Brett Morgen explains how unprecedented access to the Cobain family archives took him on a powerful journey in search of the real Kurt Cobain.

Brett Morgen explains how unprecedented access to the Cobain family archives took him on a powerful journey in search of the real Kurt Cobain.

Cobain: Montage of Heck searches for the man behind the myth. The unique cooperation of the Cobain family gave director Brett Morgen unprecedented access to their archives, which allowed him to dig deep into Kurt’s childhood and artistic psyche in order to unravel the inner conflicts that ultimately led to his untimely death in 1994, aged just 27.

Receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews at Sundance this year, the film features never before seen footage, music, art and audio recordings which provide a haunting exploration of a man who continues to inspire two decades after his death. 

Morgen was approached with the idea for a documentary by Courtney Love in 2007 and embarked on a project which would take several years to complete, co-produced by Frances Bean Cobain.

Can you talk about the process of exploring another person’s life through all of these artefacts that they’ve left behind?
One of the things I do with all my films is that I spend about a year collecting archival material prior to actually showing up at the office. With Montage of Heck, a tremendous amount of the material we had to work with came from Kurt’s family.

We spent about a month in Kurt’s storage facility documenting every item from every conceivable angle and transferring every video tape. We left no stone unturned.

The real find, for me, was the audio. Because I had no idea that there was going to be any audio in the storage facility, let alone 108 cassettes with over 200 hours of never-before heard music, spoken word and autobiography.

How much do you feel like you really got to know Kurt over that period?
The fact is, I never met Kurt in real life. I feel like over the last couple of years I got to know Kurt more intimately than I know anyone else outside of my family. And that is a testament to the plethora of primary sources I was given access to.

Kurt was incredibly prolific as an artist. Kurt worked in almost every form of media in existence. From short fiction, to sculpting, to painting, to filmmaking  to animation, to of course music and audio.

Every artist creates an autobiography of their life through their work. And because Kurt was so expressive, because he worked across so many platforms, he probably left behind one of the most comprehensive audio, oral and visual autobiographies of anyone I’ve ever encountered.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
It made me appreciate my family, both my parents and my own children, in a way I hadn’t before. One of the biggest challenges I think for artists is that to be successful you need to be all in it. And that really is in stark conflict to being a good parent.

I was in awe, in a sense, of Kurt’s dedication to his child and his affection and appreciation for his child. At the same time, it’s incredibly painful as you get towards the end of the film and you see the love he has for his child, and the struggle with his addiction, all sort of in a dance within the same shot.

I think that’s really what makes the haircutting scene [where Courtney cuts Frances’ hair] so difficult, is that it’s all on display. And you don’t want to look at it, because he’s losing the battle. I was asked by several people to cut that scene out, or shorten it, but I felt that it was necessary, because if you don’t see the dark side of the addiction then all you’re doing is romanticising it. And I think that one of the things that emerges from the movie is that you walk into it with a deep understanding of the myth, but what you experience is the man.

Opinion has been divided about where you chose to end the film.
I believe the story was complete. Courtney explains why kurt killed himself. Everything else after that, to me, is innuendo and gossip. There was no alternative ending. I was not going to give you the happy ending, where everyone comes back on screen and talks about how it’s sad that Kurt died but he’s left such a legacy and brought so much joy to so many people. It just seemed like such a cop-out.

Frances seeing the film, when it was over she looked at me and said, ‘You know what my favourite part of the movie is? The ending.’ I asked what part, and she said ‘The way it touched the black.’ I understood what she was talking about, because it doesn’t sugarcoat it. But I feel that the audience can walk away from the film with a deeper understanding of why Kurt took his own life.

Given all the controversy surrounding his death, is there not a feeling that you had been passed a poisoned chalice, opening up that can of worms again?
When one chooses to do a biography, on film, the biggest mistake people make is trying to get all the highlights of the subject’s life. Because oftentimes the highlights don’t necessarily connect with the true line of action. One of the great things the archives unearthed is the story of Kurt’s childhood, in which he explains why he had come to commit suicide as a fourteen-year-old. He said ‘I couldn’t handle the ridicule, so I tried to kill myself.’

Armed with that information, when you go to this film and see that Kurt really was alienating himself in the last few years of his life and had locked himself away with Courtney and Frances, that was his whole world. When Kurt thought that Courtney had betrayed him, in my interpretation, that would be the greatest shame and humiliation he could encounter, and would have triggered all sort of terrible feelings from his childhood.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe Kurt killed himself because he didn’t want to be famous. Kurt never had a problem quitting. He quit high school two months before [the end]. I think that if he didn’t want to be playing with Nirvana he would have quit the band and reinvented himself. But the way Kurt would experience the humiliation of his wife’s betrayal, now that’s something that I felt was grounded in his entire journey through life.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility, making the film?
Oh, of course. It was a tremendous responsibility because he means so much to so many people. The culture around Kurt is so strong that I put everything I had into this movie.

My experience of Kurt was not shaped by my history with him, because I never knew him. So all I could do was read all these primary sources, look at his art, listen to all of his interviews and try to piece it together. The advantage I had to other filmmakers and biographers is that I happened to have access [to so much material].

None of his biographers had ever heard Kurt’s own version of his childhood as he tells it in this film, which is I think almost like the rosebud of this movie. It’s the most critical piece of information I experienced. And that had never been heard by a human being. Kurt wrote that story out, he recorded it, and then he threw it in a box. And it sat in that box until 2013.