Brett Morgen talks transition from rock docs to intimate portrait of Jane Goodall

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Jane Goodall may seem like a well-chronicled woman—after all, she’s written more than a dozen books and been the subject of numerous films. But documentary director Brett Morgen’s new National Geographic film Jane adds some surprising personal depth to Goodall’s incredible work with chimpanzees.

Opening in theatres on Oct. 20, the documentary tells Goodall’s story starting in 1960, when the 26-year-old Brit arrives in a remote area of northwestern Tanzania to study chimpanzees. Lacking formal training, she initially struggles and eventually triumphs in the male-dominated field, challenging conventional research methods with her unique approach to wildlife observation.

At first glance, Morgen may seem like a surprising choice to direct a documentary about Goodall’s time in Gombe, where she did her seminal studies of primate behavior. Past credits for Morgen include the Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture and Crossfire Hurricane, about the Rolling Stones.

Morgen, who had just come off the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, also thought it was “incredibly bizarre that [National Geographic] was calling me to do a film on Jane Goodall.”

“I had very little interest in getting on the call,” Morgen tells Film Journal International. “My initial feeling was like ‘Wasn’t there another film that came out last week about her?’ I felt like there had been all these Goodall films, or it seemed like there were all these Goodall films even though I couldn’t remember ever watching one.”

Fortunately, he took the call. National Geographic explained to him that they had uncovered 140 hours of 16mm footage of Goodall’s work in Gombe, shot by famed documentarian Hugo van Lawick, who eventually became Goodall’s husband. The material had been perfectly preserved for the last 55 years in a storage facility and the production company was willing to hand the footage over to Morgen to do a film.

To get a sense of what he was in for, Morgen screened the film that the newly discovered footage was originally shot for, called Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, which National Geographic aired in 1965 with narration by Orson Welles.

“I sensed that there was amazing footage and an opportunity to do something that hadn’t been done,” Morgen recalls. “We had an opportunity to tell Jane’s story in a truly uniquely cinematic way—very immersive, so that we could invite the audience to be in Gombe in a way that I don’t think was technically available to filmmakers in 1965.”

Morgen was hooked and signed onto the project. Translating Goodall’s chimpanzee observations for viewers was one challenge, but what really piqued Morgen’s documentary instincts was observing Jane.

“I was actively looking to do something that was not in the musical realm, because I had been doing that for the past five years,” says Morgen. “I wouldn’t say that I chose my film because of a gender, but I was very open to doing a film about a woman because I stopped and realized that all my films had been about men to that point. The experience of Kurt was pretty heavy, so I was looking forward to doing something a bit brighter, and maybe a little more optimistic.”

National Geographic sent the recently un-archived footage to Morgen, who was under the impression that the 140 hours of dailies would be ready to view. He put it on and realized instantly that the footage was 140 hours of completely disparate, disassociated shots. While at some point, the shots might have been on consecutive reels, now shot 1 was on reel 32, while shot 2 was on reel 36—for 140 hours.

“It was beyond a needle in a haystack,” Morgen recalls. “It was like being given a bunch of letters. Go find Watership Down, here’s a bunch of letters that add up to the book.”

There were no logs to the footage, which meant Morgen and his team had no idea which chimpanzees were which. While Jane’s studies focused on one particular family of primates, there were more than 160 chimpanzees at any given time that run through the Gombe national park.

“Before we could even make the film, there was about eight months of prep that we really weren’t anticipating,” Morgen recalls. “Normally in a movie, you screen the dailies and you try to do them in consecutive order and a narrative emerges. There was definitely a deep frustration in that we weren’t even allowed the basic tenet of just screening through a roll of dailies to see what kind of scene existed there.”

After studying the footage, it soon became clear to Morgen that there was a cause-and-effect relationship between the life choices Jane made and what she was experiencing with the chimpanzees. In addition to the un-archived footage, Morgan was also able to obtain an all-new interview with 83-year-old Goodall.

“We looked at some of the rough cuts in between the interview sessions and this took me back into the mood of those far-off days, into the life of a younger, more carefree Jane—a Jane on fire with the thrill of discovery and a passion for the chimpanzees and the forest,” Goodall said in a statement about the film.

Also interwoven into Goodall’s narrative is the unorthodox love story between the researcher and van Lawick. “The amazing thing is that you’re really watching Hugo fall in love with Jane on camera,” Morgen says. “Going through the footage, we identified every time Jane looked directly at the camera, reacting to Hugo, so we could build that into a montage. That was integral to the story.”

Morgen was also surprised at some of the subtle differences in taking on a female subject after all those years of profiling men. “It shouldn’t be that way, I would hope as a filmmaker you can transcend your own gender and get under the skin of any character,” Morgen admits. “In many ways, Jane is also not your typical 1960s woman. Jane certainly lived life by her own set of rules, which was a characteristic of all the subjects I’ve previously pursued.”

He admits there were a couple of instances where he played scenes for his wife that resonated with her in a way that didn’t inherently resonate with him. “Specifically, I remember stuff about Van, Jane’s mother, and the support that she gave Jane,” Morgen explains. “She said, ‘As a man you don’t understand the value of that, but as a woman to receive that from your mother is everything.’”

For her part, Goodall found the film incredibly moving. “This documentary brings to light people’s characters, especially mine and Hugo’s, in such an intimate way,” she said. “I found I was reliving those days when I was totally immersed in the lives of the chimpanzees, and missing those individuals I knew so well.”