Behind 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' - An Interview with the Director of the Cobain Documentary
Two decades after his suicide and the cult of Cobain is unwavering. We talked to director Brett Morgen who was given unrestricted access to the Nirvana frontman's archive to create this doc.
It’s been sixteen years since filmmaker Brett Morgen was last at SXSW. Back then he was touting his boxing documentary, On The Ropes. While there, he also happened to attend the screening of his friend’s film in the 320-capacity Austin theater known as The Paramount. Morgen was one of nine audience members; another person in that slim number was his future wife. Sometimes the 46-year-old and his wife joke that they might never have met had the annual SXSW film and music festival been as insanely crowded and sloppily drunken way back then as it is today. Three children and seven features later and Morgen’s back to premiere, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck—the first officially sanctioned Kurt Cobain documentary, which makes its televised premiere on HBO on 5.4. Courtney Love and his family opened Cobain’s private archives to the director, as well as providing candid interviews, alongside Krist Novoselic and Kurt’s former girlfriend Tracy Marander. Frances Bean Cobain sits in as executive producer. (Dave Grohl is conspicuous in his absence. Unfortunately his interviews were conducted too late for the edit.)
Morgen is no stranger to buzz: On the Ropes went on to receive an Oscar nod, and The Kids Stays in the Picture, about Hollywood wild man Robert Evans, and 2012’s Crossfire Hurricane, which pillaged The Rolling Stones’ bottomless archives, were both met with resounding acclaim. But, having already screened at Sundance, in Miami, and Berlin, with a trailer that went viral when it dropped earlier this month, the anticipatory chatter about Montage of Heck—both on the streets of Austin today, and beyond—is deafening. Twenty-one years after Kurt Cobain decided to take his own life, and the singer is still worshipped, a riddle never worked out, an endlessly re-examined tragic genius. Meanwhile, Nirvana’s back catalogue continues to resonate with successive generations. But Morgen asserts this two hour plus opus is not just for die-hard grunge fans.
“This movie is not necessarily about a punk rock singer in his band, it’s about a boy and his journey through life,” exhales Morgen. “With all my movies, the thing I try to do is find the universal, the thing that transcends the subject matter.”
With Morgen’s guiding hand the viewer is granted privileged access to Cobain’s chaotic life, from his first steps, through his troubled adolescence and teenage angst, charting Nirvana’s ascent, falling for Courtney, the birth of Frances, and his eventual descent—when the pressure of fame and his drug use spiraled and sent him off the edge and into oblivion. We enter his world through home video footage, audio recordings, journals, sketches, and poems, and discover there’s much more to Kurt than previously imagined. Watching Montage… is an intense experience, by turns chillingly eye opening and desperately intimate.
Though the decision to do so was daunting, Morgen decided to animate segments of Cobain’s paintings and private journals, as if the singer is scribbling before our very eyes. At other points Cobain is brought to life as a sketched out avatar with his voice narrating both the story and his feelings. It’s an impressive and unique technique that could have been jarring mixed with the doc’s more traditional elements, but it really works here.
I meet Morgen at Austin’s Four Seasons ahead of the film's SXSW premiere later that afternoon. The line at the cinema is already snaking round the block, with zealous, determined fans patiently waiting since the early hours of the morning. Dressed in a slighlty rumpled black suit, crooked skinny tie, and brown leather Chuck Taylors, Morgen seems tired, but not the type of tired where you actually want to go to sleep. Despite the excitement surrounding the film, the director's feelings regarding it are bittersweet.
“Of course, I’m happy that people are responding to the film in a positive way, but this is a very emotional movie, you know,” he explains. “It doesn’t feel very celebratory. Kurt’s not with us, which puts a cloud over everything.”
Prior to Montage… Morgen believes Cobain’s true story remained untold. We talk to the director about picking through Cobain’s art and archives, misconceptions about the singer, and the complexity of his character, and much more below.
Kurt and Frances Bean Cobain. All Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck photos courtesy of HBO Documentary Films.
