Brett Morgen

The visionary documentarian brings the story of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial to the big screen

"We spent nine months on this film's sound design. It kills me when I talk to people, and they tell me they watched it on DVD. I'm like, 'You missed half the movie.' I know a lot of filmmakers are going to say, 'You must see my movie in a movie theater!' But this is a movie where, if you don't see it in Surround Digital, you miss the whole point." - B. Morgen

Visionary filmmaker Brett Morgen wowed audiences with his 2002 documentary The Kids Stay In The Picture. Based on a book about legendary producer Robert Evans, the experimental project laid Evans' own narrative track over film clips from his vast and iconic catalogue as well as pictures from his own personal archives. These pieces of film were stylishly edited into a unique and personal story about Evans' life, connecting the dots between his discovery by Norma Shearer for A Man of a Thousand Faces, to his return to Paramount Pictures.

This month, Morgen is debuting his follow-up feature Chicago 10. Using a variety of mixed media, the documentarian has created a feature film that chronicles The Chicago Conspiracy Trial that followed the 1968 National Convention. The film uses archival footage from the actual event and interweaves this with an animated retelling of the courtroom transcriptions. Thus creating a parable of hope, courage and ultimate victory. Chicago 10 is the story of young Americans speaking out and taking a stand in the face of an oppressive and armed government.

The film boasts an outstanding cast of voice talent. Playing the Chicago 10 are Hank Azaria as Abbie Hoffman, Mark Ruffalo as Jerry Rubin, Dylan Baker as David Dellinger, Liev Schreiber as liberal attorney William Kunstler, Nick Nolte as prosecution attorney Thomas Foran, Jeffery Wright as Bobby Seale, and, in his last theatrical performance, Roy Scheider as Judge Julius Hoffman.

I recently met up with Brett Morgen to get his own personal take on the making of this very special film. Here is our conversation:

What is your own perception of how this bit of history has been presented and treated by American educators? I ask because it is an interesting and important story from both a historical and social standpoint. Yet, I didn't know anything about the Chicago Seven until I attended your film. I went to both high school and college in Oregon. My girlfriend, on the other hand, had seen most of this footage before, and learned about it in both high school and college. She attended schools in Texas. Why do you think educators in different parts of the country have spotlighted this material differently?

Brett Morgen: Well, first, I bet she didn't see a lot of the footage that is in the film. A lot of the footage has never been seen before. But I get you. She had an awareness of it. I don't know. I don't really have an answer for that, but I can draw upon my own history with it. And it never came up. I went to high school, college, and graduate school, and it never was discussed in school. One of my favorite quotes about the film came from the Washington Post. They said, "If this is how they are teaching history today, I want to go back to school." I think, basically, your wife is the exception. I think very few people under the age of forty have a thorough awareness of what happened in Chicago. They may know that there were problems at the '68 convention. And that there was something called "The Trial of the Chicago Seven". But I have seen every single film on the subject matter, and I have read every book on the subject. I can tell you that none of them offer the experience of Chicago. Which was something that we really wanted to get across in this film. Our film was created to provide this visceral experience. One that you can't get from a book. The documentaries about Chicago tend to create these montages about the riots. They confuse them all. You will have a shot from Monday cut in with a shot from Thursday, and that will be cut in with a shot from Sunday. They are not narratively driven in that context. What we have done for the first time, I think, is really reconstruct the events in a cinematic way.

This is one of the most interestingly put together documentaries I think I have ever seen. Just in the way that you used mixed media. How you hit upon a style for this? You bring something so different to the documentary field, I want to know how you approached that from the offset?

Brett Morgen: The thing is, and I think this is what sets me apart from other documentarians for better or for worse, I'm not a historian. I don't even really think of myself as a documentarian. I think of myself as a filmmaker first and foremost. I am not interested in creating histories. I think books are better suited for history than film. Maybe TV is. Frontline is perfectly suited for giving a history lesson. I am interested in creating theatrical documentaries. So my films are more mythologies. That is the way I approach them. I liberate myself from the history by saying, "This isn't really a story about 1968. Or about today." I am simply appropriating these images and scenes from '68. Like Baz Lerman took "Romeo and Juliet", and then placed it into Mexico City. Or how Richard the III is taken and put into Nazi Germany.

For me, history used to be something really fun. It used to be passed down from generation to generation orally. Each generation would take their own story and put a spin on it. In time, that history became mythology. And folklore. I am trying to return to a place like that. Where history isn't about dates and facts. It is something experiential. That said, I urge people who see Chicago 10 and like it to go read a book about it. I am not going to give you certain things. I avoided doing a montage that you can pull from any film from the 1960s. Close your eyes and throw a dart, you can find that montage from the 60s. They always have Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I refused to put that stuff in the film, because I didn't want to root it in 1968 like that. I wanted a classic, timeless story about a war, an opposition to that war, and the government trying to silence that opposition.

