Brett Morgen’s award-winning body of work includes documentaries on The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain and dashing movie producer Robert Evans.
It may come as a surprise, then, to see him focus his latest film on Jane Goodall, a woman not identified with Hollywood glamour or ear-blasting rock n’ roll.
In fact her greatest satisfactions–to judge from his latest, Jane—seem to have come spending quiet hours on end in punishing heat, sketchbook in hand, observing the behavior of chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park.
Jane explores Goodall’s scientific breakthroughs, which established that humans are not the only creatures on the planet to fashion tools (She witnessed chimps stripping leaves off twigs, dipping the denuded sticks into termite mounds to cleverly extract crawly snacks).
Morgen also gives a prominent place to Goodall’s romance with and marriage to Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch filmmaker who was dispatched by National Geographic to Gombe in the 1960s to document her work. It is van Lawick’s old footage, long neglected in an archive, that forms the primary visual element of the film.
Jane—now playing in select cities—won Best Documentary last week at the second annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. Fresh from his win there, Morgen answered questions from Deadline via email about a film Deadline’s own Pete Hammond calls “extraordinary.”
You’ve said you originally thought the world did not need another Jane Goodall documentary, her work having been exhaustively chronicled elsewhere. What changed your mind?
That sentiment describes how I felt when I was first approached to do the film and knew virtually nothing of the subject, so it was quite naive of me, looking back. The fact is, no film had ever been made that captured Jane’s life and work in a manner that she felt represented her experience. None of the films ever explored her personal life, nor the relationship between her personal life and her work. And stylistically, the films that explored Jane’s early work in Gombe left a lot to be desired. Jane and Hugo hated the original 1965 TV special. If you mention it to her today, it sets her off. She claims it’s filled with all sorts of inaccuracies. Stylistically, it’s all wall-to wall-narration. No attempt to really capture the reality of Jane’s experience.
After National Geographic approached me, they sent some of the recently discovered 16mm film. Viewing Hugo’s raw footage was a revelation. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. From both a cinematic as well as a scientific perspective, Hugo’s film captured an event as profound as the moon landing, something that had never happened in the history of evolution, and would never happen again. And the way he captured it was so sublime that it seemed effortless, when in fact, the mere existence of this material is simply astonishing. The effort it took to shoot 16mm in the jungles of Africa in 1962, without any crew or assistance…it’s simply astonishing.
I felt there was an opportunity to take this footage that was shot nearly 60 years ago and use it to create an immersive film, based loosely on Jane’s observations in [her book], In the Shadow of Man. The breadth and width of Hugo’s footage was also astonishing. Not only did it cover Jane’s Gombe work, but included 30 years of glorious Serengeti footage, as well as other assignments (shooting insects in Gombe, home movies, etc.). There was a lyricism in his images that I thought would visually complement Jane’s deeply felt and revelatory observations.
In what condition did you find the archival film? Nice and tidy and well organized?
When we discovered the footage, it was not only uncatalogued, but even worse, it was completely scrambled. In essence, we were handed 140 hours of individual shots. At some point in the past 60 years, each shot was removed from the original camera roll and put back in a completely random order. It was, in short, a total disaster. There were no camera rolls, continuity, sound elements, nor were there notes to aid us in identifying the chimpanzees. Hugo photographed over 160 chimpanzees during his time in Gombe and there were only 5 or 6 that we were interested in. Finding and identifying them was a challenge none of us were prepared for. We shut down production for several months while a team of assistants and interns grouped the footage into manageable categories to be screened.
While the staff was collating the footage, we started acquiring a sound library based on over 50 years of field recordings in Gombe. We then constructed a 7.1 sound editing room at our office in Culver City. We spent the next two years editing the sound. In fact, we began sound editing before we even started picture cutting. This was essential to create an immersive experience for the viewer.
The footage had been stored in a refrigerated vault so it was in great shape. Just a few minor scratches that needed to be fixed. However, the colors had degraded quite substantially. We spent over 250 hours in a color correct to create the current look. While a good deal of that time was spent on color, most of it was spent on contrast adjustments. This helped modernize the material in a subtle yet purposeful manner.
When we screened the final film for Jane, she was mesmerized. She told us that it was the first time in her life she could revisit those early years in a film, that the movie completely captured the magic of those early years. I actually believe a big part of her reaction has to do with the color grading, as well as the sound editing. Through advances in film technology over the past 55 years, we were able to enrich the film to such an extent that Jane felt she was there for the first time [since the ‘60s].
At what point did you decide you wanted Philip Glass to compose the music for the film? There are times when it’s almost as if the music drives the visuals.
Philip was hired at the start of the production, although it would be at least 12 months before he was needed to start work on his score. He then spent six months writing the score to our locked picture. Once he delivered his final recordings, we spent another six months re-editing the film, in an effort to choreograph the animal movements, as well as the chimp vocalizations to Philip’s score. I wanted to introduce a sense of magical realism reflective of Jane’s descriptions in In the Shadow of Man. So when you see the film today, you are seeing Gombe through Jane’s eyes; it’s magical and alive. The chimps move in sync with Philip’s score, they bark in pitch and in concert with the music. And again, I think it was this sort of subtle composition that led Jane to say that this was the first time she had ever felt her time in Gombe was accurately depicted on film.
Your film celebrates a woman dedicated to the value of science and research to advancing human understanding. Jane comes at an interesting time when climate research findings, for example, seem to be willfully ignored by the current administration.
The footage we created the film with was discovered in 2014, and if you think about it, it was a much different world then. Most of us thought we were on the verge of having the first female president, and the country was moving in the right direction. There was hope and a sense of idealism for a lot of us. Then came Trump, and the climate changed overnight. The day before we premiered the film, the Harvey Weinstein story broke. And here we were, about to premiere a film about a young woman who overcame all sorts of structural opposition to achieve her dreams. A story about a woman who did not have to sacrifice her career in order to have a family. A woman who in many ways is one of the greatest role models we can present to our children, both boys and girls, because boys need to see strong women on screen as much as young girls do. In a year when Wonder Woman became the first female superhero, here comes Jane. April Wolfe wrote about this in her LA weekly review of the film, how Jane taps into the same sort of experience that she felt watching Wonder Woman.
Jane is a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It’s not about a woman and a man; it’s a love story about a woman and her work. It’s about finding your passion and nurturing it. The social messaging related to climate control and our responsibility to other life forms was always secondary, and I think that’s probably why it works. This was not designed to be a message film in the traditional sense. It was designed as a character study. However, Jane’s entire arc, as well as her work, organically introduce ideas related to climate control, to our responsibility to the planet and to future generations, and to other life forms who are unable to communicate for themselves.
You learned a lot about Jane Goodall for your film. What have you learned from her?
I always try and make films in a style and spirit that are reflective of the subject, and in Jane, I was confronted with a very different type of rhythm than I was accustomed to. Kurt Cobain, the Rolling Stones, Robert Evans, these stories were hyperkinetic and distressed and reflect a certain angst that I’ve carried with me throughout my life. Lots of angst and tension. Jane’s story, on the other hand, is about listening and observing; it’s about the harmony and balance one observes in nature. Through the work on this film, I learned how to be a better listener, to be more restrain[ed], and on a personal note, I learned how to be more centered and balanced. Jane Goodall’s entire life is a fitting reminder that each day, we need to strive to make the world just a little bit better than we found it. She also has a very deep understanding of the balance of all things, the connectivity of all life that is deeply felt and inspired.