Brett Morgen’s “Mad Scientist” Films: Taking Documentaries Outside The Frame

By on May 5, 2015

With filmmaker Brett Morgen’s Montage Of Heck documentary airing this week on HBO, and still on our minds (we reviewed it for you here), we thought we’d take a look at development of what’s being called his “mad scientist” style of filmmaking by looking a few of his previous documentaries, including 2012’s Crossfire Hurricane and his 2002 documentary The Kid Stays In The Picture.

Courtney Love had seen and loved The Kid Stays In The Picture, which used many of the same cinematic techniques  to bring Hollywood producer Robert Evan’s fascinating tale to life — which includes using animated photos and digital effects for a fresh kind of fictionalized non-fiction narrative, taking the documentary outside the traditional frame — and it led to Love wanting to work with Morgen to work on the project, which turned out to be his most complicated, personal and sprawling effort thus far.

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Brett Morgen

Brett Morgen grew up in the San Fernando Valley through the 1970s and early 80s, and an early interest in filmaking led him to attend Santa Monica’s now famous Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences, where he became a devotee of legendary film teacher Jim Hosney, who exposed him to French filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. His very first films were ambitious, and a senior project, Too Far From Norm, was actually a feature length punk rock musical adaptation of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, which he shot in one week and edited in five days. His fellow Crossroads classmates Jack Black and Maya Rudolph — as well as Andy Gross, future film composer — all worked on the movie. Watch it here.

After high school, Morgen then attended Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, where he majored in American Mythology. For his filmmaking studies at Hampshire, he was further exposed to obscure end avant-garde films and their directors, where anti-narrative filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas were considered gods by members of the faculty. Hampshire’s then most successful graduate, however, was prolific PBS filmmaker Ken Burns, and his nostalgic documentary style had a major impact on Morgen as well, mostly for editing style and the use of music. He became interested in ethnographic filmmaking after taking a class taught by a traditional anthropologist named Len Glick, who turned him on to looking at documentary films in a completely new context.

He was having difficulty casting his thesis film, a fictionalized story based on the mythology found in John Ford’s films, and was running out of time — unable to find the right actors in Amherst, Mass, was proving to be a problem — and one of his advisors steered him towards turning it into a documentary, which he did, titled John Ford: Inventing American Civilization, since the film was about small town U.S.A. and the mythology of such in Ford’s films (he claims to have watched Ken Burns’s doc on Huey Long every day for two months in order to get a sense of how to frame a documentary). But the film disappointed him in the end because it was filled, in his words, with “talking heads,” even calling it the Citizen Kane of talking heads documentaries” in this interview on HitFix.

Morgen’s girlfriend — who lived in Boston and worked for documentary filmmaker Errol Morris — was editing Morris’s Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, and Morgen moved to Boston to be with her. He got further into documentaries after seeing two filmmakers who made Brother’s Keeper at a lecture, and the ideas for future documentaries started to replace any interest he might have had in fiction films from that point on.

He began some formal training in NYU’s film program, at the Tisch School of the Arts, which had more of a focus on non-fiction filmmaking (more so than the west coast USC and UCLA film programs, which he says were “studio schools”). Under the tutelage of Christine Troy, a documentary filmmaker herself, NYU seemed like a good fit for Morgen, and his thesis project there would eventually lead to an Academy Award nomination. Even so, he soon realized that he wasn’t fitting in there either. His first year film was all experimental and non-linear, and he was almost kicked out of the program because he didn’t fit in with what the faculty wanted him to be, and he claims he was ranked last in the class. Then he made an hour-long documentary about Oliver North’s Senate campaign, which led to him winning a lot of awards, and he received an MFA in film in 1999. He went from last in his class, to first.

