MONTAGE OF HECK
On May 4, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck premieres on HBO, and having previewed it, I can attest that it delivers on what rapturous reviews from Sundance had promised: a devastatingly intimate portrait of one of rock and roll’s most hallowed icons and celebrated misfits. His story is well-known enough not to warrant retelling, which is why director Brett Morgen’s documentary—the first to be authorized by the Kurt Cobain estate—instead opts to venture closer to the poetic, acerbic, funny, and seditious spirit of the man behind the myth. Employing private diary entries, illustrations, doodles, sculptures, and animations, Morgen’s film acts not only as a respectful homage to Cobain’s mutable creativity, but it shines a light on the sensitivity and humility that a generation fell so desperately in love with. Eight years after she tapped Morgen to helm what will easily come to be regarded as one of the most fascinating rock portraits of the year, Cobain’s widow Courtney Love talks to the director about her personal memories that were triggered by the film, why she chose him for the project, and why she chose to stay (mostly) out of it.
BRETT MORGEN I’m going to take you back to 2007. What inspired you to make a documentary and why then?
COURTNEY LOVE In 2004 I had been going through a really hard time and I was sitting in a loft on 30 Crosby Street that I owned, in SoHo, in a little tent that I had built for myself and I watched [Morgen’s] The Kid Stays in the Picture. When I really get into a movie, and Amadeus is one of them, The Breakfast Club is another one, I can watch it over and over and over again. So I just had it on all the time. [My friend] Brett Ratner, he kept saying the only person worthy of making a documentary [about Kurt] is Brett Morgen. I also knew you were very hard to get, which always makes someone sexier.
BM What did you feel was missing about Kurt that the world needed to experience at that point?
CL Well, the truth. There’s been Charlie’s book [Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R. Cross], which he spent nine years researching and it has a lot of facts in it. Like, I didn’t know that Kurt had played football. Stuff I didn’t even know. And that’s great, but in terms of something people could experience on a more visceral level than a book, I wanted there to be a film. No one knew Kurt was funny. And that’s ridiculous. He was ridiculously funny.
BM The thing about Kurt’s humor is that it comes through in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and on Top of the Pops, and [there] you get it. But the thing that was clearly missing from his interactions in public was the wit, because the footage of you two, and the banter I’ve described as sort of like Spencer Tracy and Hepburn, I never experienced that with Kurt. What attracted you to him to begin with?
CL There’s a picture that some kids found of me 15 minutes before I met him in 1989. Everyone is like, “No one can remember how we met,” and it’s all this mythical bullshit. It was at the Satyricon in Portland, Oregon. I sometimes lie and say which bands were playing but I actually don’t remember. But Nirvana was obviously playing. He was cute, he was attractive, and he was funny. I said something smart to him, probably kind of mean. I told him he looked like the singer in another band and then I insulted his girlfriend. He started wrestling me on the floor. Everyone always writes that the song that was playing was Living Colour, but that wasn’t it. It was “Dear Friend” by Flying Color. He had this guy named Jason in his band and I noticed that Jason had big Soundgarden hair and looked very Seattle, not Aberdeen. People don’t distinguish between the two—they always think Kurt and I are from Seattle and neither of us are. He had this guy named Jason who came from Seattle and I noticed him turn the guy’s guitar all the way down on the Fender Twin they were playing through and I cackled at him about it after the set and I was like, “So you just have him up there because he looks like he’s in Soundgarden?” And he tackled me onto the floor. We had this physical attraction that was instant. That was in 1989 and my band was a ways off. So when my band came together, I just started chasing him around, man.
BM At our first meeting you told me Kurt was a prolific artist and you felt that was something the public didn’t get to experience, and that was something that really appealed to me. I think we were having lunch at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills…a place I’m sure Kurt would have loved.
CL [laughs] He might have grown into it! No one knows what he could have ended up liking. He could have divorced me and married Stephanie Seymour, for all I know.
BM That was something that struck me, and was really the main reason I pursued it because I like dealing with ephemera in the way I make my films.
