Today on Art of the Cut, we speak with writer/director/editor Brett Morgen about his film Moonage Daydream about the iconic artist, David Bowie. This is no simple biopic. It’s a rich, philosophical montage connecting Bowie’s life and work with the culture that he is both affected by and speaking into.
Morgen’s other works include looks at the life of other cultural touchstones like Jane about the life of Jane Goodall, also Cobain: Montage of Heck about Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and The Kid Stays in the Picture about producer Robert Evans.
Morgen has also directed the pilot of the series When the Lights Go Onand episodes of 30 for 30 and Runaways, among other feature film and TV projects.
Writer Director Editor of Moonage Daydream documentary about David BowieBrett, thank you for joining me. I so rarely get to talk to directors and especially someone who's directed, edited, and written. What made you want to do this documentary?
I was interested in exploring different ways to use the IMAX cinema. In 2015, I came up with an idea called the IMAX Music Experience, and the idea was that IMAX Theaters have some of the best sound capabilities for the presentation of music anywhere on earth, so how great would it be to utilize that space to experience my favorite recording artists?
The music documentary genre was born with cliches and was defined, redefined, and exhausted in the '90s with the VH1's celebrated Behind the Music, an amazing series that I watched religiously and love. But, there seemed to me to be an opportunity to present music and film in a cinematic environment without the tropes and Wikipedia information that was so well known. So, my interests were in going to spend 40 minutes with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Prince, or Jimmy Hendrix, without having to hear facts and information and testimonials about how great they are, which probably are better served for magazine article or books or television.
This all started with the idea of doing this immersive music experience in IMAX. The original idea was that they would be 40 minutes long and that they would live in perpetuity in the science museums. At 40 minutes, I felt that was about as far as we can go without sustaining a narrative. Then in 2016, David [Bowie] passed and I reached out to his executor, explained to him what we were interested in doing, and he was very open and receptive to the idea of what I was interested in exploring and said that, "David had saved everything but didn't really want to participate in a traditional doc." So, this idea of this music experience was simpatico.
I guess it was at that point that it probably went from an abstract 40-minute music experience to a two-and-a-half-hour documentary experience. Some of that was dictated by the subject. The Bowie archives are immense with millions of assets. It took the better part of three years to bring the material into my office to screen through everything.
I think at some point along the way, I realized that I was making something much more than what I originally designed and intended: a feature-length, immersive narrative. It's not a chronological biography, but it is a narrative. It may be a different way to arrive at a mutual endpoint of biographical storytelling, which I think is less biographically orientated. The end game is still the same: to illuminate the subject. I suppose I chose to illuminate their life through their art rather than through facts and third-party testimonials.
I definitely got that sense by watching the film. You mentioned that it's got this narrative structure, even though you don't have all these facts. What was that narrative thread that you felt like you were following?
It's funny the way you phrase that. I am often a bit amused that people find it to be as elusive as it is. It's very simple. It just has a lot of salad dressing.I love that phrasing. As you said, I thought the best explanation you gave was that you were trying to illuminate the subject, which I felt like that was what I got out of this, a much deeper understanding of Bowie and his philosophical ideas, his artistic musings, and thinkings. But what was the specific thread that you were following?
Well, the through line is Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces." It's a hero's journey, David putting himself through a series of challenges to better himself and to create his art until he arrives at a point where he realizes he no longer has to put himself in the fire in order to create art, that he can do that with love. If you think of the various movements in the film, like going to Berlin, being a nomad, and mainstream success, those are just different adventures that he had to go on to arrive at the place that he did.
The through line, his transience, it's something that perhaps has more of a spiritual connotation and therefore unfolds less overtly than a traditional cause and effect, A through Z narrative. David often referenced that the through line of his life was chaos, fragmentation, and transiency.
He would joke that people think it's, "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes," but really it's, "Ch-ch-ch-ch-transience." I was able to break that central theme down into a series of subcategories that relate back to it, such as gender fluidity, William Burroughs cut-up process, his techniques for creating art, on trying to be in the now, being in transit and stagnation, which happens with his mainstream success. All of these things had different echoes of transience, and so that became the through line that organized the various units.
