Brett Morgen won acclaim for his original take on Bob Evans with his Sundance hit, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Now Morgan returns with an audacious look at the Chicago 10, that infamous group of anti-Vietnam protesters that is about to be re-made by none other than Steven Spielberg. Morgan spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: So first of all, the subject matter of the Chicago Ten, I know has been of interest to a number of filmmakers over the years. When did you first decide that this was something that you wanted to tackle?
Morgen: It was around the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan, and right around the time that we were preparing to go into Iraq. It just came out of a conversation I was having with Graydon Carter, tmy producing partner on The Kid Stays in the Picture. And Graydon was talking to me. I was sort of wondering where all of the protests were about the war, and he was like, “Man, when I was young, we – you know, anti-war leaders were rock stars. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, those guys were my heroes.” You know, “What do you think about making a film sort of looking back at that?” And I said, “Well, listen. If we’re gonna do it, let’s not do it in this sort of holier-than-thou, look how great we were and look how lame you guys are attitude. Because I grew up in the ’80s, and that’s all I ever heard, was how great the ’60s were.” I mean, this is, like, the most heavily-mythologized and documented period in American history. I mean, it’s like, everybody who was over the age of 20 in 1965 has written a memoir. So we decided at the time that if we were gonna do this movie, we were gonna do it in a way that sort of captured the spirit of the times. But really more of a film that was about now, than it was about the ’60s. Meaning that as, sort of the lack of historical context of the year, which is obviously very deliberate, and the use of contemporary music and animation were all sort of attempts to sort of bring the past into the present, to allow young audiences to experience the story of the Chicago Seven – Chicago Ten, or eight, or nine, whatever it is, in a way that they could relate to. So, you know, I often use examples like taking – you know, Romeo and Juliet, and placing it in Mexico City today, or taking Richard the Third and placing it in Nazi Germany. We took the ’60s and basically did it so that it ultimately became a film somewhat about what’s happening today.
Question: So, what do you see being the parallels between the ’68 protest and what’s happening in the world today?
Morgen: Well, what Chicago 10 is about, is I bring it down to a thru-line of action. There’s a war going on. There’s – obviously there’s some sort of war, and there’s a government trying to silent the opposition. It sounds very familiar. You know. One of my favorite lines in the movie is from Allen Ginsberg when he says, you know – how about this? I’m blanking on my favorite fucking line of the film! It was like, “The manipulation of the media, the government has hypnotized the nation into believing in the war, that doesn’t really exist.” You know, using imagery and media to sort of hypnotize the country to believing in this war that really does not exist. Something along those lines. You know, and I’m listening to that in the context of Colin Powell testifying in front of the United Nations. Now, obviously protest has changed dramatically between 1968 and 2008. And you can look at the events of Chicago today, you know, take inspiration from it in a number of ways. Or you can say, “You know what? We shouldn’t be doing that. And it wouldn’t have an impact today.” But it’s basically a mirror that’s held up to the audience. And, you know, one of the things that I don’t think is happening today that was a wonderful thing about the ’60s was that sense of theatre, and the sense of fun, and the sense of – you know, entertainment that it brought to the anti-war movement. You know, it’s – you know, protesting war is a very sober – you know, activity, man. I was at a protest last year, and it was like, 40 of us standing on a street corner going, “Stop the war. Stop the war.” And it’s like, I love the sense of theatre that Abbie and Jerry were able to bring to the politics at that time.
Question: Why do you think the anti-war movement was allowed to flourish in the ’60s and is not really able to flourish today?
Morgen: Well, you know, I mean, I’m not a historian or, like, whatever. But, I mean, I think that the most obvious variance of that is the draft, you know? I think that the – there’s a number of things. I think people are protesting. A lot of protesters have gone viral, and we see the Internet. I think the media doesn’t cover a lot of the sort of gatherings that well. I mean, there have been mass protests in cities around America that barely register a blip on CNN. But, you know, I think really the main thing is ultimately the draft. And that was kind of one of the great things that those guys did in Chicago. I think one of the sung victories for the Yippies was the fact that they brought the war home. You know? When there’s a war happening 8000 miles a way, you know, you need – most people just go around their daily lives and aren’t affected by it. But suddenly when the tanks are coming into your town, and you – walking from your house, and you get hit over the head with a club or tear gas, you – suddenly you realize that maybe your government isn’t being as honest as they say. So Chicago really was sort of the death of innocence in America. And it probably started with Kennedy’s assassination, and culminated with Chicago.
Question: Was the movie a very easy film to make in terms of getting the structure right, and getting the tone right?
Morgen: Well, you know, it’s funny. The structure, yes. The tone – I mean, what I did in this movie is nothing but energy. You know what I mean? It is an attitude. That’s what the film is. I mean, that’s what I pitched. When I pitched this movie to get financing, I – you know, my pitch was all about my energy and passion, and about how – you know, I was gonna make this movie – I knew what the tone of the movie was gonna be. I wanted it to be Yippie-centric. I wanted it to be irreverent. I wanted it to be loud. And I wanted it to be a – you know, I knew there was gonna be an infusion of violence, you know, with imagery that potentially can have the same sort of strength and power of The Wild Bunch. The sort of ballet of – you know, orgy of violence. So, the tone wasn’t – that was predecided before I even pitched it. Getting it structurally – we were gonna toss everything. What was really hard was, by eliminated – by not having a narrator, and not having talking head interviews, I essentially got rid of the very tool that filmmakers use to create historical documentaries. Those – you know, the connective tissue. So I have this footage and this footage. How do I get something to be, when I cut totalking to camera, and then they get me to this point.
