Sound and Vision: what Brett Morgen sacrificed to make Moonage Daydream

David Bowie, as seen in Moonage Daydream. 
David Bowie, as seen in Moonage Daydream

Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen talks about clawing his way out of a pit to finish his cinematic ode to David Bowie, and learning to be happy with imperfection. 

It was a much more intense experience than anything that I’ve ever encountered, on every level. We really took David’s line about walking to the deep end until you can’t feel your feet on the ground anymore literally. A little too literally. It felt more like drowning a lot of the time.

—⁠Brett Morgen

The Rolling Stones. Kurt Cobain. Nature’s queen, Jane Goodall. Flashy Hollywood producer Robert (Bob) Evans. And now, the one and only David Bowie. Brett Morgen doesn’t pick small subjects. He is an excavator, an archive hound sniffing out long-buried material and dragging it to the surface, where he messes around with form and story to locate meaning and magic, producing impressively cinematic documentary experiences. 

“Those expecting something more traditional are going to be let down,” writes Kevin Allen on Letterboxd of the Bowie explosion that is Moonage Daydream, Morgen’s newest film. “However, those up for the challenge will be illuminated by this revealing, raucous, stream-of-consciousness look inside the fractured mind of its subject.” 

“Morgen is less interested in factual biography than in eliciting a sense of the man as an artist and personality,” agrees Ron Rucker, who notes the many movies woven through Morgen’s film (handily compiled into well-researched and color-coordinated Letterboxd lists). For Zoë Rose Bryant, Moonage Daydream is an “explosively engrossing, once-in-a-lifetime cinematic experience that resurrects the style, soul, and spirit of David Bowie... It’s a miracle of a movie, plain and simple, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Morgen’s layered cinematic collages went supersized with the IMAX-ready Moonage Daydream.
Morgen’s layered cinematic collages went supersized with the IMAX-ready Moonage Daydream.

Morgen’s made-for-IMAX spectacular is now available on demand, where it will lose much of its surround-sound grandeur but will gain many repeat viewings for its lengthy musical numbers and vivid, meticulously scanned outtakes, which the director-writer-editor and his team secured in large part thanks to the participation of the Bowie estate.  

As privileged as it must be to riffle through a galactic superstar’s personal papers, I can’t imagine the stress of holding that kaleidoscopic legacy in your hands—particularly when Letterboxd reviews, while almost wholly enthusiastic, nevertheless have quibbles about what fans feel is missing from the story. But, as I would learn in an unhurried conversation with Morgen, the hardest aspects of creating Moonage Daydream had less to do with doing right by David or his fans, and much more with keeping the whole project moving through many years of funding woes—quite aside from the heart attack that the father-of-three suffered at the outset of the job. It would be Bowie’s own words that would keep Morgen going. 

As he appears on Zoom against a backdrop of paintings from his earlier film Cobain: Montage of Heck, Morgen admits he is “a little foggy”, exhausted from seven years of pushing Moonage Daydream to the finish line, and from sneaking into a late screening at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre the night before our interview, where the film played “like a midnight movie; there was wild applause after songs and people screaming back at the screen.” 

We dive into a lengthy chat about the personal sacrifices we make for art, how Bohemian Rhapsody influenced Moonage Daydream’s soundscape, and why you can simply never please everyone. 

Morgen searched high and low for unseen outtakes of Bowie. 
Morgen searched high and low for unseen outtakes of Bowie. 

All of your films must become a part of you in some way, as much as they become a part of those of us who watch and live with them. I’m wondering in what way Moonage Daydream has infused your life?
Brett Morgen: My wife [Morgen’s frequent co-producer Deborah Eisenstadt] was telling me on Monday that the experience of observing me the last seven years was watching someone get thrown to the bottom of a pit and trying to claw their way out. And she was at the top going, “You can do it. You can do it.” It was a much more intense experience than anything that I’ve ever encountered, on every level. We really took David’s line about walking to the deep end until you can’t feel your feet on the ground anymore, literally. A little too literally. It felt more like drowning a lot of the time.

That’s just on that side of it. On the more personal transformative side, we basically walked into what the film is all about, because they’re not separated. Creating the challenge provided me with an opening for far more personal growth than I ever imagined possible working on a project—personal growth that one sets aside for areas outside of the office. It was a very profound experience.

One line from Bowie that stayed in my head was about working well. He didn’t say the words “do good work”. He wanted to “work well”.
No, it’s not about doing good work, it’s about just doing it. My great takeaway, there were so many, but one of them was just about his rejection of being a virtuoso, and that is the most liberating idea that one can have as an artist because it goes against what I’ve been doing my whole career, which is striving for some perfection that’s elusive.

“I lay down a while / and look at my hotel wall.”
“I lay down a while / and look at my hotel wall.”

