Brett Morgen on Directing His Experiential David Bowie Documentary “Moonage Daydream” | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, September 27th, 2022  

Brett Morgen on Directing His Experiential David Bowie Documentary “Moonage Daydream”

“I was more interested in [making] something that I thought would reflect the enigma and the mystery, and the sublime intimacy that I think of when I think of David Bowie.”

Sep 23, 2022 Photography by Courtesy of NEON Web Exclusive
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If you’re looking for a documentary that charts neatly through the life of David Bowie, his 50-year discography and the coterie of musicians and producers he collaborated with—you better look elsewhere. Moonage Daydream, the kaleidoscopic, Brett Morgen-helmed documentary that opened in theaters last weekend, is a feast for the senses, that’s best experienced at an IMAX cinema. Morgen does not labor over facts or timelines, but employs Bowie’s own voice from interviews—gleaned from over five million assets—as narration, to provide us with a template of how we can live our lives in these times of chaos. Much of what Morgen has assembled confirms Bowie’s visionary status in glorious Technicolor without sacrificing the quiet intimacy that comes from having unprecedented access to Bowie’s personal archives of journals, never-before-seen drawings, and recordings.

One of the most commercially successful artists, Bowie’s 1983 Serious Moonlight Tour and 1987 Glass Spider Tour sold out every large arena across the U.S. Yet, the unseen concert footage of Bowie in peak Ziggy Stardust, at the beginning of this film, will be the closest many of us, will ever get to the experience of a live Bowie show. And they are several of these immersive performances to take in, over the film’s 125-minute run time.

Morgen’s other non-fiction projects include Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the recent Jane Goodall documentary Jane, and 2012’s The Kid Stays In The Picture. In the lead up to the film’s release and before Morgen moves into the home of an unnamed Hollywood star for his next project, a Verite documentary—he sat with us on a Zoom-video call from Los Angeles, to discuss the making of Moonage Daydream.

Celine Teo-Blockey (Under the Radar): There’s this idea in art and cinema that you have to kill your babies. This idea that you have to cut the stuff that you love the most, even if it’s good, because it doesn’t fit into the narrative. But I believe that you go one step further. You actually eliminate your favorite thing as soon as you get started on narrative building. For Moonage Daydream, you had access to so much so what was the first few things you eliminated and did you eventually put it back in?

Brett Morgen: I didn’t experience that until I finished the film. And I ended up removing my favorite scene after the film was finished. This film did not afford me the opportunity to be so bold and audacious as to remove some elements. It was so difficult to assemble. But in an act of courage and bravery, I did after the film was done, take out a mind blowing 12-minute performance of “Station to Station,” which I thought was the cornerstone to the whole film. The whole film was about that, and the film up to that time was called “Station to Station.”

Wow.

But it’s never over till it’s over. And even though it gets a little expensive to go back and tweak things, you know, my colorist—I think what I say to them is “until it airs on television, expect to see me.” At that point you can’t, it’s already out. But even between theatrical and TV, I’m going to tweak it out. It just is an ongoing process.

And so you had actually met with David Bowie some years before that to discuss working on a documentary with him. What happened then and how did that inform how you tackled this project in terms of the story that you wanted to tell?

They were totally isolated. The piece that I discussed with David was going to be acted. It was not a documentary in a traditional sense. It was going to be basically a performance piece, not a concert—it would take a while to go into the pitch—I guess the continuity of it was that his executor was in that meeting with me. When I personally met with David, it was May 2007. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was in basically retirement and had health issues. And the pitch I presented with would have required about 40 to 50 days of shooting. So Bill [Zysblat, Bowie’s business manager] called me the next day and said, “David really enjoyed the meeting. But, you know, the timing is not easy. These kind of health issues. Timing is not right here.” But when I spoke to Bill in 2016, by that point he had become an executor. I think the fact that I had met with David, and he’d had an opportunity to vet me up was significant to Bill. And when I presented him with my pitch, which was in essence to do an experiential non-biographical experience, it seemed to jive with what the estate was interested in doing. And in the sort of spirit of creative, I don’t know what you want to call it, Bill providing me with final cut. And access to every item in the vault. And the only thing he said to me at the beginning was, “David’s not here to approve or authorize your film, so it’s never going to be ‘David Bowie on David Bowie.’ It’s always going to be ‘Brett Morgen on David Bowie.’” And I think that is probably why he was comfortable giving me final cut, because it was designed as an artistic interpretation from one artist to another. This happened several times my career, but it’s the third in a row now. Kurt Cobain’s executor, David Burns, gave me final cut on Cobain. And if you think about it, that’s kind of crazy because you know, these movies are kind of the brand. And these brands are huge and they’re very valuable. And in most instances with heritage acts they’re trying to sell merch—that’s what they’re there for. So when I was ready to show David [Burns] the first cut of Montage of Heck, he said, “Am I going to like it?” I said, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to sell that more T-shirts.” And the fact that when he came to see the film, looked at me and was like, “You did it!”—was remarkable. And as a result, we made, I think, a really compelling music documentary. When I did Jane with National Geographic, I did a 50-minute call with Courteney Monroe, the president. And then they called and said they wanted me, and I told my agent “not unless I get final cut.” And then they granted it which was insane because Jane was created to rebrand Nat Geo and I just had done Montage of Heck and why in the world would you do that? After working with The Rolling Stones, I made a decision I would never make another film that I don’t have full creative control over. So I would have rather ended my career and not make films anymore than have to be at the mercy of someone whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned with making the best possible film.

