In his documentaries, director Brett Morgen employs a dense combination of montage, animation, archival materials, and other elements to create portraits that are often more experiential than they are informational. He’s applied this approach to subjects like Hollywood producer Robert Evans (2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture), Kurt Cobain (2015’s Montage of Heck), Jane Goodall (2017’s Jane), and others. With his new feature, Moonage Daydream, Morgen has grappled with the most imposing cultural figure he’s taken on yet: David Bowie. In 2017, the legendary singer’s estate gave the director and his crew access to an extraordinary repository of artifacts from the musician’s life — including artwork, photos, and concert and interview footage.
After years of processing, restoring, and assembling these elements, the result is an impressionistic documentary lasting more than two hours and tailored for IMAX theaters. The image and, even more so, the sound are designed to be almost overwhelming, as Morgen sought to let Bowie’s music and philosophy hit in a whole new way: while it broadly covers the artist’s entire life, it pays particular attention to his period of frequent reinvention and exploration during the 1970s and ’80s, and is concerned less with a straightforward biographical narrative than with inhabiting Bowie’s artistic headspace during this time; it is more of an emotional portrait than an expositional one. To get inside the long process that brought Morgen and his team from the time they were allowed into the Bowie archive to now, I sat down with him over Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: When you were granted access to the archive, what volume of material were you looking at?
Brett Morgen: It took two years to screen through all the media.
H: Were you working on your edit during that process, or did it take two years just to take all that in?
BM: The latter. When I’m screening, I just try to absorb as much as I can.
H: How much work then went into restoring the old footage, of concerts and interviews and such?
BM: We entered the color correction process with the intent of doing 130 hours, and it ended up taking 650 hours. Most shots have as many as 10 to 12 power windows [individually selected portions of an image for editing in color-grading tools]. It was a combination of painting and reconstruction work at the same time. Some stuff is heavily painted. In the Ziggy Stardust section, for instance, I added several hues that were nonexistent in the original negative to provide a more colorful palette. The other thing we were doing was wrestling with noise reduction, because we were going to come out in IMAX. There was a massive commitment. And it started with the material I selected; I wanted material that would lend itself to the big-screen experience.
H: You’ve already done several biographical films. Was there anything you learned when making Jane or Montage of Heck that you wanted to avoid here?
BM: I think Moonage Daydream is quite a departure from my previous films. There’s continuity in my interest in sound and picture and montage, but in terms of structure, there was not a lot I was able to lean on from my previous endeavors. In fact, it was quite the opposite. My experience, I felt, was almost a curse. I was trying to create something that felt spontaneous, but my instincts are anything but. My scripts have generally been very cause and effect, narratively focused. But with Moonage Daydream, the story is designed to seem slightly covert.
H: How would you describe that “covert” story?
BM: To me, it’s not that dissimilar from the classical hero’s journey. David set out to create these challenges for himself — not to kind of arrive at some sort of podium, but to gain as much experience and make life as much of an adventure as he could.
H: Did anything help you unlearn your instincts?
BM: I studied David’s techniques and methodologies that he used to create art, and tried to incorporate and employ as many of those as I could, including the use of oblique strategies to try to get me out of my zone. But by the very fact that I was making a film that was outside my comfort zone, I was already in a Bowie space. The film is all about trying to make the most of every day by making life an adventure. By approaching a musical film outside the biographical space, I was already in the deep end before I stepped foot in the water. I had to learn how to let go, to accept that my mistakes were blessings and not curses, that they were gifts. It was a film that was created in ebbs and flows. Some shots just rolled right in; I would put something in and then never touch it again. And other stuff I had to fight for weeks at a time; those parts required a lot of fencing.
H: What material fenced with you?
BM: There was a really dreadful month where I cut the sequence leading into [Bowie meeting his wife] Iman. I needed a transition to get me from one scene to the next. It was really just an audio component. And for 26 days, I would come into the office and just bang my head against the wall. But this was because I was working by myself. If I had been working with someone, my guess is they would’ve said on the first day, “Why don’t you just put in ‘Then I met Iman’?” This was a pitfall of working autonomously. But there are also advantages of working autonomously. There were several months when I was working remotely, with my laptop next to my bed. I had the opportunity to wake up at two in the morning, start cutting, and then go back to sleep. And that would yield some pretty awesome results at times.
H: How did you balance keeping the film accessible while also seeking things that would be new to fans of Bowie?
BM: I wasn’t worried about how much new ground I might cover. My intent was quite singular: I wanted to create an immersive cinematic experience built around David that was devoid of traditional biographical components. It does still contain a few, but by where I’ve removed them elsewhere, it’s allowed the room to invite more of an immersive feeling. Pointedly, what’s probably the least immersive scene of the movie, but possibly the most emotional, is the one about his brother [Terry Burns, who heavily influenced Bowie’s tastes when he was young, and who struggled with schizophrenia and was institutionalized for much of his life]. Once you start telling stories like that, you have lots of opportunities. The movie is designed with an understanding that there’s all this other media out there in existence about David. There’s a deeply detailed and layered subtext, but on the surface, it’s meant to engage the viewer on a sensory level. The form is the content. To go into this film looking for a list of Bowie’s achievements, to create a list of collaborators, to make sure we mention every album title — that wouldn’t be a proper use of the IMAX space.
Moonage Daydream is currently in theaters.
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