As the gap between great TV and great film narrows, so does the gap between their respective awards organizations. Can a project receive Oscars and Emmys? In some cases, the answer is a resounding “No”: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences changed its rules after Ezra Edelman’s acclaimed ESPN documentary “O.J.: Made in America” won the 2017 Oscar. Never again, said AMPAS, will a multi-part TV “series” cross our stage.
Still, many two-hour documentary films see theatrical debuts before they hit television, which makes them eligible for both Oscars and Emmys. This year’s Oscar winner, “Icarus,” came from Netflix, as did Oscar-nominee “Strong Island.” And they are among the five films in the Documentary Emmy race, along with “Jane” (National Geographic), Matt Heinemann’s “City of Ghosts” (A&E) and “What Haunts Us” (Starz).
“Jane” has a chance at seven Emmys, including Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, Directing, Editing, Cinematography, Sound Mixing and Editing and Writing. “Jane” may be the favorite, but the question remains: will the factors that cost Morgen’s lauded documentary about primatologist Goodall an Oscar nod also dog its Emmy chances? Here’s some elements to consider.
First, the 23,000-strong TV Academy is a much broader and more populist group than the much smaller, often insular Academy documentary branch.
Second, Morgen’s a respected filmmaker; he dug into the subjects of his jazzily compelling biodocs “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and Robert Evans portrait “The Kid Stays in the Picture” with clever graphics and creative editing. And “Jane” was even more accessible and gratifying than his previous work. Right out of Toronto, “Jane” scored rave reviews (Metascore: 87).
Finally, “Jane” was so widely honored that most awards pundits predicted that it would easily land an Oscar nomination. More than 20 critics groups from around the country awarded the film Best Documentary, including the Critics Choice Awards, along with the National Board of Review, the Cinema Eye Honors (the Audience Award and Best Score) and the Writers, Editors and Producers Guilds. So it was a surprise when “Jane” didn’t land an Oscar nod. Instead, it only made the shortlist, joining a number of great films snubbed by Academy documentarians, from early Michael Moore entry “Roger and Me” and Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” to Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams.”
Back in 2014, Market Road Films producer-director Tony Gerber first pitched to National Geographic Documentary Films the idea of digitizing and culling 140 hours of unedited, silent 50-year-old 16 mm archive footage shot in 1962 of the 26-year-old Jane Goodall. She was sent into the wild by Louis Leakey to observe chimpanzees, and the cinematographer was one of the great nature photographers of all time: Holland’s Hugo Arndt Rodolf Baron van Lawick (10 April 1937 – 2 June 2002). Gerber convinced NatGeo of the rich potential for a revelatory new cinematic portrait of widely covered Goodall, who had been world-famous for decades. But the company decided to develop the documentary with another director, giving Gerber producer credit. He wound up publishing the 2017 cover story “Becoming Jane” in National Geographic Magazine.
Instead, in March 2015, shortly after the release of “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” NatGeo president of original programming and production Tim Pastore pursued Morgen, who saw the possibilities in the material. For one thing, he was was ready to tackle a documentary about a woman, having spent 15 years focused on male father figures. “I was working out Daddy issues and these powerful men,” he told me. “There were a lot of drugs in my films. There was a desire to do something a bit brighter and more inspirational.”
Rather than pursue the talking heads and letter-reading actors pitched by Gerber, Morgen saw a more immersive way to bring audiences into Goodall’s story. “I’m trying to bring the past to life, not tell you what happened,” he said, “but to invite the audience to experience the events while they were unfolding. There have been several books, but there hasn’t been a film that allowed you to feel that you were in Gombe with Jane.”
A fine romance
Morgen figured out that there was a way to edit the film of the 26-year-old scientist’s initial observation of the chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park as a romance. As we fall in love with her, so does the man shooting her. Morgen intercuts insect footage also shot by Van Lawick.
“I can’t begin to describe the challenges Hugo would have faced shooting 16 mm color film in Africa in 1962,” he said. Every frame of the film is shot by Hugo, except for Ellen Kuras’ interview shoots with Goodall. While alternate takes were used in the 1965 Orson Welles film “Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” none of what’s in “Jane” has been seen before. For the film’s voiceover narration, Morgen used excerpts of Goodall reading from the audio version of her 1999 book “Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey.”
“It had long been thought we were the only creatures on earth that made tools,” she says in the film. “It was hard for me to believe what I had seen. The crude beginning of tool-making had never been seen before…we must now redefine man or accept chimpanzees as human.” The results of her reports was predictable attempts to discredit the work of a young untrained scientist.
To gain more insights into her personal life, however, Morgen asked the now 83-year-old if he could spend two days asking her questions on video. He had to work hard to coax the busy environmental activist to give him more time at her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Before he sat down with her, the editors had already edited together the narrative, after painstaking hours of organizing the unassembled raw footage into eight categories and figuring out who the diffeOrent chimps were.
Morgen got off on the wrong foot at the first interview, asking if the fair Brit ever wore sunblock. She did not laugh. “Jane’s been around filmmaking her whole life,” he said. Initially she fell into comfortable old tropes. She didn’t want to talk about her relationship with Hugo. So on the second meeting he brought the already-cut opening montage to jog her memory. Morgen and his editors wanted to bring the audience along on that romantic ride without giving too much away. The duo marry and have a son, but both eventually allow work to take precedence over their marriage. In many ways, Goodall was ahead of her time.
Another bold move by Morgen was to bring on Philip Glass to compose a large-scale bombastic score, which helped to tie the picture together. “Philip’s music is very metric, which works really well for the montage approach,” Morgen told an IDA audience. “There’s this almost Disneyesque element, the way the chimpanzees and all the insects, lions and other animals in the Serengeti move in sync with the music. That’s intentional on my part because there’s a magical component to Jane’s and Hugo’s romantic view of nature. I wanted to get across this great harmony and symmetry taking place. So we met with Philip early on and once he agreed to score the film, I cut the scenes to a temp track of some of his previous music.”
The final results are magical and empowering for women. The film slayed audiences at September’s Toronto Film Festival with a long standing ovation; they ate up the yin and yang Q&A dynamics of tough octogenarian British conservation activist Goodall staying on message and weepy long-haired hipster Morgen, the obsessive Hollywood perfectionist, trying to pull her out of her groove. “There hasn’t been another film that has taken me back to who I was then in the way this film does.” she said. “It’s totally brilliant.” But, she continued, “you were a crybaby.”
The movie even played, with a live orchestra performing the rousing Philip Glass score, for a huge audience at the Hollywood Bowl.
But many in the industry give credit for the movie to cinematographer van Lawick. “There is bias against all Archival,” wrote one AMPAS branch member in an email. “And maybe a little wanting to support underdogs and their towering achievements.”
Finally, some documentary filmmakers thought the movie was more a triumph of editing by Joe Beshenkovsky and Will Znidaric than something “created” by Morgen (who also earned an editing credit). Maybe he was a tad too confident and the movie too well-hyped for their taste. And NatGeo’s free-spending promotion on the movie may have backfired with persnickety Oscar voters. The branch also got wind of Gerber’s initial detailed pitch, which was emailed around.
The movie scored at New York, London and other fall festivals before opening in theaters on October 20 via Abramorama and grossing $1.7 million — not bad for a documentary. NatGeo aired the film on March 12, a week after the Academy Awards.
“If our goal in life is to make the world a little bit better than we found it,” Morgen said, “then Jane has done that.”