Filmmaker Brett Morgen is one of the finest stylists currently working in documentary. His new film Jane, about the life of Jane Goodall, is a beautiful, engaging work that uses footage of the acclaimed animal rights activist and humanitarian when she was newly arrived in Gombe National Park in Tanzania and about to begin the adventure that became her life. With music by Philip Glass and no talking heads, Jane will delight people who know about ecology and the animals but are genuinely in Ms. Goodall’s life as well.
Endlessly inventive, Morgen co-directed the acclaimed Robert Evans biopic The Kid Stays in the Picture, which used animation, graphics, stills and archival footage to tell the story of one of Hollywood’s most notorious producers. His last film, Cobain: Montage of Heck recreated the life and death of Nirvana’s lead singer through his artwork, archival footage and sound and visual collages.
POV interviewed Brett Morgen in downtown Toronto earlier this week.
Marc: Marc Glassman, editor of POV
Brett: Brett Morgen
Marc Glassman: One of the things that people have been saying about Jane is that it’s a romantic epic. I wanted to talk to you about that first—about Jane and Hugo and making that story.
Brett Morgen: I think it’s a love story, but not about Jane and Hugo. I think it’s a love story about a woman and her work, and about a man and his work. Because the real love, the transcendent love in the film, is their work. And the reason, I think, that at the end of the film people are smiling or crying, not of sadness, but of a life well lived, and at where Jane arrived at, is because she’s doing what she wants to do and making the world a better place, and Hugo did what he needed to do and made the world a better place. That’s a very strong distinction.
As a filmmaker and an artist, I think a lot of artists relate to that. To be a successful artist, it’s important to have balance in our lives and to have families and what have you, but the work consumes you. And because I relate to that sentiment, it was something that I was drawn to in their story. And to be honest, it wasn’t until I was in Gombe interviewing Jane—because I kind of had the film structured and where I needed it to be—that I had this epiphany: “Oh, it’s a happy ending.” So if Hugo wasn’t in the story, it was already going to be a romantic, sweeping, Out of Africa epic, because of Jane. Think of what she did! It’s extraordinary.
I was talking to Thom Powers backstage yesterday—and you’ll appreciate this as someone well-versed in the history of our field—I said, “Thom, the film in many ways is almost like a history of non-fiction.” Because it begins as a Robert Flaherty film, and then it goes into a Ross McElwee film, and then it becomes something a little more like what’s been happening in the last 15 years. It becomes a little more subjective, a sort of exteriorization of their interior landscape. You see insects flying around, and it sort of gets more abstract. I knew we were going to break down the fourth wall at some point, and figuring that out kept me up. I was so frantic and panicked up until the very end about how the audience would handle the shift in point of view.
Marc: Would they catch it? Actually they probably wouldn’t catch it—a lot of it is subjective, right?
Brett: But going from that first act, without a camera present, to breaking down the fourth wall, my fear was that they’re going to feel cheated—that I wasn’t honest in the first half. In terms of how we edited and approached that first half, we had to find a filmic voice that was as un-self-conscious and objective as possible. It was like if I had done a brain scan on you and put it on a screen to see when your mind wandered. And literally what we found was that when we gave the audience too much time, too much space, they would start to wonder about things. When we did a test screening with 45 people, which is the only one we did, nobody mentioned it; and I was like, “OK, I think we may be good now.”
Marc: I noticed, for example—obviously Jane was and still is incredibly beautiful—that you actually didn’t show footage of her face right on at first, and only gradually began to introduce it. Then finally, when Hugo comes in, you have that whole sequence of the director falling in love with the star, and you can see it in the footage.
Brett: The main tool that we used was the focal length. We said that Hugo couldn’t be shooting with a wide-angle lens. If he shot with anything close to a wide-angle lens, you would feel the presence of the filmmaker. So everything had to be voyeuristic and a bit stepped back until she penetrated through. Before Hugo arrives, Jane breaks through with the chimps. But we’re only using telephoto shots. We’re only using his longest lens on those close-ups. That was so that you would feel that you were Jane, getting back much closer to the chimps. But then when Hugo arrives, it wasn’t the telephoto lens that was our best asset; it was his wider shots, where he was closer to Jane and you could feel that subjective presence. So that part of the filmmaking was incredibly challenging, but I have to say, super fun as a film geek trying to figure out the language.
