Interview: Director Brett Morgen on his David Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream; “Chaos and fragmentation were his through line”

  • Peter Gray
  • September 12, 2022
  • Comments Off on Interview: Director Brett Morgen on his David Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream; “Chaos and fragmentation were his through line”

Moonage Daydream is not a documentary.  It is a genre-defying cinematic experience based on one of the most iconic and global rock stars of all time: David Bowie.

Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Brett Morgen, director of Cobain: Montage of Heck, and featuring never-before-seen concert footage, Moonage Daydream is an immersive cinematic experience; an audio-visual space odyssey that not only illuminates the enigmatic legacy of Bowie, but also serves as a guide to living a fulfilling and meaningful life in the 21st Century.

Ahead of the film’s national release, Peter Gray spoke with Brett about having the full support of the Bowie estate when crafting the film, how daunting a task it was to collate through so much footage, and how the late performer has influenced Brett’s own outlook on life.

I understand that there was something like 5 million assets of Bowie material that the estate shared with you? How daunting a task is it to go through such a life and to know what to use? And was there any footage that felt difficult to part with?

Once I received it, which took about two years, and I was screening it I didn’t know what story I would find or what story I wanted to tell.  I tried not to do that until I’ve had a chance to serve everything.  I knew that I was making a film that was going to be finished for theatrical, so I was more attuned to the 25 and 16 millimetre elements.  I would say about 94% of the footage was performance.  So you put on a different set of lenses for that, because then you’re just evaluating the camera coverage and the physical performance.

It wasn’t like there was two years worth of cinema Bowie, which would have been a little more overwhelming.  Very quickly into the journey the through line started emerging.  David would often return to the same themes throughout his career, ideas of time, mortality, doppelgangers, doubles, and spirituality.  And in his interviews, you know, David rarely granted an interview unless he was promoting an album, so every couple years I’d find like a whole chunk of interviews with Bowie, and he would always return to the same themes of chaos, fragmentation and transients. And it didn’t matter if it was 1971 or 2005.  And as he states in the film, chaos, fragmentation are my through line. So once I was able to establish and identify that, then that became the laundry line to which everything would get attached to, and that weeded out a lot of material.

On talking to the Bowie estate about the film.  At its core, this is a visual and auditory immersive experience about his life, but, as you said, there’s so many complex themes about who he was as a person.  What was that initial conversation with the estate like? And how did you convey to them the style of the film you wanted to make about David Bowie?

I tried to convey it to them, to distributors and financiers, and no one got it.  I couldn’t get anyone to give me a penny to do a David Bowie film.  I went to every studio and was turned down.  I begged studios! And my pitch was not that different than than it would be today, which is an immersive audio and visual experience, centred around David Bowie’s creative and spiritual journey through life. Ultimately, an excuse to take the greatest media assets of Bowie and weave them into a theatrical experience. So what happened was I had decided I’d been doing biographical documentary films for 20 years, and at the conclusion a Montage of Heck, I felt that I had exhausted my growth potential in the genre. And I was quite tired of some of the vernacular of the biopic.

What I really enjoy about filmmaking is texture.  Is the grey areas.  The stuff that speaks volumes.  A scrap of paper that Kurt (Cobain) wrote on, that, to me, was like the greatest shot in the world, so I wanted to create something entirely experiential.  We have Wikipedia (that) can tell you all the facts of an artist’s life.  So let’s give them everything other than that.  When I presented to David’s executor, I had met with David in 2007 to present not this film, but a different hybrid non-fiction film.  Most people don’t know this but David was a collector and he saved everything.  For the past 25 years, he’d been working with an archivist, sort of purchasing stuff blindly at auctions and getting all of this material.  But he knew he didn’t know what he was going to do with it.

David never wanted to participate in a (traditional) documentary.  So when I come knocking on the door saying “Okay, great.  Give me all your assets”, I got the green light.  Here’s the thing, David isn’t here to approve or authorise (my) work, so it’s never going to be “Bowie on Bowie”, it’s going to be “Brett Morgen on Bowie.”

