Jane director Brett Morgen sat down with The Young Folks on Monday afternoon as he was preparing to screen the new Jane Goodall documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival.
The following interview was originally published at The Young Folks but I am republishing here as the site announced it is shutting down by the end of 2022.
Thanks for The Young Folks today. How are you enjoying your time in Chicago so far?
Brett Morgen: I just got here so I literally came off the plane, landed, and went right here. I did have a slice of pizza at the airport though.
Deep dish or New York?
Brett Morgen: I had to do the deep dish.
I loved what you did with Jane and I feel that her story is best told as a documentary as opposed to a biopic.
Brett Morgen: Me, too.
As you’ve shown the film to audiences, what’s the reception been like?
Brett Morgen: It’s been assuring. I was talking to Jane this morning. It’s been amazing given that we expected absolutely nothing. It started at our first screening—when the second the movie ended, 800 people rose to their feet before the first credit came on the screen. We never ran credits. We just turned the film off. It was like a seven-minute standing ovation.
I was—I knew at the moment they weren’t standing for me. They were standing for Jane. It’s a tremendous outpouring of love and I remember reading a comment from April Wolfe from the LA Weekly on Twitter and she said twenty minutes into the film, she started crying—not of sadness but at the strength of this remarkable woman and the tears didn’t stop until long after she left the theater.
I never—NEVER—had any indication that that was how someone was going respond to the film. No idea. I knew that I would cry at various points in the film—more tears of happiness like when Jane and Hugo get together. Almost every time I would screen the rough cut, I would cry. But that sort of emotional connection was something that that I’m fair to say I didn’t know how strong it would be.
Fast forward to this weekend in LA and I was at most of the screenings this weekend. Friday night was a little soft. I was like, okay, well that’s it. That’s how this stuff goes. I guess its life.
Then a funny thing happened. We sold out all of our matinees on Saturday and we sold out all of our matinees Sunday on Saturday night and the thing just took off. I had never made a film that had an audience of 5-80 nor have I ever made a film or attended a film in which there was such a loud vocal group of women—particularly 40 or over—that had such hunger for this story. I think that something has happened since Toronto—the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, which is obviously becoming a much bigger conversation in our society and rightfully so. I think to have the story of a woman who didn’t compromise integrity to achieve her dreams, who didn’t have to compromise her work for her family life, and is something that people don’t see every day on the screen. There is a deep need because I think people want that affirmation to see that their voices are being heard.
We had a screening Saturday night and the moderator said, “Gee, that moment when she drops off her son, I mean, I was thinking—what a jerk.” The audience started hissing at him. He goes, “What, WHAT? You guys didn’t think that?”
I was like, the thing you didn’t understand was that first of all, you weren’t asking anything about Hugo—you were putting it on Jane like she did something wrong. It’s very powerful for women to see that Jane didn’t have to give up her career to have a child. The audience broke into applause. It’s really fascinating to see how the film has evlved just in the last six weeks.
You were initially reluctant to do a documentary on Jane Goodall. Is that correct?
Brett Morgen: Yeah.
What made you change your mind?
Brett Morgen: I didn’t know anything about Jane. I assumed she was going to be like St. Jane and sort of very, I want to say, innocent, sort of a goody two-shoes, which turned out to be pretty far from the reality. Usually, people like that don’t have very dramatic stories. It turns out Jane has one of the most dramatic arcs of any person that’s lived in the last 100 years. Fortunately, before I completely shut the door on National Geographic, they sent me this film, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, that came out in 1965.
In the film, I was able to see some of the footage that Hugo shot and I immediately recognized that it had the cultural and historical weight of the moon landing footage. Hugo had documented something that had never happened before in the history of evolution and it would never happen again.
It was shot in a completely artful manner but it used in this film for completely illustrative purposes. The movie was narrated from top to bottom and there’s not a second where the narration is not telling you exactly what’s happening
I realized that I make films in a totally different manner. My films are all about intensive immersion. I knew then that I had the opportunity to make a film using the same footage—they had 150 hours and used 48 minutes for this film—to tell a different kind of movie.
You had nearly 150 hours of the original footage to draw from, what was it like cutting all that footage down to a 90 minute film?
Brett Morgen: First, you have to understand that chimpanzees don’t live as multi-faceted lives as humans in the sense that they have rather limited activities every day. They eat, they sleep, they groom, they play, and they walk from place. The 148 hours—it’s not as if I filmed 148 hours of you and had a variation of activities.
In working on the documentary, what was the most surprising thing you learned about Jane?
Brett Morgen: That she’s really funny. She has no patients for fools yet when the work is done for the day, she likes to retire and have good conversation—and she’s really funny. Jane has managed to make every waking moment usable. It’s incredible.
Where else is it expanding to?
Brett Morgen: Nationwide. I don’t have the theater count but it’s all over this week.
So the typical NY/LA before expanding?
Brett Morgen: I know we’re in Chicago, DC, and San Francisco this week and probably another 12 markets.
Thanks again for your time.
Brett Morgen: Sure, thank you. Appreciate it.
National Geographic Documentary Films will release Jane in theaters on October 27, 2017.
Originally published at The Young Folks.