It’s somewhat of a departure from his previous groundbreaking docs The Kid Stays in the Picture, a biography of producer Bob Evans, and the Oscar nominated On the Ropes, not only because he didn’t make it with regular collaborator Nanete Burstein, but also because it’s clearly a film made in response to the political climate in the country. It mixes archival footage with animated recreations to recount the story of the protests and marches surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which led to riots and arrests when the police got violent. Much of the film deals with the court case against the organizers of the rally, including Abbie Hoffman, Alan Ginsberg and Bobby Seale, who are voiced and performed by actors Hank Azaria, Jeffrey Wright, Mark Ruffalo and the late Roy Scheider, that were turned into a creative animated version of the court trial.
The resulting film was so impressive that Steven Spielberg and producer Walter Parkes optioned the rights to create a dramatic film based on the events called The Trial of the Chicago 7. Although production on that film has been temporarily delayed, those interested in a time when the young people of the country were as displeased with their government about the Vietnam War as we see in our country today will be fascinated by the parallels with events that took place 40 years ago.
ComingSoon.net briefly talked with Morgen at Sundance last year, but when we had a chance to catch up recently, we were curious how impressions of the film might have changed in the last year, especially with the upcoming elections. There’s no question that Morgen is an incredibly intelligent filmmaker, and boy, can he talk!
ComingSoon.net: Have you watched the movie again since it played at Sundance?
Brett Morgen: I did about five weeks ago. We didn’t deliver our final film until September and I did a little bit of work on it–I took a few minutes out–but about five weeks ago we were doing a screening at USC for students and I was like, “I better sit in and watch this because I have to start talking about the film again.”
CS: Are you still happy with the movie and do you think it stands up a year later, especially with the changing climate in the country?
Morgen: Listen, I totally stand by the film that we made and since the premiere at Sundance, I read most of the blogs and reviews of the film and sometimes you read that stuff and you read criticism of it and you go, “Damn, I would like to go back and fix that.” The criticisms of the film were suggesting I would make a film that I would never make. Some people would occasionally have issues with the music, or the lack of context, those two areas primarily and those were things that I knew would polarize audiences.
CS: Those were two of the things I liked about it.
Morgen: Yeah no, that’s my thing. I think what we tried to do with “Chicago 10” is create a uniquely cinematic experience out of historical materials which was something that I hadn’t seen before and was something I was very interested in constructing. I think ultimately, people wanting “Chicago 10” to be a history lesson about 1968 are going to be greatly disappointed because its not about 1968, it’s about 2008. It’s like Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” he took a text that was written in the 1600’s and applied it to today. This is an attempt by someone from my generation to tell their story, which really they haven’t encountered much of, but there’s going to be a lot more of it probably in the future obviously.
CS: It’s interesting that the delay in the film’s release has it being released in an election year.
Morgen: We were going to release it in August and then I pleaded with the distributor to push it back to February, because I felt with the primary season being in full bloom that it would have a chance of being a lot more relevant now than it would have been in August.
CS: Obviously, the big connection most people make, including myself, is what happened at the New York Republican Convention of ’04. Since the country is heading for a big change with the next election, do you feel the film is as relevant now as it was a year ago?
Morgen: Yeah, I think since we’ve conceived the film five years ago, it was conceived in a completely different time. I think in the last five or six years what we’ve seen is protests becoming viral and is done on the internet. The one lesson people can really apply from our film is the sense of fun and theater that the yippies brought to the proceedings. You’ve seen some of it in some of the satirical parodies on YouTube dealing with Obama and Clinton, or McCain for that matter, but I think ultimately the bigger picture, what the film does is it puts a mirror up to the audience and asks them, “How far are you willing to go?” And that is timeless. I mean look, the movie was intended to be a timeless tale. It’s not just a story of Chicago, but it’s a story of humans, it’s a story of Seattle, it’s an age-old story of: there is a war, there’s opposition to war and there’s a government trying to silence the opposition. To that extent hopefully it transcends whatever specific political climate we’re in and becomes something a little more universal.