Johnny Pomatto, who found the film transcendent, writes: “One could track down its fragments to watch them individually, but there’s something to the idea of mixing them all in a blender and letting the sensation of seeing everything at once tell Bowie’s whole biography simultaneously.”
When a large part of the work is exactly this—tracking down and going through the pieces that will eventually become this immersive experience—what is the day-to-day of that? Do you remember specific moments where you stumbled across something that gave you goosebumps and made you go, “Oh my God, that has to be in it” or “that’s the key to this”?
I think the one moment that was actually cemented and put into the film, which was a sheer act of randomness to a certain extent, was I had ordered a 4K transfer for the dailies [the raw, unedited footage from the music video shoot] for The Hearts Filthy Lesson. A lot of the videos we didn’t have any dailies for, so we had no idea what was going to be on the reels other than what the final product was. And even from there, one didn’t know how much post color work had been done—so what the original would look like compared to [music video director] Sam Bayer’s Hearts Filthy Lesson. I do love Sam’s video, which is why I ordered the material.

The lessons I’ve learned, with the Rolling Stones film but more importantly with Montage of Heck: some of the best scenes in the film were from music video outtakes, where you get the longer look, the longer gaze. The “Smells like Teen Spirit” scene in Montage of Heck I think is probably one of the most powerful scenes in the film and it’s just made from known media, but the outtakes of it, and then you’re seeing it through this different lens.

When footage arrived in the building, I would ask my assistant to set off a fire alarm basically to, whatever I was doing, to stop and alert me that there was a 4K scan that was in the lobby. When we got 4K scans, it was [makes exciting fire alarm sound]. Because going to IMAX, we wanted the highest quality material possible.

So we get the 4K scans in and usually they’re 90 minutes or something, so you can sit here in the dark and just be quiet [and watch the footage], or you can multitask. I had just been working on a collection of soundbites that had to deal with the creative process, and so I put all three of those on the Avid—not lining them up, just sort of throwing them on there to press play. And as Philip Glass music came on, there was a black stage and then light slowly faded up and David came out of a crouch and reached to the heavens in near-perfect harmony to the music. A beat later, he starts talking about the mystery of art.

Bowie in footage from the music video for The Hearts Filthy Lesson from his 1995 album Outside.
Bowie in footage from the music video for The Hearts Filthy Lesson from his 1995 album Outside.

Bob Evans had a saying: “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” I think David is more: you create an environment or a set of circumstances to allow yourself to have those situations. With David, what I had to learn was to accept that that is how it’s meant to be, that it didn’t have to be changed, and that was a big part of the learning curve of this film: to allow and invite moments of spontaneity to come in because those could then enhance and reflect upon the other moments of the film.

So funny, isn’t it? You also get John Lennon’s oft-quoted “life is what happens when you’re making other plans”. And I often think, well, maybe that applies in your personal life, but in work, it’s exactly what you’re saying: you have to have moments of preparation and the resources at hand. The guitar needs to be sitting there, tuned.
Or be out of tune and that’s what the song is.

You also have a family. What do the days look like when this is your work? Because with the specific types of films you make, you’re not running off on shoots for weeks on end.
Oh, this is funny. I had a conversation with a filmmaker recently who said that the thing he loves about documentaries, particularly archival, is that he gets to have dinner with his family. The trauma that I referred to of this film was that we ran out of funding—on, I’d say, year three. And I was the only producer who had signed the contract and I had no money to hire an editor, so if I wasn’t working on the film, we were just another day behind schedule. 

Moonage Daydream writer, editor, director and producer Brett Morgen. 
Moonage Daydream writer, editor, director and producer Brett Morgen. 

That’s what my wife was referring to when she said it looked like I was thrown into the bottom of a pit, that I didn’t feel that I had time to go home for a second. So I knew how monumental the task was. Each step was a bit like Sisyphus. I got to the screening [of the archive footage] and it was like, “Oh God, it’s not four months, it’s two years.” Go to write. It’s not one week, it’s eight months. And go to edit, it’s not six months, it’s two years. Everything just extended out and as much as I loved everything, there was a financial part of it where I wasn’t getting paid at all, I was paying for it.

It was very lonely and I wanted to get to the other side. That part of it was really challenging. The being by yourself and not being able to be with my children and not being able to get that time back… There is nothing positive about that outcome. It pains me a lot, to be honest. We should maybe change the subject. There’s no situation where when you’re creating art that [you think] “oh well it’s going to make so many people happy so it’s a good sacrifice”. No, it’s not a good sacrifice to my children! It’s time I won’t get back. I felt like I was thrown into this situation by not having adequate funding and there was a human cost to it and fortunately everyone’s great, but…

I really appreciate you sharing this. I get it. There are creative projects I have worked on where I’m proud of them, but they come with a deep-seated sense of unease about the personal cost to get them across the line—and often that cost is family. There is a question somewhat related to that, which Josh Katz poses in a four-star review: “As a pure sensory experience, this is transcendent: experimental, non-linear, free-associative… Still: I can’t be the only one who thinks it’s odd that Bowie’s first marriage (and his children!) go unmentioned while the Iman years get a full five minutes, right?”
Okay. So thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to address this question. I did a film called The Kid Stays in the Picture

Which I loved. One of my faves.
Yeah. Bob was married eight times. I only mentioned one wife. It wasn’t that I only mentioned one wife because I was trying to rewrite history. It’s that it would’ve taken an entire film to do the eight wives, and I’m telling a story and Ali [MacGraw] related to my through-line.

