‘Moonage Daydream’ Director Says David Bowie Was “A Man Who Never Wasted a Second”

‘Moonage Daydream’ Director Says David Bowie Was “A Man Who Never Wasted a Second”

Director-writer-editor Brett Morgen’s David Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream is certainly unlike any musician-centered film you’ve seen before. The movie plays out almost as if the viewer is watching through a kaleidoscope, a fever dream of footage and soundscapes from the Bowie archives as well as from films and artworks the artist referenced in his storied career. Nominated for four Emmys this year (directing, writing, editing and sound editing), the director sat down with THR to discuss how he arrived on Bowie as a subject and his artistic process.

What draws you to a documentary subject at the outset?

Related Stories

As I reflect back over the years, I’m definitely drawn toward wildly creative people who live life on their own terms. That seems to be the one consistent link between Robert Evans, Jane Goodall, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie. On a more superficial level, when I’m approaching a subject, I’m mainly interested in what opportunities the subject may present cinematically. There are a lot of people whom I admire and would love to read books about — (or) maybe that’s best for a dramatic, scripted version because so much happened offscreen. I’m looking for canvases that allow me to create experiences — intimate and sublime encounters. 

Did you always think of filmmaking as wanting it to be an experience?

The films that I was always attracted to, like Pink Floyd — The Wall, Fantasia, The Rainbow Man, Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey, these spectacles were very appealing to me. When I started Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the premise was, I’m going to create a biographical portrait of Kurt using his art to tell the story of his life. I ended up having to add interviews with some of his intimates to provide context for the art. But the goal was, ultimately, nobody but Kurt. When that was finished, the obvious next thing was, “OK, now let’s take away any semblance of narrative and just have the good stuff.” Just rip it to its core. It’s not something you read. It’s something you digest. Bowie, creatively, and in terms of his philosophies on art and life, really lends himself to this.

You met Bowie in 2007 to pitch a very different nonfiction concept.

That meeting had a huge impact on my understanding of David. I had just premiered a film at Sundance called Chicago 10. We meet up in (Bowie’s) manager’s office on 57th Street. It’s David, Coco Schwab, his longtime assistant, the executor Bill Zysblat, myself and (my friend) Sofia (Sondervan) from Sony BMG. It’s David Bowie. Totally disarmed. This firm handshake, he’s standing right in front of you, wearing a green Army jacket with a white V-neck T-shirt underneath. He said, “I had the misfortune of seeing your most recent film, Chicago 10. I found it dreadful. Absolutely terrible.” At the conclusion of his monologue, Coco turns to me and goes, “What’s your favorite Bowie song?” And I was burned, I was stinging. I looked at him and I said, “Well, to be totally honest with you, David, I can’t say I’ve really appreciated anything you’ve done since Scary Monsters.” He doesn’t take his eyes off me, and he goes, “Touché.”

And then what was the film you pitched?

It was essentially a triptych. The first part of the film was going to imagine that he just played Ziggy Stardust the rest of his life — he was a one-hit wonder, and we find him 40 years later, living in Berlin. He plays this divey cabaret at two in the morning on Monday nights because the bar owner feels bad for him. It’s all about the death of the artist when you don’t evolve. The second section was this idea: “You and I will fly to Tokyo. And we’ll hold a press conference in which we announce that we’re making a documentary film. And we will then show clips of this documentary film, but the doc that we’re showing is the one you would never want, just the most (traditional), boring, tabloid documentary.” The third section was going to have David traveling around the Himalayas on an elephant, trucking a film projector and generator and taking old footage of himself to the last people on Earth who had no idea who David Bowie was. 

How was it received?

His manager called me the next day and said, “Listen, David really appreciated the (creativity). Unfortunately, he’s had some health issues recently. He hasn’t announced, but he’s retired. And so at the moment, it’s just too demanding for him.” When I received the opportunity to do the David Bowie film in 2016 from Bill, who was in the room with us, I reflected back on that meeting.

David Bowie as seen in HBO/Max and Neon’s Moonage Daydream, nominated for four Emmys.

David Bowie as seen in HBO/Max and Neon’s Moonage Daydream, nominated for four Emmys.

Courtesy of NEON

Was that what led to you receiving the offer for Moonage Daydream?

I called Bill a respectful time after David passed, and I was already doing this thing called the “Imax music experience.” It wasn’t to reignite the pitch from 2007. As I started to really study Bowie, I came to an enormous appreciation of his output, beginning with Outside in 1995. I realized that I hadn’t really heard Bowie from Let’s Dance until the time I met with him. And I thought about that flippant, juvenile comment that I threw at him, which was essentially the same thing that everybody had been saying for years. And I couldn’t take it back. I get emotional talking about it now. I felt in the research phase: “OK, I’m going to right that wrong.” I didn’t really have an opportunity to right that wrong as Moonage came into existence because his journey to Iman was really what the film ended up becoming about.

(Another) thing that stayed with me was how present he was in the meeting. He never took his eyes off me. I realized that this is a man who never wasted a second. 

Were there major discoveries in sifting through all this footage you had access to?

I flew to New York to meet with David’s longtime producer (Tony Visconti). (He) said, “I want to play you the stems for a song called ‘Cygnet Committee.’ ” This is a song that David wrote at the very beginning of his career. At the peak of the song, David sings out, “I want to live, I want to live, I want to live.” And Tony isolated all the music for me and played me the raw vocals, and listening to them I could hear David, sobbing uncontrollably, between lines. It was with the conviction of a man who understood the brevity of life. And what that told me was that this idea of appreciating each day isn’t something he arrived at later in life. He was there from the beginning. 

You put together most of this film completely in isolation. What was that like?

I received financing in 2015 for a slate of Imax immersive music projects from BMG, with a set budget. The budget was designed to create one film every year for 15 years. There was so much media that the Bowie archives had held that it took us two years to bring it all into our system. I’m not saying this to complain, but the financiers refused to adjust the budget to reflect the reality of the situation. I never intended to edit myself; I never intended to not have a staff. It was lonely, it was frightening, it was stressful, it was very difficult. But now, I look back, I would not have it any other way. 

I was never in my comfort zone. I would say that for the sound team, they totally were out of their comfort zone on their first call with me. The audio was designed to create a portrait of David, it wasn’t designed to simply reflect back to the audience what you’re seeing onscreen. After being alone for essentially five years and then having a sound team who also was invested in what we were doing,  and I could talk to people — it was exhilarating.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.