When we asked Brett Morgen whether there were any still-unreleased gems amidst the 200 hours of audio he combed through in order to create his new documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, he gave us the most exciting answer imaginable: “We’re going to be putting out an amazing album this summer that I think will answer that question.” The album of home recordings, Morgen said, “will feel like you’re kind of hanging out with Kurt Cobain on a hot summer day in Olympia, Washington as he fiddles about. It’s going to really surprise people. Just to be clear, it’s not a Nirvana album, it’s just Kurt and you’re going to hear him do things you never expected to come out of him.”
Until recently, that news would’ve dropped Nirvana fans to their knees — but on the heels of a wonderfully, devastatingly intimate documentary that gives an unprecedented view into Cobain, it’s really just the icing on the cake. If you haven’t seen Montage, do so today before it leaves theaters Sunday; there are still tickets available to the 4 p.m. screening at IFC Center, which will be followed by a Q&A with Morgen (he’ll also introduce the 7 p.m. screening). The film comes to HBO on Monday, May 4.
We shared our thoughts about Montage after its SXSW screening, but we wanted to hear the director’s thoughts as well, so we chatted with Morgen over the phone.
As a Nirvana fan who spent my high school years trying to get my hands on every last piece of unreleased material, I can’t imagine what it was like for you to enter Kurt Cobain’s storage facility. Can you paint a picture of that experience?
I met with Courtney in 2007, but it took several years before we had worked through legal situations and were given access to the storage facility. By that time, four or five years had transpired, and so by the time I arrived there, this place had become mythical in my mind. I was imagining the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Citizen Kane — a long, cavernous room filled with crates of all sorts of intrigue and mystery.
Well, I entered into a non-descript industrial storage room with industrial lights and carpet and low ceilings. The caretaker, if you will, the guy who worked at the facility had gone to the trouble of putting all of Kurt’s paintings along the walls, and his guitar cases were spread out on one side of the room, open with the guitars out. And in the middle were maybe a dozen boxes that felt quite small within the space. I remember thinking as I gazed upon this, ‘What did I just get myself into? Where is all this stuff?’
I go and open a box and out comes a big collection of videotapes. Nobody had mentioned to me there were going to be videotapes or home videos there, so that was a big find. And then I opened up another box and there were 107 cassettes featuring over 200 hours of never-before-heard or rarely heard music — I mean I would lean heavily of the never-before-heard, probably 95 percent. And nobody had told me about that. And it goes to show you that it’s not really the size or the quantity, because obviously cassettes and film don’t take up a lot of space. So even though the boxes looked rather small they contained a treasure chest of material that would serve as the foundation for Montage of Heck.
What exactly was on the tapes?
The audio ran the gamut from jam sessions with Courtney, some jam sessions with various friends and Nirvana, his first demo tapes, his Fecal Matter demos, his mix tapes and oral canvases like Montage, a lot of silly spoken word stuff and not-silly spoken word stuff like the story he told of losing his virginity, covers of the Beatles songs, it just ran the gamut. And a lot of sound effects and a lot of sound design. As that would essentially serve as the basis of this movie, because I wanted to make a film in which Kurt could tell the story of his life in the best way he could — not through sharing it to an interviewer, because that was never a format that Kurt was that expressive in, but through his art, through the very reason we’re talking about him.
With Kurt Cobain we have an opportunity to tell a story unlike any you’ve ever seen, from the inside out rather than from the outside in. And that’s because Kurt, in essence, was creating an oral and visual document of his experiences throughout his life and he did it in such a raw and visceral way. So for Montage of Heck, Kurt is not just the focal point, the star, but he’s also doing the audio design, the score and all the songs we hear. And he’s doing the narration of his childhood not through interviews but he’s performing it. And visually we’re bringing his art to life and the journals to life and his Super 8 films are featured quite prominently. So you take a section, for example, like “Something in the Way.” Well, “Something in the Way” is built on the song coupled with some Super 8 footage that I discovered that Kurt shot of, sort of, homeless people moving around the streets of Aberdeen. And the footage to me revealed some of the alienation and loneliness that he captured in that song. So you marry the two together and you’re getting kind of a complete Cobain experience.
You mentioned the audio autobiography in which he talks about lying down on some train tracks and trying to kill himself during high school, which was one of the most intense parts of the film. To what degree do you think that was fact or fiction?
