Raising Heck: Inside the Kurt Cobain Documentary
How “Montage of Heck” filmmaker Brett Morgen’s asymmetrical process helped Frances Bean discover the real Kurt
About a decade ago, Courtney Love holed herself up in a loft in New York City for three months, shutting out the world during one of the many high-lows of her struggles with drug abuse. In addition to whatever else she was doing in there, she had a computer and two DVDs, which she watched repeatedly, to entertain herself.
One of the DVDs was Prey for Rock and Roll, starring Gina Gershon and Drea de Matteo as members of an 80s all-girl punk band. The other was The Kid Stays in the Picture, Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s sly nonfiction biography, which uses flat art, photographs and 3D technology to tell the life story of Hollywood producer Robert Evans.
Love was so enraptured with the documentary that after ending her jag, she set up a meeting with Morgen, and asked him if he wanted to make a documentary about her husband, Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana singer and tortured icon of a generation, who had killed himself at the age of 27 in 1994.
That’s the story that Morgen told me back in 2007, when it was first going down. It was a provocative, making-of narrative. “I always knew Kid was a great drug film,” Morgen said. “That’s what I said to Courtney.”
Eight years later, a cleaner version of the origin story emerged in January during the publicity blitz that surrounded the premiere of Montage of Heck at the Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary drew critical raves, setting up a feverish anticipation for its release in theaters this month, and on HBO May 4th.
In interviews, Morgen didn’t include the bit connecting drugs and Love’s love for Kid Stays in the Picture. It was a minor tweak, maybe not intentional, but it’s worth noting when one considers the nature of Morgen’s project to construct a narrative about Cobain’s life. Storytelling is myth-making. And so are stories about storytelling.
And Morgen is a very adept, self-aware storyteller. Kid Stays in the Picture opens with the parting of a red curtain, announcing that it is not a pure piece of nonfiction, but a show not unlike a Hollywood make-believe entertainment. With Evans, that form fit the content. But for Cobain and his punk rock ethos, Morgen had to find a different way in. Not a myth, but an anti-myth.
Although there had been books and other documentaries about Cobain, none of them had what Love was offering to Morgen: full access to his journal entries, art work, audio recordings, and other ephemera that he had produced throughout his life, as well as his childhood 8-millimeter family films and the rights to use Nirvana’s music.
Love might as well have been handing over the keys to J.D. Salinger’s cabin. In fact, Morgen pitched the film at the time as the “Catcher in the Rye for this generation.”
Morgen first told me about the project while we were sitting in his downtown Manhattan office. I was working on a book about the brightest lights of the documentary film world and Morgen was my North Star. Like Love, I also believe that Kid Stays in the Picture is a staggeringly accomplished film. And I am impressed by Morgen’s position espousing “experiential cinema,” and the fact that he considers himself more of a neo-realist than a journalist.
“My films are steeped in mythology which create the experience of being inside the subject’s head,” he said. He was then pitching the Cobain project by telling executives that the Nirvana singer was one of his personal icons. “He killed Ronald Reagan and Mötley Crüe,” Morgen was saying. “I was like, ‘Look, this movie is basically all the iconic imagery that circulated through Kurt’s head. It’s going to be the Beatles meets the kids’ TV show H.R. Pufnstuf meets bloody tampons.’”
The Cobain project was kicking off as I listened in on his call with an archivist on the project. “I just found another reel of Kurt’s movie of stop time animation,” she said. It felt like we were on the other line with the first diver to reach the Titanic.
“What ever she finds will define the movie,” Morgen said. “This will be a total immersion into Kurt’s psyche.” He recalled a recent meeting at Universal. “It was one of the most bizarre and fucked up pitch meetings ever,” he said. “And they’re going to give me $5 million to make a movie — without even a treatment.”
Except that deal never happened. Montage of Heck took seven years to complete, initially mired in years of legal wrangling due to questions of rights, licensing, Love’s dealings with her lawyers and the other members of Nirvana, as well as her strained relationship with her and Cobain’s daughter, Frances, who had emancipated herself.
I abandoned the book. But Morgen stuck with his film. In 2007, he had said, “the filmmaker who has only one project in the air is dead meat.” He went on to make several more films, including Crossfire Hurricane about the Rolling Stones, while maintaining a lucrative career as a commercial director.
I reconnected with Morgen on the eve of the Montage of Heck’s release to see how he got to the finish line. He told me that by 2011, there was enough momentum that he sat down with Frances in her Hollywood Hills home to get her blessing. In his mind, it was a courtesy call. Only later, he says, did he think about how she could have “put the kibosh on the whole project.”
One of the first things Frances said to Morgen was that even though she had just met him, she already knew him better than she knew her own father. “That was critical in terms of the direction that the film would take,” Morgen says. “My focus and goals shifted from making a film for the fans or myself to making the film for Frances.”