But the film also, to be fair, is supposed to pull you along through the narrative gravity without you being fully aware that you're in an overt narrative. The script was written over the course of a year. Nothing was written in the editing room. The editing had its own challenges in terms of going from moment to moment and shot to shot. From a structural standpoint and from a narrative standpoint, the film was entirely written over the course of a year after I screened through the material before I began the edit.
Let's talk about that process starting at the beginning of the film. Your choice of how to open the film with a Nietzsche quote. The open is always a pivotal part of writing a documentary. Can you tell me why you chose that?
Genre is something that we take for granted. Nearly every piece of art, particularly that in the mainstream, can be ascribed some sort of genre association. This is far more true in fiction than nonfiction. In nonfiction, we generally have one word called "documentary" that's supposed to cover everything. What we've learned in the last 40 years is that there are many different types of documentaries and many different types of intent with documentaries. Some are more journalistic in their pursuits and some are more ephemeral and ethereal in their pursuits, and yet they get ascribed the same thing.
So, this was a huge concern of mine going into this project because I was creating a film about Bowie, but it was not going to be a biographical documentary. It was not going to be a documentary about facts, but there is no other biographical documentary that one is familiar with. The idea of going to see a documentary on David Bowie carries a certain expectation. You're going to hear album titles, dates, his collaborators, and key events in his life. You're going to hear about when he raised his hand at the train station, his trope Wikipedia entries. That's the expectation.
From the moment I arrived at this project, I knew that I had to somehow address that. I felt that we would have to address it in the marketing, and we would have to address it in the way I conversed about the film. We had a limited marketing budget, so that was a bit frightening. Of course, there's going to be a first screening of the film someday where I'm not going to be able to stand up in front of the film and tell people, so these things were all weighed on me from the moment this thing started. It never left my mind.
When it came down to the beginning — like any film — I needed to establish a covenant with the viewer about what type of film they were going to see. In many ways, the first maybe seven minutes of the film are really about establishing a palette and a vernacular and trying to signal and telegraph to the viewer how information will be provided and presented and what sort of information to expect.
Deep into my editing, I had done everything that I thought I could do, but I still didn't feel that I had fully resolved this issue. It was then that I arrived at the idea of creating the Nietzsche card at the top. Part of my thinking was that if you open a film ostensibly about an entertainer that opens with a quote about the meaning of life and the search for God, then one most likely can give up on hearing about the first time this artist heard their song on the radio. We're not in that place.
At the same time, the entire film was created and designed employing techniques and methodologies that David employed to create his own art. Part of that was creating a canvas that invites the audience to participate and to project. One of the things about David's art is it's mysterious and it's enigmatic. It invites you to project. The more you listen to David's music, the less you know about David Jones, but the more you learn about yourself.
I wanted there to be some moment at the beginning of the film where you can live and swim in the mystery before you are even aware that that's what it is. Some people may come and go and ask, "When's it going to start?" It started. You're already in it. There's a moment 20 minutes into the film where David talks about hearing Fats Domino for the first time and how he didn't understand a word of what he said, but that was the beauty of it: the mystery. What he hopefully is describing is what the audience is experiencing for the first 20 minutes of the film. That's the moment where I indicate to the viewer that if you didn't get something, there was nothing to get. Whatever you got is what you were supposed to receive.
I love it. I'm assuming that the opening montage, the "Goodbye My Love" montage is part of that covenant, part of setting up the expectation of the viewer. Can you talk about that editorially? How were you trying to let the viewer know what they're going to get for the next two hours?
When I was conceiving the film, I thought of it as a transmission from Earth being beamed to a distant galaxy of life on earth in the 20th century. So, the idea of transmission and the idea of fragmentation and chaos was something that was embedded in terms of the editorial rhythms and cycles.
