Finding the real Kurt Cobain: a conversation with documentary director Brett Morgen

The man behind Montage of Heck discusses his latest film

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The Sundance documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is far from a traditional biopic. Directed by Brett Morgen, the filmmaker behind movies like The Kid Stays in the Picture and the Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, it eschews conventional narrative in an attempt to bring audiences inside the mind of Cobain through his paintings, personal recordings, journals, and some disturbing home video footage. I saw a lot of documentaries at Sundance this year, and Montage of Heck was my favorite by far.

I sat down with Morgen during the festival to talk about the origins of the project, the absence of Dave Grohl (he appears only in archival footage), and a striking animated sequence which uses Cobain’s recorded recollection of how he lost his virginity and almost committed suicide during his teenaged years.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

When did you hear Nirvana for the first time? Let’s start with you, the fan.

Well I saw them play my college in 1989. I went to Hampshire college. It was one of the only colleges they played on that tour. Very little memory of it… And then I saw them at the Forum in ‘93, the second-to-last show they ever did in the states.

Nirvana, for me though, I grew up on SST [Records]. I’m the same age as Kurt, and vividly remember the day I walked into Rhino Records in Westwood and got Meat Puppets II the day it came out, and Double Nickles by The Minutemen and Hüsker Dü and all those bands.

Flash forward to 2007, and Courtney [Love] approached me because she’d seen The Kid Stays in the Picture [Morgen’s documentary on Hollywood producer Robert Evans], and she said “We have all this art of Kurt’s and no one’s really ever seen it, and there’s so much more to him than people knew, and I have these videos.”

You know, the type of work I do, Kurt’s art and his audio really lend itself to the way I try to approach non-fiction. Because his art was basically an autobiography of his life. And you start when he’s three, and you see the idealism and the hope in those illustrations, and you can see by seven that the darkness starts to come in. And you start to see a lot of stuff with marionettes, people on strings. Or Fred Flintstone choking Dino. And that sort of throws a wrench into the whole Cobain mythology, because Cobain used to say that he had a happy childhood until he was nine. I don’t believe that to be true. I think he had an ideal childhood until he was about three — that’s just my personal take on it — and spent the rest of his life trying to get back to that feeling.

There have been a lot of movies and books about Kurt Cobain already. Were there things you felt you hadn’t seen?

When I make these types of films I spend about eight months collecting every piece of media on the subject in existence. And in this case, because of our access to the family materials, we had everything. And I sat down and screened chronologically the first frame of Kurt Cobain to the last frame. It took about three months. And when we got to [1991], when he first started to be photographed in a way that was being disseminated around the world, and we went through that stuff I was shocked. I was like, “That’s it? That’s how we’ve built him?” … The Kurt that I’m seeing is so different than the Kurt that presented himself in front of the glare of the lens and the media. I found the stuff around Nevermind was the least interesting stuff for me, and it was all the other stuff where I felt like we got to meet Kurt. The stuff with him and Courtney — the humor and the wit. They were like Lucy and Ricky. Who would ever have known that? I didn’t know Kurt was fucking Ricky!

"I didn't know Kurt was fucking Ricky!"

Coming here has been really intense because I haven’t been able to tell anyone what we’ve had for all this time. We have Kurt doing The Beatles; nobody’s ever heard that. And the autobiography he does of his childhood, about losing his virginity, most of the stuff nobody knows where it’s from. … Krist [Novoselic, Nirvana bassist], Courtney, Tracy [Marander, Cobain’s former girlfriend]; no one had ever heard it.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck promotional still (HBO)

Where did that audio come from?

In the storage unit I found a box. I had no idea there was going to be any audio. They said, “Go into the storage unit!” and so I went in there with a crew, and we’re documenting everything, photographing everything from every angle and shit. And I open up this box, and there’s 108 cassettes. … So I’m listening to these tapes, and that audio autobiography comes on. And as I’m listening, first of all I’m like, “Oh my god. This is so layered. There’s so many things happening here.” … And then when I went through the journals I found the story. So he wrote it out, and then he recorded it by himself. And I think it was ‘88, if I had to guess when he recorded it, because there was this period where I found he did a lot of spoken word. But all the other spoken word he did, he was doing throwaway. And on that story, he kind of performs it, which is why it sounds so different than any interview you’ve ever heard of Kurt Cobain.

