I’ve been reading a lot of reviews from the local press and fans about the new documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and to steal a classic line from Patrick Swayze – “Opinions vary.” I myself enjoyed the hell out of the film and I felt it covered all the things that should have been covered. While the film meanders, that reminded me of how Cobain might have made it.
The day after watching the film I got a chance to chat with director Brett Morgen. I’m so glad I watched the film before speaking to him because watching it changed how I felt about it. Honestly when Montage of Heck was announced I had mixed reactions, partly because I was suspicious that it would be created to sell Nirvana T-shirts to the kind people that wouldn’t have been caught dead at a Nirvana concert in the early days. But as I said earlier the film is not cute and pretty but rather it is northwest rough and gritty, raw to the core, just how Cobain would have made this. Which is another reason to commend Morgen on this film, he doesn’t live here (although he admitted that he loves Seattle’s love of pinball machines) and most of the time when people don’t live here and they make a movie about here, it’s all fucked up. After watching him get into a heated exchange at the Q & A after the movie I was even more excited for the interview because I realized this guy is 100% true to his craft and as you’ll read in the interview he left it all on the table
Our interview with Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck director, Brett Morgen:
NWMS: I saw crossfire hurricane, and I know a few other things about you, but I hadn’t seen you in person until last night. So watching the movie I felt this brutal honesty. I grew up here and I’m a big Nirvana fan, and I was afraid someone was going to make this movie, and it would be a fucking commercial to sell Nirvana T-shirts and your movie wasn’t like that. Then hearing you talk at the Q&A, I totally understood why the movie wasn’t like that: because that isn’t you.
Brett: Mmhm. Well and it wasn’t Kurt. I did a presentation of a picture that was designed to be a myth. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, you know? And it’s a completely different film. But a film like Kurt Cobain needed to be honest, and needed to have the integrity that Kurt brought to his work. And if you’re doing a film about a musician like Michael Jackson, you’re selling fantasy; if you’re doing a film like Kurt Cobain, it needs to be, above all else, honest. And so that really dictated a lot of our decisions.
NWMS: I wanted to ask you a quick question: So during the Q&A, a woman basically had said (which by the way I don’t agree with her at all) that you had taken Courtney’s stance with this movie, and I did not catch that at all out of the flick.
Brett: I regret not asking her to articulate on that to be honest, because I don’t know what she’s talking about.
NWMS: I don’t either, I don’t see that at all. But of course Courtney gets a real bad wrap around here.
Brett: Of course.
NWMS: Like I said, I didn’t catch what she was talking about, and it sounds like you didn’t either.
Brett: Well I really regret how I handled it, but you know, there’s been a lot of suggestions and innuendos before anyone ever saw the movie about authorship. And this is such an experience. Listen, I did the Rolling Stones film, I did not have final say. Because of the history associated with Courtney and the band, it was essential. I thought Courtney was going to fucking hate the film. And also, it’s such a strong accusation, you know? And I could see it from someone who hasn’t seen the film. But when you’re on the inside and they’re making the conspiracy about you, and you know how you got dressed this morning, it’s kind of frightening, and maybe that woman had been around them, and saw shit, and had an experience with it, right? But she was never alone with them. If she was there, she wasn’t alone with them. So she doesn’t really know what they were like when they were alone. But see, I do. Because not only did I have the film footage, I had hours and hours of audio that they just left running while they were playing music together. And so it gave me tremendous insight into what they were like away from other people.
NWMS: Yeah. There’s always been this thing with some people up here, that they weren’t really that close. But I didn’t get that out of the movie.
Brett: What you saw is what I experienced, you know?
NWMS: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about, during the Q&A you talked about your relationship with Bean. When you were talking about that, I could feel some emotion coming out of you, that you really began to care about her and what she’s been through with this. Could you tell a little bit about what it was like at the storage locker with her?
Brett: I’m trying to remember what I said last night. I told Frances, I saw her the other night, and I said “I gotta apologize to you, because I’m constantly being asked about these interactions we’ve had together, or how you experience stuff, and I don’t want you to feel like I’ve been betraying your confidence. It’s so awkward because after going all over the world, everyone wants to know about you.” And I hate it, I fucking hate it. I don’t want to tell you what it was like in the storage room with her. Because to me it was a private moment. But I said this to her and she said “Dude, I totally get it. You are out there having to promote the movie by yourself. And it’s fine, I love you, it’s all good.” And that was really important because I hadn’t seen her in the last month. And so I’m not trying to dodge your question……..
NWMS: No that’s fine. Dude I’ve been doing this a long time, I’m totally good with however you answer it.
NWMS: So one thing you talked about was possibly getting some of Kurt’s things to the EMP, to the archives or something like that. Was that just sort of off the cuff, or do you have a plan?
Brett: Well I don’t control the archives. The archives exist, but the stuff I have control over, I certainly want to be able to get them. And also I want to donate some of the paintings and some of the artwork. And anything that we have that we’ve collected, and now that I think about it, anything that I own and control I think should go there.
NWMS: That’s awesome dude, you kick ass. So now you had also mentioned the book; is there anything different coming out in the book?
Brett: Yeah, man. I mean, you saw the movie, when you add up all the interviews it’s probably 10 to 15 minutes. But those interviews went on for a long time. Wendy’s I did over the course of 3 days. With Don and Jenny you’re only getting a small part of the interview and that was a 5 or 6 hour interview. So I wanted there to be an opportunity for people to read the extended interviews. It’s not a talking head film so I only used what I needed to. But I felt the need to sort of get that stuff out there. It’s like a scrapbook of the movie, it’s pretty cool.