These are questions that don’t serve any purpose for me, and by that I mean I’m after an emotional truth and you’re asking, from a historical perspective, about facts and data. And those are great for books but they take us away a little bit from the experience of Montage of Heck. That said, I’m more than happy to answer your question. I answered that through the way I depicted it. When Kurt says he went to lay own on the train tracks, he’s not laying down on the train tracks in my animation, he’s watching the train. It’s only one shot but it was an important distinction because what I was trying to suggest was: I don’t know if he really did this. What I believe is that these feelings that he’s describing and the way he experienced these feelings is honest and truthful. And as we both know, there’s truth embedded in fiction. So I put that shot in there just as a kind of wink wink, nudge nudge — who knows, we’ll never know. What I do know is Kurt went to the trouble of writing that story out and then he went and grabbed a microphone and not just recorded it but performed it, so even that story is a piece of art. And it was performed. He did sort of multiple takes on it. It stands out for multiple reasons. Most of Kurt’s work is kind of non-linear and doesn’t have much narrative foundation and that particular story is very much that — it’s the story of his childhood. The original story was a bit more rambling, I think it went on for 9 or 10 minutes and essentially got to the same place so I spent a few weeks cutting it to streamline it to give it a little bit more narrative thrust.
When you say “autobiography,” does that mean it was a chapter in a larger work or was it a self-contained piece?
I had a rule which says you can never hit Stop or Rewind or Forward on the cassettes, because these are 25-year-old tapes — we had set up a Pro Tools system and once you pressed Play you were going to record and listen to the whole tape regardless of if there was anything on it or not. I mean, we did several sides of nothing and rather than just saying, ‘Wait there’s nothing here, let’s forward it,’ we’d just go ahead and monitor it because you just never knew. And that particular tape was — as I remember as I’m hearing it — I looked through the clear [plastic], you know where you can see how much tape was left. And I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Oh, is he going to take me through his whole life? How far is this going to go?’ I had no idea. I thought, ‘Wait, maybe my film is over, we’ve got the whole thing right here.’ And it is just that, it ends where it ends.
As a Melvins fan, one of my favorite finds of yours was that interview with Buzz Osborne where they talk about growing up in Olympia. What’s the story there?
At some point — it must have been in ’92, I don’t have an exact date but I know Courtney is in the background — Kurt interviewed Buzz for a magazine article, so Kurt recorded the tape you’re hearing so he’d have notes of the call. What I loved about it is once again, if you listen to Kurt’s cadence when he’s speaking to a journalist and you listen to it when he’s speaking to Buzz, it’s night and day. It’s a different person. So in a way you’re listening to unfiltered media.
Was there anything you unearthed that caused you to, say, call Courtney and say, “You need to hear this? You might want to put this out”?
It wasn’t a collaborative experience — they gave me the materials and I went and made the film. With some of the materials I certainly asked the participants I could access — like Krist Novoselic and [Kurt’s ex-girlfriend] Tracy Marander and Courtney — if they knew the provenance of certain materials. Like the Beatles song, I remember calling them all up and saying, ‘Have you guys ever heard this?’ And nobody had ever heard it. And I said, ‘Have you ever heard this childhood autobiography?’ And Tracy said, ‘No, I never heard it,’ Krist never hard it, Courtney never heard it.
Another revelation about Kurt is his father, who until this film has been sort of mythologized as the root of Kurt’s issues with machismo and such. But in the film he’s this very reserved guy whose wife does most of the talking. Was it hard to get anything out of him?
Kurt spoke often of his father in rather harsh terms and Wendy also did not paint a pretty picture of Don. So when I met him I was expecting the boogieman. And rather, he showed up and almost instantly I had trouble recognizing the man that was standing before me from the image that had been painted for me. Don came with no agenda. Some people have an agenda — I mean, Krist Novoselic I think when he showed up he was there to make sure that he was presenting Kurt as an artist, I think that was really important for Krist. But with Don, he just kind of showed up and he sat down in the chair and before I could ask him a question he did a nine-minute monologue. And he kind of took us through the whole arc of Kurt’s story.
When I proceeded to ask him questions he was often at a loss and he would say, ‘I’m not like my son, I’m not very communicative, I’m not good at expressing myself.’ So I’d ask him something and he’d sort of not really have a response or he’d turn and look over his shoulder and say, ‘Jenny!’ and about the fifth time he did that I said, ‘Jenny, why don’t you just come in here and have a seat,’ because I was never planning to interview Jenny. And so Jenny came in and sat down and then we carried on with the interview. I was left with the impression that — who knows, I wasn’t in the house, no one’s ever going to know, but there are some things you can glean — and one thing is that I don’t think Kurt inherited his fear of shame and ridicule entirely from his father. Maybe that was imparted in certain ways, but there’s something else that’s happening throughout the film — there are several instances were Kurt’s mother takes an opportunity to shame Don. And I don’t think that should be overlooked.