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Annette Kellerman Talks JANE With Director Brett Morgen


This week I got the stellar opportunity to talk with director Brett Morgen about his latest documentary JANE (in theaters now) that chronicles the early days of famous anthropologist Jane Goodall's illustrious career studying chimpanzees in the African jungle. Though many films have already covered the researcher, her studies, as well as her personal life, Morgen had the unique opportunity to utilize a treasure trove of stunning footage depicting Goodall's early expeditions filmed by award-winning wildlife filmmaker Hugo Van Lawick. For those not in the know, Goodall and Van Lawick would later be married, and though it may or may not be intentional, the blush of blooming love is apparent in every gorgeous shot of Goodall, her newfound African homeland, and her primate subjects. The film is a stunning ode to youth, ambition, and profound love, and I cannot recommend seeking it out on a big screen near you. I hope you enjoy our talk about all things JANE.

Annette Kellerman: Hey Brett! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today about JANE.

Brett Morgen: Of course.

Kellerman: How did this project come about?

Morgan: I was out on the road with MONTAGE OF HECK, the Kurt Cobain documentary, when I received a call from National Geographic to see if I wanted to work on a film about Jane Goodall. My initial response was one of naivety, so I didn't really know much. When I looked into the matter I found that a few films had been made about Jane's early years- the most widely circulated was a film made in 1965 that Jane absolutely hates. She and Hugo both hated it because they felt like it was full of all sorts of inaccuracies and that it did not come close to capturing their experiences.

Kellerman: Wow.

Morgen: Then I looked at all the footage that Hugo shot, and it was incredible.

Kellerman: Breathtaking, yeah.

Morgen: Yeah. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. So I was hooked pretty quick. One thing that I realized from the get go- there was an opportunity to bring Jane's seminal book In The Shadow Of Men to life, and to create a film that would kind of match the poetry and prose with Hugo's imagery to create this really immersive film. The type of movie that wasn't available for them to make back in the early 60's when this footage was shot.

Kellerman: Obviously some of the other documentaries you've done are very rock and roll. What was it like switching gears and diving into a National Geographic style film?

Morgen: I try to make each film in the spirit of the subject matter. I try to have the style reflect the cadence of the subject and the rhythm of the subject. So after MONTAGE OF HECK, and THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, and CROSSFIRE HURRICANE- which are very angst-ridden, very frenetic movies- it was really cathartic to do a film about Jane because it's really a film about listening and observing and connectivity. It was a very different rhythm. The first thing was finding the voice of the film, the style. And like my other subjects, Jane has created a tremendous amount of primary source material both in her journals, her writing...she saved every letter she ever wrote. Obviously her entire life from the age of 25 to 50 was photographed in glorious 16mm. So there was a tremendous amount of assets for me to look into and the one constant thing throughout all my work is that I try to tell stories that take place in the past, but I want them to unfold in the present tense. So you feel there's a sort of immediacy towards them like its happening now. And it's a different immediacy than fiction. I certainly had all the elements at play. Before we started editing the film there were a know I wrote the script, and the script was held together by a couple central themes. On the one hand there was sort of an examination of the story of Eden and the disruptive nature thereafter. There's certainly a story of the woman overcoming the structural opposition of her time to fulfill her life's purpose to pursue her dream without compromise or fail. Lastly there was story of our place as a species and all her scientific observations. There are these wonderful themes that you can marry and each in its own way is kind of powered by love. It really is a movie that is powered by passion and by love on all fronts- Jane's passion for her work which comes through in her writing. Most of the narration came directly from her book- her reading from her book.

Kellerman: That was actually one of my questions. The narration is beautiful and I was wondering if these were new musings or stuff from her previous work.

Morgen: Her first love was writing, and always has been. Her second love is speaking. Those are two of the things she's brilliant at. So she had this wonderful book called A Reason For Hope that basically served as the spine for the film. So it's Jane's passion on display everywhere you look in the film. There's Hugo van Lawick's passion...

Kellerman: Oh man, totally.

Morgen: To achieve these images that he achieved is an act of God.

Kellerman: Truly!

