Monday, October 20, 2008

Interview with Director Brett Morgen: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Chicago 10

The New Season of Independent Lens Premieres with Chicago 10 on Wednesday, October 22 at 9 p.m. on WGVU HD and 10 p.m. on WGVU TV

Remember Chicago, 1968? Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters stormed the Democratic convention, setting off a chain of explosive and violent confrontations with the police. Well, now history has a new look.

In the season premiere of Independent Lens, Chicago 10, director Brett Morgen recreates the wild antics of the infamous Chicago Conspiracy Trial through original animation mixed with archival footage and a powerful soundtrack. The characters are the stuff of legend: Black Panther leader Bobby Seale; exasperated Judge Julius Hoffman; defense attorney William Kuntsler; defendant Tom Hayden; and Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Vividly bringing them to life are the vocal talents of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, James Urbaniak, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Nick Nolte and the late Roy Scheider, among others.

In a sit-down interview, Morgen discusses the film, the use of animation and why he’s excited about its broadcast on PBS.

Q. Could you talk a little bit about the emergence of the animation? Obviously, a lot of independent filmmakers have been using this for some time. Did you know that was how you wanted to bring the transcripts to life?
BRETT MORGEN: Well, I wanted to make a film that captured the experience of Chicago and of the trial. I decided from the beginning that it wasn't going to be a film in which I would rely on interviews or talking heads of people reminiscing of what had happened. I really wanted to have a full-body experience. And that was one of the incentives to make the film, because there was such a wealth of archival material from that week in Chicago. During the course of our research, we pulled together 180 hours of film, 14,000 photographs and 500 hours of audio. So the question became, how do you deal with the trial? And animation seemed to really lend itself for a number of reasons. I could create drawings that look like the characters you were seeing in the archival components of the film so that there was, as strange as it sounds, a seamless transition from one arena to the next.

Q. It seems like more and more filmmakers are using animation in their work. What do you think is the reason for this resurgence?
MORGEN: The reason you are seeing a lot more animation in nonfiction these days is that lot of us are trying to create films that don't just tell you what happened, but try to, in a subjective way, capture the experience of what happened. And if you don't have footage for an event that took place, then there are really only a limited number of ways you can do it. But I think animation has become a lot cheaper and it's being utilized in wonderful ways by nonfiction filmmakers today.

Q. The film uses the vocal talents of Hank Azaria, Mark Ruffalo, James Urbaniak, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Nick Nolte and the late Roy Scheider, among others. How did you get the actors to give their voices to this project?
MORGEN: We basically just called them. We had no money, which, I think, helped. If I had something like $5,000 to offer them, then it would have become this elongated negotiation. But it was simply, ‘We have absolutely no money. We are trying to tell this story. We are trying to reintroduce this really important story to generations of young Americans who may not know it. Would you be willing to participate? We can probably get it done in three to four hours.’ So that was pretty much it. And we, for the most part, got just about everyone we reached out to.

Q. How do you make this relevant to the youth of today, especially when there's a backlash against things that are perceived as booming nostalgia?
MORGEN: Well, that was why we chose many of the contemporary styles and feels of the film. It's not scored by music of today, but it's certainly more contemporary than '68. I experienced the events in '68 prenatally and I thought of Paul Krassner, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin as anarchists and punks, and that if they were around today, they wouldn't be listening to Norah Jones. They would be listening to Rage Against the Machine. And there was something completely contemporary that I saw in their words and so when we screened this film for young audiences, the best comment I heard repeatedly was ‘Now I feel like I can understand my parents,’ or ‘It seems so real like it might have happened last week.’ I think that's what happened by only showing these subjects at that particular time, as 20-year-olds or early 30-year-olds.

Q. Many film critics have drawn parallels between your film and what’s happening today. Was this something you intended when creating the script?
MORGEN: As I was writing the film in 2003 and 2004, I really thought I was making a film about what I was seeing in our culture or what was happening with the war today – obviously protests aside. Some of the lines like from [Defendant Allen Ginsberg] in which he's talking about how the media has hypnotized the nation into believing that the war that really didn't exist, completely resonated within the context of Colin Powell's testimony.

Q. Why did you decide to have your film air on PBS’ Independent Lens?
MORGEN: Independent Lens is one of the vehicles on PBS that tends to have a younger-skewing audience and it has a great outreach program that reaches a broad audience. I don't mean to say that this film only works with people who are in their 20s or 30s. Fifty million people watched the events unfold that week in Chicago. But having viewed every single minute of network broadcast, I could tell you they didn't see it the way that the audience will experience the events in this film.

* The Emmy award-winning series Independent Lens airs weekly from October to June on PBS, showcasing some of the best documentary and dramas on television.

Visit PBS Engage to have your question answered by Brett Morgen on the Engage Blog.