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

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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.

On trying to tie everything together:

There are no accidents in this film—every moment is doing double duty. Like in the home movies portions, of Kurt and Courtney, it’s not just like we throw in a shot of them in the bathroom because it exists and because its funny; we put it in because you see that even when they are alone, and away from the media, they can’t stop talking about it. When Kurt’s doing the Vanity Fair story, mouthing the words, I find that to be hilarious. But then, look right under the surface of that, and it’s like “wait a second, you guys are obsessing over your press.” Even little tiny things that you notice, like when you first get in the apartment and Courtney’s giving a tour and she says, “Oh, is this the apartment they described in Rolling Stone?” It’s just a constant thing for him.

And he was the one who gravitated towards it; he was the one who picked up his press. I mean imagine Kurt in the day of the Internet! I don’t know if he could have lasted as long as he did! He probably would have never left his house. Even stuff where it seems like they are being funny, you can see underneath the surface that something else was at play. I think when you channel it, you go back to a deeper understanding of Kurt and the film.

A lot of the biographers will stop at his charisma, how he was threatened by ridicule, but I wanted to know why—what the root of it is. Why life was so challenging for him. And I felt that there were clues in the home movies, his childhood home movies that nobody had ever seen, that provide a tremendous amount of insight. My movies are intended to be more experienced then learned.

I think we started at that point, and so there is no psychologist sort of standing up and sort of an egghead telling you how to interpret the film, or how to read a various moment. But when you look at the childhood, my interpretation of that was Kurt’s first three years before he had a sister were pretty idyllic, and his mother, as you could see, would dress him up like a doll. Man, he was the center of everybody’s attention. And in fact Kurt had an army of uncles and aunts on both sides of the family, and he was the first grandchild on both sides, that’s what he says in the film, which meant that all eyes were on Kurt.

By the time he got to be three, and his sister was born, there were other children in the family, and you know cousins and what not, and Kurt was no longer the sole object of his mother’s attention, and I think that is where things started to become challenging for Kurt. So this idealized world that he had for a very limited time…was something he could never get back. And I think it made him vulnerable…Kurt liked to say in interviews that he had a happy childhood until his parents divorce, but I didn’t see that at all, I didn’t experience that at all, man. I experienced maybe that happy childhood for three years, and then…his hyperactivity was triggered by the birth of his sister, or was just naturally coming to its own at that point, you know, clearly he was in an environment up in Washington…where nobody was able to properly diagnose his…, or understand him, and that was starting at three.

Krist says at the beginning of the film that all the clues were there, and that’s not just about Kurt’s art. I think that every moment of the film is kind of doing double duty which is why the film is very difficult to cut down in length. Those shots of Kurt, like I said, even when he’s a baby, and when he [is] just so magnanimous, attractive, and angelic…there’s also something else at play there.

On the family’s reaction to the film:

I think for Krist and for Wendy Cobain—Kurt’s mother—and sister Kim, seeing Kurt on heroin is very difficult, and when I showed Wendy the final for the first time, I said “You know Wendy, there are things in this film no mother should ever have to look at, and I know there are things in there Kurt would not want you to see, whether it’s having sex with Courtney, or being completely strung out. And I feel terrible that you’re gonna have to see this.” I think it’s also troubling for a lot of people who would like to preserve the myth.

After I showed the film to Wendy and Kim, Kim said, “My brother was so embarrassed about his heroin use, do you really think that he would want that in the movie?” And I had got to know Kim pretty well over the course of the year and a half we were working together, and one of the things that Kim always used to tell me was that her greatest fear was that he would inspire kids to do heroin or influence them to do heroin, or that they would feel validated doing heroin. And I said, “Kim, until this moment I’m not a social documentarian, and I’m not trying to do a message film of any sort. But now that you bring this all up, not only do I feel like the use of heroin in this film is not glamorous, it’s completely deglamorized. In fact for 20 years, Kurt’s been associated with heroin chic, and when you see the struggle that he has with his addiction and within himself, not only humanizing, but that, seeing the ugliness of that disease, may end up inspiring someone to not do heroin one day. And what greater legacy would there be for your brother posthumously then to save a life? And knowing what I do know of Kurt, given the choice of selling a hundred million albums, or saving one life, I believe your brother would choose to save a life.”

