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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Chicago 10” Director Brett Morgen

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Chicago 10" Director Brett Morgen

Brett Morgen‘s “Chicago 10” revisits the tragic events outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Yippie protestors were brutally beaten by police officers during a protest riot. Morgen, who co-directed “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” takes an unconventional route in re-counting this tragic piece of American history in the ’60s, telling the story of the subsequent trial as a cartoon (with voiceover work by Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo and others), and blending it with footage of the riots. In the interview, Morgen shares his experince with showing the film to both the young and mature alike, and why he’ sick of why people ask him about Chicago 10 vs. 7. The movie opened the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 and hits theaters this weekend via Roadside Attractions.

indieWIRE: You’ve been making a lot of effort to generate youth interest in the film. Was this always the plan?

Brett Morgen: The social outreach was very youth-oriented, but the trailer, to me, is not very youth-oriented. In terms of distribution, part of the challenge for “Chicago 10” has been trying to nail down the core audience. I made the film, somewhat obviously, for a youth audience. The reaction that we had from Sundance from most distributors was, “We love the film, we think this film will play like gangbusters for kids, it’s going to cost us $10 million to market it and we don’t know if they’re going to show up.” The more conservative approach to marketing this film is to go for the boomers.

iW: There were plenty of boomers in the audience at the Woodstock Film Festival screening late last year.

BM: That was a very interesting screening for me because there were very few young people in that audience. They seemed to be totally enraptured by the film — it was one of the more enthusiastic responses. At the same time, prior to going to Woodstock, we were doing focus screenings with high school and college students in L.A. and those screenings were going through the roof. My favorite comment was from one kid who said, “I feel like I now understand my parents.” I think what’s liberating for a youth audience is that it’s not necessarily a film about 1968. You see images with young people, and suddenly the past becomes something that feels very immediate. For boomers, they can bring that context to the film, so they don’t necessarily need me to set it up for them.

iW: Do you hope “Chicago 10” will have an impact on the dialogue surrounding the election?

BM: From a marketing standpoint, yeah, but I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I do think it will give people ideas about the upcoming conventions. It was a very different time when we screened the film at Sundance. America went to the polls and voted overwhelmingly against the war in Iraq. And that week, George Bush sent 30,000 more troops. If you ask me what has changed since then — well, if you ask John McCain, the surge is working. But if you ask me what’s happened culturally between 2001 and 2007, there were very few inspirational leaders mobilizing us. In the last two months, Barack Obama has emerged as a voice really igniting passions in young voters. In many ways, if there was an Obama around in 2002, I don’t know if we would have even embarked on this journey with this film. As I was constructing the film, year after year, I was like, “Where is the next Abbie Hoffman?” It just wasn’t happening. I’m inspired by the way Obama can connect. It’s not that “Chicago 10” is less relevant, but it’s a different time right now.

“Chicago 10” director Brett Morgen. Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

iW: What, if anything, do you think the Yippies did wrong?

BM: Well, everyone lost in Chicago. The Yippies lost, we lost as a country. Norman Mailer said American innocence started with the death of John F. Kennedy and ended in Chicago. I think that’s a really valid point. Where everybody screwed up was with the inability to meet on each other’s levels and create a dialogue. The Yippies walking into David Stahl‘s office talking about how they were going to drop acid in the reservoirs, even though that was a joke, certainly wasn’t a way to get a permit.

iW: You had A-list talent providing the voices for the animated scenes. What directions did you give them?

BM: One of the great things we unearthed over the course of our research was actual courtroom audio. Nobody had heard this stuff since the trial. We found it in a vault as far away from Chicago as you could get. That came at the tail end of the process, when I was about to record the voices, so that was hugely helpful and inspirational. When you read the transcript, there’s no stage direction, and you try to imagine what these people sounded like, particularly Judge Hoffman, who doesn’t exist in a lot of media. People think some of the performances are over the top, but whoever said that has no idea what these people sounded like in the courtroom.

iW: What kind of reactions have you been getting to the contemporary soundtrack?

BM: There are certainly people who have taken issue with it — generally not to my face — but in blogs and whatnot, which is totally understandable. I stormed out of “Marie Antoinette.” Because the dialogue and the performances were so stylized in the sense that they were contemporary, I thought the music was incongruous to the images. Personally, I never thought that twice about it [with “Chicago 10”]. The effect I think it has is that if you take forty year old images and put new images and sound around it, suddenly the past comes into focus in the present. If you walk this film thinking you’re going to see David Grubin‘s “Chicago ’68,” you’re going to be gravely disappointed.

iW: How did Steven Spielberg get involved in adapting “Chicago 10” for his upcoming project, “The Trial of the Chicago 7?”

BM: I screened the film for Walter Parks, who’s the former president of DreamWorks, in the context of just setting up a general meeting about feature projects. Walter called my agent up and said, “This is amazing. I gotta remake this.” I remember saying to my agent, “Could this be good with actors?” But then, a month later, we found out that Spielberg was attached to direct it. That was an amazing thing to happen. I wanted to reintroduce this story to people under the age of fifty-five. The Spielberg movie is going to be seen by millions of people all over the world. The fact that we played a part in that and inspired that version of the film is the fulfillment of why we made this film to begin with.

iW: The title of your movie updates the story to include the two defense attorneys and Bobby Seale. How do you feel about the Spielberg film returning to the Chicago 7 interpretation?

BM: I’m so tired of fielding questions about why it’s called Chicago 10. It was originally called C7. I saw this quote from Jerry Rubin who said, “Anyone who calls this Chicago 7 is a racist. Call us the Chicago 8, out of respect for Bobby Seale, but really we’re the Chicago 10.” [Entertainment attorney] John Sloss was like, “Idiot. Just call it C7. It’s a better name.” In retrospect, he was right. [But] I like the idea that we made it Chicago 10. It’s about appropriation.

iW: There was a large negative reaction when the documentary shortlist for the Academy Awards was released this year. Your thoughts?

BM: That was stupid. I mean, I’m in the Academy. I know there was an uproar, but look at the final list. It’s pretty good. If I had my way, “King of Kong” would be nominated. It was my favorite film of the year. However, I understand that the fictional equivalent of “King of Kong” would be “Blades of Glory.” Should “Blades of Glory” get nominated for Best Picture? Probably not. I understand that the Academy Awards is a different beast than the Independent Spirit Awards, [but] the Academy is getting younger. There are a bunch of us — filmmakers from our generation — and we obviously have people with different taste.

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