CS: I wanted to go back those five years to when you first conceived the idea. What was the first thing you did to start the project, get the court transcripts? Do you remember that far back?
Morgen: Well, the first thing I did was sell the film, to be totally honest. When we sold the film I knew almost nothing about the subject. I knew what I wanted the film to feel like, and I knew I wanted it to be irreverent. I knew that we were going to use contemporary music because the music of that era has been appropriated by Madison Avenue to the point that the protest songs no longer have any impact on that level. I knew that if we were going to tell the story that I wanted to reach a young audience with it which was a challenge because how do you make history entertaining and exciting to a young audience? So I knew the feel of the film, the tone of the film and I had enough to go on to sell it, and once we sold it then I dove head first into the research. I don’t know remember where we started, probably with the bigger broader things and then sort of worked our way downstream, but I remember the first eight months our production office was open, all we did was collect media, from the time we walked in to the time we went home. All we would do was collect and evaluate media.
When I started the film I didn’t know it was going to be so yippie-centric. I think that as I started doing the research, I found it challenging to stay awake for any Tom Hayden speech that lasted more than a minute or two and I found The Mobilization’s approach to politics to be rather dry and not very engaging from a cinematic standpoint. I talk to Tom about this all the time. Of course filmmakers will be more drawn to the more theatrical presentation, it makes a lot of sense, but Hayden made a comment in the New York Times yesterday that I found to be a little disturbing which is, “There’s a danger in theatricalizing history.” I’m more like, “No, actually there’s a danger in trying to suggest that there’s an objective way to present history.” Once you understand that there’s no objective history, that history is rendered differently from each person reporting it, once you accept that and get beyond that, then I think one of the problems culturally for young people today is that history has become something academic. It has become something rather lifeless. You get quizzed in school about facts and dates and you study leaders. “Chicago 10” was trying to find a way to make history exciting and visceral, and I’ve never suggested nor would I ever suggest that this is a definitive history of Chicago.
When I was on the stage, I said, “If you want to know the history of Chicago, go read a book. That’s what they’re there for.” In twelve hundred pages you can really get a lot of stuff done, when you boil down a ninety-minute film. Let’s say that works out to a hundred twenty paged script double spaced, when you break that down to single spaces you’re talking about forty-five pages, that’s like Cliff’s Notes to history and I didn’t want the film to be like a Cliff’s Notes to history.
Sometimes, I’m asked if I’m an activist filmmaker and I always say, “Well, I did the Bob Evans film. What was my cause, the Irving Thalberg award?” If I’m an activist, my primary cause is nonfiction filmmaking and trying to make films that stretch out the boundaries of nonfiction, I don’t think I’m a documentarian because I think that culturally, we like to think of documentarians as journalists and I’m anything but a journalist. Nonfiction film is going further and further away from the static image. Digital tools have now entered the vanguard and we now as filmmakers have all these technologies to visualize the past and the present and those ways are completely subjective. I think we’re going to need to come up with new phrases to define about what these films are, I mean “Chicago 10” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture” are mythologies. They’re not historical documentaries by any stretch of the imagination.
I think this is a very exciting time to be working in this medium, but I think we have to educate and inform people who write about this stuff to understand that when they go to see a film like “Chicago 10,” they are not going to see Chicago in ’68, they are experiencing something different, and I feel empowered that we are using cinema to bring history to life and to me that’s exciting. My journey in nonfiction started from a speech I heard in ’87 from Ken Burns, someone who I don’t really have a great deal in common with as a filmmaker, but he was talking about the same thing that we are discussing, how history was always presented in the oral tradition and stories are passed down from generation to generation and somewhere along the lines they became academic exercises, and what Ken wanted to do with the Civil War was go back to that sort of campfire experience, you know, history in the oral tradition, where I deviate from Burns dramatically is, I don’t think an empty landscape is a proper use of cinema, I think we can be a lot more kinetic and a lot more vibrant and attack it from a number of different directions other than the one he’s been doing for the last twenty years.
CS: You have a great character in Abbie Hoffman who really pulls everything together with Hank Azaria providing his voice. Can you talk about Abbie Hoffman as a character and bringing him to life in these different ways including the archival footage?
