‘Moonage Daydream’ Director Brett Morgen Talks Creating A “Non-Biographical” David Bowie Doc & More [Interview]
Jan 15, 2023
At this point, we’ve all seen enough documentaries about 20th-century musical geniuses that the average viewer could direct one in their sleep: archival footage of the greatest-hits performances, behind-the-scenes clips showing the snatches of solitary humanity underneath the currents of history, and some interviews with loved ones and collaborators that go beyond the image to a subject’s vulnerable core. Tried-and-true as the template might be, Brett Morgen also finds it fatally boring, and endeavors to chart a less clear-cut path with his films. He’s directed nonfiction portraits of primatologist Jane Goodall, high-living New Hollywood titan Robert Evans, and counterculture rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman, but he really hit his groove with a pair of features about guitar legends, profiling Kurt Cobain in “Montage of Heck” and now David Bowie in the new “Moonage Daydream.” The chameleonic Bowie refused to fall back on expected formulas, and Morgen resolved to do the same from the earliest conception of his avant-garde-adjacent monument to the emperor of art-rock.
READ MORE: ‘Moonage Daydream’ Review: Brett Morgen Beams You To Planet David Bowie In A Musical Space Extravaganza [Cannes]
The IMAX-scaled film doesn’t just run through the major bullet points of Bowie’s life and career, but translates them into a boundary-busting “immersive experience,” to borrow Morgen’s favored phrase. Snippets of his gigs and public appearances fly by in a hurricane of unmediated imagery, Bowie himself caught between raw formless psychedelia and samples from the many films and historical events he cited in his own oeuvre. The result has less in common with your given biopic than the Pink Floyd laser shows of yore shown at small-town planetariums for audiences of wide-eyed stoners. It’s an appropriately unconventional lens for an artist who defied convention whenever possible, as omnivorously curious in its arrangement of contrasting allusions as he was in his explorations of gender, fashion, songcraft, and politics.
One day before the full rollout of “Moonage Daydream” transformed American cineplexes into shrines to a god of pop culture, Morgen took the time to chat with The Playlist about his unorthodox techniques, the childhood friend he still counts as a key collaborator, and the difference between Bowie and everyone else seated in rock ’n’ roll Valhalla.
David Bowie being such a significant figure to so many people, I’d imagine that there have been attempts to make a film like this before. What were you able to bring to this process that those who came before couldn’t?You’re correct, there have been several formidable and might I say fairly comprehensive that set out to explore the life of David Jones, a.k.a. David Bowie. I am especially fond of the “Five Years” series that Francis Whately put together, in particular, “The Last Five Years,” which is an exceptional piece of filmmaking in addition to a great look at Bowie. The first thing I did after getting this assignment was write to Francis, letting him know how much respect I have for the work he’s done, and that he liberated me to do what I’m going to do. Because they’re very different approaches. There have been thirty-six-plus books written about David Bowie. His Wikipedia article is very long. There’s so much out there, so many people trying to get behind the veil of David Bowie to find David Jones. I had no interest in that, specifically because it’s been so well-covered. I was interested in creating an immersive cinematic experience in IMAX, an intimate encounter through which we can take a deep dive into David’s creative imagination.
The original idea, before I even knew I was doing Bowie, was to launch a venture called the IMAX Music Experience — a slate of fifteen films, one per year, that I envisioned as being shown at science museums. They’re all dark at night, and I thought, let’s take them over. Those speakers aren’t being used from 6 p.m. until opening the next morning. How great would it be if there was a 7 p.m. Beatles show, an 8 p.m. Jay-Z show, a 9 p.m. Led Zeppelin show, and then Bowie at 10? I never thought it would be the Bowie show, from 7 right on through 10.
So in 2015, I came up with this idea and started looking down the road, because the idea of a non-biographical experience felt like extracting the juice from the grapes. With all my films, I sit down at the beginning and ask myself what I can present using this medium and this visual language that I can’t present in another one. It’s kind of why I don’t shoot talking-head interviews. And in 2016, I reached out to the Bowie estate, a little while after he passed. I’d already met David, back in 2007, and I’d met with his executor. I told them I wanted to create something immersive, and they said that David had been collecting everything for all these years, huge banks of raw media, and we were in agreement that we didn’t want to do anything strictly biographical. They allowed me access to that vault, and more importantly, they agreed that I would have final cut — they didn’t want their fingerprints all over the film. The executor understood that because David couldn’t authorize this himself, it would always be ‘Brett Morgen on David Bowie,’ not Bowie on Bowie. Which it could only ever be! You write this article, it’s going to be ‘Charles on Brett Morgen on David Bowie.’