The movie owes a heavy debt to Man With a Movie Camera and Eisensteinian Montage. I very much wanted to create a film that was textured and fragmented in which the audience was invited to draw their own associations with the images. Many of these images are some of the most iconic images of the 20th century and we're all going to have different relationships with them.
As part of the visual vocabulary of the film, there were three decisions made at the beginning that impacted the overall look and design of the film. One was this notion that I was going to incorporate the art and the artist that influenced and inspired David as visual reference points throughout the film and give them the same footprint that I was giving David's. That was in many ways inspired and influenced by the way that David himself was a cultural passport for both myself and many people in my generation introducing us to German Expressionism, Burroughs, the Velvet Underground, and a lot of amazing art and artists.
Secondly, it would offer me an opportunity to create a film that is as much about the 20th century as it is about Bowie. Thirdly, it gave me a greater latitude to visualize intangible moments, if you will. For example, in the lead-in to “Cracked Actor,” David had just moved to Los Angeles. There was no documentary footage of David really in Los Angeles at that time doing drugs and engaging in some of the sorts of nefarious culture that he was involved in, so the way that I was able to create that was through a combination of Kenneth Anger clips from Scorpio Rising and some other like-minded films of the time to create a cinematic footprint of David in that time.
All of what we experience in the film is performative. David's on stage performing, he's on television interviews ostensibly performing, he's performing when he is in documentary films, and he is certainly performing when he is an actor in movies. So, there is a part of me that wanted to call the movie "Bowie in Quotations" to reference and acknowledge that it was all performative.
But I viewed his roles in movies, not so much as David Jones performing the role of Thomas Newton, as much as I viewed them as documents of a moment in time of this man. So, that also afforded me the opportunity to use the footage that had been captured of David " performing," and use it as a visual documentation of his life. So, those three things combined and synthesized became the visual language.
The montage and rapid cutting, the frenetic flow of the film, had to do with being spontaneous and unrehearsed. As I mentioned earlier, I try to incorporate as many of David's techniques and methodologies as possible. That meant using oblique strategies and also embracing the idea that there are no mistakes. There are just happy accidents. I wanted the film to feel spontaneous. I wanted it to feel unrehearsed. I didn't want it to feel like it was created by a virtuoso. I wanted it to feel transient of the moment of the now. So that meant learning how to make a mistake, and accept it, even though I didn't design it.
I created the environment and the circumstances or the situation for these mistakes to happen, but oftentimes I would cut a scene, and if I had a guest editor, show it to them, and they would try to do something similar. They would present it back to me and I would say, "Oh, it looks really random," and then they would point to what I showed them and reply, "Well, that looks totally random." I would say, "No, that totally makes sense to me for whatever reason," and that was when I realized I had to edit the film myself for both financial reasons and creative reasons I eventually learned. It needed to come out of me. It was about unlearning, not learning.
I've edited several of my movies, but always with another editor, which affords me the opportunity to be really dirty as an editor. I just choose the scenes I want to work on and generally leave it to someone else to clean up, but in this one, I needed to go by myself because I needed to allow these scenes to have that kind of organic feel.
One of the things I wanted to clarify for someone listening is your mention of oblique strategies. At some point in the film, it's not really mentioned what's happening but when he starts working with Brian Eno, there are these kind of sayings or prompts that appear on the screen. Eno created these card sets of creative prompts. I have a set of them myself. There were all these very ephemeral, enigmatic prompts to be creative. So, you used those not only in the documentary, but as you were editing yourself?
I kept the oblique strategy cards right next to my keyboard. The purpose of oblique strategy cards is to try to make work something playful, to get out of this space where we're trying to be perfectionists in an effort to capture something authentic and real. Some musicians took to it and embraced it, and some just said, "This is a joke. No. I'm a professional. I know how to play the bass and just tell me what you want me to do." I will admit at first when I looked at them, I didn't know how to use them until eventually, I realized that there is no singular way to use them, and whether you are aware of it or not, the card is having an impact. It was how I was able to create a film that feels unrehearsed and spontaneous, something that hopefully captured the moment in time that I was constructing it in. It was a strange exercise.
