American filmmaker Brett Morgen, 49, has built a career making documentaries about maverick Hollywood producer Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture), Kurt Cobain (Cobain: Montage of Heck), and The Rolling Stones (Crossfire Hurricane). He specialises in showbiz figures, and nothing on his CV says he’s wired to do a wildlife documentary. Then again, Jane isn’t really a wildlife documentary. The film, which has won countless awards, including Best Documentary at the US National Board of Review, is an early portrait of primatologist Jane Goodall, when the then 26-year-old first set foot in Tanzania in 1960 to study chimpanzees. “I think the only sort of common link between my subjects is they all tend to be people who sort of defined the era they were living in or redefined the field that they were working in,” Morgen tells us. “And they all often have to be very good looking.”
8 DAYS: You initially said no to Jane, saying “Science was probably my worst subject in school.” Now that you’ve done the documentary, how is your science?
BRETT MORGEN: I’m [still] terrible at science. You know, the film is not very scientific. It’s very humanistic, more philosophical. There have been several films and books about Jane [Goodall’s] research, but to me, this isn’t a film about her research — it’s about Jane herself. It’s Jane that’s being observed; it’s very much a personal narrative.
The docu was put together using 100 hours of never-before-seen 16mm footage of Goodall’s early days in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. Jane is 90 minutes long. Is there a longer version?
No, you know what? None of my films are made in the edit room; they are all scripted before I get to the edit room, so I generally don’t have deleted scenes. I have final cut; I can do anything with the material. What you see is exactly what I wanted you to see and experience.
What are your favourite moments in Jane?
It’s when Jane and Hugo [van Lawick, the Dutch filmmaker sent to document her work] were falling in love. To me, that’s a purely cinematic moment. By collating moments of [Jane turning to the camera, smiling and laughing], we were able to create a montage of how Jane and Hugo were falling in love. That’s something very special and magical, a moment that almost always brings tears to my eyes, not of sadness but great joy and admiration of such perfect life.
What’s your secret to getting your interviewees to open up?
I try to be as casual as I possibly can. Oftentimes in documentaries, the director would get the interviewees to repeat the questions first before answering them, because they try to pretend that they are not there. I have decided years ago, when I started interviewing, that I was not gonna mask my voice. I’m going to let my voice be heard, and be the voice of the audience, if you will. By doing so, it allows the conversation to be far more organic. With someone like Jane, I had been working on the film for two years straight, so I’m well-versed in her life and I knew exactly what kind of answers I was looking for. I had one advantage: I had already edited the film, so I was able to occasionally show her various sequences to help her recall a memory of an emotion in a specific moment in time.
You also directed the pilot for Marvel’s The Runaways.
A year before that, I did a pilot for Hulu, When the Street Lights Go On, which unfortunately wasn’t picked up, but they were big fans of my direction, they recommended me to Marvel for The Runaways. I have been a commercial director for 20 years so, while there is little synergy between documentaries and fiction storytelling, there is a tremendous amount of synergy between fiction storytelling and commercial-making. In that sense, being a director is about knowing how to mobilise your crew and inspire and synchronise your crew. You don’t necessary learn those skills from making a documentary but you learn them from making commercials. Making fiction and non-fiction narratives are entirely unique, there’s almost no common ground. I can tell you that in post-production, editing fiction is like cutting butter with a steak knife, while cutting documentaries is like cutting steak with a piece of string.
Do you have plans to do more fiction storytelling?
I have no interest in fiction storytelling. I did [The Runaways because I] was curious. But honestly, fiction at this moment in my life is a waste of time. Perhaps there will come a time in the future, where I will have the passion for it, but you know I don’t get off spending hours and hours trying to realise a shot, to get me from point A to point B. That does not excite me. I find the work I have been doing in the non-fiction to be creatively fulfilling. I am at a wonderful point of my career where I get final cut, well-financed and I am essentially allowed to sit in my room, and play with all these amazing footage, and I do not really have to answer anyone. Honestly, I can’t think of a better set up.
Photos: National Geographic Channel
Jane is available on Fox+.