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Inside HBO’s Quest For Emotional Truth

From The Jinx to Going Clear to the new Montage of Heck, HBO documentaries are changing the genre’s narrative.

Inside HBO’s Quest For Emotional Truth
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck [Photo: The End of Music, LLC, courtesy of HBO]

“Today is a very special day.”

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It’s Monday afternoon, and the weekend’s box office numbers for director Brett Morgen’s latest documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, are in. “We had one of the five highest per screen averages in documentary history,” Morgen says over the phone. “It was an amazing thing to live through this weekend.”

HBO’s amazing streak on the documentary film front, meanwhile, is lasting quite a bit longer than a single weekend.

Sure, the unabated appetite for the much-mythologized Nirvana frontman, and the allure of never-before-seen-or-heard footage was box office mojo to the max. But Montage of Heck is testament to how the boundaries of documentary storytelling are being blue-penciled for today’s audience seeking heightened style, content, and execution in equal measure–and many networks generally, and HBO in particular, have been gaining a deep foothold in that collective consciousness.

Montage of Heck, which premiered on HBO Monday night, joins Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, and Laura Poitras’s Academy Award-winning Citizenfour as just a few of the recent documentaries the network has been associated with–all of which have significantly shaped cultural conversations. With CNN’s doc-series High Profits premiering at No. 1 in its cable-news time slot and the highly anticipated release of Netflix’s Nina Simone doc, What Happened, Miss Simone?, news outlets and on-demand services shouldn’t be overlooked in the discussion of relevant documentaries. But over the past several months, HBO’s documentary department has released a slate of films that separate it from the pack.


It was a sold-out Friday night at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, and the packed house was waiting to see a documentary eight years in the making. When Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, approached Morgen with a trove of sketches, journals, super 8 films, and audio recordings from her late husband, Morgen began the laborious task of piecing together Cobain’s story in his own words, sounds, and images. The result has been met with near-universal praise, garnering a 98% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Why? “Because it’s Kurt,” Morgen says. “As I said to the audience at the Cinerama Dome, the reason we’re all here tonight is because of Kurt. And it’s a testament to his unique abilities as an artist to communicate through his experience of life that we’re all here.”

Halfway through the premiere, Morgen was stuck with a moment he equates to pitching a perfect game.

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Brett Morgen

“I imagine very few artists arrive at the perfect exhibition,” Morgen says. “Even if I never have that again, I will now know what that feels like. I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Oh my god–all the those late nights, all of the fights, all the self doubt–everything was worth it. I have really bad OCD, man. If the audience is fidgeting, it takes me out of my experience. But for one night, I got to sit in a room with 800 people who never moved. It was incredible to realize that with a nonfiction film and particularly one that, let’s face it, is an unorthodox movie.”

Unorthodox, indeed. It’s one thing to have a compelling subject like Kurt Cobain, but what matters is how you present that subject–and Morgen’s screaming dive into Cobain’s mind is an arresting tapestry of what Cobain left behind, original animation, and candid interviews. Making Morgen’s job even more difficult is the fact that Cobain’s life has been picked apart in film before, including in Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney, which focused on the speculation that Cobain’s suicide may have been murder, and Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, a loosely based account of Cobain’s final moments walking among us.

“I’m as cynical as anyone–I didn’t know if there was anything left to say or hear or experience when I took this job on,” Morgen says. What Montage of Heck accomplishes, though, gets at the heart of HBO’s recent nonfiction success: a narrative built on “emotional truth.”

“There is no objective truth, which is why movies that are built on Wikipedia biographies are failed attempts to begin with,” Morgen says. “I am into trying to get as deep and intimate with my material as it can allow me to. In terms of his life experience, I found more parallels than I’ve ever encountered with any subject. This is the first time I was able to do a documentary about someone of my generation. With Kurt I found a subject who was born within a year of me. Who grew up with the same cultural influences, who had a challenged relationship with his parents who separated when he was nine–the same as mine did. All these issues resonated with me–more so because I’m a father, so I understood it both from a parent’s perspective and a child’s perspective.”