On fans’ reactions to the film:

Two days ago I was at a screening at the Sundance Resort, and there was a women I noticed because when you go see films at the actual Sundance Resort it tends to be an older, wealthier crowd, and they kind of hang out over there, they don’t really come to Park City, and sure enough, it was the audience that was basically the same generation as Kurt’s parents. But there was this one girl, she had dreads, she was sort of scruffy, and she was wearing a Nirvana shirt, and I saw her in the waitlist line and I thought, “Man, I really hope that girl gets in the movie. I want the Nirvana fans there.”

She came up to me after the movie, she was kind of shaking, she had tears in her eyes, and she told me that she is a recovering addict and had tried to end her own life on a couple occasions. And that the experience of the film was a mirror for her own life, and by being able to step back and see it, it would give her the strength and determination to resolve to never touch heroin again. But she fell in my arms, we embraced, and you know, she walked off, and someone else came up to me and was like “Wow! Great film!” And I was like “Excuse me, can I just have a minute outside,” and I bawled for about 10 minutes because that was like the thing, man.

And then, amazingly enough, I got my shit together, and went into the deli at Sundance and three more kids come and talk to me and basically tell me the same story. So, that’s not why we did the film, but—I remember when I was younger, I used to party my ass off. I did basically anything there was to do, but I would never do heroin because I saw this movie Christiane F., which came in ‘81, and it was like this graphic heroin, German movie about this teenage girl who was throwing up all the time. And I was so scared of heroin, I thought that if you touched heroin you died. Acid, no problem; blow, it didn’t matter. Heroin was the killer in my mind growing up, that movie Christiane F. probably saved my life.

On looking back at the how the film came to be:

I don’t understand, to this day, how this happened. I don’t know how Courtney gave me the keys to her storage facility that she had never been to—I mean she has been once with some lawyers or whatever, but she didn’t go and clean up all the bad shit—and gives me access to go in there throughout the entire production and do whatever I’m gonna do with the materials, and she’s not going to see it until the film is done. Like who does that? That doesn’t happen; there’s no reason for that. She could’ve said “I’m not going to sign a waiver until I see this film.” And then, I think, starting in August she was reaching out, you know, “Maybe I’ll come over and see where we’re at.” She would never show up. And finally it got to the point where I thought she really needed to see the film; I just wanted her to be prepared, but she never showed up.

Then Monday, three days before we went to Sundance, she and Frances came to Deluxe when we were watching the DCP for the first time—the DCP is what is going to get sent around the world. The film is finished, it can’t be changed, nothing can be changed. So she sees it for the first time, and decided at that point to come to Sundance. It’s very gut-wrenching for those who are involved—for Krist, for Wendy and for Kim. It’s an incredibly difficult role for them to revisit, but there is a ton there for them to love. Kim said to me, “You know, we love 95 percent of this movie. It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished.” They love the animation, they love that people are going to get to see the silly side of Kurt. I think that they just wish that the heroin wasn’t there…and so do I.

On giving Frances time with her dad she never got:

When I first met her, she shook my hand, she looked at me and said, “Just so you know, I know you more than I know my father, and I’ve only known you for two minutes”. What she meant was, Kurt died when she wasn’t yet two. She had no memory of Kurt other than photographs, but absolutely no memory of meeting him or being with him. Nor had she gone to look at any of those home videos or journals, so that was the first time she was experiencing her father, was in the movie. Some of those letters had profound impact on her. I think that since she has seen the film, there has been a sort of weight lifted from her that a lot of survivors feel—whether it’s guilt, or they blame themselves. But I think when you see the film, you see that Kurt’s problems preceded Frances, they preceded Nirvana, they preceded fame. He emerged from Aberdeen with all those problems intact.

My goal has always been to entertain people, to put a smile on their face. To do anymore than that has a degree of narcissism and arrogance: to think that I’m going to change the world with my movie. For me, to just entertain you for 90 minutes is asking a lot. But of everything I’ve done in my career, I can’t think of anything more significant than bringing a daughter closer to her father. I do strongly believe in everything I’ve done up until now. But there is no single greater achievement on a personal note for me then be able to give Frances that time with Kurt and a deeper understanding of who her father was and what he struggled with and how well he was able to take his struggles and create art that is comforting to millions of kids around the world.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will debut on HBO on May 4.

Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshJackson.

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