She said she didn’t want a film like a VH1 “Behind the Music” special or something that would put “Saint Kurt” on a pedestal, but instead a documentary that would focus on his art. Morgen felt like they were completely “in sync.”
It took another two years for the actual work to begin, when, in 2013, Morgen walked into a sterile storage facility in California where he hoped to find a Raiders of the Lost Ark trove of material. But all he saw were a bunch of boxes and some paintings leaning on a wall.
“Where is everything?” a worried Morgen asked.
But, eventually, the 46-year-old director began to see that what was actually in the boxes was indeed enormously rich material, including 108 audio tapes of Cobain messing around or talking to himself and 19 journals that were part of 4,000 pages
of scribbling, artwork, and intimate outpourings from Cobain.
Morgen also got access to five hours of home movies that Cobain’s mother, Wendy, possessed, as well as interviews Cobain conducted with journalists, in addition to the reams of video (including outtakes) that covered the era when Nirvana was in its brief prime in the 1990s.
Morgen took everything and put it in a timeline, which graphically showed that the Cobain who the public knew was limited to 1991 to 1994. “The Kurt I was feeling connected to existed outside of that,” Morgen says. “That was a pretty deep epiphany. We were sitting on the real Kurt, the unfiltered Kurt. And that guy was so much more appealing than the guy who had a hostile relationship with the media.”
Morgen scuttled an early plan to have the entire film voiced by Cobain — his interviews were generally lacking — but to instead talk “primarily through his art.” Morgen set to integrating the diverse mediums that Cobain used along with the director’s own interviews with people close to Cobain, including his mother, father, sister, Love, ex-girlfriend Tracy Mirander and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.
Going in, he didn’t know how it would turn out. “Kurt was never narratively oriented,” Morgen says. “He was very expressionistic and full of emotion and passion. To tell a narrative was not easy.”
Stefan Nadelman was the head animator responsible for the manipulation of Cobain’s art and doodles into what ultimately appears on screen, which amounted to a hefty 32 minutes of animation.
“He was on my shoulder the whole time,” Nadelman says of Cobain. “We tried to never do something with the art that he wouldn’t have done.”
For instance, Cobain’s doodle of “Mr. Moustache,” an angry, testosterone-fueled dad, is brought to life as he gets pummeled by the unborn fetus — which kicks him from the womb — that is his son. Scribbling words appear as if being written in real time in Cobain’s hand. Accompanied with a kinetic score, the images fly by so fast, they’re going to require repeat viewing.
“We never came up with a hard and fast style guide,” Nadelman says. “It was just, ‘Let’s see what works.’”
Nadelman pored over the journals, using high-resolution images that could be manipulated (the average file size was 100 megabytes but some could be as big as 700 megabytes). Nadelman would add grain, a blurring effect or light aberrations to an image. He would “crush” a series of drawings and then expand them, making them move on screen. Everything he used was originally penned, scribbled or painted by Cobain. (Another animator, Hisko Hulsing, was responsible for several sequences that involve original animation.)
“I was so hyper aware of what I was doing from a social and cultural standpoint,” Nadelman says. “I tried to not let my mind dwell there because I would get panic attacks. I tried to focus on the individual tasks.”
Nadelman says that Morgen gave him the freedom to create, and that he would keep pushing him in a process that could sometimes be “brutal,” but in a way that was productive.
According to Morgen, it took six months to develop an animation approach that felt “organic to the story,” he says. “Kurt had to be more analog, handheld, more grit and more energy.”
“We all, collectively, needed to learn how to work with Kurt’s voice, whether it was the sound or music or editorial departments,” he adds. “If the edits of the home movies were too neat or too clean, it’s contrived.”
A couple editors weren’t up to the task and left the project. “You have to construct it as if it was not constructed and yet at the same time there has to be a purpose to it,” Morgen says. “You couldn’t cut it the way you wanted to cut it. You had to cut it so that it felt like Kurt was guiding it. That meant more asymmetrical and dirty.”
The same approach applied to the musical arrangements by composer Jeff Danna, who has worked with Morgen on several of his films, including Kid Stays in the Picture. “If he used arrangements that were not organic to Kurt, it would take you out of the movie,” Morgen says.
Toward the beginning of their process, Danna used flutes for a particular cue, prompting Morgen to come in and say, “‘No, no, no. Kurt wouldn’t have liked flute,’” Danna recalls. “‘And he doesn’t want to hear bassoon,’ which is an instrument that Brett and I have used all the time.”
Danna didn’t write original compositions for the film, which is “wall to wall music.” Morgen oversaw all of the Nirvana tracks, and incorporated covers, such as a middle school choir rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” recorded in the 90s. Danna appreciated the gritty emotion of the cover — the piano is even out of tune — as it plays accompanied by outtakes of the making of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. Another rough gem is an audio recording of Cobain messing around on a guitar, singing The Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” Danna noticed that Cobain played the chords wrong, flipping the major and minor on the song.
