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 Cobains 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, Morgens immersion in Kurts personal archive and the directors working relationship with Kurts daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, 22, one of the movies 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, whats next?
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Ive 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 dont 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 Cobains first suicide attempt while he was in high school.
Thats Kurts voice?
Thats Kurts voice, yeah.
He recorded that as an audio memoir?
It was while he was living with Tracy [Marander, Kurts girlfriend, who is interviewed in the film]. A lot of these spoken-word pieces exist on the same tape. Usually when hed write a poem or short story, hed record it. And while recording, hes cracking himself up. Ill play you one where he just goes [affects stoners voice], This is soooo stupid. And hes not performing them hes reading them. And thats what makes that one story [about the suicide attempt] so unique. Its 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 1993s In Utero], its four different stories intertwined. That was one of the things that struck me [about the suicide story] its a narrative, and he was pouring it out. And when you hear the cadence in his voice, its haunting, because hes describing one of the most painful memories of his life. And hes 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 wasnt 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.
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. Its the passage at Tracys apartment when hes creating its 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 Im closest to Kurt even though Im 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. Its a kid whos really comfortable; hes found his nirvana.
He sounds confident.
And its 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 [Dont 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 thats how we experience it.
What we get in Montage of Heck is all this material where Kurt isnt 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 didnt have that discussion. It was I want it to be honest. I want it to be fucking good. Thats 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 mothers earlier involvement in the film?
No. As all this was brewing, I decided it wouldnt 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 doesnt get into that. Frances that is her whole asesthetc. And so shes opening these boxes and in the moment, its not that its her dads shed love this shit if it was anyones. The fact that it was her dads made it that much cooler: Oh my God, theres 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 hadnt allowed herself to experience yet.
Frances and I have never spoken about this directly, so Im 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 Kurts problems predate Frances. They predate Courtney. And they predated Nirvana.