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An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at homeCourtesy of Universal UK

Inside the authorised Kurt Cobain documentary

Director Brett Morgen talks about his all-access pass to Cobain’s home videos and the importance of exposing his heroin addiction

Any idol that dies young will be mythologised – but the media circus around Kurt Cobain and his family that only intensified after his suicide took on a particularly dark bent of conjecture. The fantastical conspiracy theory that his wife Courtney Love may have had him killed became the focus of Nick Broomfield’s controversial 1998 doc Kurt and Courtney, who dug for whatever dirt he could from acquaintances and hangers-on of Kurt’s when Love denied him interview time and the right to use Nirvana’s music.

Access to Kurt’s inner world was no problem, on the other hand, for director Brett Morgen. Love had been impressed by his film The Kid Stays in the Picture and approached him to make a movie about Kurt, granting him unfettered access to a storage unit containing the Nirvana frontman’s diaries, drawings, tapes and home movies. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – which is named after an unreleased tape used to score the film, and has the couple’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain as exec producer – is the piercingly intimate result. While family-authorised, it’s by no means sanitised – a difficult line to walk as Brett Morgen told us at the Berlin International Film Festival, where the film is screening off the back of a rave reception at Sundance.

There have been several films already made about Kurt Cobain. Kurt and Courtney was invasively speculative, intent on positioning Courtney Love as a target of blame, and not that different from how the paparazzi treated the couple. Were you eager to redress that?

Brett Morgen: I wasn’t trying to correct the image. I was presented with the reality. Everybody else was hypothesising and conjecturing. I was dealing with primary source material. I was given footage of Kurt and Courtney that nobody had ever seen and in it we see a completely different dynamic, that Kurt wasn’t this meek guy that was being strung around by Courtney. They were two kids in love with each other in a way that only 25-year-olds can be in love – that fiery, passionate, intense love. That really surprised me as I discovered those tapes, because it was very much in contrast to the mythology. The people who are talking in this movie are the very folks who would’ve been at Kurt’s funeral if he was a janitor - his mother, his father, his sister, those he spent the first ten years of his life exclusively. And they’d never spoken before.

“For 25 years Kurt has been associated with heroin but it’s been sort of romanticised; it’s like heroin chic, and to repurpose that mythology is doing a great disservice to Kurt and to the public”

You had final cut. Did you feel under pressure in regard to how his family would react to the film?

Brett Morgen: I was making the film for Francis and for Kurt, and if there were things in there that were going to offend others, so be it. This was a rare opportunity to paint a very honest portrait of a man who would want his biography to be nothing more than honest. That was Kurt. He’s not Michael Jackson. If you’re doing Michael Jackson or the Stones you expect a certain fantasy. What’s so unique about Montage of Heck is that it’s the first – people like to call it “authorised”, but that word makes it sound watered down. I did the authorised Rolling Stones film. The fact that the Kurt Cobain film is as unflinching as it is I think is very much in the spirit of Kurt. That was Francis’s one request – that we didn’t mythologise Kurt and looked him in the eye. I got close to Kurt’s mum Wendy. Showing the film to her was one of the most difficult experiences of my career, because there were things in this film that no mother should have to see. I wouldn’t want my mum to see me making out with my wife, or on drugs, and so of course when the movie was over Kurt’s mother and sister really had issues with some of the images of Kurt on heroin. And I completely empathise and understand. But it wasn’t their story.

Why was it so important to you to keep those scenes in the film?

Brett Morgen: For 25 years Kurt has been associated with heroin but it’s been sort of romanticised; it’s like heroin chic, and to repurpose that mythology is doing a great disservice to Kurt and to the public. There was a moment after the movie where his sister Kim said to me her brother was really embarrassed about his heroin use, and asked if I thought he would want that in the film. She repeatedly told me that Kurt’s biggest fear was that he would inspire kids to do heroin because they wanted to emulate him. He’d told her about some teenager that had given him a foil at a show and that had devastated him. But the depiction in the film is completely deglamourised, and it’s ugly. What if one person sees this movie and decides they’re not going to touch heroin – what greater legacy could there possibly be for her brother than to save a life? One of the things this film does is shatter the existing mythologies related to Kurt and present the man. He’s got problems from the earliest age, and from three years old had this unique ability to present the world as he saw it through his art. He had to do it, it’s like Krist Novoselic said in the film, Kurt had this need to create. When you filter it through that and you go on that journey with him through life, you land at the point in 1991 where we first met him, you start to understand why he reacted the way he did in public – that it wasn’t this act, and he was genuinely conflicted.

The animation in the film is beautifully done. How was it developed?

Brett Morgen: I loved this movie Pink Floyd – The Wall when I was a kid because it was visceral and immersive, and I loved that mix of animation and live action. There are two forms of animation in the film – the journals and Kurt’s own art brought to life. My movie The Kid Stays in the Picture was one of the first movies to use a 3D effect for a feature-length documentary, but there was no place for that in this film because that’s very glossy hybrid bullshit. We presented the journals almost as if Kurt was shooting them on Super-8 film. The other animation – the renderings of Kurt – were done out of necessity because I had this amazing audio I needed to bring to life. I found this artist named Hisko Hulsing who had made a short called Junkyard. I felt Hisko shared a similar dystopian view of the world and that seemed to merge beautifully. His animation is so sophisticated, all done by hand – 6,000 drawings, and 58 oil canvases 4-by-6 feet. Hopefully we’ll do an exhibit in England some time this year. The film just keeps evolving as you watch and there’s a certain joy that comes with that, some kind of visceral, sublime, kinetic experience that feels a little chaotic, but that’s Kurt. A film about Kurt Cobain should be ragged.

The film follows personality strands of his from a very young age like resentment and shame – did those jump out at you when you were going through the material?

Brett Morgen: At a certain point cutting that story where Kurt tells about losing his virginity everything suddenly became crystal clear. There’s a line in there that says: “I couldn’t handle the ridicule, so I went down to the train tracks to kill myself.” That’s as close a link as we can have. Suddenly, everywhere I looked: ridicule, shame, humiliation. It was popping off the page. You couldn’t turn a page in the journal without finding it. You know his song Floyd the Barber: “I was shamed.” These things were so prevalent in Kurt’s writings, his art and his music that it was impossible to ignore, and when you understand that, then you can understand at the end of the movie when Courtney talks about how Kurt tried to take his life in Rome why someone who has that predisposition would be so humiliated by an act of betrayal. We also see through the context of the film that Kurt had sort of alienated himself, put all his eggs in one basket and kind of shut himself off from the world and it was all Courtney and Francis. When that was defiled in his mind, that betrayal was like his family cycle all over again. I don’t believe Kurt took his life because he didn’t want to be famous. I believe he died of a broken heart. When you look at it within that context it’s almost Shakespearean. It’s set against this huge stage and yet it’s the most relatable human emotion that ultimately triggered his demise.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will be out in cinemas April 2015