Noisey: Congratulations on the film—I absolutely loved it. Recently you said you feel the next generation will make a Kurt/Nirvana doc that’s different from yours. How do you feel my generation’s perception of Kurt differs from yours? Being that he wasn’t alive when I listened to Nirvana…
Brett Morgen: Well, I think that it’s only a cultural difference, because we experienced Kurt at that time as someone who ushered in this sort of shifting cultural landscape. It’s like, Nirvana showed up, and then Bush and Reagan were swept out of the White House, then Kurt died and the Republicans took over. But the reason why he resonates with us is the same reason he resonates with your generation. Kurt will always provide comfort and be a sort of flagship for the freaks, the geeks, the disenfranchised, the beaten and down trodden, and the underdog.
Kurt was able to express his experience as a teenager through music, and articulate it lyrically better than anyone in the last 40 years of culture at least. Possibly ever. There will always be kids who feel alone. It helps that he’s absolutely gorgeous, and is never going to get a day older, and the music fucking kicked ass. He had an amazing ear for songs. You put that all together… I mean, one thing nobody would ever say about Kurt is that he was a sellout. He wasn’t. There’s a purity to him that is rare in pop music, because generally to make pop music involves a certain creative compromise. That wasn’t part of Kurt’s vocabulary.
So you think Kurt wasn’t chasing fame—that his intentions were more pure than that?
Kurt was really after acceptance. He sought it out initially through family, and then through the band, back when he started putting together bands. Then through Tracy, his girlfriend. And then with Courtney. I think he was ambitious and he also sought acceptance through fame, but he didn’t know what that meant. The bottom line is, if you don’t feel good about yourself, having the whole world tell you you’re beautiful and you’re amazing, doesn’t really make you feel better. In fact, it makes you feel worse. It’s like, Kurt’s deal with fame was that he didn’t know what that meant. In his mind, the ceiling for a band like Nirvana was 200,000 albums, like being Sonic Youth. So, he didn’t know—there was no scenario or plan to sell 600,000 albums in a week.
There are so many misconceptions about Kurt, which is especially clear after seeing the movie, what do you think is most misunderstood about him?
There are certain people who dismiss him just because they feel like we shouldn’t even be talking about him. In their minds, he only did three albums, and why are we still talking about him? Those who dismiss him as a whiny white guy who got all this fame and complained about it, it’s like, “Shut the fuck up, dude.” Hopefully when the audience sees the movie, and they arrive at the point where Kurt adopts some of those beats, they’ll greet it a little differently. See, what you get with the concept of the film is, it’s not a guy who’s just being abrasive to the media to be punk, or because he’s a whiny white guy, it’s that he’s an artist, and he doesn’t really want to explain his work. He’d rather people experience it. At the point where he’s selling 600,000 albums in a week, I don’t really think Kurt felt the need to sell any more. So the idea that he would schedule an interview to promote something like that—he doesn’t need any more promotion. It started to make music feel like a job for him. It wasn’t pure anymore. That’s just my sense.
Changing gears, the sound design of the film is absolutely beautiful. It captured the ominousness of Kurt’s stories…
I think that of all the different mediums Kurt worked in, sound collage was one of the most pure forms of expression he had, and in a way, it was almost as intimate, if not more so, than his music. In his sound collages, he was able to reveal the full spectrum of his personality, as opposed to one side. Part of capturing Kurt’s journey through life for us was going to be through sound collage. Most of the sound design components that the audience can hear on top, are all created by Kurt. We layered them and packaged them, but the sounds were all things Kurt had recorded or toyed with. There’s a certain purity to that that I don’t think anyone could have re-created. I think it makes you feel like you’re really inside of his head.
Kurt in animation.
How apprehensive were you about portraying Kurt visually?
I was very apprehensive about drawing Kurt. It was never part of the plan, but at a certain point, particularly because of the story, and the part about his childhood, [it became clear] that we were going to have to create a representation of Kurt. Then I read the script, for let’s say, the virginity scene, once the audio was cut then I had to create the visual script for the piece. I was working with Hisko Hulsing, my animator, who is also the storyboard artist and I gave him a shot list. Sometimes it was very show and tell. Other times, there was a lot of interpretation involved. There was something that no one has ever commented on, but in the story, Kurt talks about how he goes down to the train tracks, puts two concrete blocks on top of him, and waits for the nine o’clock train to run over him. Well, that’s not how it’s drawn…
He’s lying next to the train!
