Definitive is a strong word, but Film Editor Justin Gerber was right to use it when describing Brett Morgen’s latest documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. It’s a weighty 132 minutes that pummels by with the ease of any Nirvana album. It’s aggressive, it’s tragic, it’s exhausting, it’s emotional — all adjectives that anyone would ascribe to the late singer-songwriter. As Morgen paints the icon’s story, which has since become a matter of mythmaking within pop culture, a web of tears will cascade down your face, and your feet will eerily be tapping on the floor. It’s a surreal experience of polarizing emotions, but hey, isn’t that how we’ve lived with the music for over two decades now?
Not since 2004’s With the Lights Out box set has an export out of the Nirvana camp felt so essential. There’s so much to glean from this documentary that you watch the end credits not only feeling learned but surprisingly content. Morgen is a fantastic curator who trims the fatty backstories in lieu of the more tangible elements from Cobain’s short yet spirited life. We watch him play with toys as a child, spout out eccentricities backstage in foreign countries, and waste afternoons indoors with his then-wife, now-widow Courtney Love. These are intimate glimpses into a life that feels so human and real on-screen, namely because, well, they were at one point not so long ago.
During this year’s South by Southwest film and music conference, I caught up with Morgen at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Austin, Texas. It’s there we spent the morning discussing the lengthy trials and tribulations leading up to the film and the culture that has transpired since Cobain’s shocking death in April of 1994. To my own surprise, the man I discovered was a calm, engaging, and patient artist, who appeared physically and mentally drained from the near-decade’s worth of work he’s poured into this fascinating project. Much to his credit, he couldn’t have been more forthcoming about his film, and our chat was one of the more enlightening hours I’ve experienced interviewing talent.
Courtesy of Coyote Productions
What was your relationship with Nirvana prior to this documentary?
I’d seen them play twice on the Bleach tour at my college, Hampshire College, and then their second-to-last show in the States at the Forum. But I was a casual fan. I grew up on SST Records in the ’80s. You know, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, and all those bands. So when Nirvana broke, it was a seminal moment for everyone, for our whole generation. But I was a casual fan as I entered into this film.
The relationship with Courtney Love … did she approach you?
Yes. She came to me in 2007. She had all this art and stuff in a storage unit that she thought would reveal a different side of Kurt and thus began an eight-year journey to arrive here.
Whenever we would be at the point of getting the project moving forward, she would somehow end up firing an attorney, not related to the project, just because she doesn’t get along with attorneys.
Did you know her previously?
No. I didn’t know her.
She’s just a fan of your work? I mean, your resume speaks for itself.
I really was not eager to … yeah, Courtney at that time had a pretty terrible reputation. But she brought me in, and eventually she signed a release and gave me access and permission to do whatever the hell I wanted with both her image and her possessions.
That must have been overwhelming.
It’s not overwhelming; it’s the only way the film could be made … in a way. With history, as we know, everybody on any subject has a different interpretation of events. So if Kurt’s mom made the film, it would look one way; if Courtney made the film, it would look one way; and if I made, if Frances and I made the film, it would look like something else. I think the advantage here is that Frances and I didn’t know Kurt in life. Frances has no memories of Kurt. So there was, I don’t want to say “objectivity,” but I met Kurt through primary sources; that’s my experience with Kurt. My experience with Kurt is not as his friend but through his primary sources — through his writings and his music and his art. I didn’t start interviewing people until I had already got a first pass of the film. Because Kurt was so expressive and communicated himself in so many different media – I would say I meet a lot of my subjects through primary sources but no one, nothing as intimate as the Cobain experience. I think there’s a purity to it, and in a way, it gave me access to a side of him that his closest associates never had.
I imagine you listened and watched a ton of the material that she had in storage and elsewhere…
It wasn’t watching the material. That was gravy. The meat for me was the audio – 200 hours of audio – because that’s so unfiltered because he’s just letting the tape run with no … and it just gave me this great insight into what he’s like when he’s just there. Obviously nobody can see because if they can see it, then he’d knew (sic) there was a camera there. So there was this immediacy. I’ve just never had that experience with another subject. A little bit with the Rolling Stones, which I had access to every one of their recording sessions. I used to love listening to the raw sessions when I was doing Crossfire. Similar reason, because it’s unfiltered.
