From director Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture), the remarkable documentary Jane tells the story of Jane Goodall, a trailblazer who became one of the world’s most admired conversationists, through never-before-seen footage from the National Geographic archives. Her chimpanzee research not only discovered fascinating aspects of their life and behavior, never before known, but it taught us so much about our own similarities and differences with them.
During the film’s Los Angeles press day, filmmaker Brett Morgen got on the phone with Collider to talk about how this documentary came about the challenges of combing through 140 hours of footage, finding a style that suits the subject of each of his films, what it was like to interview Jane Goodall, why he likes to host a test screening for each of his docs, and why Jane Goodall is a real-life superhero. He also talked about how he came to direct the pilot for Marvel’s Runaways for Hulu, why he felt he was an odd choice for the job, and what he brought to it.
Collider: How did this documentary come about, and how challenging was it to put together a film out of all of this film footage?
BRETT MORGEN: In terms of landing the project, it’s that line from Bob Evans, “Life is when opportunity meets preparation.” I felt like I was quite lucky to have landed it, but I was prepared. What I was not prepared for was the way that the material came to us. One of the bigger challenges of the film, when we went to screen it, was that instead of 140 hours of camera reels, we were presented with 140 hours of random shots that were not connected, in any way, shape or form. There was no sound on any of the material and none of the chimps had identifications. That was the challenge, more than anything. Making a film out of discarded film or leftovers is how I built my career, and that stuff is fun. But with this, just writing the film was a true struggle. Our goal was to make an immersive film. What it comes down to is that we wanted to show the world through Jane’s eyes, and so we used everything that film has to offer to achieve that.
Did you have a moment where you thought, “What did I get myself into? I need to get out of this!”?
MORGEN: On day one, we realized that there were no dailies, and I can’t emphasize how important that is. If you’re doing a film like this, with the original camera reels, you’d see anything that was shot within a given hour, and then that becomes scenes. With this, that didn’t exist. You had to work really hard to get somewhere. But despite that issue, when I first looked at this footage, without question, I thought that somehow I’d stumbled upon the greatest 16mm film in existence. Everything that I admire and love about documentary film was inherent in this material. On one hand, it did what documentaries are best suited for, which is documenting this once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-history scientific endeavor. To document these monumental moments is one of the great tools and uses of non-fiction. On the other hand, Hugo [van Lawick] presented it in a way that was so refined and elegant, and his sense of symmetry and composition elevated all of these images. The combination of those two factors was just utterly inspiring.
I really appreciated how personal and intimate of a look into the life of Kurt Cobain that you presented in Montage of Heck, and you do the same with Jane Goodall in Jane.
MORGEN: One of the things that I do with each film is find a style that is suited to the subject matter, so that I’m not imposing upon them. In that context, every aspect of the film serves as a reflection of the subject, so that it becomes a full-bodied experience. Even when she’s not talking, you’re gaining insight into her rhythms, if you will.
When and how did you first meet Jane Goodall, and what was your impression of her?
MORGEN: I met her very late in the process. The first time I talked to Jane was after I’d arrived at a first cut of the film. The last two movies – Montage and Jane – I cut the films prior to doing the interviews. That was a necessity because the interviews for both films were structured to be posed in a manner that reflected the content that the subjects were talking about. In order to do that, you have to really have a very strong guide as to how you’re gonna map out the interview. So, we interviewed Jane towards the end of the process and she was a reluctant narrator. She felt that her story had been told, ad nauseam, and kept telling my producer to just have me use some pre-existing interview. She really wrestled with us to even grant us three hours. It wasn’t until I looked at the footage and realized that we could create a completely immersive portrait of Jane that wasn’t available to audiences or filmmakers, due to technical limitations back in the day. There was something that we had to offer, that was going to be unique and special. So, we convinced Jane to give us a couple of days. To start the interview, I said, “Jane, do you get tired of telling your story. You’ve told it so many times.” She looked at me without blinking and said, “It depends on who’s asking the questions.” Thus began our wonderful relationship. It was interesting, I had to earn it and work for her respect, but I would have had it no other way.
You’ve said that you did one test screening for this film. What made you decide to do that? Isn’t that unusual, with a documentary?
MORGEN: Going back to The Kid Stays in the Picture, I’m really lucky that I have final cut on all of my films. That said, with each movie, I always do one screening. It’s not for the studio. I don’t get notes from the studio. I’m into getting a plurality of opinion. I don’t like bringing in one or two people at a time. It fucks with your head. I like bringing 40 or 50 people in and seeing what the consensus is. And I think I learned more from this screening than any one I had done in the past. I ended up reshaping the narrative, in a fairly significant way, after the screening. To me, you have to do it, and you have to do it in an anonymous manner. If you bring people in to get their notes, they’re gonna lie. No one ever wants to give you bad news, especially if they know you’ve been working really hard on something. I always encourage people in those screenings to just brutalize me because they’re anonymous. It’s not the time to be nice. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get dirty.