Brett Morgen Is Bawling Over ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’
The director talks about devoting eight years of his life to a truthful rock doc
Brett Morgen is exhausted. After spending eight years filming the first official Kurt Cobain documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, submerging himself in the late Nirvana singer’s memorabilia (which is stocked away in a storage facility somewhere in Los Angeles), and participating in more interviews than he’d care to give, the director can finally present his magnum opus to audiences — but it turns out that red carpets are paved with their own stressors.
“I’m an emotional wreck, to be honest,” Morgen tells SPIN over the phone. “I was crying for interviews, which is not really becoming. By the time Kurt screened at the Berlin Film Festival, I was doing 70 interviews a day. It’s never stopped, because of the interest in this film. It’s not just music press we have to contend with, it’s film press, it’s fashion press, it’s national press, in 40 different territories. This has been an emotional experience for the audience and an emotional experience for me.”
Languor aside, Morgen can best be described as pleasantly flabbergasted by peoples’ reaction to the film. “The response was the antithesis of how I experienced it,” he says. “It started with my friend tweeting something like, ‘It’s a masterpiece.’ [The response] wasn’t just positive, it was euphoric.”
Shining a rare light into one of rock’s darkest and most idealized figures, Montage of Heck crafts a biographical narrative of Cobain’s life — from his childhood in Aberdeen, Washington to his tragic death in 1994 — Morgen reconstructs Cobain’s life using an intimate collection of audiotapes, drawings, home videos, and interviews with family members. Unlike Kurt Cobain: About a Son – the 2006 documentary based on conversations between Cobain and journalist Michael Azerrad – Morgen was given permission by Cobain’s former wife, Courtney Love, to access Cobain’s personal possessions. On top of that, Morgen got the go-ahead from the famed frontman’s 22-year-old daughter, Frances Bean, who came on board as the film’s executive producer.
Despite his ongoing weariness, Morgen — who’s about to grant one lucky L.A. fan access to the Cobain archives this weekend at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood — spoke with SPIN about the emotional see-saw of making Montage of Heck (now in select theaters and premiering on HBO on May 4), the visceral response of digging through Cobain’s possessions, and the responsibility of telling an honest story about not just a man, but a man-turned-idol.
Did you have any idea that Montage of Heck would get this kind of response?
Absolutely not. Not a fucking clue. When Joe [Beshenkovsky] and I, my co-editor, pitched it at our first assembly, and sent it off to HBO and Universal Pictures, they were euphoric. The response was incredibly positive. But to be honest, this film was a motherfuck to finish. We didn’t take a day off from August 1 until we arrived at Sundance [in January], and I drove everyone on my production team a little crazy towards the end. Even after I finished, I didn’t want to stop working. I just wanted to get it perfect for my ears and for my sensibility.
At our first screening [at Sundance], I get up to do a Q&A, and there’s a nice applause, and as I’m walking on to the stage, I’m shaking. I didn’t want to be on that stage. It was a really difficult Q&A to do, but I did it. And usually, when a movie is over, you stand by the stage and people come up to you and shake your hand and talk to you about the film, but I tore out of there.
I did not talk to one person. I remember seeing a friend of mine walking towards me, and I ran and went out the back door. My wife, Deborah, was sort of chasing me down. I jumped into our car and started banging my head against the wall. I just remember thinking, “What the fuck just happened?” I had just spent eight fucking years on this movie and now it’s over — just like that. I was like, “Where did we go so wrong?” And she goes, “You knew there was going to be that response. I think they really liked the film, it’s just people at the end of the film are stunned.”
What’s so remarkable about this film is that you’d imagine a film about Kurt Cobain presented in a rather unorthodox manner would polarize people. It’s not a movie where you get together with your crew and make a champagne toast and high-five each other. Having to talk about this film from those first interviews at Sundance, I remember feeling almost as if I was being exploited. I was so emotionally fragile from the experience of making the film and I wasn’t prepared to have microphones in my face.
In a recent interview you did with Courtney Love, she basically said that she trusted you because she was a fan of your past films and knew you were the person to make it.
I was at a screening last night and someone started challenging me that this was all filtered through Courtney, and I kind of got irate. It’s fair for someone to say that prior to having seen the film, but I know what the film is, and the film is my experience with Kurt’s primary sources. Someone just asked me what myths I was trying to shatter, and I said I wasn’t. I didn’t go into it with the intent of shattering myths — I went into it somewhat naively with the idea that I was going to go through all this stuff and that I’m going to see what I find. And the film, in a sense, is my experience living with all these materials for the last couple of years.
Do you think not knowing Kurt helped in making the film?
I got to know him through his primary source material, and, in a way, that provided me with a vantage point that very few people have in life. People see things in his art or in his journals that he wouldn’t necessarily share with his friends. I remember when I interviewed Krist Novoselic, and he said, “Kurt never talked about his issues. I remember the first time I ever heard he had problems as a kid was when we were doing interviews.” And it makes sense, because when you’re a 19 or 20-year-old boy, you don’t sit around the park, drinking beer, going, “You know what, man? My mom and dad ignore me.” It’s just not something that you tend to discuss with other men. So I felt that I was at a very clear vantage point.