Morgen: Obviously I didn’t want to present this as a sort of moldy ’60’s boomer history, as I looked at all the characters I found myself drawn to Abbie because he felt so contemporary to me even though before I started this film he seemed like a prototype hippie, someone who was totally a product of the sixties and someone who really didn’t exist beyond the sixties, but as I started to see him, I started to see him more in the light of Michael Moore. Aaron Sorkin said to me the other day, “Abbie was probably the father of the modern day soundbite.” This was a man who understood the power of the image, and the power of the media, and knew how he could use the media to distill these political ideas, wrapped in comedy and theater. When we started the film, Abbie’s friends said to me, “Whatever you do, please try to get his humor. It’s the one thing that’s always missed in these types of movies.” I think that we went out of our way to try to find Abbie humorously commenting on the events. With any film like this it’s no different from fiction in that you are sculpting a performance in the edit room. We could’ve made Abbie deadly serious, we could’ve also made Abbie completely void of any seriousness or dramatic weight. We tried to find the fine line obviously leaning more towards the comedic, but I just found myself totally inspired by the man in every way, shape, or form.
CS: He’s definitely different than I expected. Did you ever see the John Lennon movie, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon”?
Morgen: Parts of it.
CS: In your movie and that one, you see these high-profile figures out there speaking out and leading young people to speak out against the establishment. Do you think we have anyone doing that today? Maybe John Stewart?
Morgen: Well there’s John Stewart, there’s Michael Moore, and I think to a lesser extent in terms of theater, Obama is certainly inspiring people in a way that we haven’t seen in seven years. Someone asked me the other day, “If Abbie was active today what would he be doing?” and I said he would probably do what Michael Moore did, or what Morgan Spurlock did. He understood the power of the medium in a way that very few did at that time and he understood comedy, so I would imagine that if he were twenty five or twenty six today, he’d be an activist filmmaker.
CS: Interesting. Do you think the internet has taken over from the act of protesting or marching for change?
Morgen: Well yeah, when we talk about why there is no protest there, I think that one, there is the draft, and two, the protest has gone viral and whether it’s YouTube or whatever, people are using media technology to protest.
CS: You mentioned that Aaron Sorkin is writing the dramatization for Spielberg, which has now been delayed. Do you think they’ll have a very different take on the story or will your movie be used as the reference?
Morgen: The genesis of their project is “Chicago 10.” The movie came about through a screening I held for Walter Parkes at DreamWorks, we were just doing general meetings in town after Sundance, and Walter saw the film and called my agent and told us that he loved the movie and asked us if we were interested in remaking it. Personally, I had no interest in making this film again, but we loved the idea that it was going to have another life beyond our film and so we’ve been consulting with them since.
CS: So you’ve been very involved?
Morgen: Yeah, they bought the remake rights.
CS: How do you feel about the very realistic possibilities that a movie made by Steven Spielberg about the events is more likely to be seen than any documentary, let alone an animated one? Do you think they’ll double-package your DVD with his movie whenever that might come out?
Morgen: At some point, DreamWorks tried to buy our film about four months ago. I think that was the intent and we just couldn’t come to proper terms in terms of buying the theatrical rights to our documentary. I think that they’ll make their own film of course. I think that Sorkin and Spielberg will take whatever inspiration they want from our film and go and do their own thing. When I made this film I certainly never thought I was the last filmmaker to touch this story. I think this is a story that is going to be touched upon by future generations every ten years or so. Certainly to your point, I set out to make a very pop commercial documentary. I think in the process I might have made something a little more experimental than what I thought I was making, and possibly a little less commercial than I thought I was making. I can recognize as a result that even if our film was one of the three highest grossing documentaries of the last three years, that would mean that it would only been seen by a million people, and a movie by Steven Spielberg with Sacha Cohen is going to be able to travel a lot farther which is amazing because ultimately it’s about getting this story out there.
CS: You mentioned before how history is perceived by different people. Since Spielberg will have your movie as a reference point, doesn’t that mean your version of that history will become the most prevalent one in some ways?