Marc: One of the things that is fascinating is you take archival footage and make it real again.
Brett: You’d have to think that whoever closed that edit room 55 years ago was a janitor who had no idea that anyone was ever going to come near this stuff again. And the shock was when we hired an editor, who is expensive, and they move their family, and we sit down and I’m like, “Okay, day one of work, got my notepad, let’s go.” And we put the first reel of film on, and about 10 minutes in I was like, “Oh, this isn’t right.” And I’ll tell you how I knew it wasn’t right. Normally, when I’m taking notes, because I’m sort of absorbing everything the first time, I’ll just write a scene description. If there’s an amazing shot, okay, I’ll mention the shot, but it’s not about, “There’s a wide shot here”—it’s too early for that. So I’m writing down every shot, and I’ve got a full page of notes and we’re only 2 or 3 minutes in, and I’m like, “Can you forward? I just want to get a sense of this landscape.” And we hit forward and I go, “Whoa. Put on another reel.” And I go, “Oh my god.”
Marc: And this is hours and hours of footage.
Brett: 140 hours. I knew that my brain wouldn’t be able to handle creating any order in my head about this footage. So we hired I think about 15 interns and assistant editors, and I came up with categories, the first category being all the footage of Jane. That’s easy to find—you just scroll though—and that means you can give us that while you’re looking for the other, harder stuff, and we’ll start proceeding. So we had a bin on chimps eating, chimps idling, chimps in trees, chimps sleeping, chimps fornicating—chimps don’t do a lot of stuff. They eat, sleep, fuck…
Brett: Defecate, well, but…
Marc: You don’t want that.
Brett: Well we would like that, that’s OK with us. I’d never seen dailies for a nature film; that was the best part. There’s all sorts of crazy stuff. Nature films are designed to make us anthropomorphize the animals. They’re all designed that way. But when you’re looking at the dailies, that’s not what they’re like. You see big differences. There was some sexual stuff that we saw that we were like, “What the heck?” Because we’d never seen chimps in their natural state. So we’re sitting here and we have no idea what’s going to come on next. Some of the stuff we saw, we were just like, “Oh my god.” And also the chimps eating was so gross, because they eat with their mouths open—they would sit there and they would nosh on those banana peels over and over, and that was the hardest footage to get through. I think that was the one where I was literally like, “Dave, you’re on your own with this one.”
Marc: You got some nice stuff with the bananas; that worked out OK. And talk about anthropomorphizing—that’s what Goodall does. She starts naming all the chimps, and those end up being the ones that you have to follow. So I guess that must have been tough too—finding David Greybeard in all that footage.
Brett: It was impossible. Someone said, “They didn’t have notes?” I mean, there probably were notes in 1965 or 1963, but they’re long lost to us, and—it’s not a joke—I have terrible face recognition. So I was like, “Oh, this is great. I can’t even recognize my friends, let alone look at 160 chimps and try to figure out which one is David and which one is McGregor.” So we had pictures up of the ones we were interested in, and this army of young film students just went through and tried to identify every chimp for us.
What I related to initially in Jane’s approach to her work was that it’s very similar to my approach to nonfiction, which is intensive immersion. I try to become my subject—I try to think like my subject; I try to drink like my subject; I try to eat like my subject so that I can tell my films from their perspective. The cinematic language of my films is a representation of the subjects I’m depicting. And that’s what Jane was doing with the chimpanzees. She’s like, “I want to learn how they eat, drink, sleep”—that whole section before she even encounters them is my favourite part of her story, because what you see there is, even though she’s not seeing them, she’s making the best use of her time. She’s working constantly. That was so inspiring to me. I wish I could have just spent the whole movie in that time; I love that time and that sequencing. Also, cinematically, that’s a sequence that… I love montage, and that’s all colour-grading. All the shots are shot in the same lighting conditions and we’re just grading it to give you the sense that it’s going through weeks and months.
