‘Moonage Daydream’ director Brett Morgan nearly died making Bowie film

Fifteen years ago, Brett Morgen — filmmaker of barrier-breaking documentaries The child stays in the picture, Crossfire Hurricane, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heckand now his most ambitious and artistically daring work, the David Bowie doc Moonage Daydream — met with Bowie himself “to discuss making a very different kind of film.”

Morgen’s fictional idea for this alternate-world scripted film “was like a performance hybrid piece, basically imagining if Bowie never evolved after Ziggy and we found him in modern day Berlin, playing this dive cabaret on a Monday night at 3am to the last people on Earth who cared about him. It was all part of it so it wouldn’t evolve.”

This movie apparently never got made. Bowie had suffered a career-derailing heart attack just three years before and “was in a sort of semi-retirement”. His business manager, Bill Zysblat, later called Morgen to say, “David really enjoyed the pitch, but it’s not the right time.” Of course, unlike the fictional version of Morgen that never made it to the screen, the real David Bowie never stopped evolving. The visionary shape-shifter returned to music in 2013 after a decade-long hiatus and released one of his greatest albums. Black starjust two days before his death in January 2016.

Zysblat, now the executor of Bowie’s estate, finally reunited with Morgen in 2016 and granted the acclaimed filmmaker unprecedented access to the artist’s vast archives. “I think Bill understood that I don’t do traditional documentaries,” Morgen tells Yahoo Entertainment. Morgen continued to work Moonage Daydream for five years, two of which consisted entirely of “shows six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, which was like the greatest job on Earth.” It examined literally more than five million assets, including paintings, drawings, recordings, photographs, films, magazines and 16mm and 35mm performance clips.

The result is Bowie’s magnificent, kaleidoscopic, IMAX-ready 140-minute documentary/artwork, Moonage Daydream. But while there were times when the project was a “filmmaker’s dream,” there were other times when it was a nightmare. Ironically, Morgen suffered a heart attack of his own during the arduous process of making the film, [on Jan. 5, 2017 — and after that near-death experience, he learned more from Bowie’s life journey than he’d ever expected.

Director Brett Morgen attends the ‘Moonage Daydream’ London Premiere at BFI IMAX Waterloo on Sept. 5, 2022. (Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

“Not to get heavy, but I just will say, as a preamble, that this is an emotional thing for me to say,” notes Morgen — who, at 53, is now only four years younger than the age Bowie was when Bowie had his heart attack and subsequently retreated into a quieter private life with his wife Iman and daughter Lexi. A self-proclaimed workaholic who sadly recalls getting bittersweet Father’s Day cards that read, “Hey Dad, thanks for the work ethic. You really taught me the value of working hard,” Morgen says: “It’s a little heavy-handed, but very early, when I was about to start listening to [Bowie’s archival] interviews, I had a massive heart attack. I flatlined and was in a coma for a week. And it wasn’t one accident, You know. My life has been pedal to the metal, my whole life I’ve been working nonstop and smoking and not exercising and stressing over every detail. And so, I had a heart attack at 47. And when something like that happens, you question things. I have three children and [the heart attack occurred on] birthday of one of these children. The other person’s birthday is actually David’s birthday. I was in a coma on her birthday, which was a year to the day David died. And so, you’re faced with some pretty big questions.

“And as I was coming out of it, there was David,” marvels Morgen. “I didn’t expect to find that it would provide a kind of road map for how to live a more balanced and satisfying and fulfilling life. His lines [in Moonage Daydream] about how you don’t really appreciate life until you’ve lived more days than you have ahead of you — those lines were really, really touching. And so, I can’t talk about the messages of the movie without talking about the heart attack, because I don’t think this movie would be This movie in 2016. I wouldn’t be receptive. I wouldn’t be open. I wouldn’t have heard of it. … The film gave me an opportunity to reflect, to no longer be here, where would I direct my children to go to answer any question? What should I do with this situation? “Ask David.” And so, that was the trip.”

I feel more inspired than ever after immersing myself in thousands of hours of Bowie interviews over two years — and yes, yet toiling very hard while now trying to achieve balance in his life — Morgen then began (and restarted and restarted) the shaping process Moonage Daydreamnon-linear narrative. It was such a scary process, it’s a wonder he didn’t go into cardiac arrest a second time.

'Moonage Daydream' poster (Photo: NEON/Universal Pictures)

‘Moonage Daydream’ poster (Photo: NEON/Universal Pictures)

“I couldn’t understand the movie in allMorgen admits. “It took eight months to learn how to structure it, because my goal at the beginning was to have it no narrative. But this, apparently, for two hours and 20 minutes, is impossible. So then it was about creating a narrative that wasn’t completely chronological or biographically rooted, but still maintained a forward momentum. … The film was designed to feel spontaneous. I don’t need another resume piece. My feeling is that if I can put it in a book, then I don’t want to see it on screen. And so, I think that’s what I tried to do in the movie: It’s everything that you can’t really explain in a book. It’s almost like a haiku.”

