Brett Morgen qualifies as one of the most successful directors in documentary film, with credits that range from Cobain: Montage of Heck to The Kid Stays in the Picture, and a raft of awards to his name. But, surprisingly, his long list of honors doesn’t include a Primetime Emmy.
“I have a terrible track record at the Emmys. I am currently 0-for-21 with my movies. The day tends to be very long,” he says of the Creative Arts ceremony, where Emmys in documentary categories are presented.
But that “oh-for” streak could end next month when his latest documentary, Jane, competes for seven Emmys including the prestigious Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. The film, about the pioneering primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, is also nominated for nonfiction directing, writing, cinematography, editing, sound editing and sound mixing.
“First and foremost, we’re just thrilled that our film has received this recognition and will continue to be in a public conversation,” Morgen tells Deadline. “That was ultimately our intention, to get it out to as many people as possible.”
Jane earned more than $1.7 mil. during its theatrical release and gained eligibility for Emmy consideration by airing on the National Geographic Channel. In fact, the documentary is built around hours of footage shot for NatGeo in the 1960s capturing Goodall as she conducted research on chimpanzees in the wild in Gombe, Tanzania. That raw material was long thought lost, and was only recently rediscovered in National Geographic archives.
The original footage was recorded without sound, which was typical in those early days of remote filming. Further complicating matters for Morgen, when the director got his hands on the long-lost trove he found the material completely jumbled, totally out of sequence.
“We had 140 hours of random shots, with no sound, featuring 160 chimps that didn’t have name tags, of which only four were relevant to us,” Morgen recalls. ”It took about eight months of work just to organize the material by theme.”
Given all that, Joe Beshenkovsky’s Emmy nomination for editing Jane is well deserved, the filmmaker maintains.
“Unless you were in the edit room you wouldn’t have any idea how challenging and painful and difficult it was to try to make sense of hundreds of hours of silent shots,” Morgen states. “Joe’s efforts to achieve the assembly edit of the film are nothing short of Herculean.”
Because the footage was silent, Morgen’s team had to create an entire aural landscape for the film from scratch — buzzing insects, to rustling jungle vegetation, to screeching chimps — timed to the imagery. Much of that task fell to Joshua Paul Johnson, a sound editor fresh out of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
“He ended up being an absolute genius,” Morgen marvels.
At the headquarters of sound post-production house Formosa Group in Hollywood earlier this week, in the very room where Jane’s audio was mixed, Morgen and Johnson discussed how they approached the sonic challenge.
“I really didn’t know where to start,” Johnson told an audience of documentary enthusiasts. “I contacted primatologists from all across the country and got thousands and thousands of amateur sound recordings from chimpanzees in the wild… I was like really obsessed with just trying to make sure everything was as accurate as possible.”
Johnson added that matching appropriate chimp sounds to the animals on screen “felt like cutting ADR in a language you don’t speak.”
Morgen says their efforts passed muster with some discerning experts.
“When we showed the film to Jane for the first time and subsequent times she has never made a single comment to us about the chimp vocalizations and the chimp sounds,” Morgen commented. “We sent it off to be vetted and we didn’t get a single note back from the scientists that were involved, which is kind of extraordinary.”
The film has won numerous awards, from the Cinema Eye Honors to the National Board of Review, the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild and the Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA. But one honor Jane did not secure was an Oscar nomination, which came as a surprise to many. Morgen insists he’s okay about that.
“We live in an industry that is incredibly preoccupied with the Academy Awards, and for good reason. [But] when I look back at awards season 2018, I have nothing but smiles,” he affirms. “We won every guild award outside of the DGA and that had never been done before for a documentary film.”
Morgen will walk the red carpet at the Creative Arts Emmys as the film goes for more honors. But as for the subject of the film, Jane Goodall, the director isn’t sure whether the legendary scientist, now 84, will be able to attend. She travels the globe incessantly on behalf of her institute, speaking out on environmental issues and inspiring future generations of conservationists.
“I will say this, we will be doing anything and everything to get her there. But as with all things Jane, I always get the sense that when she is unable to attend an event with us it is for the betterment of the world,” Morgen notes. “It’s like, ‘Can you attend the Emmys?’ I’m sure her response is going to be like, ‘I’m booked to speak to a class of 30 five-year-olds somewhere around the world,’ and that is where she would rather be and that’s where I would rather her be.”