Danna adapted Nirvana songs for the sections covering Cobain’s early years, creating what he calls “ice cream truck versions,” using glockenspiel, gamelan, vibraphone and marimba instruments to give them a childlike effect.
Click the sound icon for an exclusive snippet of composer Jeff Danna’s “ice cream truck” version of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which plays during a sequence of Montage of Heck when Cobain and his then-girlfriend Tracy Marander were making a home together. “It plays to a nostalgic sweetness in Kurt’s life that was all too brief,” says Danna, who arranged the song with a toy piano, harp, gamelan, and gossamer instruments.
“That idea came from Brett,” Danna says. “We were trying to find the innocent quality of Kurt.”
Reinterpretations of venerated music — especially a dead icon’s post-punk songs played on a glockenspiel — might be deemed blasphemous by Nirvana’s most ardent fans. But what would Cobain have thought?
“I am sure I speak for Brett,” Danna says. “I would hope that he would really get a kick out of them and think that they were another view into his music.” It is, admittedly, a specious question. Which Cobain are we even talking about? A hypothetical, 48-year-old Cobain? His 27-year-old, frozen-in-time, suicidal self? His ghost?
Morgen says that Cobain “would have never written an autobiography.” Cobain was repulsed by journalists who tried to understand him. “It’s all in the music, man,” he says, exasperated, in the film. Which was why it was so imperative that Morgen make the film not so much an explanation as an active experience of Kurt’s psyche.
“Documentaries, in general, document the external world,” Morgen says. “When you are dealing with an artist and you have an access to his internal world through so many different platforms, and you have to take these abstract elements and weave them into a cohesive narrative thread, I can’t think of anything more challenging. There was nothing easy about it.”
With final cut, Morgen had the power to combine the threads the way he saw fit. He uses remarkably intimate, vulnerable material. Cobain’s own taped memory of his sordid, first sexual experience and a tormented, suicidal episode that followed, is adapted through animation and Danna’s nine-string variation of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” We also see rough video of Cobain in the throes of heroin addiction, barely able to hold on to his daughter, in a sequence that is painful to watch.
“It’s horrific to look at,” Morgen concedes. “You don’t want to watch it so you feel like it’s something you shouldn’t be seeing.”
Cobain’s mother asked Morgen to cut some scenes from the film. “I said to Wendy before the film started, ‘There are things that no mother should see. There are things that Kurt would not want you to see,’” Morgen says. “She had an incredibly visceral and intense reaction. When the film was over, she really challenged me… to put it gently.”
But Morgen included it nonetheless. It was an important component of the “real Kurt,” the anti-myth, that he was creating.
Although Frances has an executive producer credit on the film, Morgen says that she never talked with him about what content should or shouldn’t be included. (Love was entirely cut out of the creative process. “There are enough conspiracy theories about Courtney’s control of Kurt’s image,” Morgen says. “No way was that going to fly with me or the public.”) After Frances saw the film last October, Morgen says that she embraced him and said, “You made the movie I wanted you to make. You gave me the two hours with my father I never had.”
In a recent interview for Rolling Stone, Frances mirrored this sentiment. It’s a sweet behind-the-scenes story that Morgen has been telling journalists since January. It brings to mind something he said to me when we were first meeting. “When you begin to make a film, you have to identify your most vulnerable component,” he said.
I ask Morgen about the vulnerabilities of Montage of Heck. “Courtney was one of them,” he says. “I thought that if the audience disliked Courtney from the moment she appeared on screen that, in a way, they would be less engaged with Kurt. It was important that they viewed Courtney through Kurt’s perspective. It wasn’t that I was trying to sugar coat her at all. I wanted to allow the audience entry to the romantic story.”
Another was portraying the more gentle, warmer side of Cobain, because there simply wasn’t as much material. And then there was what Morgen calls the “overriding insecurity of tackling Kurt Cobain and feeling that you are pretty much set up for failure considering how strong peoples’ feelings are for Kurt.”
But I want to know if he’d tackle the question of whether the film should exist at all. Morgen suggests my line of inquiry says more about me than it does the subject, which may or may not be true. Of late, I have indeed been very interested in discursive thought and how we create narratives to make sense of of our lives. This has certainly informed my story about Morgen’s retelling of Cobain’s life.
“But I’m glad you asked that,” Morgen says. “Kurt was an artist. Most people, Kurt included, create art to be disseminated.” Cobain also had a laissez faire approach to his journals, he says, and there was a distinctly performative aspect to his home movies, audio confessions and journal writing, so Morgen didn’t feel like he was being invasive.
“Hopefully, audiences will detect the tremendous amount of sensitivity that went into making choices in the movie,” he says. “I wasn’t choosing scenes to be sensational. We are just not accustomed to seeing films that are this intimate about our icons… And, in terms of protecting his family,” Morgen adds, “His next of kin is our producer and in full support of the movie. If anyone is to be concerned, I believe that’s up to Frances.”
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