Competing for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking and Nonfiction Directing, with well-deserved nominations in various craft areas, the film’s most extraordinary recognition came in the form of a posthumous Cinematography nomination for wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, which is shared with DP Ellen Kuras.
Promoting his doc on Jane Goodall’s life among the chimpanzees—which is primarily set in 1960s Gombe—Morgen has repeatedly run into the presumption that his visually sumptuous film hinges on stock or archival footage. As the director explains, though, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“There’s no stock footage in the film you just saw,” the director said after a screening Wednesday night, sitting down with Deadline’s Dominic Patten for a discussion on Jane. “Every image outside of Jane’s interview was shot by Hugo van Lawick, and the bulk of that—I would say probably 95% of that—has never been seen in any form ever before.”
When National Geographic presented Morgen with the hundreds of hours of footage Goodall’s former husband shot, the filmmaker saw that in addition to an exploration of the trajectory of Goodall’s career, “the film was going to be a love story about a woman and her work, and a man and his work.”
In its final form, Jane is a technical marvel, the result of a logistical quagmire that began when van Lawick set out to photograph Goodall. When Morgen watched the photographer’s footage, he was astonished by the precision of his work and the degree of difficulty that he was able to overcome through his mastery of his craft. “The challenge of shooting 16mm—particularly when he first started in 1962 as a one-person film crew, where he had no ability to see his footage. …To try to get an exposure on a chimpanzee in a dark forest is nearly impossible,” Morgen explained. Reviewing all of van Lawick’s work, almost every single shot was perfectly exposed.
While Morgen was enamored with van Lawick’s work, once he signed on to direct the Goodall doc, the quagmire became his to deal with. The 150-plus hours of footage the director initially received from National Geographic was completely disorganized, with no sound to complement the picture.
“Every scene that you just saw in the film, pretty much every shot was shot on a different day, probably a different month, and most likely a different year,” Morgen said. “We basically created the narrative using a couple hundred hours of random shots. It forced me to write the script first and then try to visualize that script.”
Further explaining the logistics of putting sound to each of his sequences of random images, Morgen also touched on his original title for the doc, In the Shadow of Man. Referencing Goodall’s 1971 book, this title went beyond simple homage and into thematic territory.
“I loved In the Shadow of Man, because obviously when Jane wrote it, she was referring to the chimpanzees,” he said. “In my context, I was talking about ‘man’ as in [paleoanthropologist Louis] Leakey and Hugo and ‘the man,’ being the first woman to do what she did.”
For more from our conversation with Morgen, take a look above. To listen to the night’s conversation in its entirety, click below.