Since receiving an Oscar nomination for 1999’s On the Ropes, Brett Morgen has become one of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians. Films like 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture and 2015’s Emmy-nominated Cobain: Montage of Heck have displayed Morgen’s gift for finding the interiority of his subjects and making it visually palatable in unique ways.
Morgen is back with Jane, which begins its theatrical run this week and will subsequently air on the National Geographic Channel in the spring. Telling the story of world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, Jane began a few years ago when National Geographic found 140 hours of footage from the 1960s of Goodall in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, all shot by acclaimed wildlife photographer—and Goodall’s eventual husband—Hugo van Lawick.
To craft that footage into a film, Morgen used new interviews with Goodall, old audio recordings of her work, and a new Philip Glass score. The result, which premiered to a rapturous standing ovation last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a gorgeous film that has reduced several critics to tears. MovieMaker spoke to Morgen the day after the premiere about the challenges of creating the film, and how aspiring documentarians can approach such a daunting task.
Daniel Joyaux, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was the time gap between when National Geographic discovered the Hugo van Lawick footage and when you were initially contacted?
Brett Morgen (BM): I think it was right around the time that Montage of Heck was coming into existence. So I think while they were contemplating doing this, they saw Montage and gave me a call.
MM: Did they already have a set budget in mind for the project, or were you incorporated into figuring that out?
BM: I think they had an idea, and I also had an idea. I told them before we even started to explore the idea of doing the film, we have to be in the same place.
MM: Can you tell us what the budget was?
BM: It was a little north of $2 million.
MM: You’ve said that the footage they found wasn’t in chronological order. What was the initial sorting process like?
BM: It was a total nightmare. There’s a review that came out yesterday that made it seem like, “What an easy job this was,” like I was just handed 100-plus hours of the most beautiful 16mm footage in the world. Well, if that was the case, we would have premiered last year. And instead we get these 140 hours that were scrambled.
We put on the first reel, and literally 10 minutes in, I realized there was something totally wrong. Every shot is like, here’s a shot of a chimp in a tree, here’s a shot of Jane walking left to right, here’s a shot of an insect… You know, just all over the place. So we stopped, and at that point I’d read a number of books about Jane, so I had a sense of what the narrative was. So I said, Alright, let’s take all the footage of Jane and put that on one reel; let’s take all the footage of chimps eating and put that on one reel—which was a lot [laughs]. Then reels of chimps walking, in trees, sleeping, procreating, and doing nothing. So there were, I think, eight master categories. That enabled me to go through and figure out what we can make the film of. Then at that point I wrote the outline script for the film and we went after it. And initially I didn’t think there would be any dialogue. When I hired Philip [Glass] I just anticipated it was going to be nature sounds and orchestral, because Jane’s not talking in the forest. But I quickly realized you need context to understand these shots.
MM: When you’re picking what footage to use, what specific things are you looking for?
BM: This film is very different, because part of what we were looking for was the lens choice that Hugo would use.
MM: How many different lenses were there?
BM: Hugo would have like six different lenses with him and he’d have three on at a time. But before Hugo enters the film, we didn’t want there to be any shots that were shot with a wide angle, where you could feel that the cameraperson was close to the subject. We wanted to be more formal at that part and then we wanted to break it down. The other thing was, I knew that at some point we were going to break down the fourth wall. So as we’re looking through the footage, I’m trying to identify those moments where Jane’s falling in love on camera, or Hugo and Jane are falling in love with each other, which are my favorite parts of the film.
MM: For film students that want to go into documentary, how do you recommend initially approaching these massive archives? What does Day 1, Hour 1 look like?
BM: I’ve used the same approach for 18 years, and it’s to collect every piece of media, both aural and visual, photographic, newspaper, everything you can get your hands on, put it in chronological order, and start sifting through it. And then, inherently, themes emerge. Narratives emerge before your eyes. You know, part of making these films is about figuring out how to play into your strengths—Okay, I have this footage here and I got this footage here… How can we create a through-line that connects them? Because if I don’t have a solid through-line, I’m not using this. I don’t believe in the whole Wikipedia fucking cliff notes to history. You have a story, and I don’t care how good the fucking footage is, if it doesn’t relate to that story, it’s not going in the movie. You have to be very disciplined that way.
MM: How did all of that footage from the 1960s look so good?
BM: Part of that is the way it was preserved. But we did 200-plus hours at a color correcting company. I said to Jane yesterday before the premiere, “I can’t wait to talk to you afterward, because I’m pretty confident that what we have today looks better than it did in ’65.” Because, obviously we’re creating windows within the frame at the color correct. So we’re controlling where your eyes are looking. Eighty percent of when you go, “Wow, that looks great,” is literally us guiding your eye, through very subtle shading, to the point of reference we want you to look at. You’re not supposed to be conscious of it. But if you came to the color correct with me and I put the windows up, you’d be like, “Holy shit dude.”