It’s hard to divorce yourself from personal experiences. Even when presenting someone else’s life, you’re looking at it through a lens of your own design. What makes a documentary compelling–or not–is how a director chooses to relate that emotional truth in an artful way. HBO has been a champion for such directors, acting as a megaphone for projects the network acquires, or building out its own films in-house. HBO’s eminent voice in contemporary documentaries has, in large part, to do with Sheila Nevins, president of HBO documentaries. Her boiled-down strategy: relatability, relevance, creative clarity, and, echoing Morgen, emotional truth.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

RELATABILITY

“We have to cut through the morass of media,” Nevins says. “One of the ways to cut through is not just star appeal, but by touching the population where it hurts and where it also energizes them. You have to zero in in some way–you have to find a way into it.” For example, Nevins and her team are currently working on a documentary about income disparity by way of children’s education, focusing on Avenues, a private school in New York City that’s across the street from a public housing project.

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Sheila Nevins

“Here you have kids who are going to public school if their parents can get them there in the morning. And then you have kids coming in Mercedes and chauffeurs to the school right across the street, and they share a park right in the middle. In many ways, this is a story of that park and the coming together of the two sides of that avenue,” Nevins says. “If I did a docu about income disparity, nobody would be interested, but everyone is interested in their kids, and their kids getting the best education.”

There are some connections that transcend immediate differences–can you relate on an emotional level, or are you simply curious to find out what happens in a fraught situation?–and it’s hitting that nerve that has the power to reverberate intensely with viewers.

“Documentaries that transport me into a world that otherwise I wouldn’t have any access to are incredibly powerful,” says Marjan Safinia, president of the International Documentary Association. “The power of docs is they’re about people, and at the end of the day, we are one people. At the risk of sounding awfully like a hippie, there’s much more that connects us than separates us.”

RELEVANCE

Nevins, more than anyone, can attest to how far documentaries and documentary storytelling have come. When Nevins first started at HBO in 1979 after leaving a job at ABC’s 20/20, she admits she didn’t know anything about making documentaries, and put into production films that recapped the decades. “They were so boring,” Nevins recalls. “And then I saw Jaws was doing well, so then I did a story about sharks. And when War of the Roses was doing well, I did a story about divorce and alimony. So I stole from the movies [audiences] were buying–ideas that could be documentaries. We look for the things in the changing world that most people would be interested in at a given time. So it’s not a consistent thing–it’s what’s in the atmosphere of importance at a particular time and place. You have to feel the day–you have to feel the todayness of the day.”

But it’s more than reacting to box office numbers. Bringing out humanistic throughlines in topicality begins with the interviewing process and continues into clear storytelling.

“The gift documentary filmmakers have is one of patience and listening,” Safinia says. “You’re able to create this sacred bond with your subjects where they want to speak. In that moment, it’s about being present and letting the story go in the direction it’s going to go, rather than the direction you want to impose on it. The films that really break through are the ones that are open to the fact that real life isn’t something you can plan.”

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Marjan Safinia

Being aware in the moment and open to discovery can be the impetus for instant relevance. For proof, consider The Jinx. In the season finale of the six-part doc-series, long-accused murderer Robert Durst, unaware that his mic was hot, is heard in the bathroom saying, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” This, coupled with Durst’s incredibly odd behavior when director Andrew Jarecki shows him a damning piece of handwritten evidence, was a one-two punch no one, even Jarecki, could have hoped for–and may or may not have played a part in his recent arrest.

“When you watch a film like Citizenfour, when you watch The Jinx, you’re on the edge of your seat–you’re completely engaged. [Documentaries are] not like the broccoli of films anymore,” Safinia says. “It feels like our world is getting crazier. [Documentaries are] a vital tool to help us make sense of this world, become connected to each other in this world, and be informed about what’s really happening in this world, which you just can’t do from the news anymore.”

It’s true that documentaries–and also, it should be noted, podcasts like Serial–have been overlapping with journalism in interesting ways. In a world of slashed news budgets, and where news itself either gets trapped in a 24-hour cycle or is posted based on engagement metrics and speed rather than profundity, documentaries allow stories to breathe and filmmakers, usually unrestricted by choking deadlines, to become engrossed in a topic or subject. What’s been changing over recent years, however, is how filmmakers are revealing their findings.

Going Clear

CLARITY

“I think that docs have captured public attention in a way that would have been hard to imagine 15 years ago,” says Alex Gibney, director of Going Clear. “Real life is hard to beat for compelling material, and documentary filmmakers are at the top of their game in terms of storytelling skill–a combination of respect for the contradictions of everyday life and a mastery of cinematic language.”

And part of that cinematic language is pushing for a clear and compelling story.

