Brett Morgen on his David Bowie film: ‘Moonage Daydream is maximalist, it’s kaleidoscopic’

The documentary-maker on how Bowie’s view on life helped him through recovery from a heart attack – and his plans to move in with a famous actor

The American film-maker Brett Morgen, 53, has made documentaries on the musician Kurt Cobain, the naturalist Jane Goodall and the notorious Hollywood producer Robert Evans (2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture). His new subject is David Bowie and, in Moonage Daydream, he has created an entrancing, visually explosive film that is almost as idiosyncratic as the man himself. Morgen lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children.

David Bowie incites extreme fandom in people. Did you have to put that out of your mind?
I’ve been wildly surprised; I have felt almost nothing but appreciation and support. I think the way the film has been created is that, if you’re a hardcore aficionado, there’s enough new material to satiate you. And if you’re a casual fan, being able to see the journey in one sitting is illuminating. Most people seem to be very pleased that I didn’t try to explain him. I didn’t do interviews, I just let it be adventurous. Moonage Daydream is a creative endeavour - it’s not a corporate endeavour.

One fan, after seeing the film, wrote on Twitter: “Drugs would be redundant. It’s mind-bending.” Do you agree?
I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, but I don’t want to be irresponsible. It’s a maximalist film, it’s definitely kaleidoscopic and it really embraces the idea of being a piece of immersive entertainment. My inspiration for this project was probably more my experiences at the planetarium [at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles] seeing the Pink Floyd Laserium and going on those inside-theme-park rides at Disneyland than any specific movie. But you know, I’ve been to Disneyland on acid and it’s kind of awesome, so…

You met Bowie in 2007 to discuss a film project. He died in 2016, but can you explain how it got from the original meeting to this film?
Yeah, I met David in 2007 to present him something quite different from Moonage Daydream. But the biggest change between 2007 and now was that in 2017, right when I was about to start my deep dive into Bowie’s media, I had a heart attack. I flatlined for a brief while and was in a coma for a week. It was from that position that I began to go through all of his media and so his musings on mortality, on ageing, his way that he approached life, proved to be quite nurturing, cathartic and inspiring for me. That’s where the film really started to take shape.

Morgen dancing down the red carpet at the Moonage Daydream premiere at Cannes in May.
Morgen dancing down the red carpet at the Moonage Daydream premiere at Cannes in May. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

How much of a shock was it to have a heart attack at the age of 47?
I was in pre-production on a pilot for Marvel and I left at 7pm on a Thursday and said: “Hey, I’ll see you guys tomorrow morning.” Then at 7.30pm my heart stopped. I was very fortunate that I flatlined in the ER. And I think there was a moment when I regained consciousness where I’m like: “Wait, how am I the first guy [among my friends] to get the heart attack?” Then you stop and go: “Oh, wait a second…” Every box was checked: poor eating habits, poor exercising, stressed out of my mind, workaholic, family history. My life was out of control. There was no balance. And it needed to stop.

One of the first screenings of Moonage Daydream was for Sean Penn and Bono. Are they friends of yours?
I love that you think they’re my friends. I’m like: “Who do you think I am?” No, I have a friend, Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth and has also done a number of projects with U2. So he called me up and said: “Bono is going to be in town this week.” The first time you’re showing something, particularly a film like this that was made during the pandemic where I wasn’t able to do a test screening, I really had no idea how people would respond. But about three minutes into the film, we started to see heads bobbing. I’ve never presented a film to any audience that was as responsive as those individuals on that night.

Do you see a connection in the subjects you choose for documentaries?
Well, I don’t feel that I should be doing musical documentaries any more. The fact that you even presented that question tells me it’s time for me to get out. After The Kid Stays in the Picture, I resisted every temptation and every amount of money that was thrown at me to [make another version]. So many icons would come to me and say: “I want The Kid Stays in the Picture.” And it’d be like: “That’s Bob’s story.” The one time I didn’t listen to myself was when I did a film with the Rolling Stones [2012’s Crossfire Hurricane]. So right now, I intend to go do something more like cinéma vérité, direct cinema, for my next project.

Watch a trailer for Moonage Dream.

I’ve heard that you want to follow a very famous actor very closely for a few months. Has the actor agreed to that?
I’ll tell you directly, without mentioning the name of the performer, who is a well-known, iconic actor, very steeped in mythology. The day before I flew to Cannes, he came to a meeting in my office and I said: “Here’s my pitch, I’m going to move in with you for four months, you can never tell me to turn the camera off. It’s going to be awful for both of us. I don’t want to live with you. You don’t want to live with me. But that’s why we need to do it.”

It’s fucking frightening, it’s dangerous, but what I learned from Bowie is that so much of our lives is about trying to hold on to our comfort, hold on to our success. After five years working on this project, I’m far more inclined to ask myself, “What would David do in this situation?” He generally made great choices and his attitude towards creativity and art is applicable to almost every arena of life.

  • Moonage Daydream is in Imax from 16 September and in cinemas from 23 September


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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