When Brett Morgen was my housemate at Hampshire College, the mellowest, least flappable institution of hippie education on the planet, he rolled across the campus like a tornado laying waste to all in his path. On a typical morning, his house would be awoken somewhere around 5 a.m. by Morgen blasting Fishbone at the highest volume, his day careening through our formerly quiet world well underway.
That tornado force energy has served Morgen well in his career as a documentary filmmaker, winning him an Academy Award nomination in 2002 for The Kid Stays in the Picture, his rendition of the life of legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans. His latest film, Crossfire Hurricane, which airs this Thursday night on HBO, takes on one of the most ubiquitous, well-trod topics in culture — the Rolling Stones — and tells their story, as an epic screen fable, through archival footage and present-day interviews with the band.
Commissioned by the band itself, who held final say in its contents, Crossfire eschews the Mick/Keith feud talk that has dominated Stones coverage in recent years, focusing the story instead on the band itself. Given four months to put the film together, Morgen faced the impossible task of wrangling a fresh perspective out of the band against a ticking clock. We discussed the process and what it took to go eyeball to eyeball with the Rolling Stones.
Was making this film a Stones fan’s dream come true?
To tell you the truth, it’s quite emotional for me because a year ago, I was a casual fan of the Rolling Stones, and for the past 12 months I’ve been able to embed myself in their inner circle and be very close to these guys. And after the premiere tomorrow night, it will be like Cinderella returning from the ball. I’ll be back waiting in line to buy tickets to their shows.
So stepping inside their world, was it like entering a fairy tale?
When you do a film on someone like the Rolling Stones or someone like a Bob Evans, you go into it because you’re a fan. You can’t immerse yourself in a subject that you don’t like. I could never do this for Emerson Lake and Palmer; it would never work. So you come into the world as a fan, but the second you arrive there, that has to go out the window because you’ve got a job to do. The first time Mick or Keith say the name Brett, it’s very odd. But you get over that very quickly because you’ve got a job to do.
In the end, I can’t really talk about open tuning with Keith, but I can certainly talk about narrative and I can certainly talk about storytelling. They are in my world in a way, so it levels the playing field, and you have to stop seeing them as deities and see them as the people they are.
How do you get guys like these, whom no one ever challenges and who must be very comfortable in their own banter, to move past that and open up?
You have to create a safe place. I practice something called intensive immersion. I create a safety net, and from that place I’m able to sort of find the right moment to push back so it doesn’t feel like gotcha journalism. It feels like two bros hanging out, and you just start pushing back a little bit. In the case of the Rolling Stones, I had a deal with them that I’m not a journalist and I have to have the sense that I can ask anything and not be afraid that they are going to kill the interview. Mick Jagger admits in the film he’s the master of spinning the question. A journalist asks him one thing, and what a smart, savvy person like Bob Evans or Mick Jagger will do is tell you what they’re there to promote, so a lot of times you don’t get an answer to the question.
But when you’re sitting there with Jagger, we did 14 hours of interviews. There was no escape. Or place to hide.
How do you push through everything that’s been written and a story that’s been told a million times to find the real story of the band here?
I’m not making documentaries as much as I call them mythomentaries. They’re mythologies. My job is to get them to reveal themselves in their own words, without feeling like they’re being tricked or forced to get there. I have a saying that if you want to know history, you should read books; if you want to experience a subject, film is a great medium to do that. Unfortunately in my genre, documentary, too much is reportage or work mired in objectivity. Or the opposite — bogged down by the filmmaker’s own agenda. And there’s no point to that. I find the form to be as interesting and revealing as the content.
But with a story as familiar as the Stones’, which is like the wallpaper of modern culture, how do you make it new?
Someone asked me that the other day: Hasn’t this story been told a million times? I said, yeah, but so has Romeo and Juliet but that’s not going to stop me from going to see a good Baz Luhrmann or a Franco Zefferelli production. We all know the outcome of the story; it’s how the story is told that is of interest to me.
How did you come to the particular story that you tell here?
When you do movies about the past they are ultimately about the present. Chinatown is not about the late ’30s or ’40s. It’s about the 1970s. If I were doing the story of the Stones in 1985, I would have chosen a totally different narrative because of the time it was in. This movie is about how these guys were cast to play the role of the anti-Beatles, but at first they were just kinda jerking it out. But in a certain point — in 1967, after they were busted at Redlands — Mick took a much more cynical approach toward the media, and collectively the band said, “Alright, if you want us to be these bad boys, we’re going to play the part.” And the part nearly killed them. So the whole idea of role-playing, to be honest, had a lot to do with me being a father and thinking in my own life about the roles that we all play. I wanted to do something that would transcend rock ‘n’ roll, something we can all relate to.
How did the band feel about the story you were telling about them?
When I got the job and I said, I’m not going to do 50 years. I have to settle on a particular segment. That to me became the most clean, clear, linear story I could tell — how they go from being these outcasts to being this institution. Very early on, I had this idea that Jumping Jack Flash was the turning point, that all roads need to lead into it and out of it. And so from the first day of cutting, those were the instructions. Everything we do has to lead to the turning point in the story where they put on the black hat. Now Jagger, I think, was quite frustrated with the fact that I was telling my story. He’d say, this is your narrative; this isn’t my story, and you’re trying to force this into your narrative. But I’m the storyteller.
How did those conversations go?
There was a lot of push. There was a lot of push. I have to say, basically he would acquiesce and say, perhaps. And then he’d argue with me and say, I don’t see it that way. But ultimately he understood with the short amount of time we had to make this film that he had to sort of put a little trust and faith that I was going to be able to pull it together.
Did Mick buy into your version in the end?
Bob (Evans) and Mick were both very similar. They were both very wary of the narrative as I presented it to them, as we were making it, but I think ultimately they embraced it when they saw how it all came together. There was a quote from Mick yesterday, where he said this is probably his favorite Rolling Stones documentary. I’m not sure he would have said that as we were making the film, but I think when he saw the whole thing together, he felt that.
In your story, it almost feels like the natural ending would have been if they had all combusted and disappeared in the ’70s. But they went on. How do they feel about their careers after the end of this story?
I think Jagger feels the best work happened after ‘81. Maybe not so much from songwriting but Mick is a showman. He’s always been a showman. And I don’t think he felt that he could realize that vision until the Steel Wheels tours.
In the end, going eyeball to eyeball with the Rolling Stones and telling Mick Jagger, “No this is your story,” how do you work up the nerve to do that?
If the film doesn’t work, it’s not going to affect them. They’re the Rolling Stones. They’re immune to it. But if the film doesn’t work, it could be the end of my career. I’ve got my ass on the line. There’s a great line from Tarantino about the difference between making Pulp Fiction and some of his later work. He said, “When I was making Pulp Fiction, I would have shot anyone who stood in the way of me getting a shot.” And it’s that type of committment and intensity that elevates the work. The way you are protective of your family, you are protective of your other children, the films, and you don’t let anything, including the subjects, get in the way of that success.