Marc: Can you talk about the techniques you used?
Brett: Well here’s the thing: in archival filmmaking, as a director, you have such a limited toolkit. It’s four things: colour-grading, sound design, montage—only three in a pure archival film, and then if you’re going to do interviews, then the lighting on the interviews and the camera placement. That’s it—that’s the only way that I get to communicate subtext or meaning. So I take each of those very, very seriously.
Colour is both an opportunity to create energy and to provide subtext and drama, just as in painting. We’re moving away from this, I think, in our field, but I work with one of the top colourists in LA who does all the big Hollywood films, and the first one that we started working on together, I come into the colour bay and he’s sort of levelling everything off, and I go, “What are you doing?” He goes, “I’m getting everything to look like it did when it was shot.” I go, “No, no, no.” I do the opposite of that. I have no concern—I’m appropriating it and I’m making it my own, and so it’s very unlikely that what worked in that context is going to work. If it does, great, but we have to kind of sculpt it and mould it. So that becomes a powerful tool. And also, like I said, in recent years I’ve learned the value of colour energy and how you can create more propulsive energy in a film through grading. It’s very subtle and psychological, but it works. It’s very effective.
Marc: You can see it in Montage of Heck, too.
Brett: And then, with sound design, all this footage was MOS [without sound]. My offline editors have always been really strong with sound, and in fact generally they’re the sound designers on these films. Stuart Levy, who did Chicago 10, was the Coen Brothers’ sound designer for years. And then what happens is, you lock your offline and you bring it to your sound designer, and inevitably they just throw everything out, level everything off and they want to start the mix all over again. It drives me insane. I go, “Dude, we’ve been listening to this film for two years. I can’t listen to it if it’s not right, so this is the mix you’re supposed to start from.”
So on this film, I knew everything was MOS, so I said, “We’re doing it differently. We’re going to build our own mixing stage.” And so we built a 7.1 mix stage at our office and we hired a sound editor before we hired a picture editor. So we started sound editing from day one, and we knew that, to maintain authenticity, everything had to be from Gombe. So we worked with the Jane Goodall Institute—because they have people who have been doing nothing but audio recordings for 55 years. We acquired the entire library of audio, which were not just chimps but all the nature. So every bird and every insect you’re hearing is true to Gombe.
Marc: Basically, your technique is that you edit in advance, in this case before you really did a solid interview.
Brett (nods): …so you know what to focus on. Montage was the first one I did on camera, and again, as you can tell, I’m very much about directing documentaries. I understand why, but I always found it be a bit of a fallacy in nonfiction when people do interviews and the lighting always stays the same no matter what the subject is talking about. Now there’s a reason for that, which is because I have to know what you’re going to talk about if I’m going to shift the lighting on you.
I’ve always loved Lenny, the Bob Fosse film, and I reference that more than any documentary. Lenny isn’t a documentary, but the interviews have that quality. That was the inspiration for Montage of Heck. What I did in Montage was we lit the interviews so it looked like they were going day to night. You’d get this feeling that people had been sitting there for 18 hours pouring their hearts out. So Kurt’s mom would be in her morning light, and then she’d start talking about something in ’92 or ’93, and I’d be like, “Wendy, you’ve got to stop. We don’t have the right lighting on.” We did a similar thing with Jane with her lighting, where it goes from morning, and then very subtly into afternoon, into evening, and then back into a new day for the sort of epilogue. But again, the trick is, you have to know exactly what area you’re going to talk to and keep your subject focused. And you can’t do that on a first interview. You can only do that when the movie is cut and you have a sense of where things are going to go.
Marc: So in terms of your relationship with Jane—tell me about that. How often did you get to speak to her?
Brett: Just the two days. Until yesterday—after she saw the film, she sent me an email. But I didn’t speak to her at all until I went to Gombe to film her. But she had written so many books; it’s not as if I didn’t have a sense of her story—I’d read and seen everything, so I didn’t need her at that point.