Question: It’s almost an anti-documentary, in a way.
Morgen: It is. I mean, you know – well, it’s certainly an anti–it’s an anti-historical documentary by contemporary standards. I mean, what historical documentaries are are generally some form of media, whether it’s – you know, landscape shots or google footage, intercut with historians or survivors. And, you know, also what those films become are these sort of – they’re very fact-based, and really are – most historical documentaries are probably better-suited for the small screen than a movie theatre. What we wanted to do with Chicago 10 was capture that experience. We wouldn’t have been able to do this with too many – I mean, I couldn’t do Chicago 10 on too many other subjects, because there just wouldn’t be the archive that would allow me to do it. But we collected over 1200 hours of film. We had scenes in the film that are constructed by using over 50 sources. So, I mean, that’s like shooting – I mean, even on a big frickin’ Steven Spielberg film, they can get the cameras rolling once. So we had this amazing amount of material that we can use to sort of reconstruct those events. But ultimately, not having – you know, at some point I sort of was like, “Fuck. I’m gonna have to do a narrator. I don’t want to do a narrator, but I don’t know how I’m gonna get through this.” And then I just – going back to the trial transcripts, and praying that I can find the sort of thread in the transcript that would lead me through the events of that week.
Question: Spielberg is actually going to make a feature of these events.
Question: Has he spoken to you, or seen what you did with Chicago 10?
Morgen: Well, that movie came about from a screening we had with Walter Parks, Steven’s producer, who saw Chicago 10 shortly after Sundance last year and called us up and said that he wanted to re-make the film. Now, I don’t think what they’re doing is a – I wouldn’t call it a re-make. It’s probably, like, “inspired by Chicago 10”. Because they’re certainly making their own movie. But that is the sort of genesis, and I’m consulting with them on the project.
Question: It’s very cool.
Morgen: It is cool, man. It’s cool in that – you know, it just means the story’s gonna get out there that much further. And then on the other hand, you know, what filmmaker wants Steven Spielberg covering the same material that they just did, you know? It’s like, couldn’t it be Rob Reiner?
Question: Right. What do you hope to do next? Do you want to do a narrative picture now that you’ve done a documentary that is – that kind of weaves various elements –
Morgen: No, you know, I’m developing a narrative feature about Iran-Contra, even though – you know, narrative features, who knows if they ever get off the ground. It’s such an amazing time to be working in non-fiction. Because the type of films I’m doing, like this and The Kid Stays in the Picture, these aren’t documentaries. You know? I mean, The Kid Stays in the Picture is about a guy spinning a mythology about his life. So, you know, I love the fact that right now, it feels like the Wild, Wild West. You know, anything is possible in non-fiction. There are no rules. It kind of reminds me of what it must have been like to be part of the French New Wave, in the sense that it’s like, it’s endless possibilities. And you can go linear, you can go non-linear. Really, ultimately, when you break it down, what’s happening now is we are now, as filmmakers working in non-fiction, we have access to digital technologies which weren’t available ten years ago. So suddenly – you know, instead of just having a talking head tell you a story, or just having archival re-enactment, you can use photo animation, you can do motion capture animation, you can take an archival image that’s a TV image, and suddenly transform it into a 3D image, So, it’s an exhilarating moment. There’s all this new media that we can sort of access, that just didn’t exist 20 years ago. So I think this is – to me, it’s a really exciting time to be making non-fiction.
Question: Will you do another non-fiction film first, before the –
Morgen: Yeah. I’m working on something on Kurt Cobain, that I was hired by Courtney Love to do last year, which is this thing that — sort of a mixed media extravaganza. I’m starting the construct it. You know, Kurt can create an autobiographical film, with – by that I don’t mean that in Kurt’s autobiographical film he will walk you through, “I was born here and died here.” But, you know, what did that internal landscape look and feel like? And what I think a lot of people are gonna be surprised by is, Kurt was an awesome filmmaker. He made a lot of stop-action animation films, and was a sculptor, and has these amazing paintings that we’re gonna bring to life. And so I think it’s gonna be much more than just his music. But, you know, it’s basically the H.R. Puffinstuff meets the Melvins. It’s gonna be – you know, basically, man, I describe all my films the same way. If Disneyland had a ride by Kurt Cobain, this film will be it. The same way that when I did, The Kid Stays in the Picture, I used to say, “If Disneyland had a ride called Bob Evans, this is it.” I mean, I kind of have this fantasy. At the end of my career, like, all my movies become, like, these theme rides. And they’re these sort of three-dimensional interactive experiences. They’re not history lessons in a dry, empirical way. They’re just sort of interactive experiences that try to put you inside the head of the subject. You know, ultimately all of them are films from the inside out, rather than the outside looking in.