The new Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck left me with mixed emotions. As a longtime Nirvana fan, it was fascinating to watch, but I also felt guilty about it. What would Kurt have thought these private videos and audio recordings being shared with the world and promoted with red carpet events and corporate-sponsored screenings across the country?
Days after seeing Montage of Heck, I spoke to director Brett Morgen about the film, why he made the choices he made, and how he feels now that it’s done. Speaking with him changed my perspective. Maybe this was a film that really deserved to be made. Maybe Kurt would have wanted it to be made. Maybe it doesn’t even matter what Kurt Cobain would have wanted.
More than a product exploiting Kurt, Montage of Heck is its own brutally honest piece of art that dispels any myths of a glamorous rock star lifestyle. Brett Morgen took this honesty very seriously, but it was Frances Bean Cobain who insisted on it.
Read the interview with Brett Morgen below.
What was your relationship with Nirvana before you signed on for this project?
I was a casual fan, and I often get uncomfortable even using the word fan. I liked the music. I saw them play twice. I saw them play for 150 people early in their career in my school cafeteria at Hampshire College. Then I saw them play for 120,000 at the LA Forum.
But I didn’t make this film because I was a fan. I made this film because of the material and the art that Kurt had created. It provided me an amazing opportunity to do a film that I don’t think had been done before, which is, in essence, a visual, oral, autobiography of this man’s life.
What were your thoughts on Kurt personally before this project, if you had any?
I didn’t have much.
What kind of music were you into growing up?
I’m really excited that you asked me this. I was reared on LA underground punk music in the ‘80s. I was really into SST. I have very vivid memories of walking into Rhino Records during this period when Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime, and Meat Puppets II all came out within three weeks of each other.
That was just a revelation. I felt connected to the underground music scene. When Nirvana broke, it had a tremendous cultural impact. From the time I went to junior high school to the time I graduated college, Ronald Reagan was in office and then George Bush. Like a lot of kids, I felt really alienated from mainstream culture. When Nirvana popped, it was one of the first instances when you could look at the television and see someone who looked like you, who smelled like you, who talked like you. That was pretty revelatory.
How did you pick the songs used in this film? Were those your choices?
Yeah, they were my choices. When I started to work on Montage, the first thing I did in the edit room was sit down and listen to every recorded Cobain song in chronological order. I would break down the lyrical value and the musical quality of each tune. And then I would arrange it into a chronology. So prior to me cutting any picture, I already knew that “Something in the Way” was going to be in the middle of act one, that “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” would be incorporated into the film score. I knew that where “School” was going to go. It was all mapped out.
What was that process like, listening to all of Kurt’s music? Was it enjoyable or exhausting?
It was cool. That’s when you’ve really gotta dig your job. You’re going to work every day and you’re listening to music. It’s a great job. But at that point, you’re really listening to it for the first time in a sense. Because you really have to hone in on the lyrics. The thing that made Kurt so complicated for me—to this day it still frustrates me—is that the song titles are rarely even mentioned in the lyrics of the songs. I still get confused. I barely caught up with it by the time we finished the film. He’s a real fucker that way, you know? [Laughs]
But that’s a great way to start a film. The film is Kurt’s audio/visual autobiography of his life, and Nirvana was a huge part of that in terms of artistic output—the most important part. I wanted the songs to tell the story.
Do you have a personal favorite Nirvana song?
It depends on my mood. When I started this film I was really into the softer stuff, like “Lithium” and “Dumb.” By the time I finished, I was way deeper into the harder stuff like “Endless, Nameless” and “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” At the moment, my favorite song is a song that nobody’s heard yet that will be on the forthcoming album.
Throughout the making of this film, were you ever thinking about what Kurt would have thought about this?
Yeah, more stylistically than anything else. I tried to adopt his aesthetic for the most part throughout the film. I wanted to make a film that Kurt wanted to see. Not so much a film about his life, but if he was 15 years old, would he want to see this film?
Yesterday, Courtney texted me and said, “Kurt would have loved this movie.” That meant a lot, because we weren’t talking, in that moment, about his depiction as much as this film. It’s this crazy, hybrid movie that doesn’t have many reference points.
What about the other side, like the depiction of Kurt and all the unseen footage…
Most of the material in this film that creates that feeling of intimacy is Kurt’s art, you know? It’s his sound design and it’s his painting, and the effect is that it created this really intimate experience. I’m sure that’s meant to be disseminated. I mean, he saved everything and he kept it out in the open.
I think if you’re making a film on Kurt Cobain, it should be nothing but honest, and have integrity, because that’s what made Kurt so great. And I think we made this film in that spirit. We aren’t selling some rock and roll fantasy. And that’s really credit to Frances Bean Cobain, whose one dictate to me was: “Keep it real.”
These issues related to privacy are not issues for you or me to own. That goes to next of kin, and that’s Frances.
It was important to Frances [Bean Cobain] that we don’t carry on this kind of romantic, heroin chic myth of Kurt.
We’ve heard the reaction from Courtney and Frances, who both appreciated the film. Can you share any of the other reactions from Kurt’s mom, dad, and sister?
Yeah, his brother Chad saw the movie for the first time the other night and thanked me profusely. Kim [Kurt’s mother] said to me after she saw it for the second time that she was really into 95% of the film. She had issues with the depiction of Kurt on heroin. As do I. It’s troubling, and his mother and sister would prefer that people not see their son and brother that way, and I completely get it. But it was important to Frances that we don’t carry on this kind of romantic, heroin chic myth of Kurt. And it was important to me as well, because I don’t think this film romanticizes drug use at all. If anything, I think it’s a deterrent. I said to Kim Cobain, my guess is there will be someone who watches this film, and they’re not going to do smack as a result. If Kurt was here and had a choice of saving one life or selling 100 million records, I think he would choose to save a life.