“A good documentary should be like a good conversation–it should be something that is not above or below people who are trying to gain information about something,” Nevins says. “A clear and compelling narrative, a clear and compelling nowness and nothing muddled where you walk out and say, ‘What’d they say?’ It should be good and developed and interesting and never boring–that’s the worst.”

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Alex Gibney

As Safinia points out, networks like HBO have the money to allow filmmakers to express themselves creatively. Although HBO is vague on its exact budget for documentaries–a New York Times story reported the network pays, on average, “mid to high hundreds of thousands per hour, equal to the highest end of PBS” for documentaries–what really matters is tapping into and nurturing filmmakers’ creativity or being able to spot potential for acquisitions like with Going Clear.

“Other networks were afraid to touch it,” Nevins says. “It touches too many of their stars and too many of their advertisers, but that was never an issue for us.” Knowing there’s a major network like HBO that allows filmmakers the freedom to be fearless in their storytelling is an energizing thought. Shopping around for documentaries versus producing them in-house is certainly a different process, but it’s one that Nevins doesn’t concern herself with too much. “If it’s true and it’s a good story, we’ll take it,” she says. “When we have auteurs who bring us their talents, we have a totally different function–we’re absorbing their creativity as best we can and guiding it as best we can.”

HBO documentaries connect with viewers because Nevins rails against didacticism in its most literal sense–what you’re saying is as important as how you’re saying it.

“[Documentaries have] changed a lot even in the last 10 years,” Safinia says. “People have brought a much higher storytelling game to documentary filmmaking, so it’s much less on-the-nose. There’s a level of artistry that comes into the form. So I think we’re getting great filmmaking and it happens to be truthful.”

TRUTH

“And it’s like, no you fucking idiot.”

Morgen is in the middle of recounting a recent post-screening Q&A when someone in attendance took his statement that he’s not concerned with facts to mean he’s creating films based on lies. “It’s an acknowledgement there’s no such thing as an objective truth. There’s no such thing as an objective fact. But there is something called an emotional truth. That’s what I’m after, and I use real people’s lives, and I am so hardcore in my research. I did not phone this shit in. I want to fuck every frame that comes before me–I want to know it inside and out.”

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In case you couldn’t tell, this is the area of documentary filmmaking Morgen is most passionate about–and for good reason.

With a figure like Kurt Cobain, so tightly, deeply held by his fans, Morgen’s Montage of Heck has been criticized by some for not being as thorough in showcasing the source material, or interviewing Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic but not including footage of the band’s third member, Dave Grohl. (There was a scheduling conflict with Grohl’s interview, which eventually happened, though Morgen later decided it wasn’t worth adding, as the film is focused on Cobain and not Nirvana.)

There can be an expectation for documentaries to cram every small detail of a subject’s life into a film, with no cherrypicking allowed. When documentarians speak of “truth,” however, what’s stressed constantly is the emotional undercurrent of facts. As Canadian filmmaker Michel Brault once put it:

I don’t know what truth is. Truth is something unattainable. We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera. But what we can do is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.

“I heard Laura Poitras say something very interesting recently about Citizenfour,” Safinia recalls. “She said, ‘I am a journalist, but instead of telling just the facts, I’m telling the emotions.’ I thought that was so powerful, because you can tell the same story, but you can decide to tell it through a different lens.”

Citizenfour

Perhaps the reason why Morgen’s version of Cobain’s life has been so successful is the fact that Cobain’s material found the right vessel in Morgen, someone so much like Cobain that the lens of emotional truth didn’t need much adjusting.

“What’s important with Montage of Heck is the knowledge and understanding that I’m the author of this film, so this is my interpretation of my journey through the vault,” Morgen says. “I think the reason it could be considered successful has to do with how much I was able to relate to Kurt and allow myself to be open to see certain throughlines of action that I would not have been able to experience if A) I went into there with preconceived notions or B) didn’t have access to all the primary sources or C) if I hadn’t had the life experience to allow me to be sensitive and open to those themes.”

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For Nevins, producing game-changing documentaries like Montage of Heck is only part of the equation to maintaining HBO’s prominence in the field. It’s also, “How do we get into the heartbeat of that particular ethos of a particular time in a way that’s uniquely ours, and people won’t say, ‘I saw this documentary on television . . . ’–they’ll say, ‘I saw this documentary on HBO.’”

Watch HBO’S Award-Hoarding History In 4 Minutes

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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