This Monday night, HBO will air Montage of Heck, a documentary focusing on the life and tragic demise of Nirvana frontman and iconic rock superstar Kurt Cobain. Montage was written and directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture), who was given unprecedented access to Cobain’s private notebooks, analog recordings, and childhood home movies. The resulting film is a melancholic, multimedia pastiche that attempts to go beyond what so many fans and pop-culture devotees think they already know about the grunge legend who took his own life three years short of his 30th birthday. Playboy talked to Morgen about the all-consuming process of bringing the dead momentarily to life.
What was your relationship to Nirvana before coming to this project?
Well, I’d seen them play at my college, Hampshire College, in 1990. They played for 150 people in the school cafeteria. And then I saw them play in 1993 at the Forum. I was a casual fan. Culturally, for everyone of our generation, it was a moment to remember when they broke. But leading into the project, I hadn’t listened to them in years.
How did this project come to be in your hands?
I had made a movie called The Kid Stays in the Picture in 2002. Courtney Love had seen it and really loved how I used and animated photographs. She wanted to have someone make a film about Kurt’s art. She thought that I would be the guy to do it. That was in 2007, and thus began a five-year journey to collect all the rights that were required to make the film. At the end of that road, we received our financing from HBO and Universal Pictures, and I went to Francis Bean’s house to meet with her and tell her what I was planning to do. I shook her hand to meet her. She said, “I just met you and already I know you more than I knew my father.” I knew what she meant. What she was essentially saying was that she had no memory of her father. He died when she was 20 months old. It was at that point that the idea of this film changed dramatically in my mind because I felt that this would be an opportunity to help bring a daughter and father together.
Francis and I sat down in her breakfast area, and she proceeded to tell me the type of film that she was hoping I would make. What she said was, “Whatever you do, keep it honest. That’s all I ask of you. I want it to be honest and that’s the best way we can pay tribute to Kurt.” So, armed with that and final cut, I was given keys to a storage facility that houses most of Kurt’s materials. I went in there with an open mind. You can’t divorce yourself from your experience, but it wasn’t like there was some agenda or some myth that I was trying to shatter or anything. I just was like, “I’m going to go in here, evaluate the art, and see what the narrative is.” Same process I employ on every film.
The thing that really struck me immediately was how prolific he was in so many different forms of media. We all know Kurt as a singer/songwriter, but he was equally as committed to expressing himself in a multitude of different platforms, from audio collage to what could be described as film score to super-8 filmmaking, still photography, drawing, journal writing, short fiction — the list goes on and on. With Kurt Cobain, we happened to have an opportunity to create a portrait of an artist from the inside-out, rather than from the outside-in. Kurt, in essence, was creating a visual and aural autobiography of his life from the time that he was two. And that became the immersive experience that is Montage of Heck.
What do you think was missing from the various efforts that have been made to tell this story in the past?
When I came into this project, I was as cynical as anyone about what was left to be said about Kurt Cobain that hadn’t been said. Haven’t there been countless books, and movies, etc. etc.? But as I quickly realized, the one thing that was missing from all prior attempts to document Kurt was Kurt — his art, his music. So, what was left to be said? Everything. Nothing had really ever been said except interviews with people he’d come in contact with. But the one thing that becomes readily clear about Kurt is he’s quite mercurial. All of his closest confidantes would say he rarely allowed himself to be accessible during his lifetime. Krist Novoselic said to me, he had no idea that Kurt had any childhood problems until he heard him mention them in an interview. That makes perfect sense because when you’re in your late teens and early 20s, you don’t sit around with your friends talking about how sensitive you are to ridicule.
How much were you able to personally relate to Cobain’s story?
I was born a year apart from Kurt. We’re part of the same generation, a generation of children who — a lot of us — were brought into this world by parents who’d only been dating for a few months and who felt that what they were supposed to do was to get married and have kids. During that generation, five years later, you put on the television and there’s not one nuclear family. So, they suddenly felt a license to get separated and divorced. We were the first generation of latchkey kids. Like Kurt, I had a lot of problems when I was a kid. My problems stemmed from having a speech impediment. I couldn’t speak until I was five years old and, as a result, was in therapy until I was 16. I had a tremendous amount of people laughing at me, mocking me as a child. And, then, at nine years old, my parents separated for a few years and I experienced it very much as abandonment. To medicate my pain, I struggled with addiction for years. During my formative years in the ‘80s, I was deeply entrenched in the underground music scene. So, there are several parallels.
What was the process like — especially compared to other films that you have worked on?
Each film is different in that it’s tailor made. I don’t have a cookie-cutter approach to filmmaking. I design each film specifically for the subject. So if you look at a film like The Kid Stays in the Picture and you look at a film like Montage of Heck, esthetically they could not be further apart. But the one common link that becomes clear almost immediately is that both embrace the point of view of their subject and become the personifications of their subjects. So, The Kid Stays in the Picture is as much a film about Bob Evans as it is Bob Evans. And Montage of Heck is as much about Kurt Cobain as it is the Kurt Cobain experience.
You mentioned collaboration with Kurt’s family. Were you able to maintain autonomy in crafting the final film?
They gave me materials. That’s it. That’s where it begins and ends. We weren’t sitting in here making a film together. I wasn’t beholden to anybody. I had final cut.
You have used animation in a number of projects. How do you think animation adds to the documentary process in ways that more standard types of footage cannot?
I don’t think you can really do a sweeping generalization because I think every moment of every film requires its own unique treatment. Sometimes, that’s animation. Sometimes, it’s photo animation. Sometimes, it’s stock footage. Sometimes, it’s just having black leader. It really depends on the material and the needs of the material and how you service it. But the one thing that I can tell you is that when I’m making a film, I am frame-fucking the film. I am trying to maximize the potential that lies before me in every frame. So I am constantly asking myself: How can I enrich this moment through sound or through picture, through color-grading, or through various techniques. I consider myself an estheticist before I would consider myself a documentarian. And I am, by no means, a journalist. I approach nonfiction subject matter with the eye of a director who uses the tools on my belt to bring the story to life. My favorite moments in my movies are the ones where I am, in essence, using nothing but scraps and discarded imagery and sounds and I am able to use those to construct something that, hopefully, can resonate and achieve a certain truth.
How did this process change you as a filmmaker?
This film challenged me in every way, shape, and form; emotionally, intellectually, creatively. There were several times where I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t have the answers. That’s something that doesn’t really happen to me that often. I’m usually such a bull that even when I am in those situations, it doesn’t feel vulnerable. But, this time, it felt very vulnerable. There were several moments of intersection where I was just at a loss and had to fight my way through it. Creatively, it was like wrestling a bull barehanded. From an emotional standpoint, it’s very difficult when you’re making a film about someone else’s family and you’re putting everything you have into it because, ultimately, what is sacrificed is your own relationships and your own family. With this film, you think you’re going to go see a film about a rock star, and, ultimately, you get a film about a boy named Kurt and a family origin story. A lot of people told me that they’ll leave the theater and want to go home and get in bed with their kids. I relate to that. One of the messages of the film is that it’s important to nurture our children and to try to empathize with our children and to relate to our children.
Do you have children?
I have three children. I couldn’t have made this film if I didn’t have kids.
Neil Drumming is a writer and filmmaker. His feature film debut, Big Words, is now streaming.