Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is not a Nirvana documentary. It's a story of art, family, and pain. When director Brett Morgen was granted access to Cobain's drawings, journals, and home movies, the film became an archival portrait of an artist and his raw emotions mostly in his own words. Using animation methods he showcased in the superb Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, Morgen brings the art of Cobain back to life. Montage of Heck doesn't feed the Cobain mythos but tells his story in a style befitting the man: visceral, unrelenting, and loud.
After a weeklong theatrical run in Seattle, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck premieres on HBO tonight at 9. We chatted with Morgan the morning after Montage of Heck's Seattle premiere to get a sense of how he brought this vision of the Seattle icon to life.
How did you originally get involved with the project? Did Courtney Love approach you because she was a fan of your previous work?
Courtney was a fan of The Kid Stays in the Picture, and particularly the way that I used motion graphics to bring photographs and other ephemera to life. She said, “You know, everybody knows Kurt from Nirvana, but what they don’t realize is he was really this prolific artist, and I have all this art that I think you can probably do something special with.” And thus began an eight-year journey.
I heard you say that the items of Kurt’s you use build the film were just being stored in a warehouse. What was the scope of that space?
The first reaction I had when I walked in there was, “Is this it?” Because it was several years after I first met with Courtney that I actually entered into that facility. In my mind, it was going to be Raiders of the Lost Ark or Citizen Kane—you know, that last shot of that massive warehouse—and it wasn’t. I remember walking in there and just stopping and going, “Uhh…where’s the rest of it?”
But it’s not quantity. And what no one knew, including myself at that moment was that there was going to be a box right there that said “Cassettes,” and you don’t need a massive box to hold 200 hours of audio. And as I started going through that, that became the foundation for the film. It was the audio. I had no idea that was going to be an asset. There are several things [like that]. I signed up for this film before I knew that Wendy Cobain had Super 8 films documenting Kurt’s entire life from six months to eight years old, that would sort of shatter some of the mythologies that Kurt had created or talked about related to his youth.
So did anything stick out as a massive discovery when sorting through the items?
Everything was a revelation. Every box I opened revealed something. The best way I can phrase it is like… You open a box, you pull an item out, and that’s a letter. You pull two out; that’s a word. You take all the contents out, and you have a sentence. And you start to build the script.
Speaking to the mythology of Kurt, was it harder to make a film about a person where almost everyone comes in with a preexisting idea about who he is, what he means, and what they want the film to tell them?
I can’t think about that when I’m making a film. You can’t divorce yourself from your own experiences, so obviously if you went in there, you’re going to see different stuff. But I went in there as sort of… I experienced it in as pure a way as I possibly could, which is, I got to know Kurt not through life, but through my interaction with his artistic experiences of life. And in a sense, it’s much more pure form than interviewing his friends or looking at his MTV interviews or anything like that.
Just because it’s the unguarded person….
It’s unfiltered media. There was a quote from Charlie Cross in the New York Times over the weekend in which he said, “The truth is that this man was very, very tormented, and he was full of contradiction. What part of Kurt do you want to believe? What he wrote in diaries? What he said in interviews? What his friends said?” And while I agree that no one could every truly know what’s inside another person’s mind, to me the answer is simple. You listen to the art, which is something you can’t do in a book form. If you’re writing an 800-page book, you’re going to rely on interviews. But that’s why I feel like the best expression of Kurt is probably in a film. He, of any artist, created this visual and aural autobiography of his life, which to me should be felt and experienced in a cinema, and I can’t think of another subject that presents a more complete portrait, self-portrait, than Kurt. In part its because he worked across so many different forms of media. He was so expressive in all these different areas from the age of three until the very end. He is mercurial and he’s difficult to nail down, but I think we get closer to it through allowing him to sort of express it rather than other people.
That was one of the things that struck me was how the interviews used don’t really narrate the story; Kurt’s art narrates the story. It’s not the typical documentary where the interviews are there for specific emotional reactions; they’re just there to help fill in the gaps.
I cut the entire film without interviewing people, and then I did the interviews. I’m not a big fan of talking heads interviews. Initially I was planning to have Kurt fill in the cracks through interviews I collected and I just didn’t engage with him on the same level. I felt that it would be pedestrian to have him have to do the heavy lifting of getting from A to B. Just let him express himself through the best way he can through his art and let the people who are closest to him help guide us through that. So there’s only five people; it’s almost like primal: it’s mother, father, sister, first girlfriend, best friend, and wife. There’s a purity to that.
Yep, though if there’s one, “Oh, why wasn’t this person interviewed the film?” it would have to be Dave Grohl.
Yeah, Dave wasn’t available for an interview when I was making the film, and I was fine with that. I really felt Krist [Novoselic] could represent Kurt in Nirvana. It’s not a film about Nirvana, it’s a film about a boy named Kurt. So I was totally cool with that. Dave wasn’t available because he was doing Sonic Highways at the time, and that’s fine, man. And then he was available after I finished picture, after I locked picture, so I said, “All right, let’s do an interview.” It’s a Hail Mary, I doubt I’ll be able to get it in, I’ve two weeks before the premiere. And it just proved to be too difficult. And also—more importantly—I didn’t need it. If I felt that we had to have that, I wouldn’t be here talking about it, I’d still be making the film.