Was there a key moment when you knew you figured him out?
Well you can’t ever … that question comes with some baggage because you can’t ever fully know someone. I just have to state that, otherwise I sound like a fucking whatever, but that said, I have never felt closer to someone I’ve never met. And in fact, I would say over the last three years, I felt closer to Kurt than anyone else in my family. But again, that has to do with the access I was granted coupled with the access that he provided in his work.
One of the things that drew me in as a kid, especially in high school, was just how transparent he was with himself, on paper or even in sound. When the box set hit, I remember sitting in my college apartment haunted by how visceral he was on all the scuzzy four-track demos. So, I could only imagine sitting there with these really personal recordings…
There’s the immediate experience of an artifact. The first time I experience something, it’s very emotional and visceral. Thereafter I approach it like a surgeon. And it’s all very clinical. And until I’ve then absorbed that into the montage of the film, I’m looking at it rather clinically. At the point that it’s now appropriated into the proper context, I can be emotional about it again. Someone once asked me if this was a challenging film. You know, did you take your work home with you, because it’s Kurt and it’s disturbing material. No. I was invigorated. The part that was bleak was I didn’t think I was going to pull the film off. I’ve never been more challenged by a film in my life. But the tonality of Kurt I never found disturbing once I was doing it, because I had a job to do. If that makes sense.
It does. In terms of a challenge, did it simply come down to the fact that you were kind of restructuring this person?
I had to change my whole course, my whole plan for this film. The film that I pitched changed dramatically after I had screened through all the material.
What was the original pitch?
The original pitch was it’s all Kurt. There’s no interview with anyone. It’s just Kurt telling his story. But then as I got into the material, I decided I didn’t really respond to Kurt’s interviews. I was worried about the limitations. I didn’t like his cadence in a lot of his interviews. And I didn’t want for him to have to carry … I didn’t want for him to deal with any pedestrian, sort of I was here and then I went to here. Then I was like, you know what, I’m just going to have Kurt … I’m just going to invite the audience to experience Kurt through his art and let that be how he communicates his story. And then invite the people who are most intimate with Kurt through his life to provide some context, to help contextualize the other parts. That was not only a dramatic shift within this, but for me as a filmmaker, I’ve never done talking heads before. I mean, I shoot them for commercials all the time but not in my documentaries. And they’re kind of antithetical to what I’m trying to achieve in documentary, which is an immersive experience.
So the idea of lip flapping isn’t something that excites or intrigues me, in general. But, then when we decided we were going to do that, I kind of loved the challenge of how do you shoot, how should we shoot these interviews, what can I communicate through the mise-en-scene of the compositions, of the lighting and everything else? Then I became very interested from a filmic standpoint. Like, if we’re going to do these, what can we do? Most of the interviews were not shot at people’s homes. They were shot at homes I thought would look like the people’s homes. So they were cast; they were scouted. Don Cobain was filmed in Burbank. He happened to be in Southern California, and I tried to find an appropriate setting for him. The same with all of them.
The whole idea of the interviews was I wanted them to have some air, and I wanted them to feel like we were sitting there over the course of a long day. So I lit them, different questions had different lighting, and when I would go into a different area in the questioning, I would stop, reach and change the camera angles and the lighting so that it would have a feeling of the light shifting from morning to evening throughout the film. The challenge of that and the reason you shouldn’t do that is if someone talks about something in the wrong lighting, the whole thing, it’s a house of cards, it falls apart. So it requires a lot of restraint. I remember Wendy Cobain started talking about something towards the end of Kurt’s life when I had her in “morning in America” light, and even though it was emotional and intense what she was about to tell me, I’m like, “I’m so sorry, we’re going to come back to that.”
Was it jarring?
