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February 27, 2008

Orphans and Bastards

Reeler Interview: Chicago 10 filmmaker Brett Morgen on craft, character and looking forward to Cobain

"History as a cartoon": The principals of Brett Morgen's new documentary Chicago 10 (Photo: Roadside Attractions)

The mixed media are the message in Chicago 10, Brett Morgen's ebullient new documentary about the trial of the Chicago 7 (plus their two lawyers and a dismissed co-defendant) and their respective roles in the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Adapting the motion-capture animation style featured in his and Nanette Burstein's acclaimed 2002 Robert Evans profile The Kid Stays in the Picture, Morgen interweaves some of the period's most visceral archival footage with illustrated takes on the courtroom farce that ensued while attempting to bring the likes of Abbie Hoffman (voiced by Hank Azaria), Jerry Rubin (Mark Ruffalo), Bobby Seale (Jeffrey Wright) and others to a distinctly perverted brand of American justice. Jarring, infuriating and sporadically entrancing, Chicago 10 eschews boilerplate history for a more ribald cultural snapshot; even as viewers wonder where all the outrage has gone in 40 years, a sense settles in hinting we could never have it that idealistically good again.

The Reeler recently caught up with Morgen in New York, where Chicago 10 opens Friday and where he discussed documentary style, subjectivity and his ambitious forthcoming project addressing the life and death of Kurt Cobain.

THE REELER: What initially appealed to you about the Chicago 7 story, especially as the source for this kind of conceptual documentary?

BRETT MORGEN: It came from a conversation I had with [producer and Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter around the time The Kid Stays in the Picture was coming out. This was around the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan, and we started talking about Iraq. Graydon was wondering where all the protests were, and he said to me: "When I was young, we had the Chicago 7. They were rock stars -- they were my heroes. What do you think of doing a film about them, and reintroducing this amazing moment in American history to people who really aren't familiar with it?" I thought it was kind of a genius idea, especially from a film standpoint. There's such a wealth of archive material, and having just made The Kid Stays in the Picture, I was looking for a canvas that let me further explore my experiments in mythical -- or mythmaking -- documentary, or whatever the hell I call this subgenre I work in.

But I said if we're going to do this, I don't want to do interviews. I don't want to have a narrator. Let's make this film about the Chicago experience. I don't feel the world needs another history lesson. I appropriated imagery form that era to tell what I thought would be a relevant story today.

R: Still, is your aesthetic a means of appealing to a younger crowd that has distanced itself from dissent?

BM: Look at the box office numbers for Taxi to the Dark Side prior to it winning an Academy Award. Nobody saw that film. Zero. And it got some of the best reviews in the world. But it feels like current events you could see on television, and it's a sobering experience. One of the lessons of the Yippies that I was inspired by is that if you want to explore a social issue, then package your film as piece of entertainment. If it doesn't work as entertainment first and foremost, no one's going to see it. Chicago 10 was an attempt to make a sort of entertaining story about this period in that spirit -- a very irreverent approach to history. I thought it was a very Yippie thing to do to render history as a cartoon.

R: The archival footage here is actually quite beautiful in spots. It looks like it could have been shot yesterday.

BM: One of the things I learned while we were making The Kid Stays in the Picture was that if you take footage that originated on film, transfer it to high-definition and then blow it up to 35-millimeter, it actually looks better than it does on the original film. If you take video sources, transfer them to HD and then go to 35, it looks like crap. I was pretty anal about using film elements whenever possible. We spent nine months transferring and cleaning up the film, then four months on color correction. And we were using a very contemporary color palette in postproduction, meaning that some of the colors I painted the images with didn't exist in 1968 film stock. At one point I thought, "What am I doing? Instead of trying to get it to all look the same, let's exploit the differences."

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R: Also, though, when I watch documentary footage from that era and through the '70s, it always feels like the shooting was just better then -- the framing, the discipline, almost everything as opposed to the video era.

BM: What happens today is that when people shoot video, they shoot with a wide-angle lens and they tend to just point it where the action is. They also aren't always using shoulder cams, which forces you to shoot in a very specific way. Given the weight of 16-millimeter cameras and the way they balance themselves and the fact that people were forced to use telephoto lenses, that created a higher level of aesthetics then we're used to seeing today. Also, if you’re a cameraman in the mid-'60s, you've probably been trained in still photography. We live in a culture now where everyone just picks up a camera and starts shooting.

R: You've recently started work on a project about Kurt Cobain. How does your process of perceiving and rendering myth apply -- or adapt -- to this subject?

