Sundance 2015: Brett Morgen on Cobain, Courtney and 'Montage of Heck'

"I don't think there will ever be another movie about an icon that's this intimate."

Kurt Cobain Credit: Michel Linssen/Getty

In three months, it will have been 21 years since Kurt Cobain's death, and you'd have thought there would be nothing left to say about the life and work of the late Nirvana frontman. But once you've seen Brett Morgen's documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, you start to realize that we didn't really know him at all. The film presents Cobain's story in his own words, from diary entries and audio tapes to home movies of the singer and his wife, Courtney Love, that bring new meaning to the word "candid."

Before the premiere last Saturday, Morgen dedicated the film to Kurt's mother, Wendy O'Connor; his sister, Kim Cobain; and to his only daughter, Frances Bean — three people we have virtually never heard from, yet who have had no choice but to share their loss with the world. "I wanted to give Frances a couple of hours with her dad, which she never got to have," a teary Morgen told the audience prior to the screening. He thanked her as well, for without her permission, he couldn't have gone forward with the film (she's credited as an executive producer).

Of course, Montage is a gift to fans as well, because it grants us an almost unearned intimacy: There's Kurt, all of two years old, blowing out his birthday candles. There's Kurt, at 25, in the bathroom with spouse, both of them fresh from the shower and bantering about Love's reputation. There's Kurt, shortly before his death, bathing Frances and agreeing with Love when she says, "I feel kind of happy right now." For those who remember April 8, 1994, the day news of Cobain's death broke, the emotions that follow some of this footage are just as intense. Back then, the grieving was for an icon. Here it's for a son, a father, a man.

Love granted Morgen, whose previous credits include The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) and the Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane (2012), unfettered access to a storage unit that constituted part of what is essentially Cobain's archive. The title is taken from a tape of unreleased music that director used to score the film, in addition to spare versions of Nirvana songs featuring bells or children's choirs. Morgen spoke with people who knew Cobain before he was famous: Wendy and Kim, obviously, as well as his father, Don, and ex-girlfriend Tracy Marander. Cobain's drawings, his to-do lists, his revealing interview with Rolling Stone writer David Fricke prior to Nirvana's MTV: Unplugged performance — it's all here. To paraphrase what Morgen himself said before the screening: We're never going to get more of him than this (nor could we possibly want to).

Montage of Heck premieres May 4th on HBO, and we sat down with Morgen to discuss this one-of-a-kind project.

Was everybody on board from the start, or were there challenges in terms of gaining access to people?
Courtney introduced me to the project in 2007. She called me up and said, "I have all this art of Kurt's and some videos and stuff, and I saw what you were able to do with The Kid Stays in the Picture. Would you be interested in doing this?" So I went on this long journey, and the road eventually led to Frances. She and I met, then once Frances was on board, I think everybody wanted to support the project.

You said you interviewed Dave Grohl too recently to include him, at least before this premiere. Given this has been underway for a while, was there an issue with talking to him sooner?
First of all, I didn't think I needed two people from Nirvana. It's not that type of movie. So I was fine locking picture with Krist [Novoselic]. Because Dave was recording an album and wasn't available until about three weeks after we finished, we went into that interview knowing that it was pretty much impossible to get it in before Sundance — not to mention opening up a movie that I just spent eight years making.

Kurt left a visual and audio autobiography of his life and I just followed the leads. I was trying to tell his story and approach it not so much as a story of a rock icon but a young boy coming of age. I remember when I saw Boyhood thinking, "This is kind of similar."

Were you amazed by how much footage there was?
He [actually] wasn't documented that much. That was the thing: When I put all the footage together and screened it, there were huge gaps. From the age of seven to the time the band broke, there's not a lot out there other than club shows. I find that you almost feel closer to Kurt when he's not on camera, through the journals and the audio, where you feel like you're getting a portal into his psyche. And watching him do interviews — that was not a medium that he excelled in, except the David Fricke interview. We use David's interview as the spine of the film because Kurt had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I listened to every interview — a lot of people were sycophants. They just wanted to hang out with him and be his friend. And David's interview was calling it like it is. In a way, I felt like he represented my voice in the film.

Had you asked Frances to be in the documentary?
No. Kurt died, she has no memory of him.

She was at the premiere, and I would have assumed she didn't want to see it in a public setting because, for her, it's private.
There's that. It's very personal and intimate. She said to me as we were walking up, "I don't think I can sit here with the audience." And I said, "I totally understand. People will try and make something of it, but do what you want to do, whatever you're comfortable with." Frances doesn't want to be known as Kurt and Courtney's daughter. She's her own person.

