Famous People

Director Brett Morgen on Betrayal, Grief and "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck"

by James Rickman
There is no chronological neatness to the release of Brett Morgen's documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. It arrives 24 years after Nevermind, Nirvana's breakthrough album; 22 after In Utero, their last; and 21 after Cobain's death. So why now? That question is drowned out minutes into the film, a scabrous but minutely detailed and often heart-rending patchwork of Cobain's own home movies, drawings, writings and recordings. From a Super 8 clip of little Kurt playing house with his sister to fastidious practice schedules scrawled in his journals to camcorder footage of Cobain playing with his own child, the film is an antidote to the tired cliché that the Nirvana frontman was the figurehead of a cynical generation. It presents a man who's affectionate, insanely prolific and, most surprising of all, traditional. And with an obsessive, self-conscious need for self-documentation that would topple any of the blogging platforms he died too soon to encounter, he left a self-portrait that Morgen was able to complete -- ragged, passionate and timeless.

On the day the documentary's trailer appeared online, Morgen called us to talk about his spectral and intensely affectionate relationship with Kurt.


Much of this film is made out of the contents of a storage facility full of Kurt Cobain's stuff. Can you walk me through your first day in that place?

So I was first approached to do this film in 2007 by Courtney Love and due to several factors, mainly having to deal with rights, it took several years before we had acquired everything we needed to embark on the film, and during that entire time, I had heard about this storage facility. And so it was almost like a blind date -- but a blind date that you'd been hearing about for six or seven years. So in my mind, I had imagined this as sort of a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Citizen Kane or something: the final scene where you enter this massive warehouse and there's just crates and crates and crates of material. And so finally, after all the rights were settled, Courtney and Frances essentially gave me the keys to this storage facility. And when I arrived, the proprietor had told me that they had taken Kurt's possessions and moved them into this room that was, you know, maybe, you know, 40 by 20, low ceilings, fluorescent lights, industrial carpet... and in the center of the room were a number of about 22, 23 boxes. And on the outside of the room they had placed his paintings. All of his guitars were laid out in their guitar cases. I walked into this space and my immediate reaction was, "Is this everything?" Before I could look at the specifics of the paintings or the artwork, I was dealing with the totality of it, and I was a little underwhelmed. I was sort of like, "Did I buy some swampland here?" 

Yeah.

So I started to unpack the boxes. And very early on, I opened up a box that said, "Cassettes." And nobody had told me that there was any audio housed at this facility. And I opened a box and there's 108 cassettes in there. Double-sided, so that's about 200-plus hours of audio. And that was probably the greatest find in this whole journey, because within those tapes I would discover never-before-heard Cobain compositions, like Kurt's intimate cover of the Beatles' "And I Love Her." An audio autobiography that he had written and performed of his critical teenage years. Numerous soundscapes, one of which we derived the title of the film from, Montage of Heck. Tons of tapes of Kurt just sort of goofing off with a sound effects box, which revealed a more humorous side of Kurt than I'd ever seen. So a picture started to emerge. I opened up another box and there were dozens of home videos. Then I opened yet another box, and it's filled with journals, totaling four thousand pages. And yet you go further, and you open up the boxes of the toy monkeys, and the globes, and the artifacts, and there was a box that had all these 35-mm negatives of photography that Kurt took. With Kurt, we have a unique opportunity in that he worked in so many different forms of media that he probably left behind one of the most elaborate visual and oral autobiographies of anyone from my generation.

So the blueprint for the film emerged, that we can sort of allow Kurt to tell the story of his life not through interviews with him, but through the experience of his art. Kurt was never entirely comfortable doing interviews. And he would either practice a sort of self-mythology, he would be distant, he could be caustic, he could be overly eager, but he was rarely just himself. And I found that, to get to the heart of Kurt, we would need to build a film based on elements that were created not necessarily for public dissemination, but because he had to create them -- because that was the thing with Kurt: he didn't create art for a living. He created art because it had to come out of him.

We see a fair amount of Kurt looking, as you said, uncomfortable while giving interviews. Did you ever feel like you were sort of veering close to that territory when you were digging into this film? Or was there always a sort of a clear distinction in your mind with what you were doing? 


