Brett Morgen’s The Kid Stays in the Picture (co-directed with American Teen director Nanette Burnstein) changed the way that I looked at documentaries. Based on Robert Evan’s self-aggrandizing autobiography of the same name, the film never pretended to be balanced, and it used an exciting animation style that brought still pictures to vivid three dimensional life.
He’s done it again with Chicago 10, a documentary that mixed archival footage from the massive and violent anti-war protests at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention with animation that brings to life the conspiracy trial of eight youth movement leaders one year later. Using modern music instead of stale period songs, Morgen’s film is alive and electric.
I talked with Morgen last week, just before Spielberg’s adaptation of his film, to be called The Trial of the Chicago 7, shut down. Morgen and I met very early in the morning, and he might have been a little groggy, but once he got started he had a lot to say about his film, the youth movement and what the 68 DNC means today.
Watching the movie I realized there’s a lot of stuff that you can’t fit
in there. You’ve left out stuff like Pigasus (the pig that the
Yippies attempted to run as their candidate at the convention), some of
the stunts Abbie and Jerry pulled at the trial are left out – how did
you come to the decision to leave some of these things out of the film?
Something like Pigasus, which when I started the project I thought
would absolutely make it in to the film, the archival footage wasn’t
that strong. It was really limiting, actually. We collected about seven
or eight minutes related to Pigasus, but it was dark and wouldn’t print
right. That’s how you go about making a lot of the decision with a film
like this. It was the same process with The Kid Stays in the Picture.
Before I sit down to write these films I collect all the archival
footage we can gather and then assessing which material offers the best
possibilities and then structuring the film around that. In the case of
the Chicago 10, we evaluated that the footage and then I attacked the
transcripts. Most people, if they were doing a movie about the trial,
would be looking for slightly different things than I would be looking
for, since we weren’t doing interviews I needed the trial to weave
together the archival footage. I had great footage of the Free Hayden
march, I had great footage of the Logan Statue. I was looking for
testimony relating to that which I could use as an in and out of the
story. In terms of choosing beyond that, with the trial, that was
really challenging. I find the entire 2300 page transcript to be
riveting and full of jewels, from a dramatic standpoint. Going back to
Pigasus, I was only able to afford about 35, 40 minutes of animation,
and most of it had to be in the court room. I had to choose limited
moments to animate outside the court room, stuff that I thought was
absolutely critical to getting the story out.
In terms of the trial, it works in two different ways for the film: to
serve as a narrative thread and then it becomes a metaphor for what’s
happening in the streets. At a certain point in the film you realize
that Judge Hoffman and Mayor Daley are operating from the same
position. The treatment of Bobby Seale, in the context in which I
present it, is a little different from most depictions of Bobby. It
becomes a little less about racism and a little more about freedom of
speech, particularly as I cross-cut the guy telling Dave Dellinger he
can’t march and the gagging of Bobby Seale.
In terms of Yippie, to me I set out to make a film that was very
Yippie-centric and that was modeled on the idea of Yippie. I didn’t
want to make an earnest movie, I wanted to capture the spirit of fun
and theatrics that the Yippies brought to the scene. My goal was to
make a film that would be irreverant and filled with comedy and drugs
and sex and rock ‘n roll and take this canvas and hopefully at some
point the film becomes more political, so that it mirrors the Yippie
experience. Even so far as that in the third act of the film… the
Yippie idea is that there are no leaders, and while we lean heavily on
our protagonists, when we enter the third act suddenly they’re all
gone. As they march to the Hilton there’s no more leaders, there’s no
more rock and roll and the audience has to confront the brutality of
What’s your background in activism and protest? I’ve been in a couple
of protests where things got violent, and I felt like the third act of
the movie really captures the feeling of the build up to things getting
out of hand. It felt like being there.
Well, I’m mainly known as an activist filmmaker from my work on The Kid
Stays in the Picture with Robert Evans, one of the more politically
correct documentaries of the last decade, in which we campaigned
vigorously for Bob to get an Irving Thalberg Award. To be honest, I get
really freaked out in crowds. I hate concerts. This film is my form of
protest. I was at a screening the other night and someone said, ‘What
are you doing to protest?’ I was like, ‘Well, I spent four years of my
life making this movie.’ It’s like Abbie says: ‘Politics isn’t about
who you vote for, it’s about how you live you life.’ I said to her,
‘This may sound silly, but to me it starts in a very simple way with my
children.’ I have three kids and I try to make an immediate impact on
their lives. Professionally I try to balance my work as a commercial
director with films like this. My voice, I think, is more important – I
can accomplish more making a film like this than I can in a protest.
Everyone has to choose what works for them. We’re not saying you need
to get out into the street, it’s just here’s a mirror. If that’s how
you choose to participate, go that way. If you ask me what the film is
saying or is about, it’s a mirror that we hold up to the audience that
comes together in the third act when you see the protesters march to
the Hilton. You have to ask yourself how far are you willing to go for
your beliefs and your politics? Are you willing to march to the Hilton,
knowing you’re going to get your head bashed in, to make a statement?
There’s no right or wrong to it and every person has to answer it
individually for what works for themselves.
You made this film with an eye to the modern audience, especially in
using modern music like Rage Against the Machine and Eminem to score
the action. That forces me to ask the question: what is the difference
between today and 1968? Is it just that we don’t have the draft? Is
that the only reason we don’t have people out in the streets protesting
the current bloody and unjust war?
