Brett Morgen makes no apologies for breaking the Ken Burns mold with his animated, deliberately anachronistic docu-cartoon “Chicago 10.” In fact, he says that anyone who made a “dry” film about the clash between antiwar protesters and police and the subsequent trial of prominent antiwar activists “wouldn’t have a chance in hell of attracting anyone under the age of 35 to see it. I wouldn’t want to see the film. I’d feel I already saw it.”
He chose not to attempt a definitive documentary. “I’ll leave that to PBS,” he said in a recent phone call. Morgen’s film combines archival footage, CGI animation and recent music to “make the history more relatable to for people today and to bring the past into the present.” The film, he said, is not a historical document so much “a mythology” designed to resonate with today’s audiences.
Morgen, Oscar-nominated for 2002’s “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” is not given to second-guessing. One of his more controversial decisions was to include contemporary bands on the “Chicago 10” soundtrack, but he insists it was essential.
“If I played Buffalo Springfield and showed a bunch of 70-year-old men talking about what they were like when they were 25, today’s audiences would be totally alienated by it. Besides, if Jerry (Rubin) and Abbie (Hoffman) were around today, they wouldn’t be listening to Phil Ochs, they’d be listening to Rage Against the Machine.”
There’s very little context on the `60s because “I didn’t think I was making a film about 1968, I thought I was making a film about today - in the same way you can take `Richard III’ and adapt it to Nazi Germany.”
The analogy applies, Morgen said, because the activist pranksters of the Yippie party conceived of their Chicago mobilization as a grand dramatic gesture, a synthesis of political revolution with cultural revolution.
“It was epic political theater. It’s one of the largest theatrical productions ever mounted on American soil, with a cast of tens of thousands of extras,” he said.
The research required three years (“we probably had more materials than the government”) and the editing lasted over 18 months. To pull together archival riot footage and give it a sense sweep, geographical logic and perverse excitement, Morgen hired Stuart Levy.
“He had this history of big, bad action adventure movies. He did the re-edit on `Jumper,’ an Oliver Stone film, a Wes Craven film, a Renny Harlin film. I knew that I needed an editor who was very familiar with montage as it exists in action-adventure films because the rioting is an essential component.” Levy’s background served him well; he extracted a narrative from news footage that has never cohered so well before.
Steven Spielberg was sufficiently impressed by “Chicago 10” that he optioned Morgen’s film as the basis for a live-action remake, which Spielberg will direct from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.
“Adaptation, remake, inspired by, I don’t know what they’ll call it,” Morgen said. “What’s wonderful is, we made this film to get the story out there, because this is an incredible moment in American history. Documentaries only reach so far. A Steven Spielberg film will reach a much larger audience. The fact that we played a part in that and that film will be seen the world over by millions and millions of people is an unbelievably surreal and incredibly satisfying feeling.”