One of the standout elements in the film are these two distinct animated sequences over audio beds of Kurt telling stories from his youth. What led you to add those to the film?
We cut audio first, and I was totally apprehensive about visually depicting, animating Kurt. I was very concerned, because it could have easily gone south pretty fast. But I worked with an amazing artist in Holland named Hisko Hulsing, and we were both committed to doing the sort of Disney-level hand-drawn animation that you don’t see anymore. So they did 6,000 drawings and Hisko created 58 oil paintings on four-by-six foot canvases to render that animation. And I didn’t want to do that in Kurt’s aesthetic, because we were stepping outside of it. What Hisko achieved is something that I never seen in a documentary. The level of craftsmanship and his animation is really exceptional.
Somebody who was from Aberdeen said to me last night, “How much time did your animator spend in Aberdeen, because they really nailed it?” And I said, “Well, he lives in Amsterdam, and it’s usually overcast and raining, so I think he had that sort of that vibe going."
What was your relationship as a fan toward Kurt and Nirvana before you got involved with this project?
The word fan is complicated because it’s fanatic. I like the music, I’d seen them play the first time for 150 people in my school cafeteria and then the next time I saw them play was at the Forum, the second-to-last show in the States, December 30, 1993. I mean the moment they broke was significant from a cultural standpoint, but I never thought about making a film about Nirvana or Kurt. It never even crossed my mind. Now, looking back at it, I sit here and I can’t think of another subject that even comes close to offering me the creative opportunities that this film provided me with, but also another subject that touches people like Kurt does all over the world. That was something—myself, HBO, Universal Pictures—none of us saw coming. We knew Kurt was popular, but I had no idea how far reaching his influence was. It was only after we announced the film. HBO said it was the biggest press break they’ve had for a documentary. We released the trailer in the UK and it was the largest trailer release in Yahoo UK history. I mean it just exploded. And we sit here and I look at the news cycles for this movie, and it’s crazy. There’s just such intense interest.
I’ve been around the world with this film and it’s been an amazing experience to read what people have to say about the film. I like to read because it’s very easy to have an inflated sense of your work when you’re at a film festival, because nobody ever comes up to you and says [negative things], which would be refreshing. So you go on Twitter and you get a more pure experience of it.
I remember when this film opened in the UK, I was in London and it was five o’clock on Friday night. And I like to set sound levels in theaters [that are playing the film], which is a little difficult when you’re opening in 20 countries tonight. My friend just called me and he’s seeing it in fucking Lithuania tonight in some small village. So it was like five o’clock opening night in London, I was by myself, and I said, “All right, I’m going to go spend the night going to like 20 cinemas in Central London. I’m going to pop in and set the levels.” Before I left I was like, “Let me just check Twitter real quick.” I didn’t leave. I sat there for six hours because I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I don’t look at Twitter when other films open, so I don’t know what other people experience, but what I was seeing was so humbling and made all the [work worth it], and this film was not easy to make.
You mentioned The Kid Stays in the Picture; that was not a hard film to make. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, but it flowed very easily. This one did not. This one was a battle. And I really questioned whether I had what it took to pull it off. I tried to get off the project after years pushing this project up a hill to get it financed; within four months after it was financed and I started going through stuff, I wanted out. I felt lost at a certain point. And I’d never been there; that had never happened to me. It took eight years, but a lot of that was legal wrangling. So the actual physical making of the film was really like eight years of work crammed into two years. At the beginning of the film, I told my staff, “Whenever you make a movie, you get to the end and everybody does these all-nighters.” So I said, “So let’s not get crazy like that. Let’s put in the hours now so when we get to the end we can sort of cruise gently.” And when we were close to finishing the film, my assistant said to me, “When does that part come when we land gently?” [Laughs] Because we just went full throttle for the entire two years.
Before the Seattle premiere, you talked about how this really ended up being a film for Frances Bean Cobain. What led you to that point?
I think early on, right after I met Frances, just hearing the way she talked about Kurt, it was clear that this movie would present me with the opportunity to do something much bigger than entertaining a fan. There’s an opportunity to bridge a gap between a father and a daughter. I remember at some point shortly after meeting her, I decided I had to make this film for her. And that was completely informed by the fact that I’m a father, and that was a heavy responsibility, man. But I really wanted to get it right. And she gave me an amazing gift. She said, “Go make this. I’m not a filmmaker; you’re the filmmaker. You make the film you want to make, but just make it honest.” To be able to give that level of trust and respect to a filmmaker is the greatest gift one can give me, professionally.
Is there anything you specifically want people to take away from the film?
Deeper understanding of Kurt and a greater appreciation for who he was as a father, a son, a husband, a brother, and an artist. There’s a lot more, but I’d like the audience to be able to draw their own conclusions.