Brett Morgen spent almost eight years making his latest documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck, immersing himself in hours of previously unseen recordings, diaries and video footage of the late Nirvana front man.
The result is a comprehensive – if slightly exhausting – two-hour journey through the tortured mind of the great rock n roll martyr of the 1990s, tracing Cobain’s dysfunctional childhood (divorced parents, rebellion, weed), through Nirvana’s stratospheric rise to ‘biggest band in the world’ status, to – finally – his tabloid-fodder relationship with both heroin and his widow Courtney Love, who invited Morgen to view the archive in the first place.
He’s already sick of talking about that part, though. When Esquire meets Morgen in a central London hotel – barely three months after Montage Of Heck debuted at Sundance – and asks what it felt like to see that treasure trove of material for the first time, he refuses to answer.
“I am exhausted taking about the archive,” he says, chewing gum loudly and staring out from behind a long, straggly fringe not unlike Kurt’s.
“I’ve talked about it over 250 times. It’s all out there. It’s a waste of your time and my time.”
What follows is a somewhat fractious but surprisingly fun 20-minute interview in which Morgen – dressed in a black shirt and tie and a pair of worn sneakers – refuses to answer questions he thinks are too obvious or any that he has answered too often before.
“Let’s fucking throw your questions out the window and just talk,” he says after that initial transgression. “What did you like about the movie. No – what didn’t you like about the movie? That’s more interesting.”
The following is a transcription of our exchange about the film and Kurt Cobain's legacy.
Frances Bean Cobain and Courtney Love pose with director Brett Morgen at the Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck premiere during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival
ESQUIRE: I would like to have heard more in the film from the people you interviewed [this included Courtney, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and various members of Kurt’s family].
MORGEN: There’s going to be a book for that.
OK. I also read there is going to be an interview with Dave Grohl added in to a later edit. What can you tell me about that?
Well, it’s unfortunate Dave wasn’t available to do the interview until after I’d locked the picture. But you know, this is not a talking head film. They’re just there to just provide you with context. I’m not here to do a history lesson. Testimony is always polluted. Not in a nefarious way, just in the way time works. The idea of there being more interviews, to me, runs quite contrary to the experience I was trying to offer.
Sure. But hearing from the people who knew Kurt was interesting, particularly if you already know the lyrics and the diaries well [Kurt Cobain: Journals was released as a book in 2003]. There was a section of the movie I enjoyed where…
It’s much more interesting when you talk about what you didn’t like, you know what I mean? It’s much more engaging.
I have to ask you a question – you say you were a fan. I’m curious. You asked me about Dave Grohl. So I am going to ask you, because you’re a journalist: how come you didn’t ask me about Chad [Channing, Nirvana’s original drummer from 1988-1990]?
Because Dave was there when Nirvana were at the peak of their fame. And he has well-documented history of tension with Courtney [over Nirvana copyright]. So he seems more relevant to me.
Just because Dave was there when the band was more famous, doesn’t make him more relevant. This isn’t a film about Nirvana, or Nirvana’s rise to popularity. It’s a film about Kurt Cobain and his interior, emotional journey through life. Nirvana was just his most important creative outlet. Certainly the fame had a tremendous impact on him…
Do you think he enjoyed anything about being famous?
Yeah. I think we see it in the film. I think there’s a perverse joy he has in reading some of that press. He couldn’t help but absorb everything that was being written about him. I feel like that joy is on display in those moments with Courtney.
One thing I didn’t quite understand with the more intimate shots of Kurt and Courtney [the couple are shown goofing around in a series of home videos] – who was filming?
Most of that was shot by the two of them. But one of their close friends was also around quite a bit and would pick up the camera every now and then. Almost every time the camera is on they talk about it being ‘their movie’, but whether Kurt had intentions of releasing it, I don’t know.
But you know, there is a public perception that Kurt was a private person. Most people who I’ve met in life who we would refer to as ‘private’ don’t leave their journal sitting around, they keep them hidden somewhere. But he would just keep those open and accessible.