One thing I really liked about the film was the progression of Bowie ageing.  He had such a happy and unique outlook for such a big star on getting older.  He really seemed to appreciate that he was getting better with age.  Was that something you worked on within the film?

So much of our culture is geared towards celebrating youth.  I think so many young adults have a kid of nihilistic and cynical idea of ageing.  That we’re only relevant when we’re young.  And that’s certainly how I was raised.  And that’s how my daughter, who’s 19, views the world.  I thought that it was unbelievably inspiring to work on a film that would provide some hope and some inspiration for people about ageing.  I’m 53.  My life is better today than it’s ever been.  I mirrored David in that, so, I guess in some respects, (I’m) speaking through David in terms of communicating that life does get better.  Almost everyone I know feels the same way.  That we just don’t give a fuck anymore.

That was really exciting to have the opportunity to present that message and create a life affirming movie.  I was creating it during the pandemic, you know, which was our darkest hour globally.  I started (this film) under Trump! The world was weird and we were going through an apocalypse.  I was in a shelter with David Bowie, and it wasn’t dark in there at all.  It was full of light, and butterflies, and joy.  As you might have heard, I had a heart attack at the very beginning of (making) the film.  Right before I started ingesting Bowie into my veins I had a massive heart attack.  I flatlined and was in a coma for a week.  It happened because my life was so out of control and imbalance and all work, work work.

Bowie arrived in my life when I was 12.  (He) taught me and made me feel that it was okay to be different.  But at 47, I received a very different message that I needed to hear at that station in my life.  (That message) was how to let go.  How to appreciate life and, you know, when you’ve had a heart attack and you hear that line, that’s the moment you realise you’ve lived more days than you have in front of you.  When you have a heart attack, part of your heart dies.  So I lost 10% of my heart that day, and my life expectancy is no longer as ambitious as I once thought.  I don’t really know how much time I have, and I don’t want to waste a second.

Moving forward with my career, it’s very unlikely I’ll ever make an archival film (again).  I’ve realised that I’ve grown too comfortable doing archival films.  It’s too easy.  I’m collaborating with someone on my next project and I basically said to them, “You know, I am too comfortable (in) my space, and I need to go into the field and do what I am absolutely dreading.  Which is go live with you for three months!” Not sleeping in my own bed is terrifying, (but) one of the things I learned from Bowie is if you don’t feel terrified going into a project, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

That was such a great quote.  The other one that was really interesting was “All people, no matter who they are, wish they appreciated life more.”

You know what’s amazing? That’s not (Bowie’s) line.  That’s a scripted line from a movie called Mr. Rice’s Secret.  When we cut the trailer, Neon, who put the trailer together in the US, they didn’t know what source materials were from where when they showed me the trailer, and I go “Guys! Those aren’t Bowie’s words! That’s from a really awful, cheesy movie called Mr. Rice’s Secret.” I thought we can’t do that! It’s just weird.  But I liked it.  And I sent it to Nicholas Pegg, who’s the world’s leading Bowie authority, and I told him I was sending him a trailer.  There was a question I had for him, but if I told him it was going to give it away. I needed him to call me the second he finished watching it.  Nick watches the trailer and calls me, and he goes “Well, I love the use of Mr. Rice’s Secret.”

I knew he was going to identify that, and then we started talking about it, and Nick said something to me, which is why I ultimately used it because the words sounded so similar to how David talked about life.  Nick said the reason (Bowie) took on that role (was) because it reminded him of his father.  David had a hand in writing his own lines for (that) film, so then it made perfect sense.  I was constructing this film and I was going to pull these really saccharin lines for the most important moment in the film, but that message (was) David’s.  And at the end of the day I can’t distinguish in the film between performed lines or unperformed.  It’s all performance.

Moonage Daydream is releasing in Australian theatres on September 15th, 2022.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.