Now, I don't think it's surprising that when I debuted the film in Europe I kept getting these same kinds of questions from journalists. "Were you thinking of Tiananmen Square when you made this? Were you thinking about Seattle when you made this?" It is clear that the story in the film is open enough for you to project your own feelings on top of it. It is a timeless story when you think about it in those terms. I also wanted to make the film, particularly, for those that weren't around at the time. I think the people that were around Chicago at that time have an amazing time going back there with this film. Most of the comments that we have gotten from people that were in Chicago have been, "Thank you for doing this. It totally brought me back there." Bob Faust, who is in the film, told me the other night after a screening, "I have a better sense of the geography of Chicago now than when I was there. Because you couldn't get a sense of the whole landscape."

I think most social change is brought about in this country by the people. The audience that I really wanted to tell this story to weren't around at the time. So I chose a more youthful style. With animation. Without narration. Without interviews. Without a bunch of eighty-year-old people. The film itself is sort of a metaphor for the Yippie. If you make a film about politics that is sober, very few people will want to go out on a Friday night and engage with it. The lesson from Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, which I think Michael Moore has clearly appropriated, is that if you take these ideas and package them as entertainment, then you have a better chance of reaching more people. For me, first and foremost, it is about entertainment. Last night at a panel, someone pointed out in the press notes, "It says here that you made this film to inspire people to do something." I had to stop him and say, "Well, you know what? I actually made this film to entertain people. First and foremost. Lets stop there." Most people go to a movie to be entertained. I will go to a movie with other filmmakers and we walk out and look at each other, "What did you think about the film, man?" "It was good." "Yeah, it was good. Where do you want to go for dinner?" That is the extent of it. Except in rare circumstances. I saw Paul P.T. Anderson's film There Will Be Blood with two other Academy Award nominated filmmakers. And we came away from that film too blown away to really engage in it. I think the goal, really, if you are making films for the theatrical marketplace, is to entertain. First and foremost.

There are more and more documentaries today that are interested in the entertainment value of non-fiction. But that certainly hasn't always been the case. Less now, but traditionally with documentaries, the filmmakers were journalists. The documentaries were more issue oriented than they were film oriented. As a result, they don't take advantage of the breadth and width a film can provide you with. As I was saying, if I'm going to approach a subject like Chicago 10, I'm going to ask, "What can I do here that I can't do in a book? What can I do in a film that I can't do in a radio play? What is film uniquely suited for?" To me, making a film means exploiting the breadth and width of the image. It needs to be both oral and visual.

We spent nine months on this film's sound design. It kills me when I talk to people, and they tell me they watched it on DVD. I'm like, "You missed half the movie." I know a lot of filmmakers are going to say, "You must see my movie in a movie theater!" But this is a movie where, if you don't see it in Surround Digital, you miss the whole point. We spend months and months, and month pulling archival audio and placing that into different speakers around the room during the riot scenes. So that you would feel the chaos of what it would be like to be stuck in one of those scenes. It is coming from all around you. It becomes a cacophony. Without that, watching it on a flat screen, you can't get near that experience. I'm totally committed to these types of theatrical experiences. I watched this at the DGA the other night, and it gave me chills. I mean, I made the film. I've seen it a hundred times. But it is a totally different experience when I see it on a proper system as compared to when I see it on the small screen.

That's one of the problems with something like the Academy Awards, and their nominees for sound mixing. The people voting don't get to see, or rather hear, all of that work when they watch an Academy screener at home. That truly must be frustrating.

Brett Morgen: It is interesting. Especially with the Academy and the way we evaluate films. We watch them on DVD. I think that is great for the Emmy Awards. I understand the reason why it is done. More people can play them and see them. When they did it the old way, and people had to actually go to the movie theater, they couldn't see eighty-four films. When that happened, you had a very small group of people that were generally unemployed filmmakers. And they got to make all of the decisions. So, I fully understand why it has to be on DVD. One of the things that I have been urging the documentary filmmaking community to do is get rid of that whole process. If I haven't heard of a film, then it shouldn't probably be nominated. We are one of the only categories where we have these films no one has heard of. I say that, but yes, I will admit that it is getting better every year. This year is a great year. But, on that same note, it wouldn't be possible for a film to get nominated for a Best Picture if that film never came out. Especially if that film is something that we have never heard of. It probably shouldn't. I have to ask, "Why am I being forced to look at these films?" Most documentaries are four-walled and never get a proper theatrical release. I think documentaries are pretty commonplace. I go see ten or twelve of them a year in the movie theater.

Some of the ones that did get a wide theatrical release didn't get nominated this year. Like The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Everyone knows that film, but it's not on the list.