The other day, someone asked me if Kurt was around, what would you ask him, or what would you want him to contribute to the film? And I remember thinking I wouldn’t need him because everything I needed to tell the story existed in those primary materials. I specifically avoided, for the most part, interviews with Kurt. I found those to be, of all the forms of expression of Kurt, one area that he was often deceptive or withdrawn. I mean, you can see how he is in interviews throughout the course of the film. I felt that if you’re going to do this film with Kurt, you have a rare opportunity to tell a story from the inside out, rather than the outside in, and that is a tribute to Kurt and his unique gift of expression. I just trusted that and followed that journey.
When you were going through all the materials, did you ever feel like you were being intrusive?
There were a couple of things that he wrote that I was sort of embarrassed by, but I didn’t feel intrusive for several reasons: One was that I was sort of on a mission. I was sent there by his family. And Frances [Bean Cobain], her one dictate to me was to make it honest, to not shy away from the truth no matter how brutal it might be. The other thing is that what I was looking at, in essence, was art. Even in his journals, I considered that a part of his art. They weren’t diaries that were kept under lock and key — these were notebooks that he would keep to write songs and to occasionally write down thoughts. He used to leave them out on the coffee table as an invitation for people to try and figure him out.
I think most artists create not to bury their art underneath their bed, but to share it. But of course, the final say in all of this wasn’t up to me, it was up to Frances. It was up to her what she was really comfortable with. When she saw the film for the first time, she looked at me and said, “Don’t touch a frame,” and I said, “Frances, it’s three hours and 30 minutes long, I have to shave it down.” [Laughs.]
Initially, Courtney was looking for someone to capture the truth of Kurt on film. Do you feel like you succeeded in that?
We can never really know what’s going through another person’s mind, or what their thoughts are. But I feel with Kurt that I was able to get as close as one could possibly get because of his work and his art and the access that gave us a sense of his experience. And I wasn’t operating off of Courtney — I didn’t feel like I was on some sort of back-climbing mission for Courtney, or anyone for that matter — I was just experiencing what I was experiencing.
Montage really hit me on a personal level because of people I’ve known who’ve fallen into addiction. I was showing someone close to me, who’s been struggling with drugs for years, a few clips from the film, and they were really moved. So I felt that this film, while speaking mainly about Kurt, also spoke about addiction. Do you agree?
I’m so happy you shared that with me, because you may have heard me tell this story before about the first time I showed the film to Wendy [O’Connor, Kurt’s mother] and Kim [Cobain, Kurt’s sister]. They had a very visceral, very hostile reaction to the depictions of Kurt on heroin. And Kim said to me, “My brother was really ashamed of his heroin use, and you said you wanted to make a film that Kurt would want to see. Do you think my brother would want this in the film?” And I said, “You know, Kim, I don’t believe this film romanticizes heroin use or is in any way going to influence or inspire people to use heroin. But the one thing you’ve always shared with me is that your brother’s greatest fear was that he was going to influence or inspire people to use.” She often told me this story of this kid who went up to Kurt at a concert and they had some smack and it just broke his heart.
I struggled with addiction for most of my life, and I did just about everything there was, but I would never touch heroin. So I said to Kim, “What if one person — maybe it’s a young kid who likes to smoke a little herb, or get a little drunk — sees this film and as a result, says no to heroin? What greater legacy for your brother is there, posthumously, 20 years after he died, then to save a life? I think that if Kurt was here, and we gave him the choice between saving one life or selling one hundred million records, he would choose to save a life.”
So that’s how I lived with myself and lived with that decision. Also, when I was at the second screening at Sundance, a woman came up to me, shaking. She was about 22, she was kind of a ragamuffin, and she was wearing a Nirvana shirt, which at Sundance is kind of a rarity. She came up to me and said, “I’ve been struggling with addiction for years, and seeing this is giving me the strength to never touch heroin. I’m telling you right now, I’m never going back.’ We embraced, and I started bawling.
I feel like if you’re making a film about Michael Jackson, fine, go sell the fantasy. But if you’re doing a film on Kurt Cobain, it should be honest and it should have integrity, and that is a tribute to Frances for allowing me to put this film out into the world. The fact that people are having this reaction that your friend had, or that this young woman from Parks City [Utah] had, is really just gravy, you know? It wasn’t the intent of the film, but if that’s the byproduct, what an amazing legacy that is.
At this point, I know people aren’t going to walk away from this film feeling like we’ve torn Kurt down and vilified him. I’ve said before that we weren’t trying to put him on a pedestal, we were trying to look him in the eye and strip away some of the myths to reveal the man, and we’re all fallible. That’s what makes us human, which makes us unique. I think to try and present “St. Kurt” would have done a tremendous disservice to his legacy and to the fans. The fact that this is the film that is going to be out there for however long it’s out there, is a real testament to Frances and her integrity — that’s really what it is.