Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck — An Interview with Director Brett Morgen

Everyone knows Kurt Cobain's legacy, but does anyone know him?

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In some ways Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is a traditional documentary. Director Brett Morgen recounts the life of the Nirvana frontman chronologically, beginning with Cobain as an adorable towheaded toddler, hamming it up for his parents’ camcorder on drums and toy guitar. There are talking heads, primarily family members, his wife Courtney Love and bandmate Krist Novoselic. But as we hit Cobain’s turbulent adolescence, the main source of information is Cobain himself in the form of journal entries, drawings and audiotapes that Morgen uncovered from a storage facility where they’d sat unread, unseen and unheard since the singer’s death on April 5, 1994.

Courtney Love  chose Morgen for the project eight years ago, but it wasn’t until the rights to the footage came under control of Curt and Courtney’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain that he could really begin working in earnest. Frances’s vision for the film lined up with Morgen’s: to portray a man and his art honestly, without turning him into a demon or an angel. And the source material is gorgeously animated by Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing, bringing Cobain’s sometimes chilling words to life.

We talked to Morgen about the process of trying to present the complicated humanity of one of rock’s most iconic figures. Below are highlights from that interview:

On first being approached by Courtney Love about making the documentary:

I made a movie called The Kid Stays in the Picture, which came out in 2002 and was celebrated for ushering in the digital age of non-fiction with its use of motion graphics. From a historical/cultural standpoint, it was rather significant because it wasn’t a sort historical documentary, as much as it was an experience, and it was the experience of [movie producer] Bob Evans. It was a different way to approach a documentary film. And I think Courtney really responded to that, and thought if you’re going to do a film on Kurt Cobain, it shouldn’t be a like PBS American experience. So that’s why she reached out to me.

I knew Kurt the way most people did, which was prominently through the music and through the limited interactions that he had with the media during his lifetime, but I wasn’t a student of Kurt’s, and I hadn’t read any books or anything [like that]. Early on, Courtney showed me some art and some home videos, and I was certainly intrigued—intrigued enough to realize that there were probably the tools, the canvas that I look for in a project. It wasn’t until I actually got into the storage facility that I think everything really came together for me…and that the real discovery was opening up a box and finding 108 cassettes. No one had told me there was going to be some audio in there, in the storage facility, and on those cassettes was just a treasure chest of portals into Kurt’s mind, and into his being and into just these little asides that were so revealing.

More importantly, I discovered the audio-autobiography that serves as the basis for the first animated sequence of the film, where Kurt loses his virginity, that had never been heard by another human being—Tracy, Krist, Courtney, nobody was aware of its existence, and no one had ever listened to it. So for over almost 30 years—Kurt recorded that I believe in 1988, and it got put in a box—no had heard it until last year. And that was really a revelation. I think that story holds a number of clues to understanding Kurt. I think that all of the montages, the audio montages, that are present in the film, from the first frame to the last, were unearthed in those boxes, as well as all of the score. That was something we didn’t expect—the entire score of the film minus a couple arrangements is Kurt Cobain, and most of that is unreleased material. That was a true find; as well as his cover of the Beatles “And I Love Her,” which is significant for two things. One, it had never been seen, it had never been heard. And two, if you’re a student of Kurt Cobain’s you have to kind of smile when you realize he’s doing a Paul McCartney song. No one would think that Kurt would do a McCartney song, not a Lennon song.

On the eight-year process of making the film:

Well, six of those years were really dealing with lawyers and trying to acquire rights, and from the time I first met with Courtney to the time I went out for financing, Frances had gone to the courts, emancipated herself from Courtney. So during that time, which I think was for two years, we were completely on hold because no one knew who was going to end up with control. From that case there was a gentleman in charge of the trust, so the authority no longer was invested totally with Courtney. I had to go through another guy who would report back to the various rights holders, and that led me eventually to Frances.

And then in the process of making the film, we spent the better part of a year organizing cover, shooting everything that was in the storage facility, and then trying to get our hands on and acquire every other piece of media in existence on Kurt. Once we had that all collected, I did what I would generally do with all my films, which is screen everything in sort of chronological order and start looking for clues or for development of ideas and what-have-you that can kind of emerge when you look at things in that context.

On choosing which interviews to include:

At one point there weren’t going to be any interviews with anyone, and that it would be Kurt telling his story in off-camera interviews, and of everything being this total Kurt-centric film. But when I started listening to the interviews, I was having a hard time recognizing the guy in the interviews from the guy that I was seeing in his writing and some of the footage we had of him. I felt it would be best to have some of those who were closest to him contextualize his art and his story, so that when we’re not in the interview portions of the film, we are fully immersed in the Cobain you know, the Kurt sections of the film.

The interviews for this movie were, um, modeled, or inspired by the Bob Fosse film Lenny, and if you recall, in the film Lenny, there were only three subjects. It’s his manager, his mother and his girlfriend/wife. I direct commercials, and I reference the asymmetrical framing of that film all the time. The other thing about those interviews that I liked is that you feel the presence of the interviewer, and it feels like part of what you are experiencing is how haunted they are. So that became kind of the visual; that became a thing with our film—the interviews sort of go from day to night. It starts out sort of with morning in America, and everything is optimistic and groovy. And then at some point the sun goes down, and we’re starting to get to 5 o’clock, and then we go into the evening and into the shadows. Part of what I think was so incredible is that we got everyone to agree to participate. So Wendy Cobain, Kurt’s mother, and Kurt’s sister and Kurt’s father—none of them had ever been on camera. That’s kind of amazing when you think about it. In the 20 years since, none of the family had ever spoken…so that was a real coup, to be able to get them to participate.

