Interview – ‘Moonage Daydream’ director Brett Morgen on how David Bowie changed his outlook on life after a major heart attack

From 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 David Bowie but also serves as a guide to living a fulfilling and meaningful life in the 21st Century. 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, destined to be one of the defining cultural moments of the year.

Celebrating the release of Moonage Daydream, in cinemas September 15, the amazing team at Universal Pictures gave me the chance to chat with director Brett Morgen to discuss how he acquired the unseen footage of Bowie and how he conveyed his vision to the Bowie estate!

Nick: Mr Morgen, it’s a pleasure to meet and talk to you today! I’m curious to know how you initially conveyed your vision of what you were hoping to make with the footage, to Bowie’s estate. Because this ultimately isn’t just a documentary, it’s an immersive, visual and auditory experience that explores the complexity of who David Bowie was. So, what was the initial conversation with the estate like?

Brett Morgen: You know, I tried to convey it to them. I tried to convey it 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, I had a deal with financiers that if I could bring a distribution deal, the film would be greenlit.

My pitch was not that different 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, it’s an excuse to take the greatest media assets of Bowie and weave them into a theatrical experience. This is just a very, kind of, base sort of thing.

So, what happened was, I had decided I’d been doing biographical documentary films for 20 years and at the conclusion of 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, the ‘cradle-to-the-grave’ thing. And what I really enjoyed about filmmaking is texture in the grey areas, the stuff that that speaks volumes, you know, a scrap of paper that Kurt wrote on, to me, was the greatest shot in the world. So, I wanted to create something entirely experiential.

My thought was that we have Wikipedia that can tell you all of the facts of an artist’s life. So, let’s give them everything other than that. When I presented this to David’s executor– I had met with David in 2007 to present not this film, but a different hybrid nonfiction film. So, Bill Zysplat [Bowie’s executor], knew me and knew whatever David thought of that meeting we had.

I said: “Listen, I just want all of the assets to create this experience”. And he said: “You know, most people don’t know this, but David was a collector and he saved everything. And for the past 25 years, he’s been working with an archivist purchasing stuff blindly at auctions and getting all this material”.  But he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. The one thing that Bill said is David said he never wanted to participate in a traditional documentary. And so, I come knocking on the door saying: Great! Just give me all your assets! And I’m not going to interview anyone. It will just be the Bowie experience”. And Bill gave me the green light. And here’s the thing, David’s not here to approve, or authorise the work. So, it was never going to be ‘Bowie-on-Bowie’. It’s going to be Brett Morgen on Bowie.

The Bowie estate was just unbelievably supportive. They really love the film. They didn’t see the film until the film was finished. It was an amazing gift, you know, because Bowie is a big business. There was certainly a risk when you do you give Final Cut to someone else, and they may mess up the brand. But I think that the one thing Bill recognised and understood from working with David for over 30 years, was that Bowie was ultimately an artist and that the Bowie film should be created in a similar sort of artists to artists exchange.

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

Brett Morgen: I screened through all the material chronologically once I received it, which took about two years! And as 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 see everything. But, I knew that I was making a film that was going to be finished for theatrical, so I was more attuned to the 35 and 16 millimetre elements.

I would say a large percentage of the footage was performance, so, you put on a different set of lenses on 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 verité of Bowie, which would have been a little more overwhelming.

Into the journey, a through line started to emerge. David would often return to the same themes throughout his career. Ideas of time, mortality, doppelgangers, doubles, and spirituality. In his interviews– David rarely granted an interview unless he was promoting an album! So, every couple of 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. It didn’t matter if it was 1971 or 2005. And as he states in the film, chaos, fragmentation was my throughline. 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.

As you mentioned, Bowie would often discuss aging and mortality. The progression of him ageing through the film was interesting because he had such a happy and unique outlook for a big star, so to speak, on getting older and he really seemed to appreciate that he was getting better with age. Was that something you felt you wanted to feature heavily in the film?

Brett Morgen: So much of our culture is geared towards celebrating youth and I think that so many young adults have a nihilistic and cynical idea of ageing, you know? That we’re only relevant when we’re young. That’s certainly how I was raised, and that’s how my daughter, who’s 19, views the world. This was not a message I tried to dictate in the film, what you just experienced is what I experienced going through the footage. 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 was speaking through David, in terms of communicating that life does get better and almost everyone I know feels the same way. That we don’t give a fuck anymore. I think David got there, too.

It was 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, which was our darkest hours globally. The world was weird, and we were going through an apocalypse. And it felt like 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. And, as you might have heard, I had a heart attack while I was at the very beginning of the film, right before I started injecting Bowie into my veins. It was a massive heart attack. I flatlined and was in a coma for a week. And it happened because my life was so out of control and imbalanced and all work, work, work. So, Bowie arrived in my life when I was 12, to kind of teach me at that age 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. Which was how to let go, how to appreciate life. When you’ve just had a heart attack, and you hear that line, you realise you’ve lived more days than you have in front of you is the moment you can really begin to appreciate life and that really resonated. And knowing that I don’t have much time – you know, when you have a heart attack that one of the things that doctor assesses is thatof your heart dies. I lost 10% of my heart that day, and my life expectancy is no longer as ambitious as I once thought. So, I really don’t know how much time I have, and I don’t want to waste a second.

And so, moving forward with my career, it’s very unlikely I’ll ever make an archival film. Because I realised that I’ve grown too comfortable doing archival films, it’s too easy. I mean, this wasn’t easy, but the idea of sitting in my office hiding from the world… I’m aware of it now. I’m collaborating with someone on my next project, and he thought I was going to do an archival type thing, and I just recently approached them and said: “You know, I am too comfortable my space, and I need to go into the field and do what I absolutely dreading, which is go live with you for three months”. And not be sleeping in my own bed, because it’s terrifying. That’s one of the things you learned from Bowie, if you’re don’t feel terrified going into a project, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Thank you again to Brett Morgen for his time and fantastic insight into his filmmaking process, and thank you to Universal Pictures for giving me the chance to chat with him. Moonage Daydream is in Australian cinemas September 15.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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