Most of the intimacy in this film is not in the home videos, it is the audios – the recordings Kurt made when he narrated the story of losing his virginity, for example. To me those are the most intimate moments, when you stop and think about it. Which raises the inevitable question: would Kurt want the film to be made? Are we seeing stuff we shouldn’t see? It’s obviously a complicated question. Frances [Cobain, Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, who worked with Morgen on the film], I believe, put it best. She said ‘he’s not here, it’s not going to affect him anymore.’
Did you consider interviewing her?
Absolutely not. Because she has no memory of him. That would be a weird transition to make: Kurt dies in the film, then we cut to Frances 20 years later.
So why did you decide to end at the point Kurt made Unplugged? [The film ends abruptly as Kurt records Unplugged In New York, almost six months before his death].
No matter what, I felt I was going to end with 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night'. It felt like there was nowhere else to go from that, one of the great rock performances captured on film. But the idea to not have any resolution felt completely in sync with the spirit of the film and Kurt. Our goal was to make an honest film, not to mythologise Kurt.
So the bullshit, predictable ending is to come back to talking heads of all the people we’ve met in the film, and hear how ‘Kurt changed the world’ and ‘it’s so sad that he died but his music carried on and has provided comfort to millions of people around the world’. Fuck that! There’s no happy ending! Yes – we can talk about the happy ending for you. You get to listen to his music. But it wasn’t a happy ending for Kurt. And so to cut to Courtney reading the suicide note and people laying flowers on the grave felt like it would be a fucking crap ending, man.
Earlier in the film, during the footage behind the scenes on the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, a haunting choir version of the song plays over the top. It felt like the first point in the story when you see Kurt faking it.
i don't know if he was faking it, but I saw something in the footage that was actually quite different from the finished video. Rather than being a celebration of this movement, this liberation of the underground, to me it felt prophetic. What I saw was the band being consumed, and Kurt literally being ripped apart.
It was a turning point?
I think what happened was, being a musician became a job. There were certain commitments that came with it that he wasn’t burdened by when he was on the way up. On the way up, he wanted to do that stuff. He wasn’t a dick when he was doing interviews before Nirvana broke. You hear them in the film – we used most of useable audio we found from the Bleach days. It’s a totally different guy!
Kurt was an artist, with a captial 'A'. And that sort of spirit – no matter how much they want fame – is at odds with the machine, right? I don’t think he responded well when he was being told what to do, whether it triggered some feelings going back to his childhood, or just played into his punk rock, contrarian nature.
What do you think will be the most surprising thing for fans of Nirvana when they see the…
Oh, you’re as well equipped to answer that as I am.
Sure, but I would like to know what you think.
It’s like the one thing I feel like anyone could answer but me, you know what I mean? You saw the film, what was your surprise?
OK, I’ll ask you something else. How did you feel about Courtney’s revelation she used heroin when she was pregnant?
Yeah that was so funny… it didn’t seem like a revelation at the time to me. I didn’t blink. To be completely candid, it wasn’t until the film went out and people started writing about it that I realised it was a revelation. I thought that had already been discussed.
To me the more surprising revelation was about their time Rome [Courtney discusses almost cheating on Kurt in Rome and him being so upset he attempted an overdose], and the way she presented that story to me. Because it you see the film again, I’m not asking her about that at all. I’m nowhere near that. The question I asked was: ‘Kurt seems really sensitive to criticism…’, then she took it to that place.
What has been the most frustrating aspect of bringing this story to people?
Having to answer questions about going into the storage facility for the 3000th time! OK, no, let me give you a more straight answer. In terms of the reaction, I have no frustration. I did not expect there to be a consensus one way or another. We’ve had a rapturous response wherever we have gone with the film. I didn’t expect that. I came into this, and every day I moved further away from the myth and closer to Kurt the man. And the closer I got the more I liked him. I felt a tremendous appreciation and kinship with Kurt. I certainly hope that translates to the audience.
Great. Thanks. I’m being told our time is up.
Thanks man. That was so much better once we got off the fucking storage.
Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck is out now.