Interview: Brett Morgan, director of ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’


Donnchadh Tiernan spoke to Brett Morgan about his documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which uses material from the Cobains’ personal archives in an in-depth examination of the Nirvana frontman’s childhood, music career and untimely death.


How much audio and video had you at your disposal?

In excess of 800 to a 1,000 hours of material – the bulk of that would have been VHS/camcorder footage of early Nirvana gigs. The real gold was all the stuff I’d been presented with by Kurt’s immediate family and that was all the material that had never seen the light of day and that made up the bulk of our film – that was about 30 hours of material. The 500 hours or so of concert footage wasn’t that much of a burden in terms of designing the narrative.


The footage you got from his family – was that just him as a child?

The footage from the family is pretty much everything you see in the film up to the point when Nirvana broke. One of the things we’ve never called attention to is that the first video-recorded interview with Nirvana is seen in our film for the first time publicily. That comes in about an hour into the film. And that had never been seen before. So it’s not really up to The Teen Spirit video when we started dealing with imagery that has been accessible. Then when you get through the Nevermind period once again you’re back in this world of never-been-seen-before material. It was important for us to access that stuff because that’s where I felt I was able to access a part of Kurt that was never presented to the public.


How did you go about putting all the material together?

My process for all my films is the same – what I do is about a year before I plan to enter the edit room I engage with archivists who spend the bulk of that year collecting every piece of media that exists on the subject. About 9 months into that I bring in an assistant editor who starts to organise the footage chronologically and then I sit down with an editor and screen through everything, both audio and visual – in this way I find that certain themes start to emerge. With this film, that meant starting with footage of Kurt when he was 6 months old and taking it all the way to the end.


As a result of this, it’s a particularly revealing and intimate film.

The intimacy is unfiltered. It’s not Kurt performing for the media – these are elements created by himself or filmed by his family or close friends. So there’s an intimacy in how this work was produced that I think translated quite well in the broader context of the film.


Were you always planning to have the animated sequences or is that something that developed over time?

I knew we were going to have to animate the journals but I never intended to have an animated depiction of Kurt. What happened was we cut the film with the audio and when I experienced those scenes with nothing but a blank screen it was riveting and I loved the idea of being able to visualise it myself but obviously you can’t do that for 7 minutes in the movie. I needed to bring that story to life. It’s specific to the subject matter – in this case there’s a kind of formalism to those scenes that sort of exist outside of the film – the only other place where you see those kind of compositions are in the interviews –  and that’s very deliberate because in those sequences where we animate Kurt we are, in a sense, stepping out of Kurt’s point of view, in the sense that we are creating those images. The same can be said for the interviews, which again kind of exist outside the body of the film. The body of the film is Kurt’s interior journey through life as depicted through his art – whether that be sound collage, his music , paintings or what have you. And this is contextualized by those people who were most intimate with Kurt Cobain during his lifetime.


Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck is in cinemas now.


Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck


Katie Kelly finds nirvana in Brett Morgan’s documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.


There has been a plethora of documentaries relating Kurt Cobain over the past twenty years. Unlike Nick Broomfield’s Kurt and Courtney, or Michael Azzerad’s Been a Son, Montgae of Heck is 100% authorised by Cobain’s now nineteen-year-old daughter, Frances. This is personal, and 100% agenda-less. There is no finger pointing, no blame; just pure, unadulterated Kurt Cobain from start to finish.

The documentary features interviews with various family members. Kurt’s mother’s [Wendy] honesty is admirable. She delivers a frank and sincere account of Kurt’s childhood. Growing up in Aberdeen in Washington, Kurt’s childhood went from almost idyllic to relatively fragmented and chaotic in a short space of time. Mostly unseen home videos of the blonde, blue-eyed toddler Kurt accompany his mother’s sentimental musings.

A real surprise was Donald Cobain, Kurt’s father who is notoriously un-emotional. Cobain himself famously sang about him in Serve the Servants, “I tried hard to have a father, Instead I had a dad.”

Donald Cobain also talks about Kurt’s childhood and adolescence. He is joined by his wife, and Kurt’s stepmother, Jenny Cobain. In a rare glimpse of emotion Donald becomes upset. He allows his wife to answer more of the difficult questions, obviously unable to maintain composure. Cobain is clearly unaccustomed to the cameras, and, unlike Wendy, struggles with his answers. His interview makes this documentary stand out from the crowd. Raw and unbridled, there is no doubt that this man was just as devastated by his son’s demise as anyone else, despite all the negative publicity.

Hisko Hustling’s animation brings adolescent Kurt alive to the sound of old audio recordings and diary excerpts. The sometimes disturbing sequences perfectly capture what it was like to experience the total isolation of being one of the weird ones in this relatively backwards town. Not only does the animation invigorate, but it literally brings to life some of Cobain’s many drawings and artwork from his journals. It is as if he was drawing live, on screen – a truly unique touch.

The inclusion of live, behind-the-scenes footage of the band on tour is an excellent balancing act with the interviews. Here, Nirvana are Nirvana. We have goofy Dave Grohl, sarcastic Novoselic, and a contemplative Kurt Cobain, launching themselves at drum kits, laughing, and behaving the way a young band on tour do. Kurt at the beginning of Nirvana and Kurt by the end seem like two different people. In such a short time, the toll of life on the road, coupled with drugs, the stress of being famous had broken the star.

Like Donald Cobain, bass player Novoselic remains quite sombre and contemplative throughout his interviews. He appears to find it quite difficult to talk openly about his former band-mate. Clearly some wounds never heal, and this is in stark contrast to the Novoselic on tour in 1990. Perhaps there may be a certain sense of guilt, or just outright despair. The same can be said of Tracy Marander, Cobain’s first serious girlfriend. She has been dubbed the ‘Godmother of Nirvana’. When Kurt lived with her, she provided for him and allowed him to practice music, make art and not go out to work. It was during this time that Kurt wrote many of the songs on their debut album Bleach.

Marander vehemently denies any knowledge of Cobain’s drug use when they were together. She has appeared in various other documentaries about the singer, and has remained entirely positive about him, even his major downfalls.

No Kurt documentary would be complete without Courtney Love’s crass and overbearing opinion. As usual it’s the Courtney way or the highway. Her answers to questions seem fairly contrived and long-winded, sometimes straying from the point. But the inclusion of many home videos of her, Kurt and Frances as a baby are probably the best thing about this documentary.

These never-before-seen crude home videos show what life was like at home with the Cobains – their highs and lows… literally in some cases. Kurt is clearly on drugs in some, slurring his words, and barely remaining conscious. There are also many truly touching aspects of the young couple, fussing over their new daughter, and behaving like a normal, young, family.

Montage of Heck is a must for Nirvana-lovers, and documentary-lovers alike. In true HBO style, it is gripping without being over-bearing. Just like Cobain’s life, the film ends abruptly. Unlike many documentaries, books and TV shows, this was entirely focussed on his life, and not his death. The only thing that would have improved it would have been the inclusion of Dave Grohl. But the interviews, home movies, animation, and live performance mix together perfectly to provide one of the most honest, and unbiased documentaries of recent years. A credit to executive-producer Frances Bean Cobain.