November 13, 2015, sees the release of Brett Morgen’s acclaimed documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” on DVD and Blu-ray, with nearly an hour’s worth of bonus footage. The film is available as a stand-alone release and as part of a lavish box set, that also includes a 31-track CD with rare recordings from Cobain’s archive (spoken word pieces, joke commercials, sound experiments, and demos), the “Montage of Heck” book that came out earlier this year, and other ephemera.
Morgen shared his thoughts on his film, earlier this year:
What are some of your favorite documentaries?
“The Filth and the Fury.” “Brother’s Keeper.” Errol Morris is a big source of inspiration. I love “Man On Wire” and “Project Nim.” I’m an aestheticist, as you can see; the films I’m referencing are all films that are guided by really talented directors who know how to exploit the breadth and width of the medium. And that’s why this project was so special for me, because of not just of the aural but also the visual components, because I don’t think this film could be made about another subject.
What were some of the challenges in putting together a film that drew on such an extensive archive?
Kurt is slightly mercurial as a subject, and as everyone in his family would say to me, “He speaks out of both sides of his mouth.” And when given the option of doing a film about Kurt where you interviewed everyone he hung out with — I mean, to me you would end up back where you started if you did that. But to have the opportunity to allow him to tell the story — not through interviews because I don’t feel that was an arena he was incredibly comfortable with — but through the one thing that draws us to him, the way he can express himself through his music or his art or whatever it was he was touching. He was most successful obviously with music, but to me he put the same energy and passion into creating all these other works.
I got to know Kurt in a way that I think provided me access that the people who were really close to him weren’t able to have. Like when I spoke to Krist [Novoselic, Nirvana’s bassist], he said that he didn’t know Kurt had any childhood problems until he heard him talking about it in interviews. And that made sense to me. And Tracy [Marander, Cobain’s girlfriend] said similar stuff. And listen, when you’re in your twenties or your teens and you’re hanging out with your friends, you don’t sit there and go “Hey, Krist, did I ever tell you, I really feel threatened by ridicule.” It’s just not part of your conversation. So all I can tell you is I felt closer to Kurt over these last few years than I was to any of my friends or anyone in my immediate family because of the intimacy of these primary sources that were available to me.
Whose idea was it to do the interviews?
It was mine. But then it became a question of, “Well, we have to have these six people; if one of them wasn’t available it falls apart.” If I didn’t get Don [Cobain, Cobain’s father] it would’ve felt very unbalanced. Or if I didn’t have Tracy I don’t know how the story would unfold. There was a point where I wasn’t sure I was going to get Don and at that point I was almost thinking of not having Krist and just letting the women in Kurt’s like telling the story, because I felt that he was much more open with women in general than he was with men. And so that was my back up plan. [Note: along with Novoselic, Marander, and Don Cobain, the film’s other interviewees were Cobain’s mother Wendy, sister Kim, and wife Courtney Love]
Don’s wife Jenny speaks more in the film than he does.
Well, that’s true. She wasn’t supposed to be in the interview. But Don kept saying “Jenny?” So I finally I go “Jenny, could you come in here?” And it’s a little unfair because she was fully not prepared. I mean, she was in the kitchen! I just walked out of that interview floored. And if you have an opportunity to look at the book, which has the extended interview transcripts, their dialogue is just totally illuminating.
The reception at the Seattle premiere [on April 22] was rather fraught.
The response to this film has been humbling. It’s not something where it’s been like you cork open some champagne and you high five the team, because there’s just a pall of sadness that hangs over it. It’s very emotional. It was an emotional experience making it. And I, I really am generally shocked that the film isn’t more polarizing. Given the fact it’s Kurt. Everybody has a sense of ownership over Kurt; the fans do, the friends do; I had a woman come up to me last night [in Seattle] before the screening. I knew how this screening was going to play out; she comes up to me and she was staring daggers at me, and she goes “I knew Kurt.” And just left it there, hanging in the air. Before the screening. And I said, “Pleasure to meet you,” and I was thinking “Okay, this is going to be interesting.” And I felt in many ways like I was in the Roman Colosseum last night, like I was underneath the floor, just standing there, and then thwwet!, suddenly the hydraulic system goes up, and I’m standing there in the arena. And I told the publicist — they didn’t want me to do Q&A, they didn’t want to me to do questions with the audience last night, to protect me, knowing it was Seattle. And I was walking out there with Jacob [McMurray, the emcee], I turned to them and I said, “We’re taking questions from the audience. I’m not going to sit here and hide behind a microphone. I don’t have anything to hide.”
It’s almost an anti-rock star film, Kurt looks so miserable at times.
I don’t think Kurt, and Nirvana, were able to enjoy it because of the punk guilt. And also, when you have a low self-esteem and you don’t feel good about yourself and the whole world’s telling you you’re awesome, that doesn’t really make you feel much better. But I think a lot of that had to do with punk guilt. Look at where they were living, they’d sold 10 million albums at that point and they were living in squalor.
How did the animations come together?
I knew that we were going to have to animate the journals and the artwork because we were making a movie and I needed to bring them to life. People like to say that “Kurt is the last rock star.” I don’t know what that means to be honest. But I will say I think he might be the last analog rock star. And in terms of how we executed his animation, I knew from the beginning I wanted it to feel analog. Unlike “The Kid Stays in the Picture” [one of Morgen’s previous films], which is very digital. And then, the thing I was really nervous about was having to do animated representations of Kurt, because that can seriously go south pretty fast. And the artist I hired, Hisko Hulsing, lives in the Netherlands. And he’d made this film, “Junkyard,” which had this sort of dystopian view of the world and I thought that there was this, not an aesthetic similarity with Kurt, but an ideological one. And it turned out that Hisko had similar experiences. And we made a commitment that we were going to do it the right way. And he did 6000 drawings; it’s real cell animation. And we have 58 oil paintings that he did for the backgrounds,