NWMS: How did it feel when you seen the movie yourself – I mean I don’t know how it is when you see any of your movies for the first time when it’s done, all completed – how did it feel to see that?
Brett: Alright, you’re landing on something I’ve never talked about in the interviews because nobody has asked that, so I appreciate that, so you’re going to get a really fresh answer from me. We were constructing the film in different sections we were working on. Towards the end, we had an editor who was assigned to pick up the film when Courtney’s story came in, and I was kind of working on all this stuff from the beginning, and nobody was kind of doing the middle section when Nirvana broke. And so for the longest time we couldn’t watch the film as one full unit. And it wasn’t until August that we were able to assemble the pieces. And I remember Joe [Beshenkovsky] being really nervous that they weren’t going to fit. And I had better insight into it because I was supervising him and I knew what we had leading into it, so I felt like “I think this is gonna work”. Literally we were about 3 months behind schedule that morning in August. I mean we were really in a bad place. By the end of that day, we were back on track. And when we watched the film for the first time, it fit so seamlessly together, that we thought “Wow, this was kind of magical how this happened”.
So we started screening it for people, and I sent it to the distributors, Universal and HBO, and they had no notes. Nothing. Not a single note, from either HBO or Universal. And we started bringing people in that we trust, and we were getting tremendous response from that. And Joe and I didn’t believe it, and we were like almost hostile to it. And we were pleading with people to attack the film. Which is what I do in rough cut stage, I don’t want anyone to tell me what they like about it, I want to know what they don’t like about it, you know, because I’m still trying to make it better. And I was talking to Joe about it at the LA premiere the other night, that we just didn’t believe anyone. And we didn’t think we’d get into Sundance [Film Festival], I wasn’t sure. I don’t wanna say we were insecure, but I just wasn’t ready to give it up.
I would be there from 8 A.M. until 2 A.M., every day, 7 days a week, from August 1st to January. And when it premiered at Sundance… I mean that was one of the most… I knew from the first time that we saw the final edit of this film, that it would be unusual to be present with an audience. Because generally when a movie is shown at a film festival, you know, they applaud, if you’re at Sundance they will stand up, you don’t have to make a great film to get a standing ovation over there. Prior to this I had 27 films at Sundance, and I think we had standing ovations at everything – it’s not saying much. And I knew there would be muted applause at the end of this film. I just knew – I mean I said it to Joe the first time we watched it, I said “Joe! Wanna go to the party?” – meaning these people are gonna be stunned when they get to the end there. And even though I knew that, as I sat there at the first screening and the film ended, and there was a sort of muted applause, I turned to my wife and said “They fucking hate it. What the fuck, what happened? Where did I go off?” and she said “No, you knew this was going to happen” and I go “No, this is a fucking disaster.” And then I got introduced to do a Q&A. And man I put everything I had into this film. Everything. I mean, to me, this was the most challenging and satisfying film of my career. And I get introduced to the Q&A, and there’s sort of a quiet applause, and I’m walking up and the lights on me, and I just don’t want to be there, I want to leave. I don’t want to be in the room, I feel like I just delivered a fucking total bomb. And you know, I’m going to get chased out of town. So I finish the Q&A, and I RUN. I don’t walk, I just dart for the exit. And my wife started chasing after me. So we get in the car and I just start banging my head against the window in agony and frustration and despair, going “What the fuck just happened? What the fuck man?” And she was trying to calm me down, but I was inconsolable. And then about a minute later I went on to Twitter. And I started reading tweet after tweet after tweet of this ecstatic response to the movie.
NWMS: Wow. I was on Twitter that night, I was watching that whole thing go down – keep going.
Brett: My wife looked at me and goes “I told you, you fucking idiot. They were too stunned!” And I will tell you to this day, even though I know this, that this is going to happen, every time I’m present for a screening, I have the same reaction – that the movie’s over and they didn’t like it. Then I go and look at Twitter and I see that there’s this amazing response. It happened last night man – and it happens every time I screen the movie. And you would think after 4 months on the road with this film I would have accepted, you know, okay, I think people like it, or you know, have a strong reaction to it. It’s still a very difficult movie to present in that context. But the response is so much more gratifying than the sort of “yay, applaud, stand on your feet”. I think people are just stunned when it ends. And I think that was something we were trying to deliver. We weren’t going to give it some bogus happy ending, because it isn’t. And you could try to tie it up real neatly, and you know, cut the interviews with everyone, where they’re like “Kurt’s not here, but his legacy goes on, and he’s brought so much comfort to so many people, and yadda yadda yadda” to make it a happy ending or something, but that would have been disingenuous. And so there was a sense that if that’s not going to happen, we might as well just let it be. And when I screened it for Frances the first time, the movie’s over, and I’m talking to her and she says “You know, you want to know what my favorite part of the film is?” and I said “What’s that?” And she says “The ending.” And I said “What part of the ending?” and she goes “The way it cuts to black”.
NWMS: Dude that was stunning man, I’m telling you. It ended the same way Kurt’s life did right? It was really true to just how the whole thing just stopped, like one day.
NWMS: That was brilliant man, I gotta tell you. I mean I just sat there, and that’s why people don’t go crazy with applause, because they’re just fucking stunned.
Brett: Of course they don’t man, that’s what I’m trying to say, it’s a much deeper response that a superficial “woohoo”. And this has been going on all over the globe. If you wanna check Twitter right now as we speak, I think the show started overseas in 20 countries from Spain to Lithuania and all over in between, in about an hour and a half we’ll be able to go on Twitter and see what the international response is to these territories. And it’s been pretty consistent. I just checked Rotten Tomatoes and we’re at 97%. And when you think about a film like Kurt Cobain, you expect it to have a much more polarizing response. And so the reaction to this film is just humbling man.