"My memory's awful," admits filmmaker Brett Morgen, "but I always remember where I saw a movie. And when those theaters get shut down, every time I drive [past] what used to be the UA 6 in Westwood — and now it's, like, a drugstore — I go back to, 'Oh, I saw The Terminator there…' It's like sacred grounds."
Morgen makes nonfiction films that should be seen on the biggest theater screen possible: The director (who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature with 1999's On the Ropes) has helmed projects about the Rolling Stones (2012's Crossfire Hurricane) and the late Kurt Cobain (2015's Montage of Heck). His latest film is his grandest yet; Moonage Daydream is an IMAX-sized saga about the equally larger-than-life David Bowie, an immersive musical experience of rare performances and unseen footage.
Below, Morgen shares with A.frame seven films that inspired his own approach to filmmaking, as well as where he saw each — with a caveat. "They change day to day," he says. "I often get asked what my favorite Bowie song is, and I go, 'Well, what time is it? Right now, it's this. And in an hour, it's going to be something else.'"
Directed by: Mel Stuart | Written by: Roald Dahl and David Seltzer
I saw Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory at the La Reina Theatre on Ventura Blvd. when I was growing up in Studio City. The colors! I wanted to jump into the river. I wanted to swim in that sea. It was so magical. This is before it became a cult classic. My dad took me to see it when it came out. I was really young, and that was pure cinema for me. It was so magical.
Story Direction by: Joe Grant and Dick Huemer
I also saw Fantasia at the La Reina upon one of its early re-releases. I thought a lot about Fantasia when I was trying to write [Moonage Daydream]. And I actually temped a lot of footage from it just as placeholders. You can't write a book about Fantasia. You can write a book about making of Fantasia, but if you wrote the story of Fantasia in written form, it wouldn't really resonate. It's something that is purely cinematic.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Written and Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
My whole life I wanted to make films. My earliest memories were being inside a cinema in Studio City. Because I was a latchkey kid, my parents would let me walk to the cinema by myself when I was 5. It was the '70s. I would go to a movie, and I would go to the bathroom between showings and hide, so I can go back and see the movie again. I set my sails on being a director. And I went to Crossroads and had a film teacher named Jim Hosney, who also taught at AFI. Our eighth-grade lectures were his AFI lectures, and everything was flying over our heads.
Jim introduced me to Godard, and you can't really understand La Chinoise when you're 14 years old. But when he showed me Masculin Féminin, it was like, 'Oh, wow. Film can be anything.' It was like this Wild West. I had only seen films that were shot/reverse shot. The language of narrative cinema, from The Great Train Robbery forward, has evolved. It's been refined. But we still follow most of the same rules. And when I saw the French New Wave, it was just mind-blowing. My documentaries are all inspired from that thirst for adventure, for trying to explore the outer boundaries of what cinema could be. I am a child of the Marx & Coca-Cola generation, so Masculin Féminin changed my perspective on what one can do in cinema.
Written and Directed by: Michael Cimino
I may be the only kid in America who had a poster for One from the Heart and Heaven's Gate over their bed the year those films came out. Now, those films were two of the most notorious debacles, and it's probably quite dangerous that those are on my list. I saw Heaven's Gate on opening day when it came out at the former Pitt Theater in Century City and thought it was absolutely one of the greatest things I've ever seen. It's flawed — it's heavily flawed — but seeing a director like Cimino, or Coppola with One From the Heart, have all of the resources, and all of that creativity and imagination, untethered, is inspiring.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola | Written by: Armyan Bernstein and Francis Ford Coppola
If I looked at the script for One from the Heart, I would say, 'Oh, this is a $500,000 movie.' I was very fortunate, because one of my seventh grade buddies' dad was President of Zoetrope, so I got to visit those sets. These movies may be flawed, but going into their imagination, and going into that space, I was so inspired. And I still am. I still love those films. They have such a special place in my heart, and remind me of the value and the need to follow my own instincts. Some will be successful, and some might not, but you have one chance and you have to make the most of it.
Directed by: Alan Parker | Written by: Roger Waters
This film does not get the kind of weight that I think it warrants. I believe Alan Parker was one of the greatest directors to work in our industry. He made all sorts of different types of films and was very adventurous. Again, these films are not perfect films — except The Searchers and Masculin féminin and Fantasia. Those are kind of perfect. But some of the other ones I cited are imperfect, and what's wrong with that? Art's not supposed to be perfect. That's something I learned from Bowie.
Pink Floyd: The Wall was so audacious and a reminder that cinema could be anything. As a 14-year-old at the Fox Theater in Westwood, that overwhelmed me, that overwhelmed my senses. It had a profound impact. Obviously, I've ended up making several music films. I've worked with animation. I've done films that are hybrid animated/live-action fusions. It's the spirit of adventure.
Directed by: John Ford | Written by: Frank S. Nugent
I wasn't introduced to the films of John Ford until I got to college. I've always been very enamored and interested in mythology. My thesis at Hampshire College was called 'John Ford and the Myth of American Civilization.' And, to me, the definitive John Ford film is The Searchers. What it said about who we were at that time, and the way that Ford was able to find a filmic language for themes related to Manifest Destiny and to mythologize it. I felt like John Ford was consciously constructing mythologies. And what are myths? They're stories that unite our culture, that they share certain values.
Where that has lent itself into my work is I don't consider my films to be documentaries in the traditional sense. I am very aware that I'm building mythologies, and that these stories will be retold by different generations. When I made The Kid Stays in the Picture, documentary didn't have room for that sort of subjective immersion. And I approached that like a foundation myth for Hollywood. Montage of Heck, that was constructing an anti-hero for our times. I went into Moonage Daydream going, what is this movie? It's my experience from 2015 to 2022. This is my interpretation. It's reflecting the culture we're living in now.