Brett Morgen is well acquainted with the larger-than-life. Throughout his career, the revered documentarian has made films about luminaries who transcend definition. His oeuvre boasts profiles of Kurt Cobain, Jane Goodall and The Rolling Stones, among others. Although Morgen's work often centres on celebrities, he does far more than bring a Wikipedia page to life. He endeavours to understand the individual rather than merely recap their milestones. Whether things are told linearly or not is almost inconsequential; when watching his work, what Morgen appears to be most passionate about is restoring an icon's humanity. It's an approach that has seen him become one of the most exciting voices in the documentary sphere.
Morgen's latest film, 'Moonage Daydream', sees him once again spotlighting a virtuoso. This time, it's none other than David Bowie - and the film's form certainly matches its subject. Here, we witness Morgen forgo traditionalism for something entirely experiential. There are no talking heads to guide us through Bowie's story. Instead, the Starman himself ushers us through a kaleidoscopic odyssey of colour, music, and rumination. The film exudes many Morgen hallmarks, including his mixed-media aesthetic and free-form style, but it also feels like an impressive advancement in his craft. Simply put, it's a sight to behold and one best experienced in a theatre.
During his recent promotional tour across Melbourne and Sydney, Morgen spoke with me about the seven years he spent on the project, his desire to step outside his comfort zone, and what compelled him to dance up a storm on the Cannes red carpet. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CONNOR DALTON: I'm very curious about the genesis of 'Moonage Daydream'. How did this project come together?
BRETT MORGEN: I've been working in biographical non-fiction for about 20 years, and the thing that interests me about the genre I work in is exploring my subjects in approaching them from a uniquely cinematic space. If you can put it in a book, I don't want it in my films. You know, most of the subjects I pursue are very iconic [and] well-travelled. There's dozens of books about David Bowie. There's dozens of documentaries about Bowie. What I was interested in conjuring up was a Bowie experience. And Bowie really lends himself to this because Bowie - in quotations - is intimate, sublime and enigmatic. And that's ultimately what I was trying to present on screen.
I arrived here coming off of 'Montage of Heck', the Kurt Cobain film, where I just felt I was not going to do a cradle-to-grave biography that's more complete than that. And creatively and artistically, I wouldn't want to; I already did that. So I was looking for something different, very Bowie-esque - a challenge, if you will - and really step way outside my comfort zone.
When I pitched the film, I pitched it as if I were the only person who could pull something like this off, and I was totally full of shit. I'm a very straight narrative storyteller. I don't do abstract experiences. And so, when it came down to write the script, I almost immediately realised that all of the tricks that I had in my toolkit - none of them worked. And the entire time I was screening, I had in my schedule one week to write the script. That's all I ever put aside. So, during that time, I was traumatised. I just was like, I've spent all this money just screening this film. [I] almost exhausted the entire budget at that point, except for the money we were saving for sound, and somehow, I had to write my way out of it. So it was a bit traumatic.
DALTON: I heard that the process of just going through all the unseen materials took two years. Is that correct?
MORGEN: Yeah, it was two years.
DALTON: And it was a five year process overall?
MORGEN: It was essentially seven years from the time I conceived the IMAX music project to where we're sitting now.
DALTON: So, over the course of seven years, what was it like living day-to-day while working on a project of this magnitude?
MORGEN: Well, if you ingest Bowie into your veins for seven years, you're probably going to be a better person at the end of it than you were when you started. So I would like to think that when you ask me what it's like, it's like having a natural high. I mean, it's like the endorphins are all alert. And, you know, I came into this film thinking I was going to explore the creative life of David Bowie. What I had no idea I was going to encounter was a man who would really change the course of my life - not just as an artist, but as a person, as a man.
I feel that when I started this film, I was very much kind of a man-child; [I] hadn't really grown up yet. Early while I was making the film, I had a heart attack and flatlined for a couple of minutes and was in a coma for a week. And that really had to do with how out of control and imbalanced my life was. And it was at that point that I started going through his interviews, and the message that I needed to hear - he was delivering. And at that point, I recognised that there was an opportunity to create a roadmap for how to lead a satisfying and balanced and fulfilled life during an age of chaos and fragmentation. And should I reach an early demise, I can leave this as a record for my children so that they can learn from someone far more sagacious than I am.