I felt a tremendous responsibility to Frances and to the fans and to public to get Kurt's story right. And for 20 years, Kurt has been mythologized and lionized and has grown into one of the more prominent cultural myths of our time, and I felt it was important to understand who the man was. And so, the role, the job wasn't to tear him down, or the job wasn't to build him up, the job was to look him in the eye in a very honest and unflinching manner. Look, to a certain extent, I was making the film for Frances. So to your point, within that context, nothing really could be exploitative. You see what I'm saying?

If that's your goal, yes.

I felt that if we can give her a couple hours with her father, and it worked on that level, then that experience would probably translate to the audience. Because Frances is in a unique position in that she's Kurt's daughter, and yet she also doesn't know him.

 Frances does not appear in the film except as a baby.
 


Did you ever consider that her experience of just living with his sort of memory and his genes would be worth exploring in the movie? 

 

No.

 And I get the sense that that wasn't something that Frances was interested in either.

It was something she was interested in. I mean, this is a movie built on primary sources and on eyewitness testimony of people who were most intimate with Kurt. Whatever Frances could testify to would be experiences that happened after Kurt died. The movie isn't about Frances; the movie's about Kurt.

Do you feel like there's any sort of meaning to this movie coming out in 2015, or if this is just as long as it took you to make it?



Oh man, I insisted on this film coming out on the eve of Nevermind's twentieth anniversary in 2011. There was a part of me at one point that wanted to movie to come out by 2009 for 20 years from the introduction of Bleach. I do think that there was a lot of divine intervention involved in this film on every level.

Like what?

It was meant to happen when it happened. You know, it's supposed to come out now and it's supposed to be called Montage of Heck. What is it that feels right about it coming out right now? 

I just think that there's a massive appetite, as has been exhibited by the reaction to the film from fans and critics around the world, to have a better understanding of Kurt and to spend a few hours with Kurt. 

In other interviews, you've talked about the end of Kurt's story, when he died, and you described it as "betrayal and deceit" and raised the possibility that it might have just been a question of heartbreak in those last days. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

You know, the popular myth related to Kurt revolves heavily around heroin and fame, and his feelings about his fame and his ambivalence about it or his ambition. And I kind of felt that there was a very surface narrative, and the underlining theme of Kurt's life was a sort of pursuit of family, and a search for acceptance, and acceptance primarily through family. He was kind of searching for that lost childhood, if you will. And so when he met Courtney, within weeks he had asked her to have a child and to get married. This was in I think November, maybe less than two months after they started dating. And so he obviously had a deep-felt need to start a family and to have a companion, to feel loved. And at the height of his fame, when Nirvana was selling 600,000 albums a week, he cancelled all of his obligations and he moved into an apartment with Courtney and he basically started a family. And he was really happy then, really content, and I think it was a very special period in his life. And as Kurt got deeper into celebrity and his addictions and his own family life, he kind of alienated himself a little bit from those he was intimate with. And he sort of put all of his eggs in one basket with Frances and Courtney, almost as if he had determined that, This is what I need: my art, my family, and I'm all set. More than the art, though, the family was for Kurt possibly the greatest achievement. And he was an absolutely doting, loving father and had no problems immediately connecting to his newborn.

As we learn in the film, a situation arose in '94 where Kurt felt that Courtney had been unfaithful. And in his mind, that was the greatest act of betrayal, that it was almost like everything he had believed in was turned upside down, and it clearly triggered feelings of rejection and failure that he had amassed throughout his life that were given birth at his own childhood. And so, that night in Rome, when Kurt went to take his life, it was very much spurred on by Courtney's perceived infidelity. 

Doesn't she say that he must have sort of known that through mental telepathy or something?


I think her exact words were, "He must have been psychic." It's not really my investigation to question how he learned or... you know, I think what was important for me was Kurt experiencing rejection and shame and humiliation on an epic level. That everything he had bought into and invested in was tainted. And he died three weeks later.

Yeah. 

The only other time I'm aware of in Kurt's life where he consciously and actively tried to commit suicide -- and I'm making a distinction between using heroin and having an accidental overdose, or actually trying to end your life, because of course being a heroin addict is a form of suicide, one can say -- but if we're going to be very literal about it, the one other instance where Kurt overtly tried to take his life we learn about in the movie from the audio tape where he loses his virginity to the girl in Aberdeen. And there's a line in that story in which he says, "I couldn't handle the ridicule, so I decided to end my life." And if one is looking for an immediate clue as to understanding the latter part, what happened to Kurt in the end, I think that you cannot ignore that story, that statement and that particular experience. When Kurt talked about his parents' divorce, he would talk about the shame, the humiliation. A lot of kids, when their parents get divorced, they'll talk about the loneliness, how they blamed themselves, feeling of abandonment, but I rarely hear it phrased as something humiliating and shameful.

