There have been several attempts to tell Kurt Cobain’s story on film, but Brett Morgen’s Emmy-nominated Montage of Heck from HBO stands alone as the only documentary authorized by the singer’s family. With Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean as co-EP and with the participation of his parents, Montage of Heck revealed a never-before-seen picture of the famed Nirvana frontman, incorporating a patchwork of both Cobain’s artwork, buried video footage and music recordings.
Although Kurt’s wife Courtney first suggested you do the film, you felt having her creatively involved might alienate some people–how did you negotiate that with her?
There was really no negotiation. Courtney wasn’t interested in producing the film or being involved in the film in any way creatively. So it was never really a discussion. She just wanted the film to be made, I think, because she felt that there was a side of Kurt that the world had not been exposed to.
How did Kurt’s daughter Frances Bean come to the project?
Many years after Courtney and I first met, we secured financing for the film, and it was at that point that I first was introduced to Frances. Between the time that I first met Courtney, which was in 2007, and the time that Frances came into the picture, things had changed quite dramatically. Frances was now an adult and had an equal hand in how Kurt’s materials would be disseminated, and to be honest, as I look back on this whole thing, this film could not have been made without Frances’s support and participation. She was absolutely instrumental in bringing together several rights-holders, and parties who have a history of in-fighting and tension, and I think they all rallied around her. Everyone wanted to participate to support Frances. Beyond that, the tone of this film came from Frances. When I first met her, I went to her house and we shook hands and she said to me, “I just met you, but already I know you more than I know Kurt.” What she was getting at was the fact that she has no memory of Kurt. Kurt passed when she was two years old, and I’m a father of three, and that really resonated with me and at that point my job had changed. I was no longer making a film for the fans or for myself. I felt that I was making a film that would help bridge a gap between a father and a daughter.
How did you move forward freely and creatively with the family watching?
This is considered an authorized documentary, and by that it suggests that we received access to the primary source material, but as you and I both know, ‘authorized’ has a negative connotation. It generally means watered-down or censored. We live in an era in which brands have a tremendous monetary value, and so there’s a great need by the rights-holders to protect that investment. At our first meeting, after we shook hands, I sat down at a table with Frances and before I could pitch her the film I wanted to make, she proceeded to tell me that she thought that whatever film was constructed should lean heavily on Kurt’s art, and if nothing else, it needed to be honest. What she went on to say is that during her travels through life, people are constantly coming up to her talking about Kurt as if he was some sort of mythical character, like a unicorn or a Santa Claus. She said, “the best way we can pay tribute to Kurt is to create a film that’s honest. That is what Kurt was about, honesty and integrity, and so don’t shy from the truth.” Upon seeing the film for the first time, Frances looked at me and said, “do not touch a frame.” Before she said that, she said, “thank you for giving me a couple hours with my father that I never thought I would have.”
You made the decision to show footage of Kurt holding baby Frances and looking very sedated, clearly high–you’ve said his mom and sister were upset by that choice…
When Kurt’s mother voiced some concerns about the way she was depicted, and the way Kurt was seen in the latter stages of his life, it was Frances who called and said, “Mom, Grandma, this is not your film. This is Kurt’s film, and how you experience things is quite different than the way Kurt experienced things.” I think the point was if we allow our mothers to dictate the content of our biographies they would be pretty nice. I mean of course the mother doesn’t want to show her child in any light that’s less than favorable. But it was Frances’ desire to not hide the truth, and I think that both Frances and I arrived at the same point, which was we were not trying to tear Kurt down or put Kurt down, nor were we trying to put him on a pedestal. We were simply trying to look him in the eye, to empathize, to find a point of entry in which we can understand how he experienced life.
You get into some aspects of Kurt’s life that people really didn’t know–you found his voice recording recounting his attempted suicide as a teen–but were there any negative things you chose not to show?
