David Bowie was a shape shifter, impossible to define. As a director, Brett Morgen has also pushed at the boundaries of his medium, using everything from animation to sound collages in films such as “The Kid Stays in the Picture” about legendary Hollywood executive Robert Evans, “Jane,” about primatologist Jane Goodall, and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” about the late Nirvana frontman.
In “Moonage Daydream,” opening in theaters, he strips away the traditional structures and strictures of biographical documentaries.
The film almost didn’t happen. Morgen contacted Bowie’s estate a month after the rock star died at 69 in 2016 about “creating a non-biographical musical odyssey,” he recalled. They were receptive but said it was too soon and Morgen should call back the following year. The next January, Morgen suffered a heart attack that landed him in a coma. “I was in a coma a year to the date that David had died,” he said.
Morgen eventually recovered and created an immersive film, thrusting viewers into a kaleidoscopic collage of concert footage, Bowie interviews, material from Bowie’s personal archives, and snippets of films and art that inspired him.
Q. Bowie talks in the film about art being a way for people to explore their relationship with the universe. What’s your relationship with the universe, and how did this project shape that?
A. I’m four months into this press junket, and that’s the single best question. But it’s just too loaded for me to jump off with. I’m not anywhere near as eloquent as him, and I don’t know if I could take that on. Can you give me another one?
Q. Did you consciously break the traditional rules of filmmaking as a tribute to Bowie, or did it just happen organically?
A. All my films going back to “The Kid Stays in the Picture” are as much about form as they are about content. They’re created with an awareness that my subjects are heavily researched, written about, and iconic. There are books about David Bowie, Jane Goodall, and Kurt Cobain, and I’m interested in what I can offer viewers that they cannot receive in other mediums. If you can say it in a book, I don’t want to put it in a film. My music documentaries don’t even mention albums. “Behind the Music” was amazing, but that exists.
“The Kid Stays in the Picture” was a response to a question I had at Hampshire College in 1988, which is, “What is a documentary?”
I want to create films that arrive at a truth through a different channel. In the ′80s and ′90s, there was this movement toward subjectivity, and I felt we could arrive at a truth by immersing in the subjective.
Q. Well, the good news is you just answered the first question. How much better did you want us to know Bowie at the end of the film?
A. I believe David Bowie is best experienced as enigmatic — he’s mercurial, he’s sublime, but he reveals so much about ourselves and so little about himself. It’s best not to try to define him.
There’s a moment where Bowie remembers listening to Fats Domino when he was young without understanding what he was saying — it was the mystery that appealed to him. Bowie was consciously creating work that invited us to project and fill in the blanks. I wanted to create that sort of canvas.
Q. Once you started on this, what was the process like?
A. I injected Bowie into my brain and was receptive to the messaging of his work and realized there was an opportunity to create something more audacious and life-affirming than I had intended.
When I came out of my coma, my first words to the surgeon were, “I’ve got to get out of here, I have to be on the set.” I literally pulled the plugs out two days later to go shoot a pilot for Marvel. That’s why I’d had the heart attack — I had terrible lifestyle habits and was a workaholic. Bowie’s philosophies also provided me a road map for how to lead a more balanced and fulfilled life.
Going through Bowie’s archives took two years. This film is not designed to have an overt narrative. There is a narrative and a subtext, but it’s designed to feel as if it’s sneaking up on you. I didn’t have traditional biographical narrative to rest upon, but in the archives a through-line emerged: transience and chaos fragmentation. David stated this theme himself on several occasions.
Q. There’s also a recurring theme about breaking rules and taboos, especially about sexuality and gender identity, which feels timely today.
A. My liberal use of “transience” includes spirituality and gender fluidity, the idea of not having a home and being in transit, the problems of being static. But Bowie was not a futurist, he was a cultural anthropologist. He was one of the great artists of the 20th century and was sensitive to frequencies and transmissions that were happening that took years for the rest of us to see and hear.
Q. He often talks and sings about isolation and alienation, and home is another recurring theme — including that shot from “The Wizard of Oz” of the house during the tornado.
A. The three rules I had this time were no dates, no facts, no biography. Once you strip away the Wikipedia approach, you can get to the freaking truth. But I had to peel back the onion and explore his relationship at home a little. This created an existential crisis because I was now polluting my art. The second I introduced any biography, I open myself to questions and criticisms: But why didn’t you mention Angie [Bowie’s first wife] or Iggy Pop or his children?
Bowie says art is not meant to be perfect. I know this sounds like an excuse, but I leaned into that. This is imperfect, but so what? These biographical moments I included enhance the material, so why deprive the movie of it? His parents and half-brother and later Iman [Bowie’s second wife] are the only biographical elements mentioned because they relate to the same through-line. Home is a central theme of the film — the “Wizard of Oz” imagery is there because David can’t get home. But when David meets Iman, he finds a home.
Q. How did you figure out how to construct all this into a film?
I’d given myself a week to write the script, but for eight months I’d go to my office and write about chaos theory and all the great minds who, at the beginning of the 20th century, were tearing apart our belief systems — all the stuff that Bowie was fascinated by. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
One day I headed to LAX, flew to Albuquerque, and went to the train station. I decided I’d ride the rails till I cracked the script. This was Bowie 101 — you cannot create from a comfortable space. The second the train left the station, the script started pouring out of me.
I approach every film I make as myth, not a definitive document. I believe these are stories that will be passed down; each generation will make it their own, and each telling will reveal more about the culture telling it than the person being depicted. This is how I liberate myself from facts and history. I thought about Gilgamesh and the Iliad. David is creating his own storms, his own challenges for himself. Then he does have this hero’s journey, though there’s no nirvana or reward; it’s for the experience.
Interview was edited and condensed.