Ali McGraw and Bob Evans (with Henry Kissinger), The Kid Stays in the Picture. 
Ali McGraw and Bob Evans (with Henry Kissinger), The Kid Stays in the Picture

In the case of Moonage Daydream, I had no interest in introducing anyone’s names or having any biographical components. That was where it started from, and where it changed was it started to become a film about how David went through life and had to create challenges for himself, had to throw himself into the fire in order to be creative. And he arrived at a point with Iman where he no longer really needed to do that; he can create without throwing himself into the fire. So that adjusted that narrative for the rest of the next 25 years. It wasn’t about Iman as a person per se, it was that she represented “home”, if you will, the thing that was elusive to him.

If I was going to talk about people who would be mentioned in a David Bowie film, there is a list about 29,000 pages long. I think it’s a fair question because I opened the door to these types of questions. I knew the second I mentioned anyone’s name, it would invite these questions.

Let me say again something I learned from Bowie, which is: art is imperfect. I had an existential crisis about putting in Brian [Eno]’s name or Iman’s name for this reason—that you mention it once and it opens the door. But I also now reflect on someone asking me a question like that. Did you really want me to employ the real estate? Here’s what really boggles my mind about these sort of questions, is the person asking them knows the information and I’m not trying to provide you with information, clearly, or where’s Reeves Gabrels? Where’s Mike Garson? Why aren’t they asking about that?

When I did Montage of Heck, there were so many questions about Dave Grohl, but no questions about Aaron Burckhard or the earlier drummers. It was this weird flex that I couldn’t really gravitate towards because it’s like, “Did you miss the point of the film?” The question is not why I didn’t mention them. The real question is why did I mention Iman and why did I mention Brian? Those are the questions. Because otherwise then you might as well just write a laundry-list of every person in David’s life because it’s not about who told him to make his hair red. It’s not about who took his picture. And that’s not trying to whitewash history, it’s just: that exists elsewhere. What I was trying to get at was the experience of something unknown, something different.

This was the hardest film to write. It’s funny, some people are amused that there’s a writing credit on the film because it looks like I just slogged my way through archive. The hardest part of this was trying to write a film that has some biographical components and has some chronological components, that wasn’t resting on that as a bedrock. In that context, it was very difficult to write a narrative. And I do think there’s a narrative that’s as solid as anything I’ve written. It just has a lot of salad dressing poured over it. 

“I’ll be a rock ’n’ rollin’ bitch for you.”
“I’ll be a rock ’n’ rollin’ bitch for you.”

I think, fundamentally, you can’t please all the people all the time and you especially can never please a fan. So how do you settle on the creative decisions? 
Listen, I know that from doing Montage of Heck. I was talking to my wife about this, I talk about it a lot actually, this moment where Bohemian Rhapsody came out and I flew back to New York to meet with the [Bowie] estate about some other business and I said, “I saw Bohemian fourteen or fifteen times in the theater because of the sound." I would go to the Dolby Atmos in Century City [cinemas in LA], and it was while I was developing Bowie. I ended up hiring the sound team from Bohemian to do Moonage.

But I was really curious how the music was laid out, and the narrative—the plotting is very accessible. And so I went back [to the estate] and I said, “Listen, I think there’s two ways we can make the film. We could go the Bohemian Rhapsody route and make it a singalong. I don’t know, maybe talking head interviews or not, but just very accessible. This happened here, this happened here, this happened here, a greatest hits thing. Or we can model it and fashion and design it more in the spirit of a Bowie song, which is often avant garde, but sometimes has a pop sensibility to it.” And Bill [Zysblat, Bowie‘s longtime business manager] looked at me and was like, “Well, that’s your problem.”

And the answer was, it was a rhetorical question to begin with because it can only be one [of those options]. What’s so amazing to me now [is] seeing people embrace this type of Bowie experience for what it is and saying, “This is the film that Bowie should have had”. That to me has really been the most satisfying part of it creatively. The lack of people asking for talking heads. 

“I will sit right down / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”
“I will sit right down / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”

I want to wrap up by asking: What is a film that has made you feel the most like the way you (and David Bowie) have made so many Letterboxd folk feel after watching Moonage Daydream?
Pink Floyd: The Wall was such a huge influence on me. When it came out in movie theaters I saw it five nights in a row. A kaleidoscopic movie like that, not to compare Moonage, I’m not comparing it, just the experience of something unexpected, of you know, Fantasia. The movies that probably had that effect on me were Repo Man, Pink Floyd: The Wall, like, movies where you didn’t know what was going to happen next, but the use of cinema was really electric.

And then I think on an emotional level, this is going to be the most pretentious reach in the world, but really, somewhere between Three Thousand Years of Longing, the new George Miller film, and The Tree of Life, I think exist some of the questions I have. Because I think, having had a heart attack and been resuscitated and then going into this film, there were some large questions. And David was the person to ask them and not necessarily answer them, but he could certainly ask them in a way that made me pause. He is as profound as Terry Malick, I believe.

Moonage Daydream’ is screening in select cinemas worldwide, and is now available to rent and buy on video on demand. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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