Aside from the immersive feeling, what was your pitch for the film? What format did you have in mind going in?That’s the thing, there was no format. The closest point of comparison would be planetarium shows, Laser Floyd and that kind of thing. I thought of it like a theme park ride — feeling, more than thinking. Most of us listen to music on our earbuds, headphones, maybe a stereo in the best-case scenario. We don’t have many listening rooms left. When we presented the concept for “Moonage Daydream” to Bruce Markoe, one of the top guys at IMAX, he gave us the fascinating comment that “they had the technology to record this material back in the ‘70s, but no one could’ve imagined what this would sound like in the age of 12.0.” And then when you add treatment from master mixer Paul Massey, who’s not a household name yet, but really is like our Vittorio Storaro when it comes to bringing the beauty out from sound. The opportunity to work with him, the level of his craft, it’s incredible. I needed someone like him to anchor me, because I was throwing out wild thoughts about what we could do with sound, and he knew what would work in the editing room there but not the theater.
You’ve previously worked in commercials, and while that influence isn’t so overt, you can see it manifesting in “Moonage Daydream” once you start looking for it. There’s a liberated visual vocabulary — what was your intended effect with the free-associative parts?For starters, I wish I could’ve been doing stuff like this when I was in commercials. I was doing, like, Arby’s spots. I officially retired from advertising to make “Montage of Heck.” I started doing commercials in 2003 right after “The Kid Stays In The Picture,” and I wasn’t really happy with the work I was doing. I wanted to go all in, so when I came back from the festival in Berlin in 2015, I told the guys at Anonymous I wanted to go into features. Since then, life’s been more difficult, but creatively, it’s been the most rewarding part of my career.
But to get back to the matter of montage: I wasn’t working on celluloid. If I was on a Steenbeck, I could’ve really gotten into some Bruce Connery-type experimentation, but on Avid, my frame of reference wasn’t William Burroughs — it was Dziga Vertov. The collision of two different images creating new meaning. I thought about including a card in the credits explaining that every image sampled from outside of David’s catalogue was something he alluded to in his work or interviews. Any time he referenced something, we’d jot it down. “Seventh Seal,” “The Damned,” “Nosferatu,” various works from Buñuel. Part of the reason for that is, like Dylan, Bowie drops a lot of reference points in his writing. These were like Easter eggs sending you down these edifying paths. It’s a cultural passport, and it brings you to Brecht. It’s a beautiful thing. The other aspect is that most of the footage we got originated after ’78, so it helped to have some other tools in my toolkit. I liked the idea of paying this influence forward.
I went to the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum a while ago, while I was still working on the film, and I called the estate and said, “I know I’ve had a hard time conveying what I’m doing; I feel like I just walked through the film.”
In your experience with Bowie, is there a specific formative memory you can look back on as when he came important to you?I vividly remember whose bedroom I was in and where he was standing the first time a friend pulled out “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).” It was my buddy Andy Goldman, we were in seventh grade. Andy, by the way, did the titles for the movie. Which I think is kind of poetic, that the guy who turned me on to Bowie when we were twelve is still part of this. My eighth grade teacher is in the credits as a creative consultant, too, he was in the office to help me understand Bowie’s reference points. But yeah, I remember that day so well. MTV was just getting started, “Ashes to Ashes” was just taking off, and I remember being blown away by that video. And that video introduced me to the idea of symbolism being a central part of his creative persona. When I was twelve, that was it. Though I generally hate talking about this, because I end up being such a cliché. “Oh, yeah, Bowie was huge for me.” I’m not alone in that! Everyone I know lived through this, we were all guided by Bowie.
Bowie belongs to everyone, yeah.I’ve watched, I believe, every piece of available media about David Bowie. And you talk about a ‘man who fell to Earth’ — he was otherworldly in his consistency, his generosity, his intelligence, his ability to stay present in every interview at every moment. Once you notice this, you see that David approached every interview as an opportunity for exchange and growth, even if it’s someone like Robin Leach.
I’m sure everyone wants to know, but are the other figures in the music pantheon that interest you to the extent of Kurt Cobain and David Bowie?Bowie’s quite singular. But let’s see, I’ve worked with the Rolling Stones, a great rock band. It would be difficult to construct a road map to leading a more balanced, fulfilling life by cutting through their interviews. I love them, don’t get me wrong. But with Bowie, there’s this spirit of cultural anthropology. If one wants to understand life over the last fifty years, you’d be better served going through Bowie’s catalogue than reading a James Michener novel. We don’t have a lot of people like that.
Every station Bowie reached, he’d blow it up. He was willing to risk everything — his fanbase, his finances, his popularity, his life, just to pursue a creative itch. That’s where he stands alone. I don’t know of anyone else on his level who’d actively say, ‘I know how to write songs, so let’s throw that away and create a new language. To do that time and time again, it’s a great lesson. Most people cling to their successes, and they start repeating themselves. They don’t grow or evolve as artists for fear of losing their audience. I once asked Mick Jagger, who hadn’t played in five years, if they’d ever go out again. And he said, “I don’t know. I don’t need it.” I think that he does need it, but because he knows he’s still wanted, he doesn’t feel that need. I think the second he’s not wanted anymore, he would change his position.
“Moonage Daydream” is available in theaters now.
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