Brett Morgen
“I like the word fantasia to describe any film I'm about to do or have made, because it's such a wonderful word. I don't know if it's actually a verb, noun or adjective, but I always think of it as a verb; there's something very kinetic and active.”
On War, Fantasia-Prop, and Making a Difference
Written by Shira Gotshalk

As the U.S. was preparing to invade Afghanistan, Brett Morgen was concerned that Americans opposed to the action weren't taking to the streets. “The time seemed right to look back at the Chicago 8 and the anti-war movement of the '60s to have an understanding of what it means to take a stand, and to try to encourage people to take a more active role in protest,” he explains. The result is Chicago 10, a contemporary story of activism viewed through the prism of historical imagery. “My feeling at the time was that I didn't care whether people were going to oppose or condone the war. I just thought there should be some more participation.”

Chicago 10 makes use of hundreds of hours of archival footage outside the courtroom, and employed motion capture animation as a unique way to bring viewers into a world where cameras had never been allowed. “With animation, it seemed like a great way to present a distinctive view of history and to make history something fun, vibrant, kinetic and engaging. I believe it also serves as commentary on the trial, which was very circus-like, almost cartoon-ish in its nature, and take a more irreverent approach to something that was very sobering and serious,” he explains. Although the film explores the Chicago Conspiracy Trial resulting from the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, Morgen made a contemporary movie about current events and animation was a contemporary tool to help illustrate the connections between past and present.

Currently working on a narrative feature on the Iran-Contra affair, as well as a mixed media biography of Kurt Cobain (employing animation, stop-action animation, archival footage, anime, and puppetry ala Sid and Marty Krofft), the award-winning writer-director of On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture recently spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about a universal story of courage and honor, the need to question authority, and why he's a provocateur.

Why was this film necessary for you to make right now?


Photo: © Roadside Attractions
Animated shots of the defendants of the 1968 Conspiracy Trial in Chicago 10.
First and foremost, these events in the '60s, particularly in Chicago and the conspiracy trial, are some of the most dramatic, turbulent moments that have happened in the U.S. in the last 50 years. Unfortunately, we have a short attention span and most Americans under the age of 50 have a limited knowledge of these events, for whatever reason. So it felt like it would be the correct time to look back at these events and draw whatever associations we could to today.

But I never felt like I was making a movie about 1968; I always felt like I was making a movie about 2008, but simply appropriating imagery and iconography from the late '60s to tell a story about the war today. It's no different, really, than taking a Shakespearean play, like Romeo and Juliet for example, and contemporizing it as Baz Luhrmann did and placing it in Mexico City. I was operating from the same sort of place.

In that context, Alan Ginsberg on the witness stand talking about how politics are the manipulation of the media through imagery that have hypnotized the kids of this country into believing in a war that really they didn't believe in, was about the Vietnam war. In my film, Alan is talking about the war in Iraq and Colin Powell's testimony in front of the United Nations.

Tell me how a documentary using transcripts and archival footage is written?

First of all, I don't consider myself a documentary filmmaker in the traditional sense. My films are heavily scripted and directed. When I decided to make this film, I decided early on not to use a narrator. I wasn't going to use talking head interviews either, which makes writing a “historical” film quite a bit more challenging: How do you connect the dots?

I collected a huge amount of media; we screened 1,200 hours of film, 14,000 photographs, 500-plus hours of audio. I evaluated all of that material to get a sense of which moments would offer the best building blocks of the movie.

After evaluating all of the film footage, which took two to three years, I then went back to the court transcripts, which were 23,000 pages long, and looked for moments that would help me contextualize the archival footage that we had amassed. It was an unbelievably laborious process; it was three months alone editing down the transcripts, on the initial run, and I probably spent about 14 months working on the script as a whole.

The final version of our script was like any other feature film. It came to 130 pages and describes, in great detail, all the archival footage, all the non-oral or non-dialogue moments in the film, and is inter-spliced with my pulls from the court transcripts.”

During the recontextualization process, what was particularly challenging about exploring an event that has received a fair amount of coverage over the years?

Having reviewed the canon of work that exists on this subject -- all the books, newspaper articles, and news footage -- the one thing I wanted to offer the world was a uniquely cinematic take on these events. I wanted something that allowed the audience the experience of the energy and the horrors of being in Chicago that week. When you read descriptions of the riots, because of the limitations of the medium, it's very hard to get a sense of what it was actually like there. And I think film is uniquely suited for that.

Let's talk about your habits as a writer.

Like smoking?

Do you ever work with a partner?

I used to have a directing partner, Nanette Burstein, who I did On the Ropes with, but I wrote the script to The Kid Stays in the Picture by myself and wrote the script to Chicago 10 by myself. With these types of movies, it's hard to separate my job as a writer from that as a director from that as a producer. It all feels intertwined, and while it would have been great to have collaborated with someone on the script, the only way to really have collaborated on the script would have been to have evaluated all the archival footage, which was the foundation for my script.

It was quite solitary. My wife tells this funny story about us in Upstate New York in early May 2005. We went up to our house with a car full of notebooks with all the transcripts and as she was leaving me to work by myself for a few months, she looked back and could barely see my face because they were transcripts from the floor to the ceiling. She asked me, “How are you going to do this?” And I said, “I. Don't. Know.” Making films, as a writer or a director, is a very lonely and solitary existence.

Do you write every day?

No.

Only when you're moved to?

Only when I have to.

With the combination of '60's activism and contemporary animation, this film has been described as “fantasia based on reality,” “a depiction of the real through the fantastic,” and, finally, agit-prop. What's your take?

I would embrace agit-prop if it didn't feel so fascist in nature. I guess I would say that there's a propaganda component to my work in the sense that I make films that I really am fascinated by and tend to have a lot of respect for. And certainly Chicago 10 is meant to provoke. For me, as a filmmaker, my goals ultimately are to entertain and to provoke and, to a certain sense, to be a provocateur. I like the word fantasia to describe any film I'm about to do or have made, because it's such a wonderful word. I don't know if it's actually a verb, noun or adjective, but I always think of it as a verb; there's something very kinetic and active. Non-fiction films are traditionally very dry and fact-based and rarely take advantage of opportunities cinema has to offer. One of the things I'm trying to do in film is create experiences in the cinema using historic imagery as the basis. But I like to immerse my audience into interactive, three-dimensional experiences.

So maybe we'll go with agit-fantasia?

(Laughs.) Eh, fantasia-prop.