Two things from what you’ve just said—one is, after the whole kind of “Montage of Heck is bullshit” drama that went down and you receiving death threats and having to go to Sundance with undercover bodyguards and all that. Like did you consider with doing Bowie, you know, to do another kind of documentary of a much loved musician—

Bowie’s not very controversial. You know there are a lot of—Kurt is like, good luck venturing into that world. I mean, I started that film and there is already a very large contingent of conspiracy theorists who believe that Courtney had a hand in Kurt’s death, who were going to come after me no matter what I did. So, you know, that fringe component doesn’t really exist with Boeing. I mean, look, what Bowie has is, like Kurt, Bowie’s fans—and by the way, the conspiracy theorists I don’t believe are fans in any stretch of the imagination because I believe they’ve completely misread Kurt’s entire work. I don’t know how anyone could actually listen to Kurt’s music and read his lyrics and think that something else happened, that just defies all credibility.

Yeah, they’re like trolls.

Bowie’s fans are very protective. They feel they have a personal relationship and there’s a sort of proprietary sort of ownership—that’s the thing I was kind of worried a little bit about. And the only other thing that I’m really kind of, you know, the Bowie fan sort of making me feel a little uncomfortable—like, I get DMs from people who want to know all of the assets I used in the film. And I’ll say, like, “You’re missing the point. That’s not the point of the film. And I’m not going to publish the list.” That’s not how one should enter the film. It’s not about of this unseen film or that. And I made a decision—I could have made an entire film of unseen material and I mean, there are people that I just I don’t know why—Overrated! I know the hardcores, that’s what they would prefer. But I do think that for even the most seasoned Bowie fan, there is something illuminating in seeing the journey come together over the course of two and a half hours. I think there is some new insights to be gleaned by sort of compressing. The only way to compress it is two and a half hours was to present it as a non-biographical, non-information based experience. If I had to introduce talking heads, and tried to serve the same narrative, the film would have been 19 hours long.

I love the fact that you didn’t have talking heads actually, and because I did watch Five Years. But also after Bowie’s passing there were so many documentaries on Youtube with talking heads.

I wrote to Francis Whately—who made the Five Years film—a letter starting off thanking him for his work, letting me know how much I appreciated it and that it almost liberated me to do what I was going to do.

Yeah.

So if you want that, it’s already out there? But I don’t feel that’s very Bowie. I don’t think it can be Bowie because it’s trying to explain. And that’s not everything, but we ask. So I think it’s an amazing document of David Jones, David Bowie. And I constantly am referring it to people to go if they want a deeper, a different type of media and information. But clearly, I was more interested in something that I thought would reflect the enigma and the mystery, and the sublime intimacy that I think of when I think of David Bowie. Films are always—and going back to The Kid Stays In the Picture—designed to kind of offer up a, they’re not, ever since The Kid Stays In The Picture, they’ve never been information based or fact based. I’m always interested in what can I do to bring the audience, to create these kind of experiences that offer the audience something, they can get it from a different medium. And as much as I admire Five Years, I do think a lot of that information could be served in a book. And I like to experience things when I go [to the cinema]. I don’t go to the cinema to learn. Or I definitely don’t go to the cinema for facts. That’s the last place I want to experience any facts. I really just like my sight and sound, my senses tingling. So that the analogy of a theme park ride to me is very apropos because that’s my biggest influences. I’ve come to realize that my probably two biggest influences on my aesthetic are Disneyland and Pink Floyd’s Lazerium. And I think that my entire career has been an attempt to kind of recreate those experiences in nonfiction.

