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Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 6 Essential Tips from Brett Morgen

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 6 Essential Tips from Brett Morgen

READ MORE: Tribeca: 6 Ways Kurt Cobain Comes to Life in Brett Morgen’s ‘Montage of Heck’

In a masterclass held at the Sheffield Doc/Fest on June 7th, the “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” director offered an intimate look into the thought process behind making documentary films as compelling as fictional features. Here are six tips he shared with the audience:

1. Love your subjects and bring them to life.

What makes “Montage of Heck” unlike all other music documentaries in Brett Morgen’s mind is his intimate access to Kurt Cobain while he was alone. Courtney Love offered Morgen hundreds of hours of Cobain’s home recordings, all of which included him practicing, speaking, moving around and living life alone. Morgen remarked that Cobain was a different person around everyone he knew, which made tackling the issue of “who is the real Kurt Cobain” a daunting feat. However, in the opening seven minutes of “Montage of Heck,” Morgen uses animation to access Cobain’s mind in the present tense given that his voice recordings “feel alive.” It is in those moments that Morgen claims to feel the closest he could ever possibly feel to Cobain because it’s as if he’s just there sitting in the room and existing. Morgen aims to be purposeful in all decisions, especially when the stakes are so high in paying homage to a legendary musician. He remarked, “as filmmakers, we have to ask ourselves, ‘is this the best arena for this story?’ because maybe it’d be better off being a book or a fiction film.”

2. Remember that every piece of the story matters.

While filming the “Montage of Heck,” Morgen would constantly ask himself the question, “Am I using any given particular medium to its fullest?” In his Sheffield Doc/Fest Masterclass, he acknowledged that “there are 100 ways to skin a cat, and something as simple as answering a phone call that sets the whole thing in motion and then mirroring that with the right aesthetic (thanks to illustrator, Hisko Husling)” puts “Montage of Heck” in the present tense even though all information Morgen has of Cobain operates in the past. 

3. Always work with your audio tracks first.

“Because I don’t do talking head [style documentaries] and I haven’t done verite in sixteen years, my movies are all manufactured and constructed, so I always start with the sound stage,” said Morgen. “I think that sound, if we’re going to be very straightforward about it, is 50% of a movie, but often times, we as documentary filmmakers use it for foley and to mirror the action on the screen. I think sound is as inviting and expressive as medium as picture. You can sculpt sound, you can tell whole stories with sound.”

4. Explore journals and other objects you can use in creative ways.

It is a filmmaker’s job and obligation to his subject to recreate the world that they lived in and to convey their headspace to the best of his or her ability. Morgen sees potential in the seemingly mundane and ordinary. “With journals and the ephemera, a director needs to approach that the same way a director would if he approached a soundstage, and there’s a set of a house and it hasn’t been lit yet and the camera hasn’t been placed, it’s just a house. Now that same house can be used to be a haunted house or it can be used to be Norman Rockwell depending on how you light and use the camera,” explained Morgen. “Text is no different… it provides infinite amount of possibilities and opportunities for directors… everything is a weapon. Cuts are a weapon in our toolkit, and we have such limited tools in our kit as documentary filmmakers.”  

5. You can’t always trust your main character.

Morgen said that he knows that “we have this limited ability to express ourselves with film and when you’re doing a talking head, everything in there is a reflection of you the filmmaker.” As a result, he cuts all of his documentaries without interviews first so that the story is not dependent on information that is could or could not be reliable. He then drafts a second cut and builds up momentum by adding in interviews when and only when they are invaluable to the conversation at stake or propel the story forward. Every other usage of talking heads is just lazy filmmaking.

6. One last tiny tip for any documentary filmmaker…  

A final bit of advice from Morgen: “Don’t film in front of a music board and don’t film someone driving unless they’re actually driving somewhere. It’s cliche, it’s dumb, don’t do it.” Morgen learned this the hard way when P. Diddy requested that he shoot scenes of him behind a soundboard; Morgen vowed, “never again!”

READ MORE: Why Courtney Love Asked Brett Morgen to Film ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’: “I wanted someone to tell the truth”

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