Presented with 150 hours of digitized footage—shot in 1960s Gombe by wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, who at one point was married to Goodall—Morgen and editor Joe Beshenkovsky soon realized that the task at hand was much more complicated than they had imagined.
While National Geographic had organized the footage in some sense, Morgen and Beshenkovksy were essentially confronting days worth of random footage—of Goodall, the landscapes she wandered through, and over 160 chimpanzees with whom she interacted, which the Jane duo were tasked with identifying based on previous written descriptions.
From the get-go, Jane was a box of puzzle pieces necessitating an examination of each indivual shot, and forcing Beshenkovsky to create links between shots that, in real life, had no correlation. The task became far more complicated, recognizing that these images came without sound, requiring the filmmakers to investigate chimp vocalizations and recreate the sound of the African wilderness from scratch.
Only through significant advancements in technology in the time since Goodall’s footage was shot could Morgen and Beshenkovsky approach an immersive, realistic approximation of Goodall’s experience among the chimpanzees of Gombe—in the edit suite, in the mixing stage and in the color grade.
Brett, what inspired your involvement with the Jane Goodall doc?
Brett Morgen: I had spent most of my career making films about iconic men. One could say that perhaps that was a search for a father figure—I don’t know. But I suddenly realized that I had made six or seven films in a row that were all male-centric, and was looking to find a more female-centric story when I was called by National Geographic.
When National Geographic presented us with her archive and I was able to get a sense of the footage Hugo shot, I realized that there was an opportunity to take this footage that was shot for a very different type of documentary film in 1965 and use it to create a completely immersive experience. In the ’65 film, Orson Wells narrates every action and every beat. So instead of Orson going, “Jane looks left; Jane looks right,” we wanted to invite the audience to just be there with her.
Having first worked with Joe on your last feature, Cobain: Montage of Heck, what was it that made him the right editor for this project?
Morgen: Joe came on to Montage of Heck about four months into the edit and did an incredible job. He’s smart, efficient, and tenacious. We didn’t realize it then, but this film required a degree of [levelheadedness]. Our first day on this job was one of the most shocking days I’ve ever had in the edit room. It was as if someone had come to us and emptied out two suitcases of letters and said, “If you can find the right combination of letters, you’ll create the book Watership Down. Good luck.”
Beshenkovsky: Typically in these scenarios, you might have two hours of dailies for a given scene, and you cut with that. In this scenario, we didn’t have any scenes at all, so if we want to create the moment where Jane first meets David Graybeard, the chimp, that had to be constructed out of shots that had no relationship whatsoever to one another. That was kind of a tortuous experience of trying to build those scenes out of 130 hours of all this disparate material, with no sound.
Morgen: Jane has written several books, most famously In the Shadow of Man, and the movie was called In the Shadow of Man up until two weeks before the premiere. I consider the film to be pretty much a loose adaptation of the book.
The greatest testament to Joe’s work on the film is that when we screened the movie for Jane, she looked at it and said, “This is the first time in my life I’m seeing Gombe as I experienced it.” What’s amazing about that is how it came to fruition, dealing with all these abstract elements.
Is it true that van Lawick’s footage was lost at some point, and then recovered by National Geographic?
Morgen: I don’t think the footage was so much lost as it was forgotten. Nobody had a need for it. This is footage shot between 1962 and 1966. It had been used in the original Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees film and in another National Geographic production in 1984, and I don’t think anybody thought there was anything left to do with it. Fortunately, an archivist at National Geographic saw the footage, reached out to Tim Pastore, the president of NatGeo, and said, “Is this something that could be relevant?”
What’s amazing is that footage was discovered in 2014. It was a very different culture back then. Politically, we thought that the next president was going to be the first female president, and as we know, things changed quite dramatically. It’s amazing that the movie premiered on the eve of the Weinstein scandal. This thing was sitting in there for 60 years, and the day it got out in the world was the day that this conversation about women in the workplace emerged.
Sometimes, you chase the moment and you can never catch it. Films take so long to make that you can never anticipate what the cultural landscape will be when the film enters the world. I think in the case of Jane, everything just sort of happened magically.
What was the process of working with Jane Goodall to hone her voiceover, so that you arrived at a narrative that would complement the images that were available?