No. It wasn’t as difficult as you think because generally when I do an interview, I like to run them as sort of journeys, chronologically. So in that sense, we knew that Kurt’s youth was going to be “morning in America,” and we knew that the end of his life would be late into the night, so in that sense the middle part became confusing. The part of trying to figure out where the light shifts started becoming a little confusing, but it was helpful in the context of the movie. And Courtney kind of owns … once Kurt got together with Courtney, she became his main conduit to the world in a way, and so in terms of speakers, the structure of the film is almost a metaphor for what was happening in his life, in that it was becoming more focused and channeled through Courtney and Frances. So we had less speakers to contend with at that point in the film. Courtney, you can just watch her interview go straight into the evening as a transitional effect.
In terms of interviews, what was your most impactful one?
Don Cobain. Well, two things – I found Courtney’s revelation about Rome, her experience of Rome to be kind of illuminating. But Don Cobain, really. Because in Kurt’s mythology of his life, Don’s the villain.
Yeah. I think Heavier Than Heaven helped paint that picture.
Wendy Cobain certainly did not paint a pretty picture of Don for me. When I met Don, I had a totally different experience of him. A – I didn’t find Don in his current state to be at all threatening in any way, shape, or form. I found him to be full of built-up emotion, very honest, no agenda. I didn’t feel like he had an agenda at all. Totally refreshing, everyone has an agenda. Krist had an agenda, but I think his agenda was Kurt as an artist, so his agenda worked with what I was trying to do. Don and Jenny, there were revelations in those interviews that really I’ve never encountered in any of Cobain’s … any of the stories I’ve read about Cobain, a lot of which are going to be in our companion book, which have their complete transcripts, which are really worth looking into if someone’s into or wants to know Kurt a little better.
Is that going to include Dave Grohl’s interview? His interview took place too late for the film, right?
Yeah. What happened with Dave was … well, first of all, this isn’t a film where I wanted to go interview everyone who played with Nirvana, nor is it a film where I wanted to interview any more than the base minimum of what I had to do, so it was almost like primal. Like the mom, the dad, the sister, the first love, the wife, the best friend. From conception, I felt that Krist Novoselic represents Kurt’s involvement with Nirvana, and if there was going to be one person, it would be Krist. When we reached out to management, I asked for Dave and Krist. Dave was busy working on his album. After we locked picture, Dave was available, and we did an interview with the understanding that we already locked picture on this movie and that there’s a 50/50 chance it will work. The fact is I didn’t get it done in time for Sundance. We took the film to Sundance and Berlin. I think your publication gave it a Grade A review.
Yeah, we loved it.
We got the best reviews I’ve ever seen, and I’m gonna go fuck that? Maybe if the film had gotten panned, I would’ve had more incentive to go back in and do it. I’ll tell you the god’s honest truth is that I came back after Berlin to work on, to continue with Grohl, and I had Grohl already cut in reels four, five, and six. When I went on the mixing stage, there were two reel fours, two reel fives and two reel sixes, and the first time I was able to see the Grohl interview within the context of the film in its entirety was on the last day of the mixing stage. I saw it and was, ok, go with the other reels because I’m not ready yet. Then I go to Sundance. I watch the movie four times at Sundance. I go and watch it a few times in Berlin. I get back and having seen the movie three times a day from August 26 leading into Sundance, honestly, by the time I got back from Berlin, I had no objectivity. I tried to watch the full cut with Grohl again. I couldn’t. I was like, I didn’t have … I knew I no longer … I had given everything I had to this movie. I was spent, man.
I can imagine.
At the end of the day, I’m like, this is [a distraction] … the fact that we’re even talking about this is a distraction, so in a sense, I wish I had put him in so we wouldn’t have to be talking about it. I feel like it takes away from Kurt. I get it. Dave’s a valuable part of the Nirvana story. But this is not a story about Nirvana. It’s about Kurt. I’m hoping now that the film’s been out there and it’s been reviewed, and the trailer’s out there that by the time people go see the film, it’s not going to be an issue for them. I know at the first screening, there was a big debate about do we announce before the film that there’s no Dave in it, because people are going be expecting Dave in the film. By the way, if people want to know what Dave thinks about Kurt, it’s pretty much out there.