BM: What all my films try to do is become the personification of their subjects. The Bob Evans film I often describe as not being about Bob -- it is Bob, meaning that if you gave six adjectives to describe him, then in an ideal world you're also describing the film. The Kurt Cobain film will have all of the inherent contradictions that Kurt had. He could be totally sarcastic and then totally sincere. His music could be loud and angry and on the next song come out with melodies that could have been in a Beatles song. And I'm really excited to tackle my generation after looking at these other generations. Kurt was from a totally dysfunctional family; by the time he was 10, he was abandoned. So he's kind of trailer trash raised on H.R. Pufnstuf, Black Oak Arkansas and The Beatles.

There's a famous line from Abbie Hoffman, who said he was an orphan of America. Kurt Cobain was certainly an orphan of America. He was America's bastard. What separated him from the other 20 million of us is that he had a unique gift that he was able to articulate his experiences in a way few had before or since, which is why he so resonates with young, disenfranchised kids the world over. The movie we're making needs to be the movie those kids want to see -- not necessarily about Kurt, but rather the ultimate anti-establishment film.

R: You've been granted unprecedented access to his archives for this project. What among them indicates how you might represent Kurt visually?

Chicago 10 filmmaker Brett Morgen

BM: A lot of what this movie is going to be celebrates Kurt as a multimedia artist. Courtney [Love, Cobain's widow] has allowed me to view his Super-8 movies he was making from a very young age, starting with a movie called The Death of Kurt Cobain, in which he envisions himself as a suicide when he was 15 years old. There are some later stop-action animations, unintentionally out of focus; we'll use those as an inspiration to reproduce some of those films and create this whole mixed-media portrait. In a traditional journalistic sense, there's not a lot you can say that people don't already know. But the approach is new, and hopefully through the approach we can find something new to say about these stories.

R: By the same token, it's incredibly hard to get people interested in any kind of history at all -- especially something as recent as 1993 or '94, in our own lifetimes. Kids are especially hard to attract.

BM: Well, to me there are two issues: There's marketing, and then just if a kid can enjoy a film. We have to make a film that transcends Kurt Cobain. It has to be The Catcher in the Rye for today's generation. When I was making Chicago 10, I definitely felt like I was trying a lot of tricks to make the film accessible to a young audience. Maybe ultimately that's a losing battle; I don't know. I think the difference with Kurt is that there aren’t a lot of 13 year olds today who have Abbie Hofffman posters in their rooms.

R: Of course, Kurt's had the screen treatment before. What did you think of Last Days and some of the documentaries about him?

BM: I haven't seen Last Days, I'm embarrassed to say. I saw A.J. Schnack's documentary [Kurt Cobain: About a Son] and some of the others. The Nick Broomfield one [Kurt and Courtney] is silly; I don't even want to go into that. He had a ridiculous premise, and anyone who knows anything about Kurt Cobain knows that there was a serious history of suicide in his family; he'd predicted his own suicide when he was 15. To say otherwise is just irresponsible and pure propaganda. There's some merit in A.J.'s film, though I don't know if I'd want to make a film about an artist without access to that artist's work. It's a little too abstract for me. I was nervous when I watched it, because I didn't know about it when Courtney hired me; I learned about it shortly thereafter, and I resisted moving forward on our film until I saw it. But I knew there was room to move. I don't think A.J. thought he was making the definitive movie on Kurt Cobain -- if there is one to be made.

R: So Courtney Love hired you to make this film? Will this be an authorized documentary about Kurt Cobain?

BM: Yeah, it came from Courtney. Apparently she's a big fan of The Kid Stays in the Picture, and she signed a deal with Reveille Entertainment to do a fiction film and a nonfiction film. They called me up and I flew out to L.A., where I met with Courtney and Graham Larson, who runs Reveille. She said to me at that first meeting: "Listen, you're the filmmaker. If we're going to do this together, then I'll support you however you need to be supported. But I'm not going to get in the way."

R: Do you think she'll uphold that agreement?

BM: Absolutely. I don't make films without final cut anymore, but I would certainly seek her input. At the same time, a lot of my movies are really based on primary sources. Because I don't do interviews in my movies, it makes speaking to surviving [principals] a little less relevant. If I don’t have the footage to articulate it, or if I don't have Kurt's audio, then how is it going to get on the screen? Maybe one of these days I'll go back and do a traditional talking-head documentary, but after Behind the Music, you sort of can't go there anymore.

R: Will [Nirvana members] Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic participate?

BM: The lawyers are speaking to them, and I'm sure they'll have some say. We'll accommodate them in whatever way they need. But it really is far more than the story of Nirvana. It is hard to separate the story of Nirvana from the story of Kurt Cobain, but it's much more about Kurt and his life -- the breadth and width of that. It transcends Nirvana. I do believe Kurt's childhood is essential to understanding the fabric that he wrote about in his music. You need to understand what kind of life he was living and who his cultural influences were and what his idea of family was to have an understanding of his music later in life.



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