CL Well, yeah. He took his painting and his puppets really seriously. I have 434 vinyl albums of his and there’s almost not one of them that he hasn’t drawn on. The Flintstones soundtrack is all covered in stamps, and then he calls it “The Fuckstones.” When he got a little money, he still collected novelty records but now he could collect art supplies and medical stuff. On the cover of In Utero, he really wanted that image of that invisible woman and we had to deal with the whole estate of the invisible man and the invisible woman people, and he did it all personally. Even the cover of Nevermind, that came from a drawing that Kurt made. He made comics out of everything, collages out of everything, and if you look at the documentary we weren’t that obsessed with money, or name brands, or any of that stuff.
BM You were aware of it far more than he was.
CL Yeah. If you look, one of your shots has some Tiffany boxes, that’s from me. There’s the part where I talk about the Cartier scissors. I was aware, but I was also street smart. But in 1994 if you said, “Will you do a Versace campaign?” I would have told you to go to hell. No way! A big day for me was going to Urban Outfitters and spending a thousand dollars and maybe getting a Chanel lip liner. That was my idea of luxury.
BM Something a lot of people have commented on to me was the sort of squalor you guys were living in at a point when Kurt was selling a thousand albums a week.
CL We did want to get out of that apartment—the one with my boobs—it was right near Canter’s Deli, it was a basement apartment. This was the time when Nirvana was selling. It was Nirvanamania, and the management was young. They’d never dealt with what I call “the rocket,” which is like, the little band that’s expected to sell maybe a quarter of a million but is selling ten. We had a joint checking account and we didn’t really care about the money because we had each other. We had art. We could write checks and people accepted those checks for tables and funny lamps. We were so in love, if this doesn’t sound corny, that we didn’t really care about all that other stuff and that includes me. And I’m pretty materialistic.
BM Now for a million dollar question that I’ve always wanted to know but haven’t asked you point-blank. You gave me final cut of this film. You made no attempt to see the film before it was finished…
CL Why did I trust you? Well, I’m really bad at lawyers and I’m really bad at boyfriends, but I think I’m good at picking filmmakers. I just knew you were to be trusted. All I said to you was, “Tell the truth.” So it’s really an easy answer. Brett, I trusted you. Unfortunately, that’s bitten me on the ass in other cases, but it didn’t with you, so congratulations to both of us.
BM What people probably don’t realize is that your possessions are sort of intermingled with Kurt’s and they are all held in a storage facility. When I was given access to that storage facility, it wasn’t as if you went there to clean up before I got there in case there was anything you didn’t want me to see.
CL I don’t even know what the hell is in there. You’re the one who informed me about certain things that are in there, other than the albums and the coat he died in. Pretty much everything is there.
BM The fact that you did that is beyond trust. Was there a sense like, fuck it? Whatever happens happens?
CL I just let you do your thing because I knew in my heart that it would be okay. I also think I read in The Guardian that you went to college and studied mythology. Is that true?
CL Okay. Given that I did not know that until I read it, it makes perfect sense. I’ve been reading a lot about mythology and ego and how I’m depicted because of the suicide. Just marrying the guy created a mythology around me that I didn’t expect for myself, because I had a very controlled, five-year plan about how I was going to be successful in the rock industry. Marrying Kurt, it all kind of went sideways in a way that I could not control and I became seen in a certain light—a vilified light that made Yoko Ono look like Pollyanna—and I couldn’t stop it. So, what do I have to lose? By just letting you tell the truth and do your narrative, I have nothing to lose. Transparency. What the hell? Sometimes you just gotta take a leap of faith.
BM From the time I was publicly announced as the director of the film, I started receiving death threats. I know you were cast as the villain in Kurt’s story by jealous women the moment you met him. Did that make it more difficult to grieve? Did you ever feel that you were able to grieve for Kurt?