Oh yeah. Every interview. It’s a joke by now.
Whereas nobody had ever heard Don, Wendy, or Kim talk. Tracey hasn’t done an interview in years. Krist has rarely, if ever, discussed the stuff he talks about with Kurt in the film. I think Courtney’s interviews are filled with new revelations.
In terms of the access that you had, because I know the fans, when they found out that there are unreleased things and there’s this and that that hasn’t been uncovered. Would you be able to describe some of the stuff you were able to have access to?
I think the thing that’s most exciting is the music. All the stuff I was really interested in weren’t the band rehearsals, but was obviously Kurt at home playing. A lot of acoustic picking. Stylistically most of the stuff I’ve been listening to is a lot closer to Unplugged than anything on his three studio albums, which I think will excite a lot of people. Some of my favorite Cobain songs is the stuff I’ve been listening to but they’re not finished. Someone described it to me the other day as, you know in Florence they have the David, but they also have 10 sculptures adjacent to it, the workups to the David, and in a way those are just as magnificent. It’s kind of like that.
There are a lot of fragments?
I’ve spent the last few weeks collecting, collating music I think is worthy for the soundtrack. Those are pretty completed sketches, great stuff. Really amazing stuff.
Did you have to sift through the stuff there, or were you able to bring it home?
We transferred everything. In fact, what we couldn’t do at the facility, was, you know the tapes we were transferring were so old that we couldn’t press stop. Once you put a tape in, you had to record it onto ProTools right through. If you wanted to hear playback, you’d have to wait until the whole thing was recorded and then go back and do playback. The fact is we were trying to get 200 tapes done, I’m sorry, 108 tapes, 200+ hours, as quick as possible and as safely as possible. You would hear something there, and I’d note it and call the assistant editor, can you please get this digitized tonight?
So that was a process also. It seems like a long, arduous process. Was there any point, like halfway through, where you were thinking, I don’t know if I can do this anymore?
I thought that about the movie. I honestly, at one point, I asked my line producer how much we had spent, and I wanted to pay Universal and HBO back and just wash my hands clean of the thing. I really didn’t think we were going to pull it off, man. But short of that … what was your question?
Did you have that fear, even with the first screening?
Do you mean the first screening that we had people come to? No. I’ll tell you what was nerve-racking. I went through three editors before I met Joe Beshenkovsky, who came in in May. Joe never screened footage for the movie; there was no time for that. I had spent three months screening with another editor who didn’t work out. So we didn’t have three more months to start screening again. I started Joe on the Courtney section. I continued to work on the film up to that point. So Joe’s focusing on the back half of the film, I’m focusing on the first half of the film, but for some reason I forgot to assign to either of us the middle part of the film. So we can never watch the movie as a movie. We’d be like, oh yeah, the first half is going to be okay, the back half may be okay, but how are we going to connect these pieces? That sucked, man, because if not, we’d have been able to start seeing cuts of this film, probably, in June, but as it was, we didn’t see the first assembly edit until August 26.
I remember Joe not having a lot of hope that it was going to fit. I’ll be honest, the movie we saw on August 26 is the same movie that we finished 20 minutes longer, but we didn’t take any scenes out. We just shaved 20 minutes down. I remember looking at him after the first, you know it was long, it was two and a half hours, and as soon as the movie was over, I looked at him and was like, wow, I think we’re ahead of schedule all of a sudden. Somehow we went from being three months behind schedule to being ahead of schedule. We sent the film to HBO. They had no notes. We sent it to Universal. They basically had no notes. At that point, it was about whittling it down. Of course, you’re nervous and shit. I mean, look man, I worked until the last second. I worked after Berlin. I went from Sundance back to a mixing stage and a color stage, to Berlin, back to the mixing … I mean, there was no stone that we were leaving unturned. But at a certain point, I don’t want to say it was writing itself. It kind of just grew.
How did you decide which scenes would be animated?