After graduation, he dropped plans to pursue another film about American mythology and small towns and began a documentary film called On The Ropes, in 1999, about three young boxers in the housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, which he directed with his then girlfriend, Nanette Burstein, who had recently taken up boxing. It became one of the most critically acclaimed films of the years after it premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where it received the Special Jury Award. The film went on to win several awards and honors including an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary of 1999, the 1999 Directors’ Guild of America Award for Outstanding Direction in a Documentary, the International Documentary Association award for Best Film of the year, and an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

During the Ropes project, he began using a stereoscopic editing process called After Effects, which was up to that point mainly being used for web design, and titling for commercials. Morgen applied it to his next project, 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture — an adaptation of Robert Evan’s infamous Hollywood memoirs — mainly because he wasn’t sure there was going to be enough film footage of Evans to use, and, as it turned out, other than Evans’ film roles, there was only about three minutes worth of actual candid Evans footage that he could use in The Kid.

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Unfortunately for Morgen, he had to fight to use it because the studio he made the documentary for told him they hated the process, and wanted him to go back to the “talking head” documentary style. Morgen brought in the editor he’d worked with on his Oliver Stone doc and reshaped it a little and now the studio had changed their mind: now they loved it. But, he was picture-locked for Sundance, and when the film screened there, he showed the original edit he’d done and the studio execs, sitting in the office, said it was even better than they’d remembered, and that’s when he realized they hadn’t seen his original edit at all.

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The Kid premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2002. It was named one of the best films of 2002 by Entertainment Weekly and over 50 publications. It was also selected as Best Documentary of 2002 by the Boston Film Critics, Seattle Film Critics, Washington DC film critics and the 2002 Golden Satelite Award for Best Documentary. It was released by Focus Features, and aired on HBO. The Kid turned out to be one of the very first digital documentary films; before that, all photo animation was done on an animation stand. From that moment on, filmmakers had access to visual effects, which is in a sense, shaped the whole experience, because now filmmakers were able to kind of externalize the interior landscapes of their characters and manufacture imagery.

After The Kid, Morgen continued to work, and even though he has said that having a breakout film at Sundance didn’t lead to him getting him any work, he did go on to become a prolific commercial director who has over his career directed over 150 spots for companies as diverse as GE, Nike, Dominos, ESPN, HSBC, and Marlboro. He also created and executive produced several television series and events, and, of course, he also continued making eye-opening documentary films.

In 2007, for his next film, Chicago 10, Morgen took a look at the anti-war protestors put on trial following the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and it’s entirely animated and considered to be one of the first animated documentaries of it’s kind. It was selected to be the opening film at the Sundance Film Festival. Morgen wrote, directed, and produced the film, which was released by Roadside Attractions and distributed by Paramount Home Video. The film received several awards and honors including Emmy, WGA, and ACE nominations.  In 2008, he won his first Peabody Award for the Sundance Channel series Nimrod Nation. The film was hailed as one of the best series of 2008 by the Los Angeles Times and the Television Critics Association. In 2010, Morgen directed and produced June 17, 1994 as part of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series. Morgen and the film received two Emmy nominations as well as a series Peabody Award.

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In 2012, Morgen worked on the Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, which was released worldwide in the fall and then had its broadcast premiere on HBO later that same year. It really only deals with the first 20 years of their career, from the band’s formation through around the release of Tattoo You in 1981, but the storyline isn’t linear, and like all of Morgen’s films really feels fresh and new despite the fact that there have been many Stones docs over the years.

Which brings us back full-circle to Montage of Heck. The main reason that it took eight years for Morgen to complete the documentary was apparently due to legal disputes that arose over the rights to the materials he used, but that only accounts for the first six years, and Morgen had kept working on the film, not knowing if he was going to be able to complete his project. Then, in 2013, he was finally handed the keys to the storage space where Cobain’s most intimate materials were kept, boxed up and hidden away from the world.

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Once inside, Morgen realized that those keys had given him unprecedented access to what turned out to be the key to Cobain’s entire life — a lifetime’s output of drawings, home movies, mixtapes, photos, songbooks and demos — and not just the years he was in a band called Nirvana. Sorting through the ephemera took another couple of years, but the end result, as we’ve all seen, and as we’ve said, looks to be Brett Morgen’s most complicated, personal and sprawling film thus far.