DALTON: I think you do a brilliant job capturing the essence of these larger-than-life people. In 'Montage of Heck', I didn't know about the fragility of Kurt Cobain because we see him as such a figurehead for the disaffected youth. When it came to a project like this, what was the one thing you really wanted to convey about David Bowie?
MORGEN: When you phrase it like that, it's difficult because I didn't come into it wanting to convey anything. You know what I mean? I just wanted to make an entertaining film. Both films very consciously take the echoes and the shadows and the fragments, as they exist in media, of these artists' lives and in death are employing them to help us, who are still here, better understand our plight and our condition. And I think that there is something incredibly powerful about that legacy.
I recognised that there was an opportunity to create a roadmap for how to lead a satisfying and balanced and fulfilled life during an age of chaos and fragmentation.
In 'Montage of Heck', I felt that I had an opportunity because I was provided with final cut, and [Kurt's daughter] Frances emboldened me to make a film that would really destroy any illusions of glamour associated with heroin chic. And I remember getting in a huge argument with Kurt's mum, who really - and I understand as a mum - didn't want him depicted that way. And I remember saying, "Wendy, if Kurt was alive today and he was given a choice of saving one life or selling ten million T-shirts, I think he would choose to save a life," and that was emboldening.
With Bowie, I feel that he's offering us inspiration and guidance in how to improve our day-to-day life, and that is an amazing legacy. We can dance to his music, but what he's telling us in this film is, to me, so much more life-affirming and meaningful than anything I would expect to encounter from a rock god, if you will.
DALTON: During the making of the film, was there anything you learnt about him that really stood out to you or took you by surprise?
MORGEN: I mean, pretty much everything.
DALTON: Well, throughout the film, I was fascinated by Bowie's narration, specifically when he would talk about his relationship with his art and what it means to him. I was curious, over the course of making this film, did you ever reevaluate your relationship with your own art and what you make?
MORGEN: 100%. I think I was saying earlier, I had to go way outside my comfort zone to construct the film - even to the point that I had to edit myself, which I've never done. I had to produce all by myself, which I've never done. And I had to work in an office, because of the pandemic, by myself, which I had never done. I never made a film without a staff. So creatively, I had to step way outside my comfort zone, and it changed me. You know, the impact was when I went to the premiere, there was some footage of me at the premiere at Cannes where I'm dancing up the carpet, and I don't dance. I haven't danced since I was on the bar mitzvah circuit in '83. One of my producers was like, "So how long did you spend planning that?" And the reason that happened spontaneously was because I just felt that whatever happened that night with the reviews and with the audience response, it didn't matter. I did the best I could.
Now, that's a very different feeling than when I've arrived at previous premieres. I hate premieres because you basically are subject to criticism. You spend all this time working by yourself, and it's all love and positivity, and then you present the work, and suddenly, in three minutes, social media is going to praise or attack or whatever the hell it is - it's awful. It's a terrible feeling. But when I arrived at the premiere of 'Moonage', that was it, man, and that's from Bowie. I would have never arrived at that sense, that perspective, without sort of embracing his teachings and his philosophies towards creation.
DALTON: Well, it's been great talking to you. I was just wondering, how has your time been promoting the film in Australia?
MORGEN: Oh, I'm so glad you asked me that. So I don't know who's running the Australian tourism campaign, maybe they're really good people or whatever, but they should probably be sacked because y'all are keeping a secret down here. I've travelled the world quite a bit, and I've never been to Australia - I'm here with my wife and my son, and we are absolutely blown away. We were in Melbourne for a week, and we've been in Sydney for a few days and feel that you guys have figured it out. I'm in awe of your country, and I don't understand why I don't live here right now. I've always loved Australian film and Australian music, but I had no idea. I won't say anything more because I'll sound like a total ignoramus, but I'm totally in awe of what you guys have going on.
DALTON: Well, don't be a stranger. Come around more often!
MORGEN: Oh, I'm planning to.
DALTON: Hope to see you soon. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. This is my first time doing anything like this, so -
MORGEN: Oh nice! Welcome to the club.
DALTON: I think I'm going to duck across the road, get a drink, and stop sweating.
MORGEN: [Laughs] You did good, man. Thank you.
'Moonage Daydream' opens in Australian cinemas on the 15th of September.
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