Brett Morgen has consistently pushed at the prevailing trends of documentary, surprising us with his looks at music acts like Nirvana and the Rolling Stones, showing how found news footage could be used to craft elegant narrative in his OJ doc for 30 for 30, June 17th, 1994, or his groundbreaking look at Hollywood legend Robert Evans in The Kid Stays in the Picture. Morgen’s latest looks at esteemed primatologist Jane Goodall and her early work, contemporaneously captured by nature photographer Hugo van Lawick. This sumptuous, stellar film illustrates the complexity of Morgen’s craft, marrying his ability to find narrative from disparate pieces and finding greater truths that emerge from the whole.
We spoke to Morgen following the film’s screening at last September’s TIFF.
A few years ago we saw the Jane Goodall film two years ago that Disney did called Chimpanzee, and this isn’t first time you’ve tackled a subject that others already have. Do you approach these challenges immediately asking about what you can do in contrast?
I had the same reaction when I got called into the Rolling Stones film. Like, really?! Hasn’t anyone done that film already?
I absolutely thought, ug, we’re getting another Rolling Stones movie.
I can play you my first phone call with Mick. I literally said to him “you know why I’m going to do this film now? Because I would never go to see this film.” I know that sounds weird, but people are going to expect a terrible “Best Buy Presents: 50 Years of the Rolling Stones”. So we have a chance to do something really great! Once you got into it, you realize that there had never been a comprehensive film other than Five By 25, which is out of circulation. You have all of the Godard, Pennebaker, Julia Temple, Hal Ashby – literally the greatest filmmakers in history to fucking Robert Frank! You get to pull all of their footage and that’s a fucking dream.
Which brings us to Jane, and how you had this incredible stash of unused 16mm film.
The real find here was Hugo (Van Lawick)’s material. You have the greatest primatologist of our lifetime and the greatest wildlife cinematographer of his time. The fact that they ended up being like Lennon and McCartney is mind blowing. Part of the reason the footage is so good is because it’s his first job. He didn’t want to fuck anything up! He wouldn’t take a shot unless the conditions were absolutely perfect. I went through 140 hours of footage and there’s not a frame underexposed or overexposed.
So he didn’t turn on the camera until he had the shot?
No shot had a beginning to it and very few had an end to it, which was frustrating as hell as a filmmaker. You would come across a great moment but it would be clipped. But I think because of the fact that he was so nervous it made it so that he just put that extra effort into it. You’ve got to remember that you can’t have a film crew because you’re going to scare the chimpanzees, so he’s gotta lug that Arriflex 16s camera with two heavy boxes of lenses – I don’t even want to get into changing magazines in the middle of a jungle, with the humidity and the bugs and how many variables there are that can get into your gate!
Did you ever consider calling the film Jane and Hugo?
I thought the film was going to be way more Jane and Hugo. What happened was when their stories begin to deviate, I couldn’t sustain the same attention with Hugo that I could with Jane because we were so rooted in Jane’s landscape. The movie is a romance, but it’s not about man and woman, it’s between a woman and her work which I think is relatable across all fields.
How exactly does one even tackle 140 hours of footage? A lot of assistant editors?
When we got the film there weren’t any camera reels, the whole thing was scrambled up. I told the assistant editors to take all the shots of Jane, put them in one bin; take all of the shots of the chimps eating, put them in one bin; take all of the shots of chimps in trees, fornicating… Chimps don’t do that much. They eat, sleep, fuck, shit. That’s it. Occasionally, they’ll run after another chimp. There was a whole selects reel of chimps noshing bananas, and it was probably our biggest reel. It was endless. They eat with their mouths open, and they have these huge wads of shit in there.
Are you sitting there with a notebook tagging the best chomping scene?
In the first round, you’re trying to assess what scenes you can build, more than individual shots. Generally you’re looking for themes and you’re looking for sequences.
And it’s always cut before you put the sound in.
This film was different because everything was MOS [aka, post-recorded sound]. We built a 7.1 sound stage at my office and hired a sound editor who was on the project for 2 years. Then we went to Jane who hooked us up with thesis students who study chimp vocalizations. The sound designer, Warren Shaw, was coming off Beauty and the Beast. Did you notice the scenes in the movie where Jane’s sitting there watching the chimps and then they knocked into the mic? We’re making that up. We’re doing it to further create the covenant that this is real. You have to buy in that the mic would fall to the ground at times and you can never be too clean.
All of which brings the characters of the apes to life.
We were able to get the chimpanzees to sing and dance. Part of the subtlety of the film is that Gombe is magic for Jane. Part of the magical realism of the film is when the chimps hoot, they’re generally hooting in the pitch of the music, in beat. You’re not supposed to be conscious of this as a viewer, it’s a very subtle thing, but it’s very much like what Baby Driver was doing, creating that sort of choreography. The purpose of doing it for this film was to give it that sense of the allure and the magical reality of this whole world.
There are people who believe in a purity of the documentary form as if the hands of the director are meant to be completely off, that your job is to show reality. And anything that you do to accentuate reality or create a cinematic scope is manipulation and not documentary.
The person they generally point to is the father of that style of filmmaking, Frederick Wiseman, who will tell you that he absolutely rejects that notion. Wiseman’s movies are reality fictions. He’s very aware that he’s constructing the very tenets of documentation. Once you put an edit into a documentary, you’ve altered it. Even if you don’t put an edit, you’ve still decided where the camera is. There was a filmmaker named Timothy Asch and he ran the ethnographic film department at USC in the 80s. He had done a project called Jero Tapakan: Balinese Healer, about this healer in Bali and Asch was really into pure ethnographic films, so what he did was he put a companion book that came out with these films. He put diagrams of where the camera was in relation to the subjects, the lenses, etc. The seventh film of the series is his subject watching the other films. There’s a wonderful book by a writer named Karl Heider called “Ethnographic Film”. He talks about something called a “higher truth”, which is specific to clarity. When you bring a camera into a situation, you’re altering people’s behaviour. To achieve a higher truth, you have to put the seal in the water already dead [ed. ie., Nanook of the North]. As a result, you are actually capturing what happened as opposed to the subject constantly looking over at the camera.
How has this shaped your other works?
The Kid Stays in the Picture is all about challenging and questioning what is a documentary. The prevailing idea was that documentaries needed to be objective to achieve a truth. What I try to suggest in Kid is that by embracing the subjectivity of the subject, I was arriving at a higher truth. By allowing Bob to narrate, using his own words, you can say that he’s selling you this thing or that he’s spinning his own web and he’s going to get caught in it. Whatever you want to do, it’s him. Whether you love him, hate him, whatever it is, it’s there. I’ve always felt with all of my movies that my goal is to make Jumanji. When I die I want to have all of my VHS cases up on the shelf, and they’re all singing – You’ve got the Bob Evans one, you’ve got the Kurt Cobain one, you’ve got the Jane Goodall one… I try to do with movies what you can’t do in any other medium.
The Kurt film is the cinematic adaptation of Kurt Cobain. The Bob Evans film is the cinematic adaptation of Bob Evans. And this is the cinematic adaptation of Jane.