I started cutting shortly before the pandemic, and I have a heart condition, so when the pandemic hit, I had to clear out of my office. Because it's Bowie, for security purposes, we could never send links to anyone. So, I was afforded final cut, but had no way to screen the film to my financiers anyway. They weren't in Los Angeles. For the entirety of the time I was making the film, I had zero input. I didn't have input from an assistant editor. I was alone in my editing facilities.
The only person that saw anything was my wife, Deborah, who is also a filmmaker and my executive producer. I brought her in about six months after I started editing. She turned to me and said, "What type of notes do you want?" And I said, "No, you don't understand. I'm not looking for notes," and she says, "What are you looking for?" I said, "I'm looking to see if this makes sense. If this language is even legible. Am I writing in hieroglyphics? Am I doing something that makes sense to me but won't translate?"
When I went to press play on the Avid, I had my back to her and I started shaking and sobbing uncontrollably because I really honestly felt that I had become Jack Torrance and I was about to get exposed and she was about to see "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy." I was expecting her to just turn to me horrified. We had already spent our entire production budget minus some money we saved for sound before we started cutting, so I was really in a hole. As my wife likes to say, in many ways it felt like I was placed at the bottom of a well and had to figure out how to crawl my way out of it.
The situation and the circumstances that I created for myself were maniacal almost and slightly overwhelming. It would've been significantly easier to have done a straight-ahead documentary. At one point while I was cutting the film I saw the Bee Gees doc on HBO and just was in awe at the simplicity — and I don't mean that as a criticism in any way, shape, or form. It was just how fluid it was and how easy it was to digest — and I remember thinking, "God, why can't I do this?" But it was Bowie, and Bowie deserved and required something as unorthodox as Moonage Daydream was in its making.
I want to talk a little bit about some of the specifics of editing various scenes. One of them is the very first stage performance that you show. It focuses far more on the emotion of the fans than the performance or even on Bowie himself. Can you talk about that?
One of the things I was trying to establish in the first section of the film is the idea of Bowie as a prophet to the congregation. You had asked me about the first sequence during "Hallo Spaceboy", and the first half of that section is a series of shots of people looking up to the cosmos, sort of yearning, wishing for something to come bring them salvation. The second half of that sequence is people lining up and piling into a show. They're a church.
While he's singing "Freecloud", the first song we see him perform, I actually had the sound team add in a couple of sounds of people coughing. Now if you're at a concert, you couldn't hear someone cough, but the idea was that it’s church, so there was a heavy emphasis placed on the fans to establish that relationship between the congregation and the deity, the prophet up on stage.
It also was used to telegraph what happened to David in the '80s when the crowd became something quite different. They were just there to see a rock concert as opposed to a church service with their messiah, so we put a heavy emphasis on the audience both pictorially and in sound design.
John [Warhurst] and Nina [Hartstone] — who did the group work — recorded hundreds and upon hundreds of shout-outs, screams, and cries so that each speaker in the 12.0 and Atmos can have different voices to help you feel like you're in a room as opposed to seeing things coming off a screen. They added all of the singalongs. They rented a soccer stadium and played the entire film through the speakers so that they can record the reverb.
Everything was designed to create that kind of feeling of not seeing a documentary of David Bowie performing in the role of Ziggy Stardust, but actually being present for that experience. All the concert scenes in the film were edited from original camera outtakes, ISOs, or individual reels. So there are no performance clips. I couldn't use certain performances from Top of the Pops because they were edited and the ISOs were never recovered, but for example, with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, I was able to get all five of the original camera masters and recut from scratch, which was also quite helpful.