CL No, because it was like, “Here. Your husband is dead. Handle it. Your lawyer is falling to pieces and she’s not handling it, so you handle it.” So in a very un-Jackie O. way—someone said, “Here, read the suicide letter,” and then I had an album that came out within the month of his death—a tour bus pulled up to my house and I got on it. So, that era of shows was really cathartic for me, but, no. Grief, in terms of dealing with it technically, psychologically, I’m still a little bit of a mess about it.
BM When you saw the film for the first time you were confronted with images that I know you’ve never even seen.
CL I wasn’t gonna see it.
CL I didn’t want to see it. [My agency] said, “You cannot go to Sundance and promote this film if you don’t go see it.” So I really had to man up, and I asked Frances [Bean Cobain] to come with me and she didn’t want to see it a second time because it had been, for her own reasons, harsh on her. He died when she was a year and a half old, so she doesn’t know him except for the way the public knows him. It was such a public death, and for that generation it was the JFK moment, if you will. Everyone knows where they were. So, to see it in that room with my daughter was very cathartic and I was very happy to spend a little time with him and to find out, to see things and hear audio, and see into his heart. It was an important moment of bonding between Frances and me, and I think it’s very healing for our family and for our relationship. What you’ve done, beyond making a supremely great film that’s truthful, that’s transparent, that’s got warts and all, etcetera, is that you’ve really helped a young woman come to terms with her father’s death in a way that I certainly couldn’t do and that no book could do.
BM I think memories are really defined by, let’s say, a photograph. So, you have a photograph of a friend, and that becomes the event in time because you don’t remember the other sides. Did the film trigger memories of Kurt that you might have forgotten or suppressed?
CL It fucked me up. I remembered the sexual relationship, which, as you know, is the core of any good marriage. It almost rendered other intimacies meaningless. I remembered how much I love him, and it made me really think about a few other people I don’t want to name, but a few other people I’ve been in love with. And should I have married them? The answer is actually no. Nobody else was as funny. Nobody was as compatible and got my jokes. And you can see it in the film. Neither of us really liked the whole “Courtney is the bad guy” thing. He fucking hated it as much as I did because it shamed him, it emasculated him, and it made him look weak. He is considered to be the rock star who didn’t want fame, the weak pathetic guy who was taken over by this controlling female, and yadda yadda. It kind of fucked me up, and to be honest with you, I don’t have a boyfriend right now, so I’m single. [The film] made me really evaluate what, at the age of 50, I want out of a relationship. He’s a hard act to follow. I love him and I always will.
BM Frances said something really touching yesterday about Kurt’s smell. That she has, I think, a teddy bear of his that still has his smell burned into it.
CL Oh, that’s his binky. I gave it to her.
BM It’s 25 years later and you’re seeing this footage, and it’s amazing that some of this footage even exists. I think I could debunk any notion or myth related to you and narcissism because when I showed you the film I was certainly expecting you to comment on your appearance. You’re basically naked in half the scenes and not necessarily looking your best, and Courtney, you’ve never once made a comment to me about it. It’s kind of remarkable.
CL Well, I’ve never been accused of being vain on a film set, which I’m really proud of. I never depended on my looks, so now that I’m aging, guess what? Big deal. And that’s who I was 22 years ago, so why try and hide it?
BM When you contrast most people with their younger selves, it inevitably becomes a film on aging, and in this case, you actually look better in the present day than 25 years ago.
CL I do. I’m much better looking now. I know how to take care of myself. I know how to juice, I know how to do pilates, I’ve done the fashion gamut, I’ve posed for Versace, I’ve photographed with Avedon, I’ve photographed with the greatest, I’ve done the covers of certain Vogues all over the world. I bought into all that shit and then I bought out of all that shit. So I’ve been fashioned. And the thing that’s so ironic is that at the time of all that footage, Kurt and I were starting all these trends. We didn’t know that! We had no idea. There have been so many collections that have come out in the last five years that have referenced my look or Kurt’s look, it’s insane.
BM How much were you impacting his look?
