When National Geographic first approached filmmaker Brett Morgan to make a documentary about Jane Goodall, his initial reaction went something like: “Really? Another Jane Goodall film?” After all, the renowned primatologist is one of the most well-chronicled women of the 20th century, and Morgen—whose last film was the remarkably revealing Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck—wasn’t sure what kind of shading or texture he could add to her life, if any. Then he saw the footage.
National Geographic had uncovered a treasure trove of previously unseen 16 mm film shot by Goodall’s eventual husband, Hugo van Lawick, documenting her early trips trips to Gombe, Africa, where the 26-year-old Brit began her seminal studies of chimpanzees in the 1960s. Astonished by what he saw, Morgen—a self-professed archival footage fanatic—was hooked. For the next two months, he immersed himself, piecing together random shots of Goodall’s formative years into something truly remarkable.
Aided by an original score from Phillip Glass, as well as Goodall’s own narration, Morgen’s film Jane is one of the most cinematically sublime experiences of the year; a powerful and hypnotic portrait of a woman whose passion helped change the way we understand animals. We caught up with the director ahead of his film’s rapturous world premiere at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his relationship with Goodall, how he approached 140 hours of raw footage and how making this movie changed his life.
What was it like to have Jane say that your film really managed to bring her back to that time in her life?
That is the goal. My approach to truth is this: It’s true not because it happened in that moment in time, but because it resonates as truth both emotionally and intellectually. So for Jane to go through what was my grab at trying to get her experience and say that for her it was like reliving her life, it was amazing. And Jane was so cynical about this film, as I was I.
When National Geographic approached you with the footage, were you immediately on board?
Look, I didn’t want to do this film. I had no interest. I got a call from my agent who said “National Geographic wants to talk to you about a Jane Goodall film,” and I passed. They begged me to take the phone call and I refused. Why would I want to do a Jane Goodall film? It’s been done. Fast-forward six months when I got the first batch of footage. I turned to my assistant and said: “Can you believe we almost turned this down?” We just got the single greatest depository of 16 mm film outside of NASA. I couldn’t believe it. For a guy like me who loves archives, the quality was just so insane.
Walk me through that first day, when you finally sat down with the footage. Was the sheer volume of it overwhelming?
It was beyond your worst nightmare. When I say 140 hours of footage, that’s 300 cans of film. But I didn’t get 300 cans of film. None of the shots were concurrent shots. Because of the way they used to cut film back then, I had 140 hours of random shots. Ten minutes in, I thought, “What is going on here?” So we stopped, and I hired 13 assistant editors and interns to try and make sense of what we had.
After spending so much time with the footage and with that version of Jane, what was it like meeting her for the first time?
I didn’t revere here necessarily because I operate on a different speed. But I had tremendous respect for her and I identified with her because her work was in many ways similar to what I do, which is intensive immersion. My wife likes to say that I’m schizophrenic, that I become my subject when I’m making a film, and that was Jane’s approach. This whole film felt like a metaphor for the type of documentaries I make. That was what initially drew me in.
So you felt like kindred spirits?
Well, she had no interest in doing this. She barely gave me 90 minutes to do the interview. I still don’t think she likes me. The first thing I said to her was: “Do you get tired of telling your story?” And she said: “Well, it depends on who’s doing to the interview.” Touché. It was like Frost/Nixon. I went home at the end of the first day and I was so frustrated. She was being so contrarian. I had already edited the film and I needed her to fill in these holes and she just wasn’t giving me what I want. So I had to go home that night and retool my approach.
The film isn’t just a nature documentary or a portrait. It explores universal themes like family, motherhood and the notion of a work/life balance. It’s universal in that way.
I couldn’t have made this film when I was 30. Those issues meant nothing to me. But as you get older, the things that interest you about your subject change and evolve. I was very much needing this film after my Kurt Cobain documentary. After Kurt, I was personally able to put away a bunch of issues I had with my parents and that was my catharsis. But that was so heavy, and I needed to get off of that. By being with Jane, I learned to just take a moment. Just observe. I spent this summer in Hawaii and I know that this sounds cheesy but I spent hours a day watching clouds, something I could not due when I finished Montage of Heck. I feel awkward and uncomfortable saying this to you, but just listening to nature really helped. I mean, I didn’t set out to make a feel-good movie, and there’s a lot of darkness in this film. It was intended to be a retelling of the Garden of Eden. It’s pristine, Jane shows up and it’s never the same again.