The challenge that I had coming into it was knowing that there’d be no footage until 1991. So here we have all this great footage of Kurt until he is eight, and then there is essentially nothing until he is 22, and then there’s a decent sampling of stuff thereafter. And I didn’t want the film to be two different films. We knew there’d be a lot of animation in the first half of the film. The key and the challenge was finding areas to animate in the second half of the film, so it would maintain a cohesive vibe all the way through. The sort of rule of thumb was that you couldn’t go more than a couple scenes without going back into the journals or in some animation sequence to maintain the thread.
We called it the “definitive Cobain documentary.” I can’t imagine there being any more to this story. Is this one of those things where you definitely feel like this is it? What else is there?
Listen. There will be more. I think Kurt is entered that rare place where he’s a cultural icon and a myth, and like all myths, the story will be retold and repurposed for generations to come; and every generation will make that story their own. They’ll find their own entry into the story. Someone younger than me would have made a completely different movie; I’m Kurt’s age, and I had a very similar upbringing, so for me this movie is as much about Kurt as it is about an entire generation of us growing up at that time. And a very specific time, between essentially Kennedy and Nixon, by that I mean, if Kurt’s parents were five years older, they probably would have never got divorced. If they were five years younger, they probably would have never gotten married. That was a very specific time, where the parents were of that generation that thought you were supposed to get married right out of high school, but during that time they also were told that culturally it was okay to get separated and divorced; whereas the next generation after them weren’t so quick to jump to the altar.
My story on the Rolling Stones, Crossfire Hurricane, to me is about the Stones, Bob Evans, Kurt, Steve Jobs, all these icons. I did this film called Chicago 10 about the ’68 Democratic Convention. That was a film that Graydon Carter and I conceived of on the eve of the Gulf War, and it was meant to be a parable about the Gulf War, not the Vietnam War. We weren’t making a film about the Vietnam War and the ’68 riots. We were doing a film about the time we were living in. So as I read the transcripts of the conspiracy trial, the stuff that I was drawn to seemed to reflect what we were going through. That’s exactly what that is, the Chicago Ten, Chicago Seven, Chicago Eight, whatever they are, that story will be repurposed throughout time. And each storyteller will ultimately be making a film about themselves, about their time and their generation. It’s unavoidable. Films about the past are never about the past. They’re always about the present. Chinatown is not about the era it takes place in. It’s about the mid-’70s. You can say that with any period film.
Documentaries are no different. Ken Burns did the Civil War in 1987, and it seemed like the definitive and that no one will ever touch it again. Well, guess what, it’s been 25 years, and I bet you we’re not that far from someone going back to it. In my lifetime, someone’s going to go back and do the definitive Civil War piece. That’s history, man. I remember something Ken Burns said, and if you know my work, you wouldn’t think there’d be a huge Ken Burns influence, but he had a huge influence on me. I watched his movie Huey Long every day for a month in my dorm room in college on 16mm. I heard Ken speak at my college when he was promoting Civil War. He said something that’s always stuck with me, which is, and I’m probably going to misquote it, but for eons history was in the oral tradition. They were stories that were passed down from generation to generation. And it was only in modern times that it became something fact-based. But the essence of history is story.
To me, mythology is so much more liberating and inviting and an honest approach to history than thinking that you’re doing some sort of factual historical thing. I don’t want that to be misconstrued. Cobain is all built upon primary sources, but once you put out a new story about Cobain, all you’re doing is altering the existing myth, or shattering the existing myth. But in essence, you’re putting a new story out there in its wake. I think the advantage we have right now is all of the participants, outside of Kurt, survived. This is probably the one and only time the family is going to participate in a film. I know that for sure. We’re not going to see that again. Having gone through the archives, this is it.
What’s next for you? Are you taking a break?
Man, being a filmmaker and being a father is a challenge, much greater than making films. My wife’s a writer-director. She’s going to make two features this year. So that was the deal we had. I would get this done, and she would go into production. I’m gonna get hip to the kids’ schedule.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck hits select theaters on April 24th and will premiere on HBO Monday, May 4th.