Brett Morgen: You know, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters was probably my favorite documentary last year. But I didn't get a chance to vote for it. Because it wasn't on my list. I'm telling you, it is my favorite documentary of last year. But that doesn't mean it should get nominated. If Superbad was your favorite film last year, I don't think you'd expect it to get nominated for Best Picture. Kong is an amazing film. I love it. But we are talking about the Academy Awards. It is a different color.

Sure, I understand your reasoning on that. But it seems like all of the documentaries that are prominently out there have been overlooked by the Academy Awards.

Brett Morgen: That is true. But I think we are getting better now. I think, in the last couple of years, the highest grossing documentary has won the Oscar. There used to be a problem with films doing well in the marketplace. The Academy would turn around and snub them. But I think that has gotten a lot better in the last seven or eight years.

Watching your film, it becomes obvious that people were more proactive in the 1960s as far as protesting goes. Why do you think, except for the occasional sign that says "Honk to End the War!", we don't see as much demonstrating on the streets as we used to?

Brett Morgen: I bet you there are more people that are active today than there were in the 60s. They are just doing it in different ways. They are doing it virally. The thing is, man, when you see a movie from the 60s, they always cut to a scene of someone protesting. People that weren't alive, so to speak, in the 60s, have this image of that era where, if you opened up your door, there would be people protesting outside. I don't think it was that much more prevalent then as it is today. The media isn't covering the rallies today like they were back then. That is one thing. Two: A lot of protesting has gone viral. If you go to Youtube, you can find hundreds of protest films about the current campaign. Thirdly: There's no draft. Which played a big part of bringing people out in '68. People are more conscious today. I don't think consciousness is a part of the subculture anymore. Being aware of the environment is something that every corporation in America has adopted into their platform. You can't do business in America today without having a green initiative. We are more culturally aware than people were in the 60s. It's just that the protest has shifted.

Just from my perception, it seems that for every person that is doing something proactive about the problems that face the world today, there are five more that don't care at all. They don't do anything.

Brett Morgen: That may be true. One of the lessons of Chicago 10 is that politics isn't who you vote for. It's how you live your life. You can be political, and there are a number of ways to protest. I have kids. Someone the other day asked me what I was doing. This was after a screening of the film. I had to say, "God, I made the movie for four years. That did take a lot out of me." But I then said, "Look, it starts with me. And it starts with my children. That is the place where I can have the most immediate impact in the world. I can teach them from right and wrong. And I can instill them with the moral values that my wife and I share." Since doing this film, I have received dozens of letters from people. Young kids, particularly, that have said, "After watching this film, I was inspired to take a more active role. And it makes me want to renew my commitment to the things that are important to me." This was on a blog some girl wrote after seeing the screening either the other day, or the day before. In a small way, if I touch just ten people, or a hundred people, or whatever the number is...That is certainly arbitrary...It makes me feel good. At the same time, I also feel good if I'm able to entertain people. Which is my goal. But if you can entertain people and inspire people on that same level, it is a pretty wonderful feeling. Once again, like the last line from Jerry Rubin, "I'm not your daddy." I can't tell you what to do. You know what you need to do. You need to get out there and do that yourself. The people that don't want to protest? I am not going to brainwash them. I don't feel like you have to protest. If you do have strong feelings, you may just want to think about doing something about it.

I recently got a chance to talk with Nick Nolte, who plays prosecution attorney Thomas Foran in the film. And he is extremely knowledgeable on all of this stuff. I'm wondering what it was like having him come in and do this voice over for you?

Brett Morgen: I will tell you, Nick was amazing. Okay? Nick is a lifelong liberal. And here, he is playing the prosecutor. This is what an extraordinary actor Nick Nolte is. When I first spoke with him, we talked on the phone to great lengths about his activities in the 60s. And how he'd spent time in jail for selling draft cards. He was active before most people were active. This was in the early 60s. He spent a lot of time prepping for the role. He spent weeks studying the trial and learning what he could about Thomas Foran. The morning of the recordings, I was at the studio. And I was talking to Nick's manager. I told him I got a funny call from Nick this morning. "Yeah?" I said, "Nick has been doing his research, and this morning he called me. He said, 'I got to tell you, these kids should fucking fry!'" After that, Nick came into the studio dripping with contempt. You can hear this in his performance. And it is so sincere. What is amazing is, that is Nick as an actor. Nick found a way to empathize with Thomas Foran. And he was able to articulate that, and totally capture that sense of disdain and contempt that the prosecution had for the defendants. Despite the fact that Nick would later tell you, "Foran should fry!" He has eased his commitment into that character. We only had a few hours to work together. We weren't really paying anyone anything. All of these guys that did voice work were wholly prepared by the time they came into the studio. They spent their own time studying these people, or listening to the audiotape. They devised the take on these characters themselves. It was great.

Chicago 10 opens in limited release on February 29th, 2008. It will open wider throughout March.

B. Alan Orange at Movieweb
B. Alan Orange