So I think the documentary I feel is as much about you as it is about David Bowie, because—

As this article is going to be more about you than me.

Well, I know what you mean, but I feel like, you know, they’re—

You’ve decided on a set of questions that are different than the person who was before you. Your interests are different than Joel’s interests and Cindy’s interests. And so your article is a reflection of you, not me.

That’s true. But how you—

Until you build an AI program that can be objective and to me Bertolt Brecht is as authentic and honest as it gets…also what Brecht did for me is to acknowledge the machinations of the process. And that to me was, you know, illuminating and honest. It’s why The Kid Stays In The Picture, which I think at the time certain members of the doc community might have dismissed for being subjective—that was the point in the film. The first line of the film is “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.” The point in putting it out there was to challenge the very notion of objectivity in nonfiction. And that the only true—like when I did, I never did an interview in a film before Crossfire Hurricane—this thing I did about The Stones, and there is this thing in documentary that had been raised on, which is you take out the voice of the interviewer. What the fuck? If we are supposed to be objective truth seekers why are we masking and hiding the machinations? Every documentary should expose the…they should almost put a sign up that says “Edit point here. I just took out 17 seconds,’ you know, it’s like—

Yeah.

So you embrace this objective and it’s really the only way to, I think, get at a what Carl Heider would argue as a higher truth. Nanook of the North was an incredibly, inspiring piece of work that I saw when I was like a freshman in college. And I remember learning everything was staged, but if they hadn’t staged it, they would have had a film of people staring into the camera. That would have been the only honest scene because there’s a fucking camera in the middle of the ice field—but that’s not normal…. It would have captured a different truth, but we wouldn’t have had access into the life of Nanook. So that was also a huge moment of revelation.

Okay. So I like what you said because I feel like there’s still this idea that documentary as a medium, it’s fly on the wall. You’re an observer and you don’t want to change reality as it unfolds. But I feel we’re at this point where that’s a fallacy. It’s informed by who you are. And I wondered if you dealt with those questions as a documentary filmmaker?

I’ve always been—that’s the question that I start every film with…. My films may not look like it, but I am a huge student of nonfiction, particularly the, you know, from Lumiere through the ’80s. And and so like I said The Kid Stays In the Picture may be entertaining. I was making a film about documentary film. That’s what I was doing when I did Chicago Ten. It was the same idea. It was the first sort of mainstream animated documentary. And the art of animation to me in a nonfiction film was in part introduced because it’s so entirely subjective. It cannot be confused as anything else. It’s clearly interpretive. So it was that intrigued me. I think with Bowie, I had finally reached in many ways, my final challenge, which is just forget everything else. And it’s just now the immersive component. Let’s just strip away all that other shit and just deal with that. Now that was my entry point. But then I had a heart attack and then I changed. And then not by my choice, but by circumstances, I started to receive all of this sort of guidance from Bowie and then the film went that direction.

As you pointed out, there is a lesson for all of us, in that you’ve got this beautiful life of a creative person that you can look at from start to end. And for me as a creative person, I got so much insight from it, through your eyes—

Sorry, I was just going to say, one of the things about Bowie that I find so unique is that—you’re a creative, you started out by saying, I’m a creative person—I believe that the messaging that Bowie provides is as impactful for a day laborer as it is for a creative—this is just a guide to how to live a life, how to lead an adventurous life in the 21st century. My father, very conservative, never drank, never smoked, never put himself in environments, in situations that were uncomfortable. And he’s 80 years old and, you know, in many ways he’s the anti-Bowie. And, you know, it makes me a little sad. You know, he saw the film and he had a really strong reaction to it. And I was just trying to imagine what he was thinking at that age, knowing how nearly everything David said is contrary to how he’s lived. I’m just happy that I was able to get this message while I still have some time left because it’s going to make the rest of my life so much more exciting and adventurous. This is not a one off like I’m not—I usually when I finish a film, I’m done, book close—like I can’t do Nirvana lyrics anymore. The memory is faded or was pushed out by tears of Bowie. But this film, more than anything that I will ever create, will guide me into all sorts of situations and circumstances.

I have one question about some footage that you used, I think, because I originally am from Singapore and—

I take it you notice that he was walking around Singapore.