I think that it’s weird. Almost every film about the 60s we see
protest, and you get the impression that you would open up your door
and there would be people protesting. I don’t really think that’s what
happened. I think that’s how history has recorded it through film and
media. I think the overt difference between 68 and today is the draft,
first and foremost. Second, I think a lot of protest is done viral and
has moved to the internet. Thirdly, there are protests happening all
over the country, but they just aren’t as covered by the media as they
should be. I think people are as active and committed today as they
ever were – this is not based on any statistics, but particularly given
what’s happening with Obama right now, record numbers of people coming
out to vote in the primaries, I think people are active and involved
and passionate about politics right now.
But the thing is I really did not set out to make a film about 1968,
which should be clear from watching the film. It’s a timeless story
about a war, the opposition to the war, and this government trying to
oppress the opposition. I felt like the history of 68 is so well
recorded and documented – it seems like everybody who was active at
that time has written a book or two or three about the 60s, about
Chicago, about the trial – that there’s an abundance of material. I
felt like I had nothing to add about 68, per se, in terms of historical
argument. What I did feel was missing from all the canon of the work
was something that gave me the experience in a uniquely cinematic way.
Most documentaries that are about 68 really make a strong effort to
contextualize the era, and when you contextualize the era you alienate
your audience from the visceral, from the experience. The goal with
Chicago 10 was to create this sort of visceral, sublime emotional
experience. One of the things I’m really inspired by in film is that my
movies aren’t historical documents, they’re mythology. I construct them
as such. I wanted to get back to a place where history is fun, it’s
active and kinetic. If you think about it, from the earliest
communication among man history was these stories and mythology that
would be passed along from generation to generation in the oral
tradition. They were stories; each generation would take the story and
make it their own. As we grew up, history was this wholly academic
exercise where you memorize names and dates and all this bullshit.
The Kid Stays in the Picture and Chicago 10 I wanted to go back to a
place where it’s like the campfire. I imagined Chicago 10 would feel
like what would happen if a kid said to his dad, ‘What happened to you
in Chicago?’ The idea is that these stories change over time – this is
basically a story about today, using media from 68. It’s a story about
today in the same way that Baz Lurhman could take Romeo and Juliet and
set it in Mexico City or you could take Richard III and set it in Nazi
Germany. I’m appropriating imagery and iconography from the 60s and
using it to make a film about the youth movement. I didn’t want kids
watching the film to see their grandfathers on the screen, I wanted
them to see themselves and their brothers on the screen. I think what’s
really interesting is that when we think about our parents, we see them
as 30, 40, 50 years olds – we never see them in their 20s or teens. One
of my favorite comments I’ve received at a screening is some girl said
to me, ‘I feel like I can finally relate to my parents.’ She went on to
say that part of it had to do with the music, and the fact that it was
her sound, the soundtrack of her life. And the fact that we didn’t
interview the survivors so that the movie wasn’t a bunch of 70 year
olds saying how great they were in the 60s, it’s a bunch of people the
age of my audience talking about it.
Spielberg is making his Chicago 8 movie. Do you know if he’s seen your film?
It’s an adaptation.
I don’t know if they’re going to call it an adaptation or call it
‘Inspired by the film Chicago 10‘ or what have you. The way it came
about is that last year after Sundance I screened the film for Walter
Parkes, not in the context of doing a remake or anything, just in a
general meeting. Walter saw the movie and called my agent and I
immediately and was like, ‘I love this, I have to remake this. I don’t
know what your involvement would be, if you want to write or direct
it.’ I had just made the movie, so I didn’t have any interest in going
back there again, but I have been consulting with them. I was on a
panel with Aaron Sorkin last night and he said he had watched the film
50 times. I’m really excited about it; I’m excited because my film,
regardless of what I want to call it, is that it is a documentary
because I used all primary sources. The reason I didn’t interview
survivors was that if they told me stories that existed outside of our
[footage] I couldn’t really incorporate it into a film. What Aaron is
going to do is all the stuff I couldn’t do in a documentary, all of the
stuff that happens outside the cameras. I think it’s going to be a
Have you met with Spielberg about it?
Most of my communication has been with Walter and the production team.
my mind at ease. While Spielberg is a great director, I look at him and
wonder if he’s the kind of guy who will get this story.
But the thing is I wasn’t born in 68. I think sometimes you need an
outsider’s perspective to do justice to a story. If you gave each of
the defendants a hundred thousand dollars to write a script, you’re
going to get eight very specific takes on the trial. Which might be
great, but I think you’re better served by going for somebody who
wasn’t there, who can approach it with fresh eyes. When I came to this
it was all new to me, everything was fresh. Not only that, I didn’t
really know what had happened to the people so I didn’t have the
baggage of, ‘Oh, Rennie Davis ended up selling life insurance.’
Or Jerry Rubin becoming a yuppie.
Rubin’s a yuppie, so fuck him!’ I’d much rather someone like Steven
Spielberg make this film than someone like Dennis Hopper, who was very
active in the movement at the time. Most importantly, he’s the greatest
filmmaker living today, and his more personal films, like Schindler’s
List, are masterpieces. I think that what Spielberg has shown through
his life, even moreso than his work, is his commitment to social change
and values and what have you, and he’s obviously incredibly dedicated
and committed to his causes, and I think this falls in line with that.
I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he’s actually a brilliant
choice. I had the same question you did, that he wasn’t the person
you’d think of. Although, when we were making the film Stuart Levy, the
editor, and I would watch Saving Private Ryan over and over again to
watch the Normandy scenes and to see how they created the experience of
what it was like to be on that beach. If there’s anyone who can pull
off the riots, any filmmaker in the world, it’s going to be Steven
Spielberg. In fact, when Walter first talked about the film, I didn’t
say it to Walter, but I was thinking, ‘You’re going to shoot the riots?
You think you can do a better job than we could with real footage and a
cast of ten thousand people?’ But yeah, if there’s one person in the
world who can do it, it’s Steven Spielberg.