I recently looked at the Pennebaker film [Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)] again. I hadn't seen it in a few years, and I think in the song "All the Young Dudes," he may have about three or four edits throughout the whole song. So, when I see the film again, which I love, it feels like David Bowie is performing the role of Ziggy Stardust in a documentary, and what I was hoping to do in the Ziggy section is actually create Ziggy. A lot of the colors on the Pennebaker footage are red, very oppressive, grainy, and soft focus. We added purples and oranges and yellows and all sorts of hues to augment the stylings.I was really interested when you mentioned how important the theme of transience is in the idea of the documentary. I felt like you never really let one scene end before it transitioned into the next scene. It was always flowing. The idea in a narrative film would be a pre-lap. You're getting to see the beginning of the next scene before the first scene ends. I felt like that happened often. Was that a conscious choice that you never wanted to either let the energy die at the end of a scene or that you wanted to create this connection?
Paul Massey, the sound mixer, likes to say, "The whole film is one dissolve."I can see that.
I think that if there's truth to that, it's because of the way that it was constructed as an experience and not as an overt narrative. Generally, there are a couple of hard act breaks where it cuts to black and there are probably about three of them in the film, but short of that, it's not like the next scene follows some narrative logic. It's all this dream of a life. Inherently, it does just lean into or flow into the next scene.
It's not like when I did The Kid Stays in the Picture. That was very consciously designed as one long dissolve. It actually doesn't even have straight cuts until the last reel because I wanted to capture this hypnotic dream-like idea of Robert Evans. I think with Moonage Daydream, it just had to do more with the kind of non-structural structure of the film and needing the audience to keep moving forward, because if they ask themselves too many questions about where they were or why they were there, they may get bogged down.
I loved the edit when you cut mid-song to a shot of Bowie at an airport standing in an elevator.
That was "Freecloud." That was also in the first 15 - 17 minutes. That also had to do with the covenant that we were discussing earlier. There are three or four reasons that that discontinuity exists.
One is that — as we were going back to our earlier conversation in terms of establishing a covenant with the viewer — I wanted to be able to move freely through time. So, at the very top of the film, you start to hear a little bit of "Space Oddity." You hear a little bit of "Life on Mars", and then it crashes into "Hella Spaceboy," a song from 1994. Immediately, I'm trolling the viewer's expectations that we're going to hear things chronologically. Now, the film does unfold, for the most part, chronologically, but I wanted it to have the ability to move where I wanted to freely, so it was critical early on in the film to establish that orientation.
Two, one of the main themes of David's work is that he wrote often about doppelgangers and doubles. The song "Man Who Sold The World" is a song about one man running into a future version of themselves as they're walking down a staircase. So, I was very intrigued by the idea of David singing about himself in the future or in the past. In Freecloud, I have 24-year-old David singing a song about a very lonely man who I'm visualizing as 38-year-old David. In "Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide," we have 25-year-old David singing about a future version of himself who flames out in the '80s.
Thirdly, there was a palette need in that the footage of David at the airport was timed to be predominantly green with some blueish and yellow hues to offset or complement the red, orange, and yellow hues that were at the Ziggy performance so that the overall takeaway from Ziggy was a world of color and not something oppressive.
Lastly — as a small piece of director's commentary — I would say that the shots of David at the very beginning of this journey when we see him arriving at a passport station, checking in for a journey, and then descending an escalator has a literal interpretation of him falling from the heavens as he is descending down to earth. All of those things combined factor into what ended up happening there.Let's talk about choosing the parts of the song that you want to leave completely clean and the parts that you used under interview sound bites.
During the first three weeks of editing, I sat with David's catalog and lyric sheets, and over the course of that first year of writing, I put together the playlist. So, in a way, it's a jukebox musical with a rich subtext. I requested that we had access to stems for all of the songs that I wanted to work with because I knew that there would be times when I wanted to use a song for its musical associations. There would be other times when I'd want lyrical associations, but not often. Always in the same song and in the same orientation. I knew that David was going to be narrating the film off archival audio, so I needed the ability to be able to turn his vocal track off and to treat his narration like it was the libretto, a vocal track, and wrap the music around it.Like dialogue in a musical?
