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Put Your Ray Gun to My Head

Director Brett Morgen discusses ‘Moonage Daydream,’ his David Bowie documentary freakout that’s not exactly a documentary

Neon Films/Ringer illustration

Ask the filmmaker Brett Morgen how he’s doing in the hours before Moonage Daydream, his new documentary experience about the music and ethos of David Bowie, begins its public rollout across the planet, and he’ll tell you it’s one of the best days of his life.

Ask him why and he’ll deliver a 10-minute response that’s filled with biographical details and unexpected detours. He’ll tell you about growing up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1970s and ’80s as a child with a speech impediment so severe that it prevented him from talking until he was 5 years old and rendered him indecipherable until he was 16. He’ll tell you about how going to the movie theater was his safe, hermetic space and how he’d hide in the bathroom between showings so he could watch the same movies again and again. He’ll tell you about his eighth-grade English teacher at the private school Crossroads who also had a part-time job at the American Film Institute, and how he’d screen the same movies and deliver the same lectures to his middle school pupils as he would his film students. It was in this class that Morgen learned from French New Wave cinema that a film could be anything.

He’ll tell you about going to Hampshire College in the late ’80s and how he took a class on ethnographic documentaries to fill an academic requirement even though he had no real interest in the subject. He figured he’d just get baked and sit in the back of the class. It was taught by an anthropologist who constantly returned to the question of what a documentary is and the medium’s relationship with the truth. Morgen started leaning into the class. He was particularly taken with the 1970 film The Nuer, a montage of images of an African tribe, directed by Hilary Harris and Robert Gardner. In the ’80s, documentarians were becoming increasingly interested in objectivity, but in a paper Morgen argued that a completely impressionistic rendering could give him a much better sense of a film’s subjects than any facts. That’s when he decided he was interested in making theatrical nonfiction films, not that such a thing really existed at the time.

He won’t tell you about the other movies that he’s made over the years, which have explored subjects including the film producer and executive Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture), the O.J. Simpson police chase (June 17th, 1994), the Rolling Stones (Crossfire Hurricane), Kurt Cobain (Cobain: Montage of Heck), and Jane Goodall (Jane). Instead he’ll “cut to the chase” and tell you how he feels about the imminent release of Moonage Daydream. “It’s gonna be open day-and-date globally in IMAX theaters, everywhere from Kyiv to Singapore to Australia to Bolivia to Peru,” he says. “They’re not going to see my version of some watered-down anything, they’re going to see my experiential film that was very much made on my terms. Today is the first day of my career that I feel I have achieved my goal of producing and creating a theatrical event.”

He’ll tell you all of this over Zoom as he wears an artfully rumpled suit, keeps his sunglasses on inside, and vapes.

Morgen is the first filmmaker who was given access to Bowie’s extensive archives, following his death in 2016 at the age of 69. It took a year to digitize all the material and another two for Morgen to go through it. In the course of crafting the film, the now 53-year-old Morgen suffered a heart attack and flatlined, then ended up in a coma for a week. He couldn’t afford to keep an editor, so he had to finish editing it himself on his laptop. He spent a year working on the sound mix. He went through the pandemic.

Moonage Daydream does not give a linear depiction of how David Jones from Brixton became the ever-changing, ever-searching international superstar David Bowie. It’s light on biographical facts, but heavy on feelings. The concert footage drawn from Bowie’s five-decade-long career is astounding and the movie pushes you to appreciate him in new ways.

“Bowie is what Bowie is,” Morgen says. “It’s mysterious and enigmatic and a bit challenging if you want to go there. You could invest whatever you want to invest in Bowie. You can try to understand the lyrics of Bowie, or you can just sit back and listen. That’s kind of how the film is.”

How did your relationship with David Bowie start?

My relationship with Bowie started probably in the first month of seventh grade. I was at my friend’s house and he pulled out Scary Monsters. Of course there was the album cover, which was sort of unique. There was also the “Ashes to Ashes” video, which was … woooow. My father was very conservative. He was a P.E. teacher at Millikan Middle School [in Sherman Oaks, California]. [My parents] weren’t into the arts at all. They didn’t introduce me to culture. When I first heard Bowie, the next day I bought Changesonebowie. That was the beginning of me curating my own culture.

He came into my life right at the moment when I was entering puberty, right when I became a little more aware of my individuality, and my loneliness. And here’s this guy like, [in David Bowie voice] “You’re not alone!” Our differences aren’t liabilities. They’re our strengths and that’s what Bowie, to me, was preaching.

Then that became an invitation to go find the Velvet Underground, and then to go to the Clash, and then eventually Black Flag and into the SST scene with the Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü. That was the starting point. And if that was that, it would’ve been more than enough.

Why did you feel like this subject matter lent itself to nonlinear or more experiential storytelling?

Because that’s Bowie. Bowie’s not singing nursery rhymes that follow a very clear trajectory in his lyric orientation. What you get out of a song and what I get out of a song are going to be totally different, but they’re not going to get us closer to David Jones. They’re going to get us closer to understanding ourselves, but that’s by design.