He’s not even lying! He’s sitting on the embankment, off the tracks. As if to suggest that the reality may be a little different than the story. But the experience of the story, the emotion of the story, is I think 100 percent true. I have no reason to think that the narrative isn’t true, other than the fact that I feel Kurt always embellished things a bit. In short, that was a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. I almost didn’t do the visual representation because in the abstract, I was very happy sitting in the editing room evaluating the film with a big black hole in it, but you can’t have a seven-minute hole in the middle of your film. So, something was going to have to happen, and it wasn’t going to be a holding shot.
I need it to be something that enhanced the experience, not distracted them from it. So, at that moment you realize, “OK, we have to do this. This scene’s going in the film, man. We’re gonna have to put something here.” Then you embrace it. We spent I think three months storyboarding and going back and forth more than we would have liked.
Courtney gave you “the keys to the vault.” How did combing through Kurt’s archive compare to going through Robert Evans’ or The Rolling Stones?
Whenever you enter an archive, it’s a bit like Christmas day, in that anything you find is going to get you a step closer to your goal. You know, The Stones’ archive was immense. It’s in England and it’s a couple of warehouses filled with stuff. One warehouse has 25 cars, all their stage props going back to the 60s, there’s a refrigerated vault that has every recording The Stones have ever done, going back to ’63-’64. Kurt’s was different in that it was a bunch of boxes so it was literally like opening up Christmas presents. You didn’t know what you were going to find. So you open up one box, and there’s two hundred cassettes of unheard audio, and you open another and there’s a whole box of video tapes. Slowly, everything starts to come into focus.
Were there any documentaries you watched throughout the creation of Montage… that may have inspired it stylistically?
I don’t do that. If I saw another documentary that approached the journals the same way that I approached the journals, the only thing that would come of it would be I would probably have to take that off my list. And it’s not because I’m a contrarian. Part of the thrill for me in constructing documentaries is to explore different approaches to the form and medium that’s very personal and very specific to the subject. A lot of people talk about form and content, trying to find a marriage between the two. That’s rarely on display in non-fiction, and when it is, it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing. It’s something that I’m very committed to.
I have a way that I approach my films where I’ll break down the list of adjectives that describe the subject, and then I will then use those same words as the template for how one would describe what the film looks like, and feels like. So in fact, you’re not watching a film about Robert Evans, you’re watching a film that is Robert Evans. The personification of Bob Evans.
Did you ever see Nirvana live?
I saw them play a few times. The first time I don’t really remember much. It was at my college, Hampshire College, and I was drunk. I think he was wearing a dress. When I started [Montage of Heck] I was a casual fan, but obviously Kurt’s cultural significance weighed heavily on my generation. Then when Courtney told me about this art, I realized there was an opportunity to do something really unique: I could tell Kurt’s stories not so much through his words, but through his experiences as depicted in his art. The movie in a sense is Kurt’s interior journey through life. That sounds like a crazy documentary. Like, how do you document someone’s life? Especially with someone as prolific as Kurt, and as expressive across as many different mediums as Kurt—meaning music, audio collage, painting, Super 8 film, comic strips, short fiction, spoken word. Everything. If you buy into this idea—which I subscribe to—that all artists are creating an autobiography in their art, our experiences are embedded and reflected. I think Kurt left behind one of the most extensive autobiographies of my generation.
It’s all there. People have been trying to figure out the mystery, if there is one, for 20 years. A lot of authors or filmmakers have, but in one sense he remains and will continue to remain incredibly elusive, and in another sense there’s few people who could be less mysterious based on their body of work: Kurt’s work is that comprehensive.
Even after this film, do you still think he’s a mystery?
I don’t think you can ever really know someone. Most people don’t even know themselves. So, to suggest that I could know Kurt, I would have to subscribe to a level of megalomania and arrogance that would be akin to something Russell Brand might say. But for me, I feel like I got as close as I could get.
