to the work, and committed to the craft as you might be.
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