Well, yeah, I immediately went, “Oh, my God, I know that’s Far East Plaza, a mall in Singapore.” Also I liked how you used that footage, I think it was Bangkok, Indonesia and Singapore? And I particularly loved when he walks into that room with that little boy and the gamelan troupe and they play the music. I was like, “Where was that from? When did he go?” That’s so lovely and something you don’t often see, it’s usually very Eurocentric a lot of the stuff that comes out about Bowie. So why did you use that footage from there?

Okay. Here’s the story. 1983 or ’84. I can’t remember the exact month, and days, facts, blah dates. He had been on the Serious Moonlight Tour for eight months. It was supposedly completed in Auckland. And the reality is, he had nowhere to go back to. He had no home. He didn’t want it to end.

Wow.

Yeah. And so he said to his road manager, “Why don’t we go do a run through Southeast Asia and we’ll use the proceeds from the concerts to shoot a kind of travelog.” And so they hired, not a traditional documentarian, but someone who specialized in travelogs. And they made this 50-minute film called Ricochet. It came out on VHS in ’84 and had never been re-released since. And I first encountered it through a VHS tape that the estate provided with the other gazillions of assets. And when I saw it, I immediately recognized this would be the single most important element for the film because David was rarely engaged in documentaries. That’s why they rarely got a camera following him around that much. And what was captured? There was this stranger in a strange land. It was the wanderer, the seeker, the adventurer, all caught in glorious 16 millimeter. And it was going to be the visual metaphor for the film. And I called the estate and I said, “Do you have a master?” And they had nothing. And when I first talk to them, they said, “Ricochet, what the hell do you want Ricochet for?” I mean, that’s how much Ricochet was thought of. And our archival producer, Jessica Berman Bogdan eventually found the negative mislabeled in a vault in London, not associated with Bowie. And that was the happiest day of this production. And now because of the film, I think they’re going to end up re-releasing Ricochet, which is my worst nightmare! Because I would have never used so much footage. I use all that footage because nobody knows this thing. It’s never going to be released.

Yeah. Well, being from Singapore, I completely got that sense of alienation.

But you know what’s interesting too, is that David put on the Roy Batty jacket and he walked around, he was so Blade Runner-esque! Someone ask me the other day, when he’s going on the escalator and you see the people looking at him, and I’m like, “Well, I don’t think they recognized that it was David Bowie, but there was a film crew following him. And look at him! He looks so exotic. I mean, he’s not of this world.” And I will tell you one other thing about that film that I found so fucking fascinating, which is this is during the Serious Moonlight Tour. This is David on the one hand doing “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” and being this pop thing. And in another instance, he’s putting out this thing where he’s just walking around to “Warszawa” and it’s like, it’s not an experimental film, but it is certainly not like what we were seeing on MTV with David at that point. I remember thinking initially that, “Oh, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to run this concurrent with the Serious Moonlight stuff to show that, there’s still this wanderlust.” But it ended up providing me better usage in the periods right before Serious Moonlight when he was literally wandering the world, so I ended up splintering its usage.

Because this is for Under the Radar, a music magazine, what are you listening to in terms of music?

You’re going to probably think this is a contrived answer, but it definitely is not. I have a 17-year-old, he just turned 17, this kid grew up in the back of my car, driving around listening to first, The Rolling Stones when he was five, then Nirvana, and then Bowie for the last seven years. And with that built into his brain, he’s become this amazing musician. And he put out his first album a few months ago. And he’s kind of the only thing I can listen to right now, besides Bowie. And it sounds like, when I listen to it, it sounds like the music that’s been in my head my whole life. I don’t know if you have children? I don’t know how to explain it.

Yes, I have two.

Okay, so you might understand this. Listen, I’m very straight. Like, my son, he really wanted to be a hockey player. He was awful. I like, I would sit there at games and I would say, “My kid’s off.” I never had blinders on. But I didn’t know he was recording. I’d been gone, working here. And in September we went on a trip to Cleveland and he was like on this [mimes turing knobs on a mixing board]. We were sitting in a hotel room and I’m like, “What are you doing, man?” And he’s like, “I’m mixing my album.” I’m like, “Your album! What album?” And he gave me his headphones. And I’m telling you, I have not been able to listen to anything else. It feels like I said, like the music that’s been in my brain. Now, it’s very Eno-esque. So I’m also in a Bowie headspace. So, I’m very connected to it. But that’s what I’ve been listening to—Max Morgen.

www.moonagedaydream.film

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