Back in May, Moonage Daydream – the hypnotic, experimental documentary abstraction that encapsulates David Bowie’s life, art, and philosophy – blew the top off of an already buzzing Cannes Film Festival. Brett Morgen, the film’s veteran director, writer, editor, and producer, has made a career out of expressive, atypical documentaries, like The Kid Stays in the Picture and Cobain: Montage of Heck.
A student of Brechtian philosophy, he is a searcher (or debunker) of truth as much as a filmmaker, the former through the latter, the latter simply a medium of choice. And if you know anything about Bowie, you know how wildly and wonderfully subjective truth can be, a perfect challenge for Morgen to capture the infinite artist post-mortem.
On the day of its nationwide IMAX release, I sat down with him to talk Moonage Daydream – style, history, approach, and where it all began.
Brett Morgen: It was 2007. I’d just opened Sundance with Chicago 10, and I was recruited by a friend of mine who worked at Sony BMG films – they’d just signed Bowie. She said, “Listen, Bowie’s my favorite. We gotta do a Bowie film. But he won’t do one. Can you come up with a pitch for a David Bowie non-fiction film that’s not a traditional documentary?”
So, we went and met with David on 57th Street at his office. And it was him, his assistant Coco, and his manager. We sat down in this little conference room that was just enough room for the four or five of us there. As soon as we sat down David made a nice comment about The Kid Stays in the Picture. And then he said, “And so I had an opportunity to see your most recent film,” referring to Chicago 10, and I said [motions to keep going], and he goes, “It was horrible.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Oh, I hated it.” I said, “Oh, wow…” And he said, “Yeah, it’s just dreadful.” And I said, “Wow!” and he just kept going…just kept going. To the point that I’m like, “Why are we here?” And he said, “Have you seen The Weather Underground?” “Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen The Weather Underground.” And he goes, “I much prefer that.” And I said, “That’s interesting, you know, because it’s a great film. It’s a little drier than what I was going for with Chicago 10.” And he goes, “Well, it was much better.”
Then his assistant jumped in and said, “What’s your favorite Bowie song?” And I looked at David and I said, “Well, to be perfectly candid, David, I can’t say I’ve appreciated anything you’ve done since…“Scary Monsters?” And David kept his eyes on me and went, “Touché.”
I was talking to one of his collaborators last night and he said, “That might’ve been the key to how you got the job. David kind of liked when people could push back or whatever. Because we were just fucking around at that point. Well, I don’t know if he was fucking with me. Actually, I agree with him on a lot of his notes about Chicago 10. At the time it was too clear, but now I see The Weather Underground is a better film! Like, he’s right! I didn’t see it at the time, but he’s absolutely right about that. I just figured he’d appreciate the audacity.
Anyways so then I got into my pitch. And my pitch was this: what if we imagined that you never evolved after Ziggy Stardust? But that’s a separate story.
The Film Stage: That conversation didn’t shape the film then?
No. Not at all.
This is maximalist cinema, maximalist doc filmmaking. There are no talking heads. It has the feeling of something that’s like fly on the wall, cinéma vérité style, but on the inside of Bowie’s brain. What led you to a psychedelic approach like that?
I didn’t even know this word when I started the film, “maximalist.” To be quite honest, it wasn’t even a part of my vocabulary until I started reading people talking about the film. I guess you could retroactively apply it to all my films. I’ve been shooting talking heads throughout my whole career going back to The Kid Stays in the Picture. When we made that, there was no such thing as a film without a talking head. It didn’t exist. We had no reference point. The only reference point I had for The Kid Stays in the Picture was Chris Marker and a film called Marlene about Marlene Dietrich, which is a wonderful film.
I’ll tell you where this comes from, man. When I was in college at Hampshire I took a class, a survey course in ethnographic film. And it went from Lumière to Erroll Morris. This was in ‘88, and I was taught by an anthropologist. And at that time in anthropology everything was about objectivity, and there was a filmmaker named Timothy Asch who taught at the school of visual anthropology at USC who had made a film called Jero Tapakan[: Stories From the Life of a Balinese Healer] about a Balinese healer. And he put a companion book out with diagrams of where the camera was in relation to the subjects. I mean, it was like, this is where we were going with nonfiction.
And then I saw this film, and it was a 112-minute asynchronous montage of this tribe. And I argued – wrote a paper about – how I felt that achieved a higher truth than any of the objective representations I saw. You didn’t learn anything. There were no facts. There was no explanation. But I could smell it. I could taste it. It was textural and impressionistic. And I just thought that was exciting.
When I started doing non-fiction, particularly with The Kid Stays in the Picture, I think I had this feeling that I wanted to create theatrical non-fiction, which is like this weird conversation about what’s the difference between a film on television and a film in movie theaters. To me, there’s a huge difference. I once spent a year and a half working on the sound design for something that was going to go on television. When I’m mixing for television, I only play with three or four channels. In fact, all my movies, when I get to the television mix, I pull stuff out of there. It’s too crowded. So there’s a big difference between working for film and working for television.
But, in particular, I was interested in – if I was an author working in literature or with a pen and paper, I would have access to different parts of the story. And you can go deep into biography. You can do a 1,400-page biography on Jane Goodall that hits every day of her life. And that’s probably a better factual document, better format for biography. But what I’ve always been interested in is, “What is the cinematic interpretation of the subject?” What can I do? How can I express them and access them using exclusively the language of cinema that can’t be achieved in another medium.
