I first met Brett Morgen – the writer, director and producer of the HBO documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – in 2008 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. We were seated next to each other at a dinner celebrating the opening of a new exhibit. Morgen, who co-directed the 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture about the Hollywood producer Robert Evans, mentioned to me that he was speaking with Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, about a film on the late Nirvana singer-guitarist. Morgen noted that he looked forward to talking to me as the movie progressed about my October 1993 Rolling Stone interview with Kurt.
Seven years after that Guggenheim dinner, on a warm, early-spring afternoon in Los Angeles, Morgen and I met again – to talk about Montage of Heck for a story in the new issue of Rolling Stone. We spoke about the genesis of the film, its long road to completion, Morgen’s immersion in Kurt’s personal archive and the director’s working relationship with Kurt’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, 22, one of the movie’s executive producers. What follows are additional extracts from that conversation including his answer to the last question of that day: Having finished this project, to robust acclaim, what’s next?
“I’ve been blessed,” Morgen said, “to work with the archives of Robert Evans, the Rolling Stones [Morgen directed the 2012 documentary, Crossfire Hurricane] and Kurt Cobain. And I don’t know where to go from here.
“There are very few places,” he admitted, “that go north from here.”
Morgen and I started, that day, with my question about a key, startling sequence in Montage of Heck: an animated account, with first-person narration, of Cobain’s first suicide attempt while he was in high school.
That’s Kurt’s voice?
That’s Kurt’s voice, yeah.
He recorded that as an audio memoir?
It was while he was living with Tracy [Marander, Kurt’s girlfriend, who is interviewed in the film]. A lot of these spoken-word pieces exist on the same tape. Usually when he’d write a poem or short story, he’d record it. And while recording, he’s cracking himself up. I’ll play you one where he just goes [affects stoner’s voice], “This is soooo stupid.” And he’s not performing them – he’s reading them. And that’s what makes that one story [about the suicide attempt] so unique. It’s narrative. And Kurt was not a narrative writer. That was not his forte.
As a lyricist, he preferred aphorisms, metaphors and juxtaposition.
If you look at “Serve the Servants” [on 1993’s In Utero], it’s four different stories intertwined. That was one of the things that struck me [about the suicide story] – it’s a narrative, and he was pouring it out. And when you hear the cadence in his voice, it’s haunting, because he’s describing one of the most painful memories of his life. And he’s doing it in somewhat of a detached manner. If anything, almost with a grin.
That tape was really the Rosebud of this whole journey. And it wasn’t the first time I heard it. It was probably the 100th time. Whe I listened to it the first time, I knew it was amazing stuff. But as the film was coming together, I went back to that tape. And the themes started to emerge.
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Ultimately, by leaving such a detailed record of in his drawings, journals and private recordings, Kurt gave you the materials for a documentary about more than his life. The movie is about his interior.
It sounds like a crazy pitch for a movie [laughs]. How do you document the inside of someone? And do it in a visceral, kinetic way? That was part of my challenge. There is a seven-minute passage of the film where you never see a film clip or photograph of Kurt. It’s the passage at Tracy’s apartment when he’s creating – it’s an animated sequence. We spent close to two months cutting the audio for that. I find that one sequence to be one of the most intimate parts of the film, where I’m closest to Kurt even though I’m not seeing him. Because these recordings were things he created for himself, in the moment. There is no filtration whatsoever. You hear him talking to himself. The image that is conjured up is not this angst ridden kid. It’s a kid who’s really comfortable; he’s found his nirvana.
He sounds confident.
And it’s such a refreshing portrait of him. He felt incredibly uncomfortable to me in interviews, when he felt he was under the glare of the lens and recorder. When we think of great rock & roll docs like Dylan [Don’t Look Back] and the Metallica film [Some Kind of Monster], most of our iconic images in film are of our heroes when they are performing for the cameras. Dylan is performing in that D.A. Pennebaker film, from first frame to last frame. And that’s how we experience it.
What we get in Montage of Heck is all this material where Kurt isn’t performing for anyone. Nothing is being filtered. There are these raw intimate moments that were not intended to be disseminated.
Did you get the sense that, as an executive producer, Frances knew what she wanted to present about her father or had things she wanted to learn?
We didn’t have that discussion. It was “I want it to be honest. I want it to be fucking good.” That’s it in a nutshell. We were totally in agreement, in the emphasis on art and an unflinching look. That was music to my ears.
Did Frances talk about her mother’s earlier involvement in the film?
No. As all this was brewing, I decided it wouldn’t be appropriate if Courtney was involved on a creative level. It was painful to have that discussion with her. She was the one who brought me in. But I knew that it would alienate a tremendous amount of the fan base if they thought it was a Courtney project. A Frances project was fresh, and there was a certain purity to that.
We had a very emotional experience, at the storage facility. I went with her to that facility and that was intense. This was in 2013. We were getting everything ready for the film. She starts opening up these boxes for the first time. It felt to me like the Christmas she never had. Courtney is not into kitsch; she doesn’t get into that. Frances – that is her whole asesthetc. And so she’s opening these boxes and in the moment, it’s not that it’s her dad’s – she’d love this shit if it was anyone’s. The fact that it was her dad’s made it that much cooler: “Oh my God, there’s an H.R. Pufnstuf lunchbox, and a Freddy Kruger doll.” It was amazing to watch. She went from box to box to box. And then she settled down. And it got emotional, intense. Part of that sense of making a film for Frances was out of that experience with her, seeing how she didnt know any of this material. There was so much that she hadn’t allowed herself to experience yet.
Frances and I have never spoken about this directly, so I’m going to conjecture. My guess is for a lot of kids who lose their parents before the age of two, the child grows up possibly with a deep sense of guilt: “Was it me?” A lot of kids in that situation would blame themselves. And one of the things you see in Montage of Heck is a lot of Kurt’s problems predate Frances. They predate Courtney. And they predated Nirvana.
Montage Of Heck opens for a limited Australian cinema release on May 7.