Wanting to “create this IMAX music experience, which was basically like a theme park ride of your favorite artist without any elements,” Morgen decided not to use any heads for Moonage Daydream. Instead, he let audio from previous Bowie interviews—in which Bowie speaks enthusiastically about the creative process, his endless curiosity, his zest for life, and his love for Iman—serve as the documentary’s sole narrative. “Part of the design of the film, part of why it is ancillary Not having people talk about it creates more of that gray area that David refers to, of the kind of mystery of art,” explains Morgen. “And what I love is that his lessons about art are applicable to all aspects of life, so whether you’re an artist or a day laborer, my intention was for you to be able to recognize, recognize and gain something.”

Morgen initially collaborated with Academy Award-winning film editor Bob Murawski (The Hurt Locker, several Sam Raimi films), whose “fingerprints are still all over the film. We worked together for about five weeks until the pandemic hit and we kind of split up, but he’s the best editor I’ve ever had.” The COVID-19 lockdown, along with budget constraints, forced Morgen to finish the editing work himself (“I was sitting there making a film about alienation and isolation, thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this it’s really topical”) but what actually “set the film in motion” was a “44-page manifesto” that Morgen wrote and was “really sick of sharing” with Murafsky.

“It was just things like, ‘If you buried the tape in the desert and 10,000 years from now we blow up and sentient beings later discover that tape, would they believe it’s a life that actually lived?’ Is it a myth? Is he a prophet who came to Earth? Is it one of their own who was here before them that is reporting? No — it’s a broadcast watched by these sentient beings from a different planet, kind of like their own version Star Wars,” laughs Morgen, insisting that his manifesto will never be seen by anyone but Murawski. “There were all weird, really embarrassing ideas, but I think the movie forced me to a place of games and roles. It’s almost embarrassing to talk about, but we needed to get here.”

Morgen went on to write “about chaos and the 20th century and Freud and stuff,” but understandably struggled to “fill in all these subjects.” After eight months, his workplace began to feel “like a coffin”—an eerie simile for Morgen, given his health scare just a few years earlier. “So I drove to LAX, jumped on a flight to Albuquerque, went to the train depot, got an Amtrak ticket back to Los Angeles and said, ‘I’m not going home until I do this.’ And when the train started moving, it started pouring out. I was trying to frame David’s story through Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, with the idea that he was the one who created the storms. He was the one creating the challenges for himself. And in this context, [record producer] Brian [Eno] it was yoda and he would come back with it Outside album.”

It all sounds far-fetched and fantastical… but it all is projects, especially on the live IMAX screen. (Morgen points out that he can’t imagine any other music artist’s story being told this way.) And along with Moonage Daydream the filmmaking process giving Morgen a new appreciation for the concept of work/life balance helped him reassess Bowie’s later albums, such as the aforementioned 1995 Electronic Disc Outside. In fact, Morgen now lists Bowie’s 2002 album Foreigner as his current favourite. A man who often, humbly describes himself as “sheep” or “embarrassed” when discussing Bowie, the director goes back to that fateful meeting in 2007, before he came to appreciate these records late in his career.

“That was it not-very good part of that meeting,” he recalls with a rueful laugh. “I sat down with David. His office on 57th Street was very small and intimate. It was just David, Bill, [Bowie’s secretary] Cocoa [Schwab], and myself. I had just released a film titled Chicago 10and as we sit down, David starts… he was very kind as he said it, but just destroyed by the movie! He was like, “I don’t care at all,” and it just started excellent my. His manners were elegant enough, but he tore me apart! … It was kind of a weird thing, and I confess he was like, “What am I saying?” And then Coco said to me, right after David finished ripping me, “What’s your favorite Bowie album?” And I looked at David and said, “Well, to be perfectly honest, I can’t say I’ve appreciated anything you’ve done since ’83.” And he locked eyes with me and said, “Touché.”

“But here is what I wanted to say,” notes Morgen. “I stopped listening to Bowie after that Let’s Dance. And afterward I discovered it [later] music and I fell in love with it Outside and Foreigner specifically. And that guilt may have pushed me to work years on this film! It’s very difficult, because you can’t go back. I just fell into the trap [of assuming] when he met Iman who was flat out not making great music. But it wasn’t like that. It’s just that his investment in it had changed.”

But it was all meant to be. Years later, Zysblat called Morgen — “Apparently David really enjoyed that meeting, even though he trashed my film!” — and not only recruited Morgen to make the first Bowie film ever approved by the singer’s estate, but Zysblat gave Morgen approval for Moonage Daydream. “Bill’s only dictation to me was, ‘David’s not here to authorize it or approve it, so it can’t be David Bowie to David Bowie. It has to be Brett Morgen to David Bowie,” says Morgen.

“And Bill is very happy,” Morgen adds with a small, proud smile. “When he saw the film, he said, ‘You did the impossible.’

Moonage Daydream will be released in IMAX theaters on September 16, along with an accompanying soundtrack. A formal release will follow on September 23rd.

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