Of the 140-plus hours we have, I would say there was—no exaggeration—less than a minute of over- or under-exposed footage. Hugo always nailed it. It was incredible. With this film, hopefully a lot of people will get introduced, or be re-introduced, to Jane, and I think in the time we’re living in, that’s a wonderful antidote. She’s the real deal, and should be celebrated. But as a filmmaker, I’m super jazzed about giving Hugo the attention he deserves and warrants as really a progenitor in his field.
MM: You said earlier that initially you didn’t expect Jane to have narration or dialogue. When did the idea of a narrator come in, and was it immediately obvious to you that it should be Jane?
BM: Jane has written almost a dozen books. She’s an amazing writer, and an even better speaker. Early on, we figured out that Jane had recorded a bunch of books on tape, one of which was for a book called A Reason for Hope, and that’s like Jane’s sort of guide to spirituality in Gombe, which gives the film some of that lyricism.
I felt like her voice today had deteriorated to the point that it’s wonderful to come back to for these interviews, but if I used it during the moments where we’re in her present day of the footage, that would make it feel like you’re looking back, and more reflective and pensive. I loved the idea that these were her words, and her writing, and presented in the manner that she felt. She’s an artist. The same way I used Kurt Cobain’s art in Montage of Heck to tell his story, there was nothing more pure to me than using Jane’s own art, and her own writings to express her point of view. If I’m interviewing someone, people don’t necessarily speak in a kind of lyrical manner that comes from writing poetry. And so if I ask Jane to describe, “What was it like when you first arrived in Gombe,” she would tell me something, and it would probably lack some of the texture that we get when Jane goes [impersonates her voice on tape], “The rolling hills, the little streams, the birds and the insects, all walking as one.” You know, she does it better there than anything I could extract or pull from her.
MM: You said yesterday that she was initially skeptical of the project, and it was difficult to get her to open up. Do you recall any sort of moment where you felt that tide shift?
BM: After the first day, I felt I was getting what I needed about the chimpanzees, but I didn’t feel I had penetrated the Hugo story. I had a two-day shoot, so it was like Frost/Nixon. I went home after the first day, I reviewed my notes, and decided that when I came in the next day I would show her the scene in the film that we had already cut, where Jane and Hugo are falling in love. And I put that on, and her eyes started twinkling, and she went back somewhere where she hadn’t been in a very long time. And we were already lit and I said, “Okay, let’s roll.”
I’m pretty confident at one point that I said to her, “Jane, when we talked about Hugo yesterday, I know you haven’t talked about him in a long time, and I felt it was a little too detached. And I just think it’s important to try and capture what you were feeling in that moment.” This is going back, asking her about this relationship she was in, you know, a lifetime ago for her. But the visual—showing her the footage—just brought it right back for her.
MM: Philip Glass did a lot of documentaries early in his career but has sort of strayed away. Was it hard to get him to go back into that realm?
BM: He’s expensive. I would say he took a significant part of the budget. But he and Jane are the same age, and they’re just two icons. We showed him some stuff we had already started cutting. And he wasn’t aware of Jane’s narrative, but he was immediately struck by the cinematography, and I think he recognized what we were trying to do.
It was interesting because I needed a romantic score, and that’s not necessarily the thing you go to Philip for. But when we got the first set of cues back—it was the first five cues, almost as they exist in the film right now—and I was listening to them with my wife, and she goes, “He’s falling in love with her.” And when I got on the phone with Philip, he goes, “I don’t know if you realized it, but, uh, I think I’m falling in love.” And I said, “No, it’s definitely coming through, and it’s working!”
MM: The final denouement, with the montage and the score reaching its crescendo, is just gorgeous. Were you guiding Philip toward that moment?
BM: Oh, he was so hostile. I kept getting from his team, “Philip doesn’t do DUH DUH DUH DUH” [exaggerates dramatic musical notes]. And it was a tug of war. I knew we needed it. The whole movie was an opera! So we had to build to a big crescendo. And the film was all designed for that.
MM: What sort of documentary subject can we expect from you next?
BM: I can’t announce it yet, but I’m going back to the rock realm. But I think I’m moving away from narrative a little bit. The next set of films is going to be more experiential. I’ve always tried to create experiential cinema, but the stuff I’m working toward is a sort of understanding that, with icons, we know the story. But what I want to get in a theatrical experience is the heart and soul. So with some of these artists, you know, I don’t want to hear that they were born in 1942. That means nothing to me. Let me drink their fucking blood, you know what I mean? I wanna get inside of them. So that’s what we’re gonna try to do. MM
Jane opens in theaters October 20, 2017, courtesy of Abramorama.