To some extent, there are things that I was able to ascertain that his closest friends were not. And there are some things that they obviously experienced that I can’t. Although even people who spent an enormous amount of time with him were only being presented with part of the picture, but not the complete picture. On top of that, my feeling about Kurt was that he could tell you how he felt, but he couldn’t necessarily tell you why he felt that way. He could tell you that he feels threatened by ridicule, but he lacked the introspection to take it to the next step, which generally comes with sobriety. I mean, generally when you do drugs you create a buffer.
Why do you think he was so hyper sensitive to humiliation?
Let’s work backwards. We can skip the back part, because we know at the point where he tried to kill himself when he was 14, it was because of humiliation, so let’s pick up from there. When he was 10 years old we found out that his parents separated, and he felt embarrassed and ashamed by it, which is a unique way of experiencing divorce. Most people I know blame themselves when their parents get divorced, and feel abandoned, but shame and embarrassment is something else. So we know it already existed at that point. So we have to go further back to understand. We learn that at seven, his father used to ridicule him for not acting like an adult. He used to shame him for being who he was.
Could we go even further than that?
We could go earlier, I think the film does provide you with that. Unlike most films, where there would be clinical psychologists who takes the subtext and places it on the surface, and resolves that question, I try to allow the audience to sort of experience it on their own. All the answers that are attainable, I believe are embedded in the film.
Brett Morgen photographed at SXSW by Peter Yoo.
I know you’re planning on releasing a book and a CD to accompany the film. Has that been fun, or a pain in the ass?
That’s been kind of not fun, if you want to know the truth. At this point, I’m absolutely thrilled with what we have. I think the book is a wonderful companion to the film. It’s got the completed transcripts of my interviews with Kurt’s family, who have never been interviewed before. So it’s really a treasure chest of imagery and the stories of Kurt’s family. That comes out 5.5.
You mentioned despite the film’s success, it’s not really a celebratory time for you because the subject matter is ultimately a dark one. Nevertheless, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive.
It’s tremendously gratifying to read about what people think of the film. I say read because I feel like in today’s age, I think I might get as much, if not more, from reading people’s Twitter reactions than actually being in the room. When you’re in the room, the only people that come up to you are people that like your movie. Nobody ever comes up at a film festival and says your movie sucks. So, you have take everything with a grain of salt. But with Twitter people are tweeting their initial thoughts before the lights go on—dude, I love it.
I joined Twitter the day that Crossfire Hurricane was on HBO. I had never experienced anything like it. I’m sitting there as the show’s on, and I’m reading people’s comments. Then I start to just get really pissed off. Like, why aren’t you people watching the fucking movie? Like, tweet when the movie’s over! [Laughs.]
The thing that you hate about television is you make something for television, and then you sit in your house with a friend, or spouse, or whatever, and it’s on, it’s over, and nothing has changed. And then with Twitter, it becomes this interactive experience where you’re getting immediate feedback in a way that’s more pure than being with a live audience. I’m fascinated by the conversation, by how people experience the movie.
Usually now, with this film, I’ll jump on even when there’s a screening that I’m not at, in a different part of the country or world. I know what time it’s over, and I’ll go check to see how people are responding. I just do a search for “Montage of Heck.” I don’t understand hashtags at all. I don’t get it.
I love that you read the Twitter reactions.
Oh dude, you know, weirdly on this film, because the release information has been so crazy, people are constantly coming to me to figure out where they can see the film.
You’re responding to people right now!
Here, we’re gonna do it right now.
Alright. Let’s read some tweets right now.
“Any chance we can get in without a badge? Big Nirvana fans in here in Austin.” Watch what I’m going write back. “I’ve got 20 tickets for you.”
So you’re giving away tickets on Twitter right now to fans in Austin?
That’s badass. Do you know this person?
I’ve never heard of him in my life.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is released on 4.24 in NY, LA, and Seattle, and will be televised on HBO on
Peter Sholley would like to thank his brother George. Follow Peter on Twitter.