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Once Morgen saw what he was given access to, he approached the cataloging of the materials carefully, methodically, bringing with him what he has referred to as a “small army” of helpers who he made wear gloves and white jump suits that had no pockets because he wanted to make sure nothing left the storage facility; he also made them leave their cell phones behind, so no secretive, clandestine photos could be leaked out. Morgen didn’t let anyone else touch the journals, photographing them himself — over 4000 separate images.

He didn’t even know that there was also audio cassette tapes in the storage facility because Love had never mentioned it, and he didn’t know if he was going to be granted access to the tapes (many of them didn’t even have labels), but ended up putting them all in Pro Tools and he listened, on headphones, and sometimes there would be long periods of silence only to have them occasionally reveal something unexpected, like Cobains’s audio autobiography. Morgen may have been one of the first people to hear Cobain telling the story of how he lost his virginity, for instance, but he didn’t quite know how to place that in the context of the story, and to keep the focus on contextualizing Cobain’s art.

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Early versions of Montage Of Heck — which Morgen assembled with editor Joe Beshenkovsky — lacked a core thesis, but he knew he didn’t want to include talking heads interviewees on camera giving their side of the story. He eventually struck upon the idea of animating Cobain’s journal writing — choosing not to animate Kurt Cobain himself — and that freed him up to use Cobain’s own words to tell the story he knew he had to tell: it was there for everyone to see, in Kurt’s own sprawling, frenetic handwriting, in the notebooks and journals animated for the film by artist Stefan Nadelman.

Meanwhile, Morgen finally relented and decided to interview five people Cobain knew the best in his life, who knew him the best and were affected by having him in their lives, like an ex-girlfriend who rarely consents to giving interviews. He made the decision to include their interviews after listening to all of the Cobain audio tapes and realizing that he didn’t want to rely on only Cobain’s voice to tell the entire story of Montage, because the film would be, in his words, “too experimental, and too pedestrian.”

He wanted a kind of fluidity to the images, and says that he was inspired by the faux documentary-style choreographed montages in Bob Fosse’s movies Lenny and All That Jazz, “which were seminal films in [his] development as a filmmaker, in terms of aesthetics and editing.” Morgen also used a lot of empty space in the interview segments, so he wasn’t just cutting from shot to shot, leaving in long pauses and longing looks, Catching his subjects deep in thought: pensive, haunted. Speaking of haunted, Morgen additionally reached out to an awesome artist from the Netherlands, whom he refers to in some interviews, as he did in this HitFix interview we’ve linked here, as “a fellow pirate.”

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Hisko Hulsing

That artist, Hisko Hulsing, animated the Cobain audio story, examples of which you’ll see here on this page. Hulsing also animated another audio sequence later on in the film in which Cobain is recording the mundane moments of his life while living at his girlfriend’s house in the ’80s. Morgen hired Hulsing after seeing his animated film, Junkyard, which, he says, “had a similar dystopian view of the world that Kurt had, but a much better craftsman than Kurt Cobain. But the view and the tone had a lot of similarities, a lot of darkness and twisted reality.”

More from HitFix: From his small studio in Amsterdam, Hulsing compiled a team of 27 people (18 of them animators) and for four months they worked on not only the Cobain audio story, but the other portion of the film Hulsing was responsible for. For the 85 shots that were Hulsing’s responsibility, they produced 6,000 animations and 60 oil paintings on canvas. Some of those canvas paintings were as large as six feet. Hulsing would then take a digital picture of the canvas, input the animation that would go in front of it, and send to Morgen back in L.A. for approval. Hulsing has said the bleak look he gave the animation came from what he observed looking at photos of Aberdeen, Washington, where Cobain grew up.

“Images and videos of Aberdeen clearly show that it’s often grey and rainy,” Hulsing said. “I believe that the somber palette adds a lot of darkness and hopelessness to the story of young, suicidal Kurt.”

(h/t HitFix for all the info!)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.