CL Not at all. He was on his own there. I hated when he dyed his hair red. You know, the person who impacted his look the most was Pat Smear, because Pat loved David Bowie. The way I impacted his look was by informing him that he was beautiful because he did not know. But I will tell you this: the reason he thanks [Quentin] Tarantino on the back of In Utero is because Tarantino and his team approached us both about Pulp Fiction to play the Rosanna Arquette and Eric Stoltz parts, and I felt like they were just asking me so they could get to Kurt. So I was like, “Just ask Kurt. I don’t want to do it.” So Kurt chickened out, and then he got another script by a guy called Michael Tolkin, do you remember him? He held that script close to his chest and he was so excited and for five seconds he thought, “Oh, I could be in movies.” And then he kind of dropped it and it wasn’t really a big deal. But they did come knocking a little bit. He found out he was pretty and I think he tried to hurt his looks.
BM The film was your idea to begin with. Although in a traditional film you would be an executive producer, there was a decision made to have Frances executive produce the film. And you very graciously supported that move. As a mother, what did it mean to you for Frances to get involved with the film?
CL E.P.! I like that for her. I think she represents the family really well, in this situation. I think she can be objective about it. I know of other projects where the subject gets too involved and wants to cut things, and I didn’t want to be that person. You’ve realized your film, hopefully, to the best of your ability, and I think Frances did a really good job of being there for her dad and being involved in what is part of the family business, which is keeping up Kurt’s legacy. I’m really proud of her. Unfortunately, that’s part of what she and I have to do. We go through a process of doing projects and stuff—and it’s not that unfortunate. It’s ethically correct.
BM Has the experience brought you and Frances closer together in some way?
CL Yes it has. I think that those few extra minutes with him for me, and an extra two hours with him for her, has been really good. Kids tend to blame themselves, and with suicide everyone ends up blaming themselves. There’s so much guilt and so much finger-pointing. It’s ridiculous. Many people who’ve suffered the after-effects of suicide, and in Frances’s case, like any child of suicide, she wondered what part she played in it and why wasn’t she important enough? I think the film points out that absolutely, without a doubt, from whatever age it is that he starts talking about it, that that was where he was headed.
BM A lot of people have had opinions about your relationship, all based on innuendo and suggestion, whereas in the movie you’re confronted with it. It’s interesting that this film is coming at a time when it feels like there’s a renaissance for you. How do you see yourself in the current zeitgeist?
CL Well, according to People magazine I’m one hot commodity right now. I just got this incredibly lucky break by getting these agents, by asking Lee Daniels if I could be on his show [Empire], by asking Kurt Sutter if I could be on his show [Sons of Anarchy], and by meeting Todd Almond and being in his musical [Kansas City Choir Boy]. I feel like I’m taking better care of myself physically. When I was living in New York I was sort of drifting and going to events and looking really good, but I wasn’t doing anything. That was sort of a healing period, and then I got here to L.A. about a year and a half ago and I just said, Man, it’s going to be over soon. You’re at the halfway point in your life. You’d better fucking go for it and be really, really proactive about how to get back to work in terms of acting, and make sure this relationship with my daughter—because I only have her, in the end it’s her and me—make sure the relationship stays on track. And I think your film has helped with that a lot, and it’s a good thing. I don’t mind promoting this film with you, but I don’t love living in the 22 years ago, because I don’t. But it is who I was, and Kurt is a part of who I am. In terms of mythology, he will always define me. If I marry the guy who owns Google tomorrow, Kurt will define me.
BM Is that an invitation?
CL No, he likes models, I think. I don’t know. But Kurt is what defines me in the culture and there’s nothing I can do about it so the best answer to it is to act so I can be somebody else and inhabit another character, and I take a lot of joy from that. The rock star part is just getting old. I just didn’t like it.
BM From the moment I was brought into your world, I had to deal with the crazies and the death threats and the psychopaths that you’ve had to deal with for the last 20 years. It’s hard enough to grieve over the loss of a husband, but to be a single parent and to be a single parent in entertainment and rock and roll, which you’ve done, I think you’ve really defied all odds. I just need to say that.
CL Thank you, that is so sweet. I really appreciate that.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck will stream on HBO GO on May 4th