Yeah, like singing in a musical. It never was about bringing the music down so we can clear out for David. There are times when it's a little hard to hear what he's saying and that was me having to say, "Well, I can either really cleanly hear him, but then I'd lose the connection to the music at that moment." Or, I would sort of pick and choose. It was never one size fits all. If I thought what he was saying was absolutely critical, then I would make sure that we were cleared. If I thought that there was some room, that maybe what he was saying was not the most important thing or trailed off, I would maybe overtake it.
The other thing I leaned into was that percussion is really difficult to use with dialogue, and the piano is wonderful to use with dialogue. So, I probably ended up utilizing more tunes where Bowie employed a piano than anything else. I was very conscious of the piano as my main instrument throughout the film. When I think of "Life on Mars," a lot of what David is talking about during the time I'm underscoring the song are what I think are the themes of the song "Life on Mars." So, in a way, he's doing "Life on Mars," he's just changing the lyrics a little bit.
You mentioned that there were times when you had to choose the volume at which you've got his dialogue or his commentary compared to the song itself. One of the places where I noticed that the most was in "Aladdin Sane." Can you talk about the choices of the mix, especially in that song?
That one has some super aggressive sound mixing. I remember during that scene I said to Paul, "the mix needs to feel dangerous, like it's going to roll off the tracks at any minute," and for him to save room in his moves so that we can start back here and then drive it over the dialogue and bring it back. There are parts of that sequence, for example, where David's writing in the back of a limo, and he's making some offhanded remarks about some observations. So, I have him doing that and then I think about seven seconds later I repeat the same shot in black and white and pushed in on it. It was in part about how there are no forwards or backwards. You're going in this weird sort of loop.
Part of it was that the whole sequence was trying to cinematically capture David's state of mind in Los Angeles at that time, and it was meant to capture repetition and having little orientation into which direction you're going. It made a lot of sense to me editorially cutting him off. There's a point there where there's a kid who's asking a question on American Band Studies, saying, "Do you..." and I just rolled the sound right over it. It's just all disorienting.
It's making the form the content. That sequence is about nothing and everything. On paper, there's almost no information that's presented, and through the editorial montage, this is a film in which the amalgamation of Bowie is constructed through the form as much if not more so than the content. That sequence, "Aladdin Sane," is a perfect example of that, or the one I described leading into "Cracked Actor," where there's in essence no information being provided, and what you're supposed to feel is like a boat that's rocking back and forth or a rollercoaster that's going off the rails. That's achieved through the synthesis of montage and sound design working in unison, or not unison, to create that sort of vibe.We started talking about the way this was constructed, that it was written more as a script than it was in the editing room. Did you create the bones of the doc first by figuring out the narrative structure, or did you work in scenes?
No, the structure was all done on paper, but shot to shot was brutal. My script didn't say which shot was coming next, and that was why the edit took two years. In a different universe, this would've been a two-month edit because the script was already there, but I figured there was never a right or wrong image. I would have to audition several different images.
Some scenes took 26 days to do to find three words. The scene going from him walking around the shopping mall and having epiphanies about his life in Singapore, to the scene where he meets Iman, for example took 26 days. On the 26th day, I tried just using, "then I met Iman." It was that simple. Things like that would be a bit insane.
On the flip side, the finale of the film where I combined "Station to Station" with "The Sun Machine" was something that came about when I went to Hawaii to edit for a few months. I worked off an 11-inch laptop with an external drive and no external monitor. One night, I woke up at two in the morning, I cut that last sequence — which is the last five minutes of the film — went back to sleep at five in the morning, woke up, looked at it, and thought, "That's it." I did very little to finesse it.
Again, Bob Evans likes to say, "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation." I think that I created these environments or situations where I was out of my own zone. I was not in my office, I was on the road. I had the Avid with me. I was in an environment where I could wake up in the middle of the night and start cutting and was able to, I think, construct something that I would not have been able to do in a conscious state of mind.
I love that. One of the things that I loved the juxtaposition of was his traveling with the section from The Elephant Man where John says he has a home. Can you talk a little bit about that idea? It sounds similar to some of the themes you were trying to have with parts of him commenting on other parts of him.