The one continuity with all my films is they’re all designed to not be about the subject, but to personify the subject. To be the cinematic extraction of a subject. Almost like wine. I’m squeezing the grape to get to the juice. The skin of the grape is Wikipedia, so throw all the facts out, get rid of all the stuff that can exist in another medium. If I’m going to do a biography, a comprehensive biography on David Jones, I wouldn’t do it in film. I would do it in book form.

So what does cinema offer us as an experience? Fortunately, Bowie is one of the only artists that can lend himself to this orientation. I mean, dude, we were done with Behind the Music. Behind the Music was awesome, but if you’re making a music documentary 20 years on and you’re following any similar trajectory, you’re not challenging yourself.

Why did you decide to only have Bowie’s voice tell this story?

I always do that, that’s my style.

In Montage of Heck you interviewed other people.

Montage of Heck is the exception to the rule. The reason I don’t do on-camera interviews is I don’t want to waste the real estate. I’d rather have visuals and sound telling the story. [Montage of Heck] was edited not to have any interviews whatsoever. It was just going to be Kurt. But it was too limiting. I needed context. So I actually cut the film and I created pockets where they would come in and talk.

I’d rather hear it from the artists themselves than hear someone talk about it. I can’t handle that in a movie theater, someone talking about someone they didn’t know. There’s a time and a place for it. And I fucking love the Bee Gees film. Let’s just get it out there. I’m not some intellectual snob. I love the Bee Gees film so much that when I saw it while I was making Moonage I fucking cried. I cried because I was like, why can’t I do it like this? This just seems so much less stressful. I’m sitting here pulling my hair out and my health sucks and I’m having a really traumatic time birthing this Bowie film. But it’s one of these things, man, where it’s not even a choice. I don’t know how to do that.

When you’re constructing the narrative using just the subject’s voice, do the existing archival interviews shape the story or do you already have the story in place and you’re finding the parts to plug in?

Whatever pre-idea I have before I screen [the archival material] is nominal. I have to see what’s there to figure out how to exploit the material and what the options are. What story lines, what arcs are available to me? With Bowie it was readily apparent. It was chaos and fragmentation and transience. We deal with lots of stuff, but we always dealt with those three components; except in the ’80s, when it became stagnant—which can be part of that narrative in that throughline.

I took years going through every piece of media [about Bowie], not writing at all during that time, just absorbing and evaluating. By the time I finished all that, it seemed very clear to me what the themes were and what the throughline was. I just didn’t know how to write it. I didn’t know what happened moment to moment. I didn’t know what was gonna happen in the fifth scene of the film, but I did have a good sense of the ideas that the film would explore and how they would be connected. I spent eight months trying to write the script. Just to put this in perspective, Jane was written in three or four days. Montage of Heck was, I think, done in a day.

I had a week in my schedule to write the script for [Moonage Daydream] after two years of screening [the material], which was probably bad. Montage was probably three weeks of screening. So I go to my office to start writing the thing and I don’t know what to do. I can’t write a script, I don’t know how to write an experience. It was probably 2018, I’m like three years into this thing at this point, nobody’s seen anything and I don’t know what to do. I wasn’t the right guy for the job. I really felt that. If I had the money, I would’ve removed myself. I would have hired someone else and just stayed on as a producer. But I had to work through it.

I would go to work every day and I would write, and I would not write the script. I’d write about chaos theory and fragmentation. I’d write about Joyce and Einstein and Nietzche and the deconstruction of our belief system at the turn of the century. And I’d write about anything but the script. I didn’t have any executives. I just had my own internal pressure. So one day, eight months in, I drive to LAX, Terminal 1, Southwest Airlines. I get on a flight to Albuquerque. I take a cab to the train depot and I decide I’m gonna ride the rails until I break this shit.

Now that’s not totally random. That is following David’s methodologies and techniques. Get out of your comfort zone. He was right. I was stifled in [the office]. And being in transit was a great source of inspiration for him. The second I got on the train and it pulled out of the station, it poured out of me. Just poured. I was listening in my cabin to the playback of the playlist I had just structured that would be the foundation for the script. At that point I cracked the narrative.

One thing I noticed in some of the Bowie interviews that you used and that I’ve read is that he’s really self-effacing and downplays what he does. He had huge ambitions for himself and his art, so where do you think that habit came from?

He wasn’t the greatest painter. He wasn’t the greatest actor. He wasn’t the greatest dancer. As he says in the movie, “I’m a pretty good writer.”

But don’t you think he was a monumental talent?

I think he was the greatest artist of our lifetime. But what I admire is his courage. He may not be the best actor in the world, but he’s putting himself out there for the experience. There’s something he could find in that field that he could bring back and reenergize him in his chosen vocation. He was constantly moving into another space.

Whatever adjective you want to use to describe David Bowie or David Jones, I would ask you to use the same one that you would apply to Neil Armstrong or Magellan. He was an explorer, he was an adventurer and it was dangerous. He was willing to put his career, his security, and his audience on the line nearly every time he put out an album so he could satisfy his own creative itch. And while that may sound indulgent, art is indulgent.

It’s not even that, it’s the courage and the audacity. We cling to our fame and our fortune. Nobody wants to give that up. Nobody wants to see their numbers dwindle, so the way they sustain it is by giving them what they want, and David didn’t want to do that. There was no growth for him in that.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.