Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck traces the life of the Nirvana frontman from his early childhood in Aberdeen, Washington to his death by suicide at the age of 27. Challenged from the start by the relative dearth of archival footage of Cobain, director Brett Morgen utilized a variety of innovative visual and audio elements to convey the essential themes of Cobain’s short life and powerful artistic output. “Based on art, music, journals, super 8 films and audio montages provided by the family of Kurt Cobain,” the film captures his raw creative energy; the tension between his driving ambition and unease with fame; his alienation from his family; and, ultimately, his self destruction.
As with his past films, including The Kid Stays in the Picture, Chicago 10 and Crossfire Hurricane, Morgen’s experience with the archival source material was fundamental to the development of the film’s narrative structure.
“I always write the scripts after I’ve evaluated all the material I have to work with,” said Morgen. “With a film like Montage of Heck, the bulk of the material came from Kurt’s storage facility. And when I went in to evaluate it, I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I knew I was doing a Kurt Cobain film and I knew it would sort of take place within the context of his life, but I didn’t know what that story would be. And the story emerged from, revealed itself through my experience with the archives.”
For Morgen, documentary filmmaking and archival research are interdependent skills.
“I’ve made five or six films that are entirely archive based, and when working in that realm, you’re really limited by what material you’re able to collect,” he said. “And so I look at each piece of archival material as a letter, and a couple of pieces as a word and several pieces make a sentence. My ability to successfully direct a film can’t be separated from my ability to track down archival. It’s one and the same for me.”
But while Cobain’s private archive proved to be a rich trove of source materials, there turned out to be relatively little archival footage of Cobain himself to work with, a significant challenge for a film of this nature.
“There is almost no verite footage in existence of Kurt Cobain,” said Morgen. “In fact, outside of the material we found in Kurt’s storage facility, I would go so far as to say that there probably is none. He never participated in any sort of cinema verite documentary. And he never allowed any news crews to follow him around…and he was around in the pre-paparazzi days. So there’s a scattering of interviews with Kurt and performance footage and that’s it. There is nothing else.”
Additionally, Cobain was generally a reluctant interview subject.
“When Montage started, I thought that Kurt would be narrating the film, but I didn’t think there would be any on camera interviews,” said Morgen. “I figured it would be Kurt’s art, which I would contextualize through with pre-existing archival interviews with Kurt. And it was after I had secured and listened to all the existing Cobain interviews I decided to not use him in that role. And to employ his family to be the sort of Greek chorus if you will. And that decision was based on the fact that…I found Kurt to be so expressive and articulate in his art and in all these other mediums, but in interviews it felt like it was painful for him and so rather than have him do the heavy lifting, and have to deal with the monotony of getting from A to B, I figured let’s have these other people” play that role.
And while the lack of archival footage of Cobain was initially daunting, Morgen and his crew responded with creativity and innovation.
“It’s important to remember when you’re making these kinds of films, that often times that which you do not have can be a blessing, rather than a curse,” said Morgen. “When you don’t have material, it sort of forces us to find of creative ways to present those ideas, or that narrative information we’re missing. And I think that’s where a lot of the innovation in the documentary realm over the last fifteen or twenty years has come from.”
Morgen did catch one very big break in the making of the film, when he discovered a large cache of audiotapes in Cobain’s storage facility.
“I was aware that [the storage facility] housed his art and his other content but no one had informed me that there were 200 hours of unreleased audio that were housed there as well,” said Morgen. “And that audio ran the gamut of Nirvana rehearsals to spoken word poetry, sound collages, sound design, films scores, just a plethora of material, that would both inform Montage of Heck aesthetically as well as narratively. And I would say that that finding probably had the greatest impact on the film.”
Morgen worked with Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing to create animated sequences to accompany the archival audio and, as a result, was “able to build 47 minutes of the film with nothing but audio. And I’m not saying with audio interviews, but random pieces of audio, Kurt’s sound collages or music or spoken word.”
Having the animation to support the archival audio allowed Morgen to include lengthy audio clips in their entirety. In one extended sequence, single cell animation is used to fully illustrate a story “in which [Cobain] talks about losing his virginity.” The story “was something that [Kurt] had recorded, and I have yet to find anyone who had ever heard it, so for all practical purposes I know he recorded this tape, threw it into a box and there it sat until 2013 when we came across it,” said Morgen.
“This is archaeology work,” he said. “And part of the joy of doing a film like Montage of Heck is discovering this material that people haven’t heard in eons and sharing it with the world.”
The scarcity of archival footage of Cobain himself notwithstanding, Montage of Heck turned out to be an extremely complex archival project for both Morgen and Jessica Berman-Bogdan, who served as archival producer on the film.
“For a band whose commercial lifespan really only lasted four years, it was amazing to see how much material was available,” said Berman-Bogdan. “We collected a staggering amount of footage and photos. In the end we ended up using materials from over 100 different sources.”