Marc: But in terms of getting the interview right…
Brett: Well I’d read all 12 of her books, and I’d also read her authorized and her unauthorized biography, so I knew what the landscape was. I had a really good sense of what I needed to get there.
Marc: So you could say to her, “Just wait; this part needs to be lit differently.”
Brett: Jane stayed very close to my questions. Wendy Cobain would go off; she needed to be reined in. Jane was like, “What do you want to know?”
Marc: She’s a pro. She’s been telling the Jane Goodall story for a long time.
Brett: As an interviewer, you know that when you’re interviewing icons, everybody goes into it with a challenge, like, “OK, I want to get something fresh.” And they all know everybody’s doing that. It was so funny when I worked with the Stones [on Crossfire Hurricane], because here are these guys who have been interviewed forever and they know every trick in the book, but I was the first guy who was given 15 sessions with Mick. So my interviews were totally different than anything that he had ever experienced, but I would watch him do interviews, and also I get interviewed, so I know that when people come at me and they want the fresh take, you just look at them like, “Stop.” It’s annoying.
Marc: But what was it like with Goodall?
Brett: I felt like the first day she was just giving me like… She was not…
Brett: Invested. We went home after the first night, reviewed the interview, and decided that… When you’re dealing an icon, they’re very comfortable talking about the same things they talk about in all their speeches, but then you start talking about, “Oh do you remember the third track on Beggar’s Banquet,” and they’re like, “What? I don’t even remember that album. What’s that album?” What I found with Mick was—he asked for this—I would have to show up with visual cues to jog his memory.
I had already cut the scene of Jane and Hugo falling in love, and the main problem on day one was that we weren’t getting the intimacy I needed for the Hugo story. When I showed up on day two, I showed Jane the sequence, and we talked a little bit about that relationship, and we adjusted the lighting so that it would look like the previous day, and she went for it. She was there.
Marc: Because that’s a little bit different, right? She doesn’t usually talk about that.
Marc: And in fact, I’ve got to say, we still don’t know very much about their son, Grub.
Brett: You know, here’s the thing. Someone said to me, “Did you consider interviewing Grub?” I go, “Look, Grub’s out of our story when he’s six.” I don’t want to interview someone about something that happened to them before they were six—the memories are going to be a little faded. But that’s why we show Grub at the end of the film. We have to see him—you want to see what came of him. And you know, he’s handsome, and it’s nice to know that he’s doing well. He lives with Jane—they live in the same house in Dar es Salaam.
Marc: Well that was the thing that hit me, and also that he had taken care of Hugo in the last years of his life, too. So obviously he’d been very close to his family all along. That was the only reason why I thought it might have been interesting.
Brett: What was crazy was the room that we interviewed Jane in was the room that Hugo passed in. The first day, we didn’t know that, but then someone told us and it was like…
Marc: I wonder how that was for her.
Brett: It was a set we had designed. We brought all that stuff into the room to sort of make it look like Gombe, and when Jane walked in she was like, “It looks just like Gombe!” But yeah, that was interesting. I did the same thing in Montage — every home is a set.
Marc: That’s one of the things that’s happened to documentaries. To get at our idea of truth, it seems as if we have to manipulate things.
Brett: In the case of Montage, it’s more like, when someone tells me I have to interview them at the recording studio, I’m like, “No.” Kurt’s dad was travelling down to LA—I’m not going to film him in his house; he doesn’t want me in his house; he’s coming down to LA. So I have to go find a house that looks like Kurt’s dad’s place. So I went to Burbank; I thought, “I’ll find it in Burbank.” So that becomes this sort of thing, which, to me, is like painting.
Like, Kris Novoselic—that wasn’t his house in Montage of Heck. But it looks like Kris Novoselic’s house. He wanted to meet me at a hotel; he was like, “You can film me at the hotel.” I was like, “Dude, that’s not how this film works.” I went to Courtney’s house to film her, and her house did not look like Courtney. She was renting it, and it was very warm and just looked suburban, and I was like, “I think we’ll go to the Chateau [Marmont].” We literally called the Chateau like, “I’ve got a film crew—can we come over there right now?” And they fortunately let us, but it feels more appropriate for Courtney.
