Morgen on his doc that almost wasn't: 'Jane and I agreed on one thing -- nobody would ever want to see another film about Jane Goodall'
Update: Jane has been shortlisted for the Oscars
If you were to put the Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, drug-fueled movie producer Robert Evans and Jane Goodall in the same category, it might sound like a game of "one of these things is not like the other."
In fact they do belong together -- on a list of director Brett Morgen's documentary subjects. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker's latest, Jane, takes a revealing look at the famed primatologist and conservationist.
This is my favorite film I've worked on, I think because Jane forced me to be restrained.
Jane is built around 140 hours of previously unseen footage of Goodall from the 1960s that documented her research on chimpanzees in the wild in Gombe, Tanzania. The man who shot that original material -- Hugo van Lawick -- was a Dutch filmmaker on assignment for National Geographic. At first Goodall and van Lawick were strangers to each other, but they would fall in love and marry in 1964.
After NatGeo rediscovered the footage in a vault -- where the reels had sat undisturbed for 50 years -- the studio approached Morgen about doing a Jane Goodall documentary.
"I had this reaction when they called me to do this, like 'This film's been done a hundred times.' And I told them no," Morgen recalled during a Q&A in Los Angeles after a screening put on by International Documentary Association. "Ironically, seven thousand miles away they called Jane and Jane said, 'I have no interest in making the film. It's been done to death.' So Jane and I agreed on one thing -- nobody would ever want to see another film about Jane Goodall."
Jane is now playing in New York (Landmark at 57th Street and Sunshine Cinema). It expands to many more cities in the coming days and weeks, including San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago and Dallas (full details here)
What Morgen came to realize was that a new kind of film on Goodall could be done -- not a traditional nature film but one that would explore how a 26-year-old British woman with no formal scientific training could undertake a dangerous mission in Tanzania, surmounting great obstacles to make observations that would revolutionize the world's understanding of primates.
Of Goodall's early experience in Gombe, Morgen marveled, "[At first] she couldn't see [any] chimps. She was going to lose her funding. But she never stopped working, whether she was trying to figure out how they ate, where they slept, and to me that was it. That was that thing she had -- that passion -- that quest for knowledge."
Morgen became equally intrigued but other dimensions to the story -- the idea of humans entering this Garden of Eden, and of Goodall and van Lawick's decision to bring their very young son -- nicknamed Grub -- into the field with them where they all lived in close quarters with the chimps.
"That footage was one of the first things I came across and I was like, 'Ohmygod, they'e trying to do an experiment with their own child,' Morgen recalled in a conversation with Nonfictionfilm.com. "That's what I thought the entire film was going to be about. That's how I pitched the film initially: 'It's about this woman who studies chimps but then decides to do her own research project on her own child.'"
Before he could settle on the ultimate thematic structure of the film, Morgen had to get through the source footage first. And that proved a monumental task.
"Of the 140 hours we looked at there were no two consecutive shots in order on a reel -- meaning we had 140 hours of random shots, with no sound, featuring 160 chimps that didn't have name tags, of which only four were relevant to us," the director told Nonfictionfilm.com. "It took about eight months of work to organize the material by theme."
Morgen also had to deal with archival material that showed some signs of age.
"That was 200 hours of color correction to get at where we got at. The density of the film was obviously terrific but there was some color degradation," he noted.
Another issue was a conceptual one.
"One of our biggest challenges was to take this footage that was shot for this other aesthetic purpose and repurpose it to be used in a manner it was never intended -- which is to create an immersive experience. That then is achieved through editorial: by taking the same shots and juxtaposing them in a different manner we were able to liberate them in a sense."
Morgen is full of praise for the work of van Lawick, who coped with very challenging conditions to record that early material in Gombe.
"There was not a shot underexposed, overexposed. It was his first job and he was so terrified he would get fired," Morgen told the audience at the IDA screening. "He's an amazing filmmaker. Incredible."
Both van Lawick and Goodall were to become leaders in their fields -- he in nature documentary filmmaking and she in conservation and primatology. Their work would pull them apart eventually; they divorced in 1974 after 10 years of marriage.
"I think this is a love story but not in the traditional sense. It's not a love story between a man and a woman. It's a love story between a woman and her vocation and a man and his vocation," Morgen observed at the IDA Q&A. "Ultimately it's a happy ending."
For Goodall, initially reluctant to participate in the film, seeing Jane became a moving experience, Morgen said.
"For the first time in 55 years she felt that she was walking in Gombe again," Morgen quoted her as saying.
The film does not touch on Goodall's later work as a tireless advocate for the environment and threatened wildlife (Van Lawick died in 2002, having won eight Emmys for his films). Morgen said Goodall's more recent activities on behalf of the planet have been amply covered in other documentaries.
Morgen said collaborating with Goodall offered him some important lessons.
"This is my favorite film I've worked on. I think because Jane forced me to be restrained," he told the IDA crowd. "She really taught me how to listen... When you're around Jane you can't help but think, 'What can I do today to make the world just a little bit better? Just a margin better? And Jane has does that every day. And the fact that she's 84 years old and she's still touring 300 days a year. She really is saint-like."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.