Him telling any kind of straightforward narrative is a new thing.

I edited it, to make it a little more linear. But it’s the tone in his voice that I find so chilling. Because it’s almost like he’s slightly aloof or amused as he’s telling this story. But the story is so painful, and there’s that contrast between how he’s delivering it and what he’s saying. I always thought that story was the key to the whole thing. My Rosebud, if you will. After listening to that story, I can’t tell you how many times, I came to a moment where I was dealing with something later in the film, and I stopped and said, wait a second. And I went back to that story, and that line he says. “I couldn’t handle the ridicule, so I went down to the train tracks to kill myself.” I was like, there’s the answer, in his own words.

And it was like being in The Usual Suspects. That moment at the end, where they look up and realize all the clues connect? Suddenly I opened up the journals again and everywhere you looked: threatened by ridicule, shame, humiliation, all this stuff. And as I started to weave the film, that obviously became the throughline of action. And most films will stop at, you know, “he was threatened by ridicule.” But I wanted to know the root cause of it. … Because that was one of his problems. He could tell you how he felt, but he couldn’t tell you why. He couldn’t give you the square root, and if he could, things might’ve ended up differently. But part of that is being an addict and being disconnected.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck promotional still

There’s a lot of footage in the movie that could really upset people when they see it. Was there any struggle, internally with you and the team, about whether you should include that material?

Not for a second. [pauses] Kurt’s mother, obviously — what mother wants to see their child depicted like that? That was very difficult for me to show it to her. And that’s the first thing I said to her. I said, “Wendy, I’m really sorry. There’s going to be some things in here that you really shouldn’t see, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want you to see.” And Kim [Cobain, Kurt’s sister] said to me after she saw this stuff, she said, “You know my brother was really ashamed about his heroin use. Do you really think he would want that in the film?”

I got to know Kim very well during the making of this film, I said Kim, one thing you’ve always told me … that his biggest fear was that kids were going to start doing heroin because of him. … So with that understanding, I think seeing Kurt depicted like this… not only does it de-romanticize heroin, but I think it’s a deterrent. There’s a chance some kid who likes to smoke pot, who likes to do coke, who likes to party is gonna see the film, and is gonna be in a situation where someone says “you want to do some smack” and they say no. So what’s a better legacy — saving one life, or writing a pop song for millions of people? And I think knowing Kurt, he would have chose to save the life.

And I think it was also important because we all know Kurt did heroin, but we never really saw the real impact of that in the MTV interviews and whatnot. So in a way it’s been romanticized, and it’s been mythologized. And by depicting it in a sort of unflinching, honest way it de-glamorizes it, and it sort of brings Kurt to eye level. It wasn’t about bringing him down, but it was about looking him in the eye. And in that moment where they’re doing the haircut, you see the struggle. It’s not just Kurt on heroin. It’s Kurt as a doting father having an internal battle with his own demons. And I think that gives a deep understanding of what he was going through.

At the premiere someone asked about the absence of Dave Grohl in the film. You mentioned that you had interviewed him, but didn’t seem in any rush to add that footage into the movie. What are your thoughts there?

I don’t know if we need two members of Nirvana. It’s a very complicated thing, because the film, the way it’s structured, as you saw it’s not a talking head movie. So each speaker serves an incredibly significant role in Kurt’s life. Krist was there through the entire Nirvana experience, and Dave as you know came in as it was about to explode. It’s one of these things where I didn’t feel the need to have two people talking about the same experience. However, at the same time, I understand the reality that Kurt and Dave are very closely associated with one another. … I don’t want [audiences] to have that thing, “Where’s Dave?” Because it takes you out of the film.

And everybody’s aware that there have been past tensions between Dave Grohl and Courtney Love.

That was the big thing. At the end of the day, the film you saw was the film I locked. But then I started to think, man, people are going to make more of this than it is. I don’t want this to distract. And Dave had some great things to say. It’s just when you spend eight years making a movie, and then three weeks after you lock picture you do an interview, and it’s like Christmas, and you’re on a mixing stage for 16 hours a day…. I spent too much time on this film to fucking rush something like that. And so literally it was less than 10 days ago I said to the distributors, “It’s not going to happen for Sundance. I need more time with it.” So we’ll see what happens. I’m gonna go back and do a little work on it after Berlin.

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