You've now done Hollywood, rock 'n' roll, politics, and sports... is there a throughline here that connects this all to Kurt? How you see him fitting into your body of work?

The one link with all my movies is, you know, I'm a nonconformist by nature, I always have been, and I like to challenge myself and the audience in terms of pushing the boundaries of nonfiction. You know, I've been doing this for several years, and from the time I entered this field back in the early '90s, my goal was not to be a sort of traditional documentarian as it was known at that time, but was to be a sort of filmmaker that applied the tools and the techniques of cinema to nonfiction and create sort of more experiential films. I think a lot -- most documentaries are about a subject. My films tend to be the subject. They're the experience of the subject. So you don't hear people telling you what happened, you experience what happened. I think that in Cobain: Montage of Heck, we get closer to Kurt than any author will achieve in a long-form publication, because I don't see how one can arrive that same place with just the written word. I think you need to experience the art. You need to experience the sounds. And that's what makes Kurt such a significant figure for me as a subject, because, as we discussed earlier, he left all these materials.

You had asked earlier if I ever got a point where I felt I was trespassing, but, you know, Kurt saved everything. And one of his journal entries that we show in the film says, "I'm leaving for work now. When I'm gone, look through my stuff. Try to figure me out." So, he had a very conscious eye towards history, and towards documenting his life. He in effect was documenting his life from the moment he was born, or from the moment he could hold a paintbrush in his hand. And I feel that those were sort of, when we talked about divine intervention or whatever, there's a reason that my life experiences led me to that storage facility. And that if they had employed a more traditional filmmaker, we would have arrived at very different results. But if you're doing a film on Kurt Cobain, above all else, it should be honest. And it should be creative. And inevitably it's going to be haunting, because there's this sense of inevitability that permeates every frame in the film. 

Oh my God, from that little voice saying, "I'm Kurt Cobain." 



There's a point where, as we were cutting the film... I probably consciously started making shots a little bit longer in the final five minutes or 10 minutes because I didn't want it to end. The last day I had on the color stage, when we were color grading the film, it was about two in the morning, it was two or three days before the premiere, and we got to the last scene, and I had to excuse myself. I went in the bathroom and I had one of the most guttural cries I've ever had. And I sort of collapsed on the floor. And in that moment, I was consciously trying to reflect on why I was feeling this way -- was it because the film was finally over? Because I did feel, at that moment, I had nothing left to give. I'd given everything I had to this movie. I worked 140 days straight to get to Sundance, including Thanksgiving, Christmas. I really wanted to get this right. But what ultimately I realized was that I wasn't crying from exhaustion; that might have contributed to it, but I was crying because I wasn't going to be with Kurt every day. Because my job for the past couple years has been to come to work alongside Kurt and to experience Kurt. And I really liked being with Kurt. And I felt closer to Kurt than anyone else out of my family. And it's strange to say because I never met Kurt, but then again, I'd never had access to someone's private expression the way that I had with Kurt.

Yeah. Well, it's a powerful film. I hope you feel some closure now, if that's what you're after.

Well, going to where you started, when you were asking me how my day was going. See, I had final cut on this movie. Every director wants final cut on their films, but there was a reason it was so critical on this film because of the 20 years of infighting over Kurt's legacy, and who owned it and who controlled it. I felt that if Courtney had final cut of the film, it would have alienated a number of people. And if Kurt's mother and father had made the film, I think people might have been suspect of that as well. Not that there's anything nefarious, just that each person sees things in... you know, we all felt mythologized. And so I felt that it was essential that I had final cut, and that is a rare opportunity and a special privilege. So when I served as the writer, director, producer, editor -- I mean, I put everything I had into this. Someone came up to me at the Berlin Film Festival and said, "Oh, man, I've been reading your reviews, you must be so psyched." And I looked at them, ashen-faced, and I said, "Do I look psyched?" Because there's nothing to celebrate. I mean, we can celebrate Kurt's life and his art. But there's a cloud and a sadness, and in many ways the film is like meeting an old friend for the first time. And when you meet him again, you like him so much more than you thought you ever would, yet at the moment of clarity, the moment you realize that, of who this man really was, it's gone.

Montage of Heck is in theaters on April 24th and premieres on HBO May 4th.

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