Of the home footage, what was particularly special to you?
I love the scene of Kurt and Courtney in the bathroom. That's an image of Kurt that no one has ever seen. The back and forth between them — it's like Lucy and Ricky. I could watch that scene all day long. I'm so thankful that exists, because it gives us such a great window into what they were like when the camera isn't around — because that's not a camera from MTV that's shooting them. They're fucking naked. You're like, wait, there's a camera here?

When I saw the scene of young Kurt in a construction hat walking past his sister while she's ironing on her toy ironing board — I honestly thought I'd missed a "this is a reenactment" disclaimer. It's unbelievable.
Yeah, you're not the first person to say that. People have asked me, "Are those actors, or is that really Kurt?" And I was sort of startled, but yeah, it's Kurt. All the childhood footage floored me. There was like five hours of seeing him grow up from like six months to eight years old. It was all so well-preserved.

The scene of Frances' first haircut is heartbreaking. Obviously, Kurt is unwell — and claims that he's not on drugs, even though it seems clear that he is. Was there more footage like that that you chose not to include?
Probably. I mean, repetition's not a great thing in general. Kim said to me, "My brother was very embarrassed about his heroin use. Do you think he would want this in the film?" And I said, "You know, one thing you've always told me is that your brother's worst fear was that he would influence people to do heroin." And for the last 22 years, Kurt's been associated with heroin, but nobody's seen the ill effects of it. I'm not a social documentarian, I'm not trying to make a message film — but I'd like to think that scene could serve as a deterrent. So I said, "What if, 20 years after your brother's death, he is able to save a life? What if one person sees that movie and decides not to do smack? What greater legacy, posthumously, could we give Kurt?"

I love the scene of Kurt and Courtney in the bathroom. They're fucking naked. You're like, wait, there's a camera here?

Courtney wasn't involved in producing the film...
Yeah, she didn't see it until last week.

Was that by choice?
She had called me a couple of times and said, "I should see the film." And she just never showed up to see it. And then finally last week, knowing she was going to see it with an audience — I didn't want her to see it for the first time with an audience, so she and Frances came over, and we all watched it together.

Do you think the film has had a healing effect in their family?
[Nods.]

And the music in the film is all Kurt's?
The score is all unreleased Cobain music. They don't have titles. Before people saw the movie, there were these weird press releases focusing on the unreleased music. And it's like: It's a movie. We're not going to stop it and play a song for four minutes. But nobody in Kurt's life — not his management, wife, bandmates — had ever heard his Beatles thing [a snippet of "And I Love Her"]. I found it on a random tape. It's a Paul song. How's that for shattering the myth?

There must be excitement with a discovery like that, and then also sadness, because it's slightly morbid at the same time. Were you torn between those emotions?
Every day, but not in the context that you're describing. I mean, right now I'm happy and sad when I talk about Kurt. I felt a lot more pressure on this film than I did on the Rolling Stones film or anything that I'd done before. Over the last three and a half years, I've had complete and total access to the Rolling Stones archive and the Kurt Cobain archive. I don't know how this happened, but putting on a cassette that says "Tape 59: Montage of Heck"? You're transported into Kurt's mind. It's so personal, too. I'm just sitting alone with headphones.

You don't strike me as someone who feels compelled to tweet in that situation.
No. But it was so hard not to share that, you know? I wanted the surprise at the premiere, but I felt selfish, like people need to hear that. Still, I'm glad we waited. I had wanted to put that out on Independent Record Store day, like unannounced, but it didn't happen.

Was everybody pleased with it as far as you know?
When I showed Wendy the film for the first time, I told her there were things that no mother should see. And it was very difficult and painful for me to show her some of the stuff in the third act of the film. I know that she would prefer that not be in the movie, and I don't blame her. Even seeing him having intimate relations with Courtney — I don't think Kurt would have wanted Wendy to see that.

But we weren't trying to bring him down. We were trying to look him in the eye. I didn't want to humiliate him. I don't think there has ever been, or will ever be, another movie about an icon that's this raw or intimate. Someone involved with the estate's management saw the film and said to me, "You can't put this out in the world. This is not what people want to see." I was like, no, man. It's Kurt Cobain. It needs to be honest.

Check out our Sundance page for complete coverage of the 2015 festival.