Director Brett Morgen Discusses Montage of Heck with The Fix

By Jared Mazzaschi 05/10/15

The Academy Award-nominated director on his approach to portraying Kurt Cobain's drug use.

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

It is not news that Kurt Cobain, the beautiful, sensitive and profoundly troubled subject of the new HBO documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, struggled unsuccessfully with drug addiction. For better or worse—mostly worse—Kurt’s name and image is synonymous with heroin. The unflinching portrayal of drug use in the film, while at times hard to watch, goes some ways toward conveying the complexity and nuance of that struggle. As it rarely is, Kurt’s fight was not one-dimensional nor was it pretty.

Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen has, in recent weeks, been speaking frankly about every aspect of his new film. He was generous enough to take some time to discuss the representation of Kurt Cobain's drug use and abuse in Montage with The Fix.

Morgen has made clear that his intention for the film was to allow Kurt—who was a prolific artist across many mediums after all—to tell his own story. This credo remains in place when it comes to drug use. We are presented with a textbook arc of addiction as plainly as any we’ve seen. From the Kurt-narrated animated sequences showing the early days of finding escape in weed and booze to the scribbled notes chronicling his first time trying heroin; then later the halcyon days shortly after coupling with Courtney, Kurt’s record at the top of the charts, to anguished drawings of skeletons stuck in spider webs that appear in his journals concurrent with episodes of drug overdose shortly before his death. It’s all there: the agony and the ecstasy.

Rather than just presenting these scenes of junkie narcissism on their own, Morgen thoughtfully juxtaposes material that lends insight into what the motivation to take drugs might have been in the first place. The director (more or less) confirms the idea in the interview below when he says, “Kurt can tell you that he is threatened by ridicule but I’m not sure if he will be able to tell you why.” To that end, Morgen may never say what Kurt couldn’t: “this is why," though, he does give us the material to come to our own conclusions. He probes Kurt’s family and scours his journals to give us a sense of the man’s emotional demons, his core-emotional issues—most prominently an absence of familial security and a crippling fear of ridicule—that might have motivated this sensitive soul to seek refuge in narcotics, and eventually, suicide.

Kurt came from a broken home, a fact he mined frequently to create a personal mythology for himself. He imagined his parents’ divorce and his concurrent rejection by them as the headwater for the fount of angst that found its way into so much of his music. Morgen shows us footage where Kurt’s family, and Courtney specifically (ironically as she is the one often blamed for destroying him), posit that as an adult, Kurt was creating an idyllic family of his own. He was out to create a familial environment where that angst would be entirely unnecessary.

But then in a cycle of symbiotic perfection, his (and his wife’s) drug use became both an incubator and a cancer that eventually tears that idyllic state apart. This idea merges painfully and poignantly towards the end of the film when we are shown a home video in which Kurt, Courtney, and a nanny prepare to give the baby, Frances Bean, a haircut. Courtney chastises a massively impaired Kurt, asking him if this—his drug stupor—is how he wants to be remembered, as he nods in-and-out of consciousness with the baby in his arms. Heroin is literally robbing Kurt of his most cherished possession.

This frank portrayal of Kurt’s drug use was almost not to be. According to an interview he gave to the Huffington Post, when Morgen first showed the film to Kurt’s mother (Wendy) and sister (Kimberly) they balked at the unflinching portrayal of his addiction. Kimberly told Morgen that Kurt was “embarrassed” by his heroin use and probably wouldn’t have wanted it in the film. Morgen replied, “You know, Kim, the one thing you've always told me is that Kurt's biggest fear was that he was gonna inspire or influence kids to do heroin, and not only is [the film] not a romanticized image of it, I actually think there may be one person out there who would be deterred from, turned off from doing heroin, and what greater legacy is there in death, 20 years after he died, than to save a life?"

We Americans are rarely credited with being able to handle nuance when it comes to depictions of drug use. Montage of Heck is an exception. It’s all here; make of it what you will.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity)

So drugs, heroin specifically, are linked to Kurt’s legacy. I thought you portrayed drug use and addiction very thoughtfully in the film. Could you describe your approach towards the treatment of that aspect of his life?

Brett Morgen: As a recovering addict, I was pretty empathetic towards not just honestly depicting Kurt’s struggles with addiction, but also trying to keep an eye open for how to look at the root cause of where some of his issues might have come from.

For sure. So are you open about that aspect of your life?

Well to the extent that I just said what I said to you, sure.

With somebody like Kurt it’s so easy for people to just categorically paint him that way.

I mean, here’s the thing. You know, I’ll say what I can on the subject. I was not trying to judge him nor was I trying to paint a rosy picture. Nor was I trying to make a social issue film, you know? I think it wasn’t until the film was finished that I realized it had potential to actually work as a deterrent because the depiction of drugs was so honest and genuine and relatable to people who are struggling with these issues and part of the reason I wanted to embrace that path was because I felt that for 20 plus years Kurt’s been associated with heroin, but they haven’t really seen the face of that struggle. And so, as a result, his participation tends to get romanticized a bit. And I thought it was a proper tribute to Kurt to present it in an honest and unflinching manner.

There was a movie when I was a kid that I saw called Christiane F. and it had a pretty profound impact on me and, in some respects, might have saved my life because it really turned me off to heroin in the worst way imaginable. And you know, I would imagine that maybe some kid who sees this film has a similar effect…But once again, maybe the reason it’s effective is because we weren’t trying to make a message film. You know what I mean? [Addiction] was a big part of his life and it was reflected in his art and that’s why it surfaced in the other areas because it was a big part. His struggles with addiction played a very large role in what he wrote about, and his art and in his paintings.

You’ve read a lot of his journals and have had more access to Kurt’s true feelings than almost anybody else, towards the end [of his life] particularly, do you think he wanted to get sober and what was he willing or not willing to do to get off the drugs?

I can’t answer that man; I don’t think anyone can answer that, really. I mean, Kurt would often make contradictory statements or write contradictory things in his journals and you sort of have to read between ‘em and as you know people who are struggling with addiction tend to go back—the pendulum swings pretty wildly and pretty quickly so I don’t think anyone could speak to that.

I think that one of the things that I felt with Kurt is, that for someone who was so expressive and articulate and could articulate his pain and his feelings as well as he could, I think he had a hard time, kind of accessing the square root of those feelings, and I think that’s where drugs really helped stunt, helped create blockage from sort of reconciling some of the issues that traumatized him.

So when you say square root you are talking about like, the causes, the things…

You could say that. Kurt can tell you that he is threatened by ridicule but I’m not sure if he will be able to tell you why.

Do you think Kurt’s suicide attempt was caused by his inability to get clean?

I can’t speak to his state of mind man, in that context. I’m not comfortable doing it.

Okay, well I realize your film comes on in a few minutes so I’ll let you go. My last question is, in your opinion what made Kurt so beloved?

I think he was able to articulate his experiences in life through pop-music as well as anyone in that landscape over the last 25 years. And I think there was something really relatable in his message that sort of brings people together from all corners of the globe.

Thanks very much for taking the time, Brett. I really appreciate it and it’s a great film. I hope it goes over great!

Thank you, man. I appreciate it.

Montage of Heck is currently showing on HBO. Read Jared's review here.

Jared Mazzaschi is a regular contributor to The Fix. Check out his blog.

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Jared Mazzaschi is a writer and creative director of Future Pilgrim Productions. You can find Jared on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.