Morgen: He was in the middle Africa by himself with no support crew. It would take months to get a reel of film processed and developed. The mechanics to get a shot done were almost insurmountable let alone an entire film. It's the passion of [composer] Phillip Glass driving us through the film and his appreciation for Jane's work and [van Lawick's] romantic feelings for Jane emerge through his score. Hopefully one can feel passion that my team were able to bring to the film as well. So it's really a film that is all about passion and invariably has different coding for different audience members.

Kellerman: Speaking of the footage- how did this spectacular footage disappear? And how did it resurface? Can you fill in the blanks please?

Morgen: It wasn't so much lost as it was forgotten. Nobody was asking for it. And at some point in 2014 an archivist at National Geographic was cleaning up one of the halls, and she came across these boxes and notified someone upstairs. So in essence, the film was conceived of in 2014. If you think about the world we lived in in 2014, it was a very different world than we live in today. There was a little more optimism than we have now with the hope that Hillary Clinton would become the first female president. Yet you flash forward- and it took this long to get the film made- and by the time we finished the film we were living in a very different place with Trump in the White House, and our movie premiered on the eve of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. So What I find kind of amazing about this whole experience is the timing. The timing of when that material was discovered and the timing of when we finished the film and got it into the world. Because I think the coding and the message of the film had changed dramatically from conception to now. Opening week in L.A. I did a Q and A at the ArcLight, and there was a moment where the moderator said [about the part where Jane sent her son to boarding school] that she was so mad at her. And the audience booed, and she was like, "What's wrong with you people? Why are you booing me?" I said, "I don't think you understand ma'am. It's certainly empowering for women to see a story about another woman who doesn't have to give up her career in order to have a child." 

Kellerman: Right! She worked it out.

Morgen: People started applauding, so I recognize that the film took on a life of its own. During this particular time it seems to be more needed than at any other time I can possibly imagine.

Kellerman: Wow. That is such an interesting insight into the film- the fact that within a mere 3 years, the film has taken on a completely different meaning within the current social and political context.

Morgen: I've had the experience where it worked the other way when I did this film CHICAGO 10 and we conceived of it on the eve of the Iraq war. It was a movie that was intended to get people to get out on the streets and fucking fight back, but by the time it came out Obama was the nominee and everyone was filled with hope and excitement.

Kellerman: Was Goodall completely on board? I mean, how did she react to seeing this old footage of herself and Hugo. Was she sentimental at all about such beautiful documenatation from early in her life, or was she just ho-hum.

Morgen: She really was ho-hum about it, to use your words not mine.

Kellerman: I love it.

Morgen: She really didn't think that there was anything left to say or do related to her early years in Gombe. Fortunately when we showed her the film upon completion, she was mesmerized. She said it was the first time in her life that she was able to see her experience as it really felt to her on film. And I think a lot of that had to do with advances in technology in the last 6 years. The color palette of the film, the grading that we did is quite different than it would've look in 1965. The soundscape that we created- it was two and half years of sound editing in 7.1 to create an immersive sonic impact that one wouldn't have available to them back then. So I think some of it had to do with that, but I think a lot of it had to do with that fact that I wasn't trying to be dogmatic in my execution. I was trying to adhere to a type of lyricism that I felt near her observation in her book In The Shadow Of Man. So I think for her, the way the film takes its time and a lyrical approach to it is really reflective of her experience in Gombe.

Kellerman: Well, I think that wraps it up perfectly because unfortunately our time is up! Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk to me about your gorgeous film!

Morgen: Thank you.

I hope you dug my sit down with JANE director Brett Morgen. I really loved his insight into the crafting of the film with Hugo van Lawick's breathtaking archival footage along with Goodall's seminal writing. I found his admission about the overall meaning of the film shifting amid the tidal wave of attitude change in the current social and political context particularly fascinating- not only from a social commentary standpoint, but also from a filmmaking one. Sometimes the film you set out to make takes on unexpected meaning once it is finally completed. JANE is playing in select theaters across the country right now, so check it out on a big screen near you while you can!

Until next time,

Rebecca Elliott

aka Annette Kellerman

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