Well, from an outside perspective, David's choice in roles could feel a bit random as an actor. He never fit into any particular genre of any sort, but as I was able to unite his biography with his work through my own research, the rationale for choosing certain films became much more illuminating.
The Elephant Man, in particular, gets to a point in the movie where his character is speaking for him. That happened more often than not. In fact, there’s one line of a film where he says, "Never waste a day. It's not how many days or years you live, it's what you do with your life that matters." That's from a movie. That's not even from an interview. That's from a really bad ABC After School Special called Mr. Rice's Secret, but it sounds like something he would've written because it's almost identical to stuff I've heard him say. So, I think with him, art and his life merged in really interesting and fascinating ways.
During that period, in the late '70s when he went to New York to be in a play and he was really living out of a suitcase, traveling nomadic, he wrote an album called Lodger and wrote songs like "Move On." Then, through that orientation, you get to kind of reimagine or re-experience "Ashes to Ashes" as a much lonelier song than most of us thought when we were dancing to it at bar mitzvahs.Can I ask a more technical question which is about your organizational principles? As you mentioned at the beginning of the interview, this is kind of a broadcast of the 20th century out into space, and there are huge numbers of iconic pieces of imagery from the culture. How did you process all of that data?
What we did was we brought in all of the Bowie media from the archive as well as supplementing it with all of the Bowie media we could find outside of the archive. So, we had ostensibly every known piece of media related to David Bowie. For the other media I needed for the film, I've been working with the same archivist for 20 years. She knows me really well.
The bigger chore was collecting all David's influences and inspirations. During the time, I was reading about Bowie in 2016, and then when we started building our Avid in 2017, I would bring in the films he was referencing, documentary footage of the artist he was referencing, or JPEGs of the actual art itself, and I put those into a bin called "influences." In that bin, it was broken down by art. So there would be films, choreography, literature, photography, fine art, and sculpture. Then, within that it would be categorized by artists or art. So, under filmmakers, there would be heaves of archival footage of Buster Keaton, or films of Buster Keaton, films of Kubrick, et cetera...
It wasn't necessarily me saying, "Oh, I need Hans Chris Anderson." It would be, "I need an image. What tickles my fancy right now?" I would go in, grab something, and see how it relates to the image in front of it, which is postmodernism, right? It's creating new meanings from existing texts. That was where the editing took so long because there was nothing that was obvious. Will this work? Not really. Does this work?
You couldn't really say part of the time why something was working. Sometimes it'd be color. Sometimes there would just be a color that would carry over from shot to shot, a movement, or an action. Someone starts to move their hand in one shot, and the next shot they move it similarly. They're totally random shots from different countries, from different decades. They have nothing to do with Bowie per se other than these were pieces of art that he was influenced by, but that juxtaposition of where those shots line up creates this fluidity that allows the moment to speak of a truth.
I've had the great pleasure of cutting scripted. I've directed several pilots and served as my own editor on two or three of them, and there's this misnomer that somehow archival filmmaking is a little easier than other sorts because you don't have to actually shoot anything. I like to think of cutting scripted as cutting butter with a steak knife, and doing archivals as trying to cut a steak with a butter knife. The editors have no idea how good they have it when anything they need to construct a scene is right there in front of them. They have no idea how good it is.
The performance scenes where I had multicam weren't the hardest parts of the film to cut. It was where you're going along and you know what the dialogue is in the scene, but there's no image to fit, yet you're calling from every image of the 20th century. So, it felt in many ways like a high wire act, like "don't try this at home," and honestly something I don't think I would ever want to do again, or am capable of doing again. But I'm very thankful that I had the opportunity because I learned quite a bit.I have cut both scripted narrative and documentary, and documentary is very difficult to do, especially archival-based stuff. I've talked to multiple narrative editors who say, "It's the documentary guys. They're the ones that are the heroes."
I will never understand how more people haven't figured that out.
It was lovely talking to you. Thank you for taking the time to speak about the art of the edit. I greatly appreciate it.Thank you so much for being with me.