The new documentary Jane was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination this month in the category of best documentary feature. The film takes the audience back to 1960, when Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, first discovers the wonders of Tanzania’s Gombe National Park and begins her lifelong love of chimpanzees.
Director Brett Morgen paints a beautifully intimate portrait of Goodall and the chimps as she is just getting to know them. Goodall was only 26 when she bucked convention and went into the jungle by herself to live with chimpanzees. She is so famous for her work now that it’s hard to imagine a time when newspapers were more interested in her legs than her pioneering work with chimps. Jane is a riveting film that introduces us to those chimps as a family. Morgen masterfully works with the archival footage to capture each chimp’s distinct personality and emotional identity. We get to know them through Goodall’s eyes.
After his last film, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Morgen told The New York Times that people call him “the mad scientist” of documentary film. Morgen is indeed a genius at repurposing archival material. Along with a new interview with Goodall, the film is constructed from more than 100 hours of footage shot in the 1960s for National Geographic that has sat in a vault for more than 50 years. The late Hugo van Lawick, Goodall’s then-future husband, shot the footage, which adds an interesting layer of meaning for the audience.
We spoke with Brett Morgen about making Jane and working with the archival material. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Titi Yu: How did all this incredible footage get lost over the years, and how was it rediscovered?
Brett Morgen: An archivist for National Geographic was going through the halls of their storage facility back in 2014 and found the film, and informed people upstairs that this big treasure trove of 16mm film had been lying there forgotten for many decades.
TY: Tell me about the process of screening the footage. I read that it came to you in these random shots and there was no audio. What were you looking for?
BM: Well before I started looking at the footage, I read most of the books that were written by and about Jane. And there was one book in particular that became the inspiration for the screenplay: In the Shadow of Man (by Jane Goodall).
Once I collected the footage and realized that it was all random shots, I came up with categories to sort it. But I was essentially looking for a visual language that could help amplify and illustrate the narrative that Jane constructed in In the Shadow of Man, and then I took that narrative up through the first two-thirds of the film. And [in] the last third, we went beyond where the book went.
TY: You’ve worked with archival material extensively in your past. Can you talk a bit about your approach to using archival material? How is it different than traditional b-roll?
BM: Archival filmmaking is akin to taking a walk blindfolded. In fiction, when you’re going out and shooting something with a script, or even traditional documentary, where you come back with dailies that are ordered and synchronized, that’s like cutting butter with a steak knife.
With archival footage, for us to construct this scene, we have to try to piecemeal it across 140 hours of material. There is one scene in particular that just blew me away. Joe Beshenkovsky, our editor, assembled this scene in which Jane just got invited back to the chimp camp. The sequence is constructed in a manner where you think you’re watching The Jungle Book, because it follows a traditional narrative.
You see David (one of the chimps) in a location, then you see Jane walking into the same geography, and then you see everything move forward into a different geographic space, and the screen direction is going left to right, everything is fluid. You look at it and you think everything is storyboarded. But none of those shots were shot on the same day or intended to be played out that way. One of the things that’s marvelous is that once we presented the film to Jane, she was blown away — and said she couldn’t believe how accurate and specific the film was. A lot of films made about Jane impose a narrative upon her life. We were taking our lead from her materials, and from In the Shadow of Man.
There’s an element of magical realism that we infused into the film that to me, was reflective of the way Jane wrote and described Gombe, especially in those early days. When we looked at the footage of Gombe, most of it was very brown or green. There is not a cornucopia of colors. It’s very dominated by these two colors. Everything that Jane describes is very much through the prism of a rainbow. So that had a huge impact on how we went about the color grading on the film.
Once Philip Glass produced and delivered his final score, we went back and we re-edited the movie from top to bottom for four months using the added points with his music, and more importantly, choreographing the animal movements as well as the vocalization to Philip’s music, to once again create this kind of magical realism to present Gombe not as it would be to you or I, but as it was for Jane.
TY: I love how when you reveal that we are seeing Hugo’s footage, or seeing Jane through Hugo’s eyes, the audience’s relationship to the footage changes. The footage becomes more personal.
BM: One of the challenges of that, from the start of the project, was going to be how to introduce Hugo. There were a couple of options; we could have had him begin the film, but that would have negated what to me was the real essence of the movie, which was the time that Jane was there by herself.
Fortunately for us, Hugo had constructed enough shots to represent Jane’s initial days in Gombe before he arrived. I got into documentary because of a film called Nanook of the North. In many ways what we were attempting to do, with the construction of the film, was to begin it in the Flaherty tradition [Robert Flaherty directed Nanook of the North] of breaking down the fourth wall with Hugo’s arrival, which almost feels like a Ross McElwee film. And then the third act takes on more of a modern approach, using montage that’s a bit more dynamic. I think that the film does pay respect to the knowledge and various aesthetics of nonfiction.
One of the challenges of that first part of the film was figuring out the language of how to capture that period when Jane was by herself without the audience constantly asking themselves, who’s filming at this moment in time? What we ultimately arrived at was using only shots where Hugo used a telephoto lens. It created more of an omniscient point of view. And when Hugo arrived, we shifted everything to the wider lenses and more subjective handling of moments.
TY: What do you hope people will take away from watching your film?
BM: Your first question was about how the footage was discovered; no one could have possibly predicted back in early 2014, when this footage was discovered, what the world was going to be like in 2017. For the fourth quarter of 2017 — with everything related to the women’s movement and the discussion that we’re having about women in the workplace — here comes a story of this woman who is a pioneer in her field, who overcame opposition over time to achieve her dreams, in a manner that no one had done before. So it was very apropos and timely that it’s being released now.
Beyond that, I think ultimately the movie is about passion. It’s Hugo’s passion for his cinematography; Jane’s passion for being a primatologist; Philip Glass’ passion for his mastery of music; Joe Beshenkovsky our editor’s passion for his work; my passion for my work. There’s a tremendous amount of passion on display that’s inspirational. If you are a young child, the message of the film is find something you love and pursue it at all cost. I think, for adults and parents, there’s a further, secondary, message that can be seen in Flo (a mother chimpanzee) and Vanne (Jane’s mother) and Jane’s story, which is the importance of nurturing our children and listening to them, and not imposing our ideas upon them and allowing them to become their own people.
Watch Bill Moyers in conversation with Jane Goodall in 2009.