Interview: director Brett Morgen on his documentary David Bowie Moonage Daydream; “Chaos and fragmentation were his guideline”
Lunar Reverie is not a documentary. It’s a genre-defying cinematic experience based on one of the most iconic and global rock stars of all time: David Bowie.
Directed by the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Brett MorganDirector of Cobain: Editing Heckand presenting never-before-seen concert images, Lunar Reverie is an immersive cinematic experience; an audio-visual space odyssey that not only illuminates Bowie’s enigmatic legacy, but also serves as a guide to living a fulfilling and meaningful life in the 21st century.
Ahead of the film‘s domestic release, Peter Gray spoke with Brett about the Bowie estate’s full support during the making of the film, the daunting task of putting together so much footage, and how the late performer influenced Brett’s own vision. about life.
I understand there was something like 5 million Bowie gear assets that the estate shared with you? How daunting is it to go through such a life and figure out what to use? And were there any images that were hard to separate?
Once I received it, which took about two years, and screened it, I didn’t know what story I was going to find or what story I wanted to tell. I tried not to do that until I had a chance to serve it all. I knew I was making a film that was going to be finished for the cinema, so I was more attuned to the 25 and 16 millimeter elements. I would say about 94% of the images were performances. So you put a different set of lenses for that, because you’re just evaluating camera coverage and physical performance.
It wasn’t like it was two years of Bowie movies, which would have been a bit more overwhelming. Very quickly in the journey, the direct line began to emerge. David would often return to the same themes throughout his career, the ideas of time, mortality, look-alikes, doubles and spirituality. And in his interviews, you know, David rarely gave an interview unless he was promoting an album, so every two years I found like a whole bunch of interviews with Bowie, and he always came back to the same themes of chaos, fragmentation and transitory. And it doesn’t matter if it’s 1971 or 2005. And as he says in the film, chaos, fragmentation are my guideline. So once I was able to establish and identify that, it became the clothesline that everything was tied to, and that took out a lot of material.
Speaking to the Bowie estate from the movie. At its core, it’s an immersive visual and auditory experience about his life, but, like you said, there are so many complex themes about who he was as a person. What was that first conversation with the estate like? And how did you convey to them the style of the film you wanted to make on David Bowie?
I tried to pass it on to them, to the distributors and to the financiers, and no one understood it. I couldn’t convince anyone to give me a dime to make a David Bowie movie. I went to every studio and got turned down. I begged the studios! And my speech was not so different from what it would be today, which is an immersive audio and visual experience, centered on David Bowie’s creative and spiritual journey through life. Ultimately, an excuse to take Bowie’s greatest media assets and weave them into a theatrical experience. So what happened was that I had decided that I would be doing biographical documentary films for 20 years, and in the end, a Heck’s assembly, I felt that I had exhausted my potential for growth in the genre. And I was pretty tired of some of the biopic vernacular.
What I really like about cinema is the texture. These are the gray areas. The thing that says a lot. A piece of paper that Kurt (Cobain) wrote on, which to me was like the biggest shot in the world, so I wanted to create something that was entirely experiential. We have Wikipedia (which) can tell you all the facts of an artist’s life. So let’s give them something other than that. When I pitched to David’s executor, I had met David in 2007 to pitch not this film, but another hybrid non-fiction film. Most people don’t know this, but David was a collector and he saved it all. For the past 25 years, he’d worked with an archivist, sort of buying stuff blindly at auction and getting all that material. But he knew he didn’t know what he was going to do with it.
David never wanted to participate in a (traditional) documentary. So when I come knocking on the door saying “Okay, great. Give me all your assets,” I got the nod. Here’s the thing, David isn’t here to endorse or authorize (my) work, so it’s never going to be “Bowie on Bowie”, it’s going to be “Brett Morgen on Bowie”.
One thing I really liked about the movie was Bowie’s aging progression. He had such a happy and unique vision for such a big star to grow old. He seemed to really enjoy the fact that he was getting better with age. Was that something you worked on in the movie?
Much of our culture is centered around celebrating youth. I think so many young adults have a nihilistic, cynical idea of aging. That we are only relevant when we are young. And that’s certainly how I was raised. And that’s how my daughter, who is 19, sees the world. I thought it was incredibly inspiring to work on a film that would give people some hope and inspiration about aging. I am 53 years old. My life is better today than it has ever been. I mirrored David in that, so I guess in some ways (I) speak through David in terms of communicating that life is getting better. Almost everyone I know feels the same way. We don’t care anymore.
It was really exciting to have the opportunity to present that message and create a life-affirming film. I was creating it during the pandemic, you know, which was our darkest hour globally. I started (this film) under Trump! The world was weird and we were going through an apocalypse. I was in a shelter with David Bowie, and it wasn’t dark in there at all. It was full of light, butterflies and joy. As you may have heard, I had a heart attack at the very beginning (of filming) of the film. Just before I started ingesting Bowie through my veins, I had a massive heart attack. I stagnated and was in a coma for a week. It happened because my life was so out of control and out of balance and all work, work work.
Bowie came into my life when I was 12. (He) taught me and made me feel that it was okay to be different. But at 47, I received a very different message that I needed to hear at this station of my life. (This message) was how to let go. How to enjoy life and, you know, when you’ve had a heart attack and you hear that line, that’s when you realize you’ve lived more days than you have in front of you. When you have a heart attack, part of your heart dies. So I lost 10% of my heart that day, and my life expectancy isn’t as ambitious as I once thought. I don’t really know how much time I have, and I don’t want to waste a second.
To move forward with my career, it is very unlikely that I will make an archival film (again). I realized that I had become too comfortable doing archival films. It’s too easy. I’m collaborating with someone on my next project and I basically said to them, “You know, I’m too comfortable (in) my space, and I have to go out there and do what I absolutely dread. Who is to live with you for three months! Not sleeping in my own bed is terrifying, (but) one of the things I learned from Bowie is that if you don’t feel terrified about taking on a project, then you shouldn’t. probably not do it.
It was such a beautiful quote. The other one that was really interesting was “All people, no matter who they are, want to enjoy life more.”
You know what’s amazing? It’s not (Bowie’s) line. It’s a scripted line from a movie called Mr. Rice’s Secret. When we cut the trailer, Neon, who put the trailer together in the United States, they didn’t know where the source materials came from when they showed me the trailer, and I said “Guys! These are not Bowie’s words! This is from a really awful and corny movie called Mr. Rice’s Secret.” I thought we couldn’t do that! It’s just weird. But I liked it. And I sent it to Nicholas Pegg, who is the world’s foremost authority on Bowie, and told him I was sending him a trailer. There was a question I had for him, but if I told him he was going to give it away. I needed him to call me the second he finished looking at it. Nick watches the trailer and calls me, and he says “Well, I love the use of Mr. Rice’s Secret.”
I knew he was going to identify that, and then we started talking about it, and Nick said something to me, that’s why I ended up using it because the words sounded so much like the way David was talking about the life. Nick said the reason (Bowie) took on the role (was) because it reminded him of his father. David was involved in writing his own lines for (this) movie, so that made perfect sense. I was building this movie and I was going to pull these really sweet lines for the most important moment in the movie, but that message (was) David’s. And at the end of the day, I can’t distinguish in the film which lines are played or not. Everything is performance.
Lunar Reverie hits Australian theaters on September 15, 2022.