There are times when our national passion for cutting people down to size is a little tiring. I left Brett Morgen’s new documentary about Jane Goodall, the chimpanzee expert, in a rare flush of excited enthusiasm. ‘You’ve got to see it!’ I said to everyone. Most replied along these lines: ‘Goodall, didn’t she turn out to be a fraud?’ Or: ‘Wasn’t it all Leakey’s work she took credit for?’
‘Yeah, what’s with that?’ says Brett Morgen hunched over his toast in a very hipster Soho hotel. ‘In the Times of London today, in the review, it says Jane can’t hold a candle to David Attenborough. I’m like, he’s a fucking TV presenter! Jane’s contribution to humankind… I don’t even know how to measure it! What woman of the past 100 years could she be measured against?’
We both shake our heads in disbelief. But Morgen’s right: Jane was and is remarkable. In the summer of 1960, just 26, she went off to live in the Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. She took her mother and a boat-load of supplies, and set about winning the trust of the Kasakela chimps. Louis Leakey, the great Kenyan paleoanthropologist, gave her the opportunity but Jane made the great discoveries. She became accepted by the Gombe gang, saw chimps use tools for the first time. Her work redefined both their species and ours.
Jane (now 83) is exceptional and this National Geographic film is exceptional, too — worthy of her, and worthy of an Oscar too, I’d say. It’s just utterly unlike any other wildlife documentary or biopic.
The movie has its genesis in a discovery: boxes and boxes of previously unseen footage of Goodall in the Gombe taken by the young wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick. As Brett says: ‘They shot the film in 1965 and they put the film back into storage until somebody needed it, and nobody needed it. This archivist is walking through the halls, sees these boxes and calls up someone in production and says, by the way, do you guys know that we have all this Jane Goodall footage? So this person calls up the president of the network, who had just seen my movie and said we should get Brett Morgen to do this.’
That must have seemed a rum choice at the time. Morgen is intense, very LA, very rock’n’roll, very concerned if his orange juice doesn’t come on time. He’s famous for his film about the rock star Kurt Cobain and The Kid Stays in the Picture, about the Hollywood producer Robert Evans. But as it turns out, Brett Morgen was the perfect choice.
‘It seemed crazy to me at first,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t understand why they were calling me, to be honest. Initially, I said no.’ Then Brett watched Van Lawick’s film and discovered in it a love story: the romance between Hugo and Jane herself, caught quite plainly on film.
‘It was immediately clear what was going on,’ says Morgen. ‘They were falling in love with each other through the lens of the camera. It’s fascinating. Particularly because in 1965 this would have been an annoyance. You’re not supposed to become personal.’ Morgen looks up from under his brows, decidedly chimp-like. He says, ‘It proves a point, don’t you think, that film, like all media, is organic, it’s alive. The meaning of this footage has changed tenfold in the past 52 years. What was perceived in 1965 as junk is now the essence of our story.’
What’s so terrific about Jane is that Morgen lets Van Lawick’s footage be. There’s a score written for the film by Philip Glass and an interview with contemporary Jane cut in, but the original film takes centre stage. And because you’re seeing through Hugo’s eyes, you really don’t have a choice but to fall in love with Jane, with him.
Was eighty-something Jane what he expected from the twenty-something version? I ask him. ‘No!’ Morgen laughs. ‘I’d been seeing her through Hugo’s eyes and I show up and she doesn’t know who I am. She was assuming it was going to be another heavily narrated documentary, so when we called for an interview, she really couldn’t be bothered. I mean she was very difficult. The first question I asked her was do you mind telling your story, do you get tired of telling your story? And she said, well, it depends on who’s asking me the question. No smile.’
So how did you crack her? What got through? ‘On day two, I needed to figure out a different approach so I showed her the sequence on my computer of her and Hugo falling in love. She had never seen that footage. She didn’t know it existed. She suddenly recognised I was making a very different type of film and kind of warmed up at that point. Now our relationship is amazing. You’d think we were on honeymoon together and that’s because Jane is very happy with the way the film came out, she loves it.’
Jane is not in the end a traditional love story — and that’s to Morgen’s credit. After their son was born, Goodall and Van Lawick parted ways. Jane’s vocation was in Gombe with her chimps; Hugo’s was in the Serengeti.
‘My epiphany,’ says Morgen, ‘was understanding that this