No. You’ve got to understand that this was an incredibly rare opportunity. I’d come off a movie I made with the Rolling Stones called Crossfire Hurricane, and I’m extremely proud of the work we did on that film. It received I think four Emmy nominations, including Best Documentary. It’s a wonderful film, I think, for what it’s trying to do, but I didn’t have final control on the film, and we were embracing the myth, if you will. This was an opportunity to tell a story in an honest and unfiltered manner, and that’s not something that we come across much in dealing with these kind of icons. I really felt a responsibility to Kurt and to Frances to get this story right. When I went into this, I didn’t know what this story was. All I knew was I was going to use Kurt’s art to tell a story, but I didn’t know what that story was. If that story was in concert with existing myths related to Kurt then that’s what the film would have been. But what happened was half of Kurt’s materials have been housed by his mother and the other half, from when Kurt was 18 and beyond, have been stored by Frances and Courtney. No one before me had ever had access to both collections. So of all of the biographers who have come before me, and all the people writing about Kurt over the last 25 years, nobody ever had access to these primary materials, and as I said, I didn’t know what the story was. But as I started sifting through the materials, the story I guess you could say, it sort of came to me. There were certain themes, certain repetitions and themes, that came to light–this idea of ridicule and shame and humiliation. I went out to do the interviews, and as you could see in the finished film, my sort of epiphany about Kurt’s acute sensitivity to these issues was resonated deeply with the subjects. I don’t believe Krist Novoselic has ever been asked (before) about Kurt’s sensitivity to criticism.
Right. When he talks about Kurt going into fits of rage, that was a surprise.
Right. Right. Here’s a guy who’s been interviewed for 25 years pretty consistently about Kurt, and yet this is something that was a revelation of sorts. You could see how haunted he was, and how deeply felt that observation was, and so in a sense I felt that we were able to penetrate some of the mythologies.
The Montage of Heck soundtrack is a very big deal and hotly awaited by fans, is there still no release date set for that?
Yeah, there is. It’s November 6. I’m giving it to you. It’s the day our DVD comes out, or it’s tentatively scheduled to come out at the same time as the DVD.
Knowing the family as you do now, how do you feel about those people who blame Courtney for Kurt’s death?
I think one of the things that I experienced in exploring Kurt’s life was that there’s not one thing, one moment that pushed Kurt. There were several incidents, situations, environments that Kurt encountered in his journeys in life that contributed to the feelings that led him to take his life. I think that Courtney became an easy target in part because she is a very easy target. She’s a larger-than-life presence who, particularly at that time, would really fill a room, and that was something that Kurt really admired, and I think appreciated about her, that when they went out in public he got to sort of hide in the back a bit. I think that there’s a tremendous amount of gender bias in the way Courtney has been presented to the world and that hopefully when they see the film they are able to arrive at a deeper understanding of how he suffered, where it came from, and why he might have chosen to end his life.
You got to delve into a vault containing Kurt’s unseen work, was that an overwhelming ‘fan’ moment?
I had been talking about, thinking about, trying to raise money, trying to push this film forward for over six years before I entered the vault. You could imagine I was very anxious to see what I had to work with, and every moment I spent in there was a revelation. Every box I opened, every journal I saw, every piece of art I encountered was like a letter. You put several letters together and you have a word, and you put several words together and you have a sentence, and you put it all together and you have a story. So each piece of material added another piece to the puzzle for me. There’s a tremendous amount of responsibility, I think, culturally and personally, one has when they’re given access to these kind of archives. But the thing that really surprised me was the audio, because I knew that there was going to be artwork, and I knew I was going to find the journals. What I didn’t expect to find was this box of cassettes, and there were 200 hours in there. When I first saw the cassettes, the first thing that came to my mind was, “great, here’s some more music,” and while there was a tremendous amount, hours upon hours of never-before-heard Cobain music, the real revelation of the audio were the sound collages and the spoken word. I could not possibly understand how this existed and how nobody had encountered it before. I was drawn to the fact that he talked about suicide, in the sense that here is Kurt Cobain at age 15 talking about this failed suicide attempt, and knowing what ultimately happened to him, it’s sort of an extraordinary revelation. After I had a chance to evaluate all the materials, I went back to that tape, and upon further listening it wasn’t the fact that he said he was going to commit suicide that piqued my interest, it was the reason why that he provides. He couldn’t handle the ridicule, and by that point I had seen that word and that motif represented in his work throughout his entire life. So going back to that, and then looking at just that one sentence, suddenly it was like that moment in The Usual Suspects, when you get to the end and you’re in that room and you look around and suddenly all the pieces come together. It was my ‘eureka’ moment, where I felt, “It’s right here. It was right here all along.”