And I think a lot of that was attributed to Frances Bean being the executive producer. I think a lot of people in Kurt’s world decided to rally around the project because of her. I think that if this project had been produced by Courtney—or for that matter Krist or Dave [Grohl]—we wouldn’t have received the same level of participation. If Kurt Cobain would have been a janitor, the same people that show up in this film would have shown up at his funeral.

On Producer Frances Bean Cobain’s role in the film:

There wasn’t a day-to-day role. Frances has her own life and her own career. She’s an artist—she has a very major exhibit that is going to be launched later this month. So really it was to make sure that I didn’t fuck up, I guess. I met with her at the start of the project; I went over to her house to kind of pitch her my take on this, and before I could get a word out of my mouth, as we sat down, she started to tell me what she thought a Kurt Cobain movie should be. And it happened that her take was exactly in sync with the take that I was about to pitch to her. And I remember saying, “Frances, this is amazing because I was basically about to tell you the same thing.” Then really the next big point of interaction was when I presented the film to her. And after viewing it, she looked at me and said, “You made the exact film that I told you I wanted you to make, that I was hoping you were gonna make.” So that was obviously pretty satisfying.

Frances has been in the background all these years, as far as her father’s image and legacy, but this may be the beginning of an era where she takes a more active role. This is the first time Frances has ever presented anything relating to her father to the world. I feel like the film is a little bit like having an experience of meeting an old friend for the first time. And, fortunately, we end up liking him a lot more than we remembered. We are giving access to parts of Kurt that nobody had access to before, and that doesn’t turn you off—I think it actually does the opposite. One of the goals Frances and I had for the film was to not tear Kurt down, and not prop him up on a pedestal, but to be able to look him in the eye. That pretty much sums it up. And you know, the emphasis on the art and on humanizing him. He’s not this elusive unicorn. He was a man. He had strengths and weaknesses like us all.

I feel like if you’re doing the Rolling Stones, or you’re doing Michael Jackson, you’re showing fantasy, you’re showing a lifestyle, you’re showing a certain, rock’n’roll or a celebrity fantasy, if you will. But I think we all felt that if that you’re doing a film on Kurt Cobain, it should be honest. And so, there are obviously a lot of pieces of this film that those who knew Kurt would rather not not see, because they want to protect his image. I don’t mean that in a nefarious way or anything. Anything that you wouldn’t want to do for your own child, or your friend. So it’s a complicated relationship, but I felt like Frances and I were very much in sync with how we needed to approach the film.

On what kind of impression of Kurt he hopes audiences will leave with:

Well I think it’s a deeper understanding of who he was first and foremost. If you’re gonna wear a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, I think that you can wear it with a better understanding of who that is and what that represents. And I think that what we’re left with is an understanding that Kurt was not given the tools he needed at a young age to navigate the roads ahead. I think that he was much more romantic and funny and warm than people assumed or than [whom] he presented. I think that it sort of shatters the myth that he took his life because he didn’t want to be famous anymore. I think it creates a much deeper understanding of what the root of his issues were that would stay with him throughout his life and why they [were] there. Kurt had a great ability to tell you that he was threatened by ridicule, but he couldn’t tell you why. He couldn’t get to the square root of it.

I believe part of that has to do with being an addict. When you’re an addict, there is a filter. It’s very hard to access beneath the surface and to resolve whatever issues need to be resolved to move forward through life. Kurt’s so complicated because on one hand he [was] so expressive, and yet at the same time I feel like he was disconnected. More then anything, you see the film and you walk away from it, and you know he just…he’s just a man, or a manchild, who was much more accessible, in a way, then we ever knew and had so much more to love. The film is not about a guy trying to make it in rock’n’roll, which is probably what people thought leading into it. It’s really a movie about a guy trying to connect and trying to recreate a family that he never had.

And Kurt, at the point when Nirvana broke, had essentially decided to put all of his eggs in one basket—Courtney and Frances—and start a family with them. And I think at that point that was the most important thing in Kurt’s life—much more than fame or money or anything. And I think that it’s shown pretty clearly in the film, and I think that it helps us arrive at a better understanding of what happened towards the end of his life. Because once you understand how important and significant family was for Kurt, then you can understand how painful the betrayal and deceit was in the end, and how much that would shatter Kurt’s foundation, and in many ways serve as a reminder to the abandonment that he felt as a child. From first frame to last frame, it’s a very cohesive journey.

I mean, man, I get very emotional talking about. It’s been a very emotional journey for me I think, because it’s an easier myth to swallow that Kurt just didn’t feel the way Freddie Mercury does sitting on the side of the stage, like “yeah Kurt died because he didn’t feel that he could be honest to the people anymore.” And it’s a much easier myth to sort of bite into than “My god, did we lose one of our greatest artists simply because he had a broken heart?” I mean its almost Shakespearean when you think about it.

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