Joining the project in its early stages, Berman-Bogdan was able to conduct an especially deep and comprehensive archival excavation, mining both the big commercial archives as well as private collections, and assembling the bulk of the film’s internal archive in advance of Morgen’s production work.
“Fortunately, Brett understands the research process,” said Berman-Bogdan. “I was brought on in pre-production and by the time the production team was fully assembled we had amassed a ton of footage and photos.”
“My goal was to contact every single journalist/reporter who ever interviewed Kurt and see if they still had their original audiotapes,” she said. “Surprisingly, many of these individuals still had this material.”
Because much of the archival material was in the hands of individuals, many of whom had close personal ties with Cobain, “the issue of trust was unique to this film,” said Berman-Bogdan. “A good deal of archival footage and photos came from people who had personal video or photos of Nirvana from back in the day. My biggest challenge was not only to locate these individuals but more importantly to gain their trust. It was amazing and somewhat unexpected to see how protective everyone was of Kurt. Most people felt Kurt had been so wronged in some way, especially in the media, and they had to be convinced that Montage of Heck was going to be different and treat Kurt fairly.”
“With films like Chicago 10, and Crossfire Hurricane, and more so with Montage of Heck, Jessica and I take a two tiered approach [to archival research],” said Morgen. “Which is, there’s the mainstream archives, then there’s the grassroots archives. It’s like an air war and a ground war. And obviously the air war is much easier to navigate then the ground war.”
Morgen and Berman-Bogdan have worked together on archive-based films since 2002, and their strong working relationship was essential to the success of an archival research project of this scope. Assembling the films complete internal archive was critical to Morgen’s production process, because he typically won’t start screening the archival materials until everything is in place.
As archival producer, “it’s my job to make sure Brett gets everything he needs and asks for,” said Berman-Bogdan. “The best way to do that is to understand what’s driving the film creatively and to have a firm grasp on the production’s time line. Let’s not underestimate the value of a long-term relationship. I’ve worked with Brett since The Kid Stays in the Picture back in 2002. By now I have a feel for how he works and what he expects. Staying ahead of, or at least on top of his expectations is key.”
“On Montage of Heck I had Jessica come on board almost a year before we were planning to start screening,” said Morgen. “And then I usually take six to nine months to collect material, and once it’s collected it goes to the assistant editor who gets it into the system. Once everything is in the system then I sit down with the editor and we screen material chronologically. I find when you screen chronologically, certain themes get eliminated and reveal themselves. And I sort of refuse to start screening until I know everything is in there. It frustrates me to no end if I start screening and suddenly new footage comes in from a date which I’ve already passed and cleared. I’m very literal minded in that way.”
Access to archival material has become something of a prerequisite for Morgen when he is considering a new documentary project.
“Over the course of the last fifteen years I’ve gotten to the point where when I’m approached about a subject, and generally these are high-profile subjects, I won’t engage in any meaningful conversations until I’ve done my own sort of initial footage search,” said Morgen. “To see what’s out there in the mainstream, the air war if you will. And then obviously in my initial meetings I’m inquiring about what material we will have to build this film from.”
One of the biggest shifts for Morgen’s archival filmmaking practice was the emergence of YouTube as an archival research tool.
“My relationship with archive has changed since the advent of YouTube,” he said. “I started making archival films pre-YouTube. And I think that it really changed the game quite a bit.”
“I look at YouTube in a way as a kind of lowest common denominator, meaning it's a great place to look when you are starting a project to see what’s out there” he said. “And I would say that probably without digging hard, you know 80% of what you’re ultimately going to find on a general subject you’re going to find on YouTube. Depending on the subject, but with entertainment subjects it’s crazy how much stuff is out there. And what it’s also useful for is when I get to a certain stage it is almost a way for me to do checks and balances with Jessica [Berman-Bogdan], where I can go and say okay did we make sure we located this piece? You’re able to become aware of its existence, and make sure that you’ve tracked it all down.”
That said, the presence of so much archival footage on sites like YouTube means that very little footage remains rare or unreleased - a real problem for a documentary filmmaker as “there is still an inherent pressure on a filmmaker to deliver new material when you are doing any sort of definitive portrait of a subject,” said Morgen.
“We were fortunate enough with Montage of Heck that most of the material came from Kurt’s own storage facility. And the bulk of that hadn’t been seen so it wasn’t as much of an issue for us as it was on Crossfire Hurricane,” Morgen’s portrait of the Rolling Stones.
Overall, this process of discovery, or media archaeology, is fundamental to Morgen’s passion for his work.
“I can’t think of a better job, because in essence as documentary filmmakers, as archivists, we have a sort of all access pass to these cultures, societies and events that we are personally so fascinated by. As I said, I grew up as a fan of the Rolling Stones, and next thing I know I’m holding [the master recording of] Brown Sugar in my hand. I never lose sight of the fact that we are incredibly privileged to work in this field and go off on these expeditions.”