Morgen: Well just for now, because theirs is also so close in time to ours. This is the first movie that tried to attack the trial and the riots in the same film. I’ve never even read a book that tried to do it. In all of the historical accounts of Chicago, they’re either about the convention, or they’re about the trial, and I think what we were the first to do was try to interweave those two, which is ultimately challenging because the convention–forget the protests outside–but the convention itself is deserving of its own movie. The riots outside are deserving of their own movie, the trial is deserving, so it’s complicated by trying to do too much at once. Of course the fear is that you end up watering everything down. When we started this movie I was very concerned that the movie would play like a Cliff’s Notes to history which is why it took a very limited view of what the arc of the story would be, limited by the sense that there is a war, there is opposition to the war, and the government is trying to silence the opposition. There are a lot of other things that play in Chicago: there was the Black Power movement, there was the Women’s movement, there was the Gay Right’s movement. Those aren’t part of the film because there are too many things to address. I would rather take one thing and do it thoroughly then try to trivialize history. My problem with films like “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which has images of Chicago in it, I find those movies about the sixties, what they are trying to do is contextualize the era. What I find they do is trivializing the era by taking these iconic moments like an image of someone in Chicago, and throwing it into a montage of other protests of that era. I wanted to avoid that whole thing in this film. I feel like all of those movies, you can close your eyes and take any section throw it into the obligatory sixties montage. The other thing about those movies is that they’re always about people looking back, aging boomers talking about how vital they were then they didn’t look like they did today. It was something we really wanted to avoid in “Chicago 10.” When young people see the film, they’re not seeing their parents or their grandparents on the screen, they’re seeing their brothers and their sisters on the screen.
CS: In recent interviews, you’ve mentioned that your next movie is going to be about about Kurt Cobain. Have you seen the AJ Schnack documentary and will your movie be similar to “Chicago 10” in its approach?
Morgen: I don’t know why that film was made to be honest because I mean, without the music… Yeah, I won’t get into it. My film will be a biography from the inside out and it will be a celebration of not just Kurt’s life and his music, but his art. He was a multimedia artist who worked in sculpture. He was a painter, made stop action animation films, he made short Super 8 films from the time he was eleven or twelve years old that we have access to. Courtney’s giving us all their home movies. It’s going to be a mixed media, there’ll be some motion capture animation, some anime. I want to do some puppetry. Very much we’ll be viewing Kurt as a child. Kurt and I were the same age, so we were raised on the same media, ‘H.R. Pufnstuf’, ‘Speed Racer’, ‘Giant Robot’, The Beatles, the Melvins, so it’s the antithesis of Bob Evans’ film in the sense that Evans’ film was meant to be very cohesive and glamorous, one shot dissolving into the next. I think this film is going to be inherently contradictory, like Kurt, on one hand he was sarcastic and on the other hand he was sentimental, and sometimes they coexist within the same song. The way I described it is if you go anywhere from Kazakhstan to Iowa you’ll find young kids today who are obsessed with Kurt’s music. Kurt was one of the first musicians or rock stars to come from a broken home as we knew them in the seventies, Dylan came from a nice family and so did The Rolling Stones and the Clash. Kurt lived in a trailer park and was basically abandoned when he was nine or ten years old by his family, and yet what his gift was, was that he was able to articulate that experience that so many of us had in that period which is why today he resonates with disenfranchised youth all over the world, so I think ultimately the movie we have to make is the movie that all of those people who are attracted to his music have never seen Hollywood produce because Hollywood is a corporate landscape and we need to be the ultimate antiestablishment film, but like my other movies, I’ve described “The Kid Stays in the Picture” as a “Fantasia of nonfiction,” I’ve described “Chicago 10” as a “Fantasia of nonfiction,” and I would certainly describe the Cobain film as a “Fantasia of nonfiction.”
CS: I called it the “Heavy Metal of docs” myself, but the Cobain movie sounds like it will be just as cool. Thanks for talking to us.
Chicago 10 opens in select cities on Friday, February 29.