To create a marriage between form and content when I was writing The Kid Stays in the Picture, I wrote a list of adjectives to describe Bob and I made a decision that that then would have to be the way you described the film: kitschy, romantic, seductive, over the top, funny, sublime, whatever it was. And, interestingly enough, on The Kid Stays in the Picture in the first seven reels there’s not a straight cut. It’s just all dissolves. The reason we employed the stereoscopic motion graphic photographs – which was, I believe, the first time they’d been employed for this use – was because Bob was a dishonest narrator. And I didn’t want to present a photograph as a document, as an actual, factual document. It also helped that Bob seduced everyone. That was his, sort of, thing, you know? And there was something seductive about the use of after effects. And the dissolve was like this is one long dream.
Now, to me, I’ve always employed Brechtian techniques in my work. Because, to me, that’s the most honest way to create work. It’s to expose the machinations of the process. I never understand why editors spend so much time trying to scrub out the questions. Recently now, people leave them in. but for eons of time, editors would try to cut out the director’s questions so that it didn’t seem like anyone was asking questions. Well what’s that about? We’re trying to be truthful? That doesn’t seem truthful to me, that seems like you’re hiding something. To me, obviously, there’s no objective truth, so you embrace this objective. The first line of The Kid Stays in the Picture – “There’s three sides to every story: your side, my side, the truth, and no one is lying” – was my way of creating a covenant with the viewer so that they wouldn’t say, “Oh, this film’s bullshit. We only hear from Bob!”
The reviews on Moonage have been humbling in terms of their generosity. The two or three critical ones I’ve read aren’t reviewing my film. They’re reviewing a film I had no interest in making. “Oh, you didn’t mention [trails off],” and it’s always these journalists flexing their knowledge of Bowie. The one person on Earth who saw everything of Bowie, the only person who’s ever had access to him like that said, “I don’t know Bowie.” And that’s fine. I actually kind of like it. I’ve been thinking about reposting some of this stuff. I’m old enough now, I’ve been around enough to where I find the discourse fascinating. And that wasn’t true earlier in my life, but I’m quite enjoying it this time.
One last thing on The Kid and we’ll move on. After “three sides to every story,” the first thing you saw was a set of red curtains. And the curtains part and you’re in his backyard. Well, when we see curtains, we’re on a stage. But now, the stage is his house. So, the use of subtext, the use of the form to comment on the content, to make a film that wasn’t about Bob Evans but was Bob Evans was something, to me, that I began back then.
The idea of ill-fatedly doing Chicago 10 as an animated film in part was inspired by Jerry Rubin referring to the trial as a cartoon show. And I just took that beat and was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
Montage of Heck doesn’t have a dissolve anywhere in sight. Because the form is the story. Montage of Heck was an attempt to have Kurt [Cobain] present his biography exclusively through the use of his art. Let the art tell the story of his life. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough to fill all the cracks, so I had to add some interviews for context to queue it up.
Why did you edit Moonage Daydream and Montage of Heck?
With Bowie, my achilles, I felt, that I identified – you may have a different opinion on this – but before I even picked up a pen for the first time, I was like, “How do you prepare the audience for the fact that they’re not going to see a biographical non-fiction film?” Because genre plays such a huge role in managing our expectations. If you go see a comedy thinking it’s a tragedy, it’s going to be kind of weird. It’d be much worse if you go see a tragedy thinking you’re seeing a comedy, you start laughing out loud at stuff. It’s going to be weird. So, we take genre for granted. Look, today we got three movies coming out. We’ve got Pearl: that, to me, looks like a horror film. We’ve got The Woman King: That looks kind of like a really awesome action film that I’m super psyched to go see. You know, there’s some Sam Rockwell film. I think it’s a comedy! I haven’t seen it, but it seems like it’s being marketed in some sort of comedic manner. Moonage Daydream…
And it’s not a biographical documentary! But if I didn’t spend the last four months saying that and Neon and Universal Pictures were not supporting this from day one, from the moment we announced the film, I would still be getting people going in there expecting something else, and it would probably take them 30 minutes before they realize that’s not what they’re going to get and then they’re out of the sauce. So I stressed out so hard about the covenant. First conversation with Neon and Universal, I said, “Guys, let me just tell you. This is the most important thing. It’s going to take all of us in sync to try to get the audience ready, or we’re just going to get crushed. Everyone’s going to go in there and be disappointed they didn’t get the thing they thought they were going to get. So, for Moonage, the covenant – that was why the Nietschze card got inserted. Because I felt that if you open the film with a card about the meaning of our existence and Nietzsche and, you know, these headier thoughts, you’re not really thinking, “When are we going to hear the first song on the radio? How many albums did he sell?” It’s clearly not in that spirit. And the first seven minutes of that film is setting up a palette and a language that we can expect. And part of the reason that earlier in the film I introduce the cutting to the future point with David singing “Freecloud” where we him at an airport later in life – I needed to, very early on, introduce that and liberate myself to be able to move through time and maintain these relationships across time. So all that had to be anchored up front. If I did that for the first time in the third act, it would’ve been kind of a disaster. So there were all these needs, but almost everything was about that – was about setting the covenant.
I had a screening for Madonna and she was asking me, “Why don’t you have David start earlier in the film?” And I said, “Well, the table hasn’t been set. You’ve got to set the table first.
Moonage Daydream is now playing in IMAX theaters and opens wider on Friday, September 23.