From the Horse’s Mouth

by Zach Gayne

Documentary Mad Scientist Brett Morgen Opens up About Uncovering Truth in a Mass Icon
On a sunny day in Brett Morgen’s Culver City office, the director of the newest Kurt Cobain biopic walks me through the experience of inheriting a rare window into  Cobain’s private psyche, as well as the inevitable repercussions of accepting a project prone to the mass scrutiny of fans and media alike. Though he’s weathered his share of gossip columnists and haughty, out-for-blood fans since the project's announcement, Morgen exercises clear-minded determination in his mission.

Since the film’s premiere, Morgen—director, writer, producer and editor of the Cobain documentary—has been put through the ringer. Scoop-hounding press, anxious to break stories, scurry to offer exclusive previews from the archives, while Kurt-proud aggressives make their disdain for Morgen nefariously clear via twitter and personal email.

But as Morgen shared in earnest conversation; his focused priorities are to do the material justice and live up to Courtney and Frances Bean's compliment of allowing him full access.

Consequently, Montage of Heck is a raw, unfiltered inside look at a man supposedly understood by millions. There’s not a precious bone in its filmic body.

What were your first impressions of being approached by Courtney to take on a project of this magnitude?

I was really intrigued by the art. I was intrigued by the canvas. If someone had approached me, particularly with what I know now, if someone had told me that I was going to have all these materials and it was about a guy named James Smith, I would have jumped on it. Because there was an opportunity of something that I had never seen before which was to do a story from the inside out rather from the outside in.

What were you thinking when you first walked into that archive room, looking at all this material?

I was thinking I'm in trouble, because it was nowhere near as expansive as I built it out to be in my mind. In my mind it was the last shot of Citizen Kane and Raiders of The Lost Ark. I was going to walk in and it was going to be this endless sea of materials as far as the eye can see. Instead, I walked into a room like this and there were paintings along the side of the wall and there were about 18 to 20 boxes in the center of the room.

Did you have any reservations about accepting the project in terms of the number of people who feel so protective about the subject?

Not until the death threats started coming.

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Much has been written about Brett Morgen's Montage of Heck since its Sundance premiere in January. Considering that Morgen's film is the first authorized biography of Cobain sanctioned by the Cobain estate (Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean) complete with full access to the, as of yet, well of untapped archives, is it any wonder Morgen is subject to an ungodly amount of attention, for better or for worse?

Better consists of the overwhelmingly gushing reviews of the film. Worse are the death threats Morgen's been receiving since as early as 2007, upon the film’s announcement, to the tune of, “You better not fuck this up or you're dead.”

In the category between positive and negative media attention exists the bevy of click bait "journalism," which indifferently aims to break the story via "exclusive looks" at some of the film's archive surprises in store for fans. But the film is so much more than its showcase of juicy rarities—though it is indeed that—I’m baffled why anyone would choose to experience the content in any form besides the film itself.

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How do you feel about the bevy of exclusive look stories revealing footage?

The first screening at Sundance, Esquire put out a piece that said "10 Things We Learned From The Cobain Film." It literally was the whole movie. I wrote the guy, “Can you at least put a spoiler alert at the top? I'm not going to tell you what to write or not, but at least say spoiler alert.” Some people may just want to go in fresh…Do you think there's been a lot of press on this film?

How about Kurt’s legion of admires? What type of people have you been dealing with there?

I started doing press for this film in 2007 or 2008. This guy wrote and said, "If you fuck this up, I’ll fucking kill you. I know where you live." Something along those lines. I was like “What the…? Are you serious?” It ramped up a lot when the project was formally announced in November. Then I just got a wave of it.

At Sundance this year, we looked into filing a restraining order against one person. I took security. I took security when I went to Seattle the other day. That's rather unpleasant.

Did screening in Seattle make you nervous? Going to the epicenter of that feeling of magnified protectiveness? Entitled protectiveness?

No, because I was making a film for Frances. I didn't care ... That was my audience. I figured if it worked for her, it worked for everyone else.

Were you nervous to screen it for her for the first time?

Not nervous. I was curious what her comfort level was with the material. The film was pretty raw. That's the way she told me she wanted it. She told me to go make an honest film. She saw the film and she never asked for a change. It was amazing. I showed her the film and in essence, she said, "You gave me two hours with Kurt that I never thought I'd have.”

No, if anything more so, because what people are responding to, whether or not they’re Nirvana fans, is a real person. A flawed person.

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The most intimate moments of this film for me are the scenes in Tracy Miranda's apartment where it's seven minutes of him just creating. You don't see a photograph of him. You don't see a film shot of him. Yet you feel like you're right there with him.

The Vault that Morgen inherited amounts to a life-long diary, not unlike a sort of autobiography. One can only imagine the task at hand in scrutinizing through a lifetime of materials in search of biographically pivotal material. The Tracy’s Apartment tapes alone, account for unending hours of output, including an audio mix montage Kurt created called Montage of Heck.

Through these rare, unearthed living room glimpses—and eventually his happy couple home videos with Courtney, in sickness and in health—the first-person audio-visual materials, expertly woven by Morgen, speak for themselves, painting a deep portrait of the addled, reluctant genius. Still, it’s tempting to consider the golden outtakes that didn’t make the narrative cut.

Sitting in Brett’s office, at his computer a.k.a. The Vault—where every piece of archival material is now stored—I begin to sense what an awe-striking well of material Morgen had to draw from. He plays me a skeleton song from the Tracy’s Apartment tapes, potentially called "Pink Lemonade"

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Listening to that song, I’m thinking, is it any wonder that he’s able to best shine or thrive in privacy, given that’s how he developed his voice in his teenage years, alone in his room, hiding from his family.

—Where you have to entertain yourself. That was one of my takeaways. I hear that voice from him, that hatefulness and that humor…even that song. That song is so joyful. I don't even know what it's called. I call it "Pink Lemonade." It just reminds me of a hot summer day.

One of my favorite moments captured on camera is really early into Kurt’s dating Courtney… she’s at a Nirvana soundcheck and Dave or Krist or both are ripping into her as she screams back. Kurt, not defending her, just kind of sits, passively watching on, amused and charmed.

That’s a great scene! It's hilarious. It's not often you can get a smile out of Kurt. That's a great thing. It’s also so awesome because it's so early in that relationship.

And right off the bat, it's all there. Sort of—people giving her shit and him enjoying that about her and not caring what anybody thinks about her.

Maybe even likes her more, I don't know…It's like puppy love.

Right. And yet it was so hard for the world to accept that he actually loved this woman, but it was such true love.

Courtney has really...I don't know how she does it man, because, you know, she has been so publicly maligned. Like even when she was at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and they booed her. She goes, "Are you fans of Kurt?" This is his wife. The mother of his daughter. What the fuck are you doing?

What is it about Courtney, do you think, that inspires anger in people?

Part of it is a gender bias. Courtney is very feminine, but she's not...She's aggressive. I think people are intimidated by her. Then, obviously, there's the whole Kurt thing. She's been so maligned. The sad thing is nobody will defend her. It's so unpopular. It's a dangerous place to be.

She’s certainly brave.

I stood onstage at Sundance and I said “I fucking challenge anyone in this room to do what this woman did. She fucking signed a release form that gave me full control over the archives to do whatever the hell I wanted to do and didn't bother to see the film—because I would have showed it to her!—didn't bother to see the film, ’till it was done.

I said,  “I challenge anyone to give me the keys to your apartment. You don't go back in there and clean it up and I'll see you in two years at Sundance!” Who wants to sign up for that job? No one! Could you?

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