When Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck director Brett Morgen first set out to make what became an intimate look at the life of the Nirvana frontman, he was given unrestricted access to a storage facility full of primary source material.
Cobain’s many drawings, written notes (including journal entries, lyrics and musings) and more than 200 hours’ worth of audio are woven throughout Montage of Heck, the HBO documentary film that screened at the Tribeca Film Festival Sunday night. It will debut on the pay cable channel on May 4 and get a limited theatrical release before that.
Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, who attended Sunday night’s screening and post-film discussion with Morgen and journalist Neil Strauss, said she gave Morgen that sort of access because she trusted him and “wanted someone to tell the truth.”
“I didn’t want to micromanage [Morgen],” she added. “I’d seen The Kid Stays in the Picture, and I just knew he was the right guy, and I liked him.”
She hadn’t been to the facility to clean it up or preemptively determine what Morgen would have access to, she and the director explained. So she didn’t know that he’d find a box of cassette tapes with more than 200 hours of audio, including Cobain describing his first sexual encounter and suicide attempt. She also didn’t expect that Morgen would be so meticulous that he’d find the few frames of the sex tape she and Cobain made that she thought she’d taped over.
“Me and Kurt only had this one tape, and we could never figure out how to use the battery, so we recorded over and over and over on it,” Love explained. “Everyone makes one sex tape once in their life. So we did, and I thought, he’ll never catch those frames.”
Love saw the film for the fourth time at Tribeca, even though she keeps saying she won’t see it again. This time, she said, “I experienced some shame…. Mostly I get really sad when I’ve watched it before, but [this time I felt]…guilt and what I could have done.”
Still, she said the film is “as close to the truth as anyone’s ever going to get.” And she insisted she wouldn’t change anything about it.
“I think Brett spent a lot of time with Kurt’s spirit, and I think his spirit keeps coming out, which is why I keep coming back for more punishment,” she said, getting choked up when she recalled how she first saw the movie with her daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, who serves as an executive producer and for whom Morgen said he made the movie, to help her better know her father.
“When I met her the first time, we were shaking hands and she said something along the lines of, ‘I just met you and I know you more than I know my father because I have no memories of him. I was 20 months old.’ I sensed as a father that she had a very complicated relationship with Kurt…. In a way, I felt that there was an opportunity to bridge the gap,” Morgen said of his goal with the film. “That’s a lot more than entertaining people, which is what I usually do. When I showed her the film before it was finished, she said, ‘Thank you for giving me a couple hours with my father I never had.’ What greater reward as a filmmaker can you possibly get than that sort of response?”
Among the things that the documentary touches on is Cobain’s chronic stomach pain, which he writes he started taking heroin to help alleviate.
After the film, Love insisted his health problems were incredibly serious and lashed out at Nirvana’s management for not giving those issues enough attention.
“He had something really wrong with him. We had really nascent, young management at the time around us. They were really irresponsible to an extent. I don’t think they meant to be, but they were,” she said. “I think he should have been taking to the Mayo Clinic or whatever, but we did have Cedars-Sinai available to us, so he went there several times for Crohn’s disease, endoscopies, a biopsy, over and over and over again. And when people discount his stomach issues — as his manager once fatefully did and was across the hall from me in Dublin when Kurt started puking up bile. I grabbed him by his hair, and I said, ‘You think it’s fake? Come look at this.’ I was so mad. I don’t know what it was.”
While the film features interviews with some of Cobain’s closest friends and family members, the absence of interviews with drummer Dave Grohl is something that has received a great deal of attention since the film first premiered at Sundance. Morgen indicated that it’s unlikely a late interview with the Foo Fighters frontman will ever make it into the film.
While Morgen has previously explained that Grohl was busy making his album while he was working on Montage of Heck, Morgen added that he was able to talk to Grohl shortly before the film premiered at Sundance and three weeks after they locked the picture. But he was reluctant to mess with his movie unless the Nirvana alum said something that he felt was missing.
“This movie is like a house of cards. You pull one thing out and…. It’s very complicated. We spent a long time trying to get it here,” Morgen said. “We did the interview, and it was great and awesome. [But] I couldn’t do what I’d already done…. If there was something, I would have changed the movie.”
He added that he even tried to shoehorn something with Grohl in after the film screened in Berlin, but by then it was too late. “I just lost my ability to evaluate it at that point.”
Listen to full audio from the post-screening discussion here.