This interview with Brett Morgen about “Jane” was first conducted for the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
“Jane,” which recently won the Critics’ Choice Documentary Award as the best nonfiction film of 2017, is the latest in a series of high-profile character studies from director Brett Morgen. But its subject, Jane Goodall, is a far cry from the subjects of his 2015 rock doc “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” or his 2002 film “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about movie producer Robert Evans.
The 83-year old Goodall, a pioneering anthropologist whose studies of African chimpanzees broke new ground, is perhaps less unruly than Cobain or Evans, but she might be more revolutionary. Morgen makes use of extensive footage of Goodall shot by her former husband, wildlife filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, and sets it to a new score by composer Philip Glass.
Why make a film about Jane Goodall?
Sometimes we choose our films, and sometimes they choose us. And I feel in some strange cosmic way this film kind of chose me and Jane and brought us together.
“Jane” is a story for our time, and yet one that transcends our time. I think that it’s not just a story of a scientist, but a story of a woman having to overcome the structural opposition of her time to fulfill and achieve her dreams. And it’s a story about a woman who doesn’t have to give up her career in other to have a family. And I feel in that sense, it’s an incredibly modern story.
National Geographic came to you with more than 100 hours of unseen footage from Hugo van Lawick, didn’t they?
Yes. I like to make immersive documentaries. I’m constantly looking for subject mater to allow me to work in that canvas, and when I saw the footage from National Geographic, I knew instantly I had the materials needed to bring Jane’s book “In the Shadow of Man” to life.
In many ways, the movie is an adaptation of that book. In Hugo’s footage, I found a visual complement to Jane’s prose. It wasn’t just documentation in terms of capturing a moment. The way he captured Jane’s work was so artful and intimate and lyrical in covering everything from the insects to some of the grand shots of the Serengeti.
The movie is very much a marriage of these two artists. When these two people joined up in Africa, neither of them had done anything before. They had no credentials, and they would go on to define their worlds.
The archival footage is spectacular, but you must have had some real challenges in dealing with it.
The first challenge came when we screened the footage. We realized that we were handed 140 hours of individual shots. Somehow in the early ’60s, they stored this material completely scrambled up. We were dealing with completely disparate shots with no sound and no logs. Just to start the process of constructing the film and writing the film took six to eight months to help us identify the chimpanzees and make sense of the footage.
And when I talk about the fact that there was 140 hours of individual shots, there’s no way to articulate the horrors of what that means. It’s like someone came up and took out a garbage bag of letters and dumped it in front of you, and said, “If you put these together in the right order, you’ll have the book ‘Watership Down.'”
So how’d you find the narrative in that footage?
There were three very distinct narratives: one was about the Garden of Eden, one was about the female empowerment story and the third was about Jane’s research.
One of the things I feel blessed about is that a lot of people have led extraordinary lives, but a lot of times those lives don’t fit into a three-act narrative. And a lot of people whose lives do fit into that narrative rarely can articulate it. But here I had a woman whose extraordinary life had been documented by one of the greatest cinematographers ever, and who could articulate it.
What was she like as an interview subject? Obviously, she’s been talking about her work for decades.
Generally when I work with someone, they’ve seen my films. Jane had no idea who I was. And when we showed up in Tanzania with a 35-person crew, I think she was a bit startled. She thought we were going to be a three-person crew.
But she worked at a documentary company in the late ’50s, and I think she did recognize our professionalism. And yet I never felt that she was performing or selling or making my life any easier for me. At the time I thought it was incredibly frustrating, but now I think it’s one of the secret strengths of the film.
The Philip Glass score is very prominent, but it has to fit in a very detailed soundscape.
That was another real challenge. I’ve always been obsessed with sound. With this film, we didn’t have any sound elements in Hugo’s footage. So when I started back in 2015, we built a 7.1 mixing stage in my office and acquired a library of sound effects from Gambia. And we started sound editing two and a half years before we locked picture.
We wanted to take this footage from 1962 and bring it into a current aesthetic. We wanted to really create an immersive, layered sound design. Which I think is part of why Jane reacted so favorably to the film. When we showed it to her, she felt like it was the first time when saw her life on film the way it was. And that as the way we graded and colorized the footage and created a soundscape.
We had to really work for this one. It was one of the most challenging films I’ve ever worked on, but also so satisfying.