Do you think—after everything you’ve learned about Kurt—that if he had kicked his drug habit, he’d still be here?
No one can answer that question, man. Unfortunately…
Did you consider adding more about the suicide in the film? It ends very abruptly.
Absolutely not. Never crossed my mind. Not for a second.
Because I ended the film where I felt the story ended. Kurt stopped creating. I’ve given the audience everything they need to know, and I don’t want to drag them through that. It’s a movie that’s celebrating his life. What happened in those final hours, nobody will ever know. What happened in Rome—in which we have a very deliberate acknowledgement of his suicide attempt—tells us a lot about the final days of Kurt’s life.
Did you go into this with any other questions that you didn’t get answers to?
I didn’t. Someone asked me the other day, “What myths were you trying to shatter?” I wasn’t trying to shatter any myths. The myths shattered themselves. They revealed themselves to be false as I looked at the material.
I can’t divorce myself from my life experiences, of course, but in terms of trying to present Kurt in a certain way or figuring out what the narrative was going to be, I had no idea. I just went into the vault, I looked at the material, and I came back with my experience of those materials.
I know this movie took a long time to make. Were there ever moments when you thought it wouldn’t be finished?
Oh, sure. I mean it wasn’t like I was making it for eight years. There were several points when I didn’t feel like it would be made. There were four or five years when I didn’t invest that much because I didn’t think it was going to happen. And then there was a point when I was cutting the film, about four or five months into the editing, when I didn’t think I had what it took to get it finished. I’ve never been there before, and it was a scary situation.
I’ve done commercials, and there will be moments when you’ve got a whole crew of 80 or so people looking at you and you don’t know what to do next, but you fight through it. But this was much bigger than that, because I had been spending years trying to get to this point where I was at, and I was at a loss.
So that was on you, it was never Courtney or Frances coming in and saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this.”
I will say this as generally as possible. I think the only thing I can do at this point is take a lie detector test to make people really understand that Courtney never gave me a dictate, never even saw the film while I was working on it. Frances didn’t see the film until it was finished. There was nobody guiding me. I was in Seattle the other night and a woman said to me, “Courtney got to you.” I take offense to that, because someone’s calling me a liar. If you watch this film and you like Courtney, that’s not because there’s an agenda. I mean, how cynical is that?
I’m looking at footage of Kurt and Courtney, and I’m seeing a couple in love. And the footage was not provided to me by Courtney. That footage was provided by Eric Erlandson from Hole, who didn’t even know what was on the tape. He came to my office with a tape and said, “I think I have some footage here.”
I wasn’t making this film for Wendy Cobain or Courtney Love. I personally thought that Courtney would hate this film. I thought she’d feel betrayed by me.
Who the author of this film is matters greatly to Cobain fans, which is why I told Courtney that she can not have any say whatsoever in this movie. I needed to have creative control. I didn’t have any notes from HBO or Universal Pictures, either. If anyone has any issue with anything in this film, they need to talk to me. I am 100% accountable for every frame and every decision in this film. I was the writer, director, producer, and co-editor. It was important to me to get this story right. I wasn’t making this film for Wendy Cobain or Courtney Love. I personally thought that Courtney would hate this film. I thought she’d feel betrayed by me.
How do you feel now that it’s done? Do you feel like you’re still in it because you have to talk about it so much, or do you feel relieved?
It’s much harder now, man. It’s way more emotional now than it was when I was making it. I was so inspired making this film and it was such a challenge. When you’re creatively challenged, you’re alive, and it’s good. Having this sort of creative exercise is the best thing short of being with my kids and my wife. So that was awesome.
It wasn’t until I finished the film and showed up at Sundance that I found myself an emotional wreck talking about it. I’m telling you right now, I have no intention of being one of these professional Cobain spokesmen. I think it’s kind of gross. I do feel an obligation to the fans right now, to report back the findings, because in a way I feel like I liberated the vault. And so I answer tweets from anyone. I do interviews with the high school paper, with The New York Times, it doesn’t matter. I have an obligation to let people know what’s in there and what I experienced.
But I’m looking forward getting to a point when I can move on. And it’s not coming up soon, because we’re about to announce a major event that we’re gonna do later in the summer, where we’re gonna take this film out on a road show, the likes of which we’ve never seen with a documentary. I want to put this in concert halls, like the Paramount in Austin, and venues of that size, with huge concert speakers. That’s what we’re doing. We’re going to have a traveling exhibit with art and photographs.
When does that start?
We’re going to try to announce the schedule soon, but most likely late summer or early fall. It has to do as much with me as it does with Kurt. I want my work exhibited that way. I did this film with HBO and I’m very proud of that. Part of that was making this as accessible as possible for fans. We left a lot of money on the table doing this with HBO, but we feel like they’re the proper brand and I’m thrilled to have the exposure. But at the end of the day, this film has to be experienced in a cinema, or you’re only getting part of it.
Thanks for your time. As a longtime Nirvana fan, seeing this film was surreal.
Listen dude, that’s what it’s all about. You know how selfish I felt when I went into this archive? I was sitting on this stuff for two years and I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t tell them I found him doing this Beatles song. Or what’s going to be on this album that we’re putting out this summer—85 minutes of amazing music. I was sitting on it, man! And I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell a single person that I had found Kurt’s audio autobiography.
Montage of Heck is currently playing in theaters across the country. It will make its HBO debut on Monday, May 4, at 9:00 p.m. EST.