There have been films about renowned primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall before, but nothing quite like Jane. Directed by Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck, Crossfire Hurricane, The Kid Stays in the Picture), the new documentary not only narrows in on Goodall’s expedition to Gombe, Tanzania in 1960, but was compiled from over 100 hours of National Geographic footage that was believed to be lost. We spoke with Brett Morgen about how he approached this monumental task.
The decision to create an archival project
When National Geographic first approached Morgen about the possibility of making Jane, he turned them down. What changed his mind was seeing the footage that was shot by renowned nature videographer Hugo van Lawick. Morgen was struck by how intimately it showed Goodall’s game-changing first contact with the apes of the world. “What the footage captured was something that had never happened in the history of evolution and will never happen again,” Morgan says. “It was as significant as the NASA footage of the ’60s.”
But what also struck him was the quality of the footage — not just the impeccable work of van Lawick, but the condition of the 50-year-old reels. “I’m used to seeing archives, and they have lots of scratches and they’re usually dirty,” Morgen says. “When I saw the footage, I was utterly shocked at how well preserved it was.”
Director Brett Morgen. Photo Credit: Anthony Behar
The challenge of cataloguing lost footage
Being able to actually use the National Geographic material was far from easy. The footage was completely unorganized. The reels weren’t stored in any order, chronological or otherwise, and there were no notes or logs to provide any guidance. Cataloguing it had to be the first step.
“The way we organized the footage was by theme,” the director says. “All the Jane footage, all the chimp sleeping footage, all the chimp eating footage.” Even that task could be challenging because 160 chimps were present in the Gombe footage, and Morgen and his team had to first learn how to identify each and every one before settling on eight chimps to focus on in the film.
This was no small feat: it took close to eight months to complete. But it was a needed step not just because any archival project depends on organization, but because of how Morgan puts together his films. “All my movies are written before we start editing,” he says. “I have to go through all the footage before I can script.” Morgen knows not all documentarians work that way, but he can’t imagine it any other way. “I don’t understand the idea of going to the edit room to figure out the story.”
Jane Goodall and cinematographer Hugo van Lawick. Photo: Jane Goodall Institute
Stitching material together to create a story
Scripting a documentary story before editing can come with some obstacles, as was the case with making Jane. “The conceiving of what would happen in a scene was a lot easier than executing that,” Morgen admits. For example, there’s a scene where Goodall sees a particular chimp for the first time and follows him. Morgen had scripted that scene and when you watch it, it plays like an organic sequence (he describes it as “Jane sees the chimp, makes eye contact, cue music, follows him through the woods”). It wasn’t.
“None of that was ever shot to work together,” the director reveals. “That was all spread out over 140 reels. One shot here, one shot here, one shot here.” That made the process of realizing the scripted sequence, and others, considerably more prolonged. “If Hugo had originally shot a scene of the encounter, it would have taken us ten minutes to edit. Instead, that becomes a three week endeavor.”
Brett Morgen with Jane Goodall in Tanzania. Photo: National Geographic Creative
How archival footage influenced interviews
Morgen’s desire to know the story before editing also influences another key component of documentary filmmaking: interviews. Knowing what his story was meant he knew exactly what he needed to ask Jane when he interviewed her in Africa, in order to flesh out the narrative. “Everything she talked about, I was trying to extract,” he says. He even had notecards up in his edit room that hit upon the major components of the film, and that allowed him to research her past interviews to get a sense of what she would say, and how he would anticipate incorporating it into the film.
That kind of preparation also allowed Morgen a particular on-camera aesthetic choice: “I like to capture my interviews so that the lighting is reflective of the emotion of the moment. That can only happen when you know exactly what you’re trying to get out of someone and where they are in this storyline.”
Photo Credit: National Geographic Creative
An unconventional approach to narration
Creating films from archival material often requires a thread with which you can stitch together the footage to create a cohesive whole. In the case of Jane, that thread is the wonderfully profound narration, courtesy of Goodall herself. Despite what one might assume initially, however, that narration didn’t come from the interviews Morgan conducted with the conservationist. It came from a more unconventional place: Goodall’s audio reading of her 1999 book Reason for Hope.
The director knew no interview could match the eloquence of that reading. “I could ask Jane to describe to me what it was like to step into Gombe the first time, but she’s probably going to speak in less than prosaic terms,” he says. However, she wrote a book and she’s a wonderful writer. She also happens to be an amazing orator. There’s no closer expression of Jane’s experience in Gombe that I can extract than her own prose and poetry about that experience.”
Capturing the essence of a subject
As any documentarian working with archives should, Morgan has a tremendous ability to use old footage to bring a person to life. “You’re sculpting the performance from your subject,” he says. When Jane was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Goodall said during the Q&A that there hasn’t been another film that so fully took her back to that time.
“That’s always the litmus test with these films,” Morgen says. Capturing a person, or a moment, in all its authenticity is the essence of what he hopes to accomplish. And Morgen has heard feedback like Goodall’s before. “Courtney Love said that to me after she saw Montage of Heck the first time.” He recalls her saying, “”That’s as close as I got to Kurt since he passed. I feel like I just spent two hours with him.”
Jane shows something of that power. You may not be related to her, but you’ll feel like you actually spent nearly two hours with her, getting to know her in the same way Morgen did while making the film — like an act of discovery. It’s that journey he also wishes for his audience. “I pray that people don’t even read reviews of the film, because when you read a review, you’re going to find out the whole story and it’s so much better if you walk in there cold,” he says. Take that advice and don’t deprive yourself of the full pleasure of experiencing Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking early work brought vividly back to life.
For more information on Jane, including a list of theaters showing the film, visit the official site at nationalgeographic.com.
Top image from National Geographic Creative