Morgen: The short of it is that we started using Jane’s book on tape, Reason for Hope, as what we thought would be a scratch track. When there were parts of her book that she hadn’t recorded on tape—specific words or lines—Joe would construct those from the preexisting audiobooks, with the intent that at some later date, we would have Jane rerecord it. The reality is, as we got deeper and deeper into the production, it became clear that what Joe was constructing worked extremely well.
The other thing about the book on tape that we both gravitated towards was that we had Jane on record telling her story, over the course of five decades—when she was in her 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. It enabled us to pick which version we wanted to hear, and we found that her version of her stories that she was telling when she was in her 50s had the right sort of gravitas and cadence, because they were written out and recorded by her. Jane is a primatologist, but she’s also an author—that’s her first love. Her goal in life was to write about animals. So she’s a brilliant writer. The only thing she may do better than writing is orating.
So here, we had Jane’s own expression, in her own words, in her own diction. It’s Jane’s art form. It’s her music, and it seemed to serve as a wonderful complement to Hugo’s art.
Beshenkovsky: That was something that we immediately gravitated to, the spirituality of how she was telling her story within that book on tape. Frankly, there were things that she was not going to give us from the interview that she had maybe written to her sister in a letter, or something like that. But I think at the end of the day, she watched it and she loved it, and thought that it was true to her life and what happened.
The film is brilliantly colorful. Was this color inherent to the images you started with, or did this emerge from the color grade?
Morgen: We did 250 hours of color grading. Maybe 40 of those hours were devoted to color, and 210 hours were devoted to contrast grading. When Joe and I first went to the footage of Gombe, it had an abundance of browns and greens. Gombe existed in two colors—it could be either really dry or lush, but there were no reds, no yellows.
In her book, Jane describes Gombe as a vibrant potpourri of colors and feelings and emotions, so we wanted to convey that in the way that we would color grade the film, and colorize it not in the manner that it was captured in 1965, or color graded in 1965, but as it exists for Jane in her memory. Our guide for the colorization was her own writing with In the Shadow of Man.
With Jane, we had the advantage of having access to technology that didn’t exist 60 years ago. We spent two and a half years on sound editing. We built a 7.1 mixing stage in our office, so that we could create an immersive experience. We did 250 hours of color grading using the latest digital technologies to create a look that was physically impossible back in 1965, where they had no way to approach contrast grading whatsoever. All of these technical advances were employed in the service of realizing Jane’s vision of Gombe.
There was another component worth noting. We were both very interested and connected to the magical realism and the spirituality of Jane’s story and her prose, and after Philip [Glass] delivered his final cues for the film, we went back and choreographed all of the edits to Philip’s music. During that process, we pitched the chimps’ vocalization to Philip’s music, and moved their vocalizations so that they would be almost singing in harmony with Philip’s music. The idea was to create this sense of harmony that Jane describes in her books.
How did you go about tackling the sound design for Jane?
Beshenkovsky: When we started, we had a young guy named Josh who came out of USC. He was tasked with doing research and collecting all the sound materials from Gombe that he could. We had help from the Jane Goodall Institute–they provided us with all these recordings that they had made over the years. But the real challenge was, it’s not like there’s somebody who does lip readings for chimps. You don’t know what sound corresponds with what sound, and that’s really what Josh was doing, building the environmental soundscape, along with the foley and other things. There was a lot of attention paid to being scientifically correct with that stuff.
Morgen: All of the audio that is heard in the movie was recorded in Gombe, and also, everything is organic. You don’t hear any sounds that you wouldn’t hear if you were in Gombe. Fortunately, we had access to over 50 years of field recordings from all of the thesis students who were studying chimp vocalization.
What did you learn or take away from Jane Goodall in the making of the documentary?
Morgen: I left with a greater appreciation and understanding of the connectivity and the relationship between the natural world and the civilized world.
As we’re sitting her talking, I can tell you with absolute certainty that somewhere out in the world, Jane Goodall is trying to make this world a better place. She’s 84 years old—she is not doing it for herself, she is doing it for our children, and she is a living example of how every moment matters. Every second counts. We are only on this earth for a short amount of time, and we get to decide how we want to use that time. And if one thinks that the purpose of life is to leave the world in just a little bit better place than we found it, it’s hard to think of anyone who has contributed more than Jane Goodall.