Marc: Thinking about Jane and work and Hugo and work, it immediately hit me, that’s Evans’s story.
Brett: It’s the same line in Bob’s film. The same line. That is the connection. But that’s me.
Marc: That theme of individuals and their dedication to work runs through your oeuvre. Do you claim yourself as an auteur? Do you mind saying that this is true for you as a documentarian?
Brett: I would say that I’m an auteur. I would simply say that all of my films are about me. And that’s not narcissism; it’s simply that what attracts me in Kurt’s story is going to be different from what attracts you, and what attracts the next person. So of course we’re drawn into these things that we relate to, because we’re trying to capture these universal truths. So you go from Kurt [Cobain] to Bob [Evans] to all of these things and you look for these things, and you realize that there are certain themes or ideas—there’s a thread throughout my work about image, for instance. But I felt like Kurt—I was working through a lot of…I was the same age as him, had similar issues with my parents, and honestly my relationship with my parents is so much better today, having made that film. I was able to release a lot of tension I had.
I feel like Jane has made me a better person. Not just societal, but internally, I’ve found in the past year I’m able to slow down. I’ve become more comfortable being in nature. I spent the bulk of the past three months pretty much looking at clouds, which is something I could never have done at any other station in life. I think I needed this film at this point in my life for my own development. I think sometimes we think we know why we’re choosing a film, but it’s really at some point—and it could be after the film is done—that you realize what the film is really about.
I remember, my first movie was a film called On the Ropes, and there was a moment when we were deep into the edit, and I said, “You realize that this is the myth of Sisyphus. We’re basically doing an existential nightmare here. All of our characters are trying to better themselves, and they all end up back here.” And it was like, “Whoa.” That wasn’t what we set out to do; it wasn’t what we set out to edit, but once you figure it out, hopefully you figure it out before the film is done, then you can go back and fine-tune it.
Kurt, the issues of shame and how those were rooted in his childhood—as soon as I got through all the material, that was easy. That was a constant link. You could say it was projection, but talk about things speaking to you, everywhere I looked I kept seeing the same word. Over and over and over in every interview, it was just coming up. And I’m like, OK, this is a core issue of this man’s life that somehow is not part of the narrative of his life. None of the books ever went there, partially because they didn’t have access to the source material that we had where you can really dig into it.
Marc: What did you discover in Jane?
Brett: Again, I think it goes back to the work thing. That became very cognizant for me that it’s a love story about work. The end of the Bob film is the same thing as the end of this film. It’s the same moral. The guy says to Bob, “Any regrets?” and Bob goes, “No. You know why? Because most people spend most of their time at work, and I love what I do. So yeah. Damn right.” And I totally relate to that, and I know Jane relates to that. And that’s what I tell my kids. It’s just one lesson: whatever you do, find something you love, your passion.
I’m not a conservationist. I mean I’m not an industrialist either; I’m just not mobilized and I’m not really much of a scientist or a philosopher. But this film transcends those fields and becomes something very relatable about following your dream. It sounds so cheesy, but I feel like it’s the perfect antidote, for the times we’re living in. There’s a reason, I think, culturally, why there are 14 Marvel shows on the air and every movie that seemed to succeed this year was a superhero film. We don’t have any real-life heroes to put on a pedestal. In this age where you don’t even have a president that you can look at with any sense of respect or decorum, I think Jane fills a very important role—her voice is needed now more than ever.
And again, I’m not an earnest guy, so she humbles me. I’m putty around Jane because of the fact that she’s made such incredible use of her time on this earth. And you know as well as I do that, as we get older, these become issues—what is it all about? What is our legacy? How can we make this place a little bit better? I’m hitting 50 now, so these are things that are up there in my mind. This film would have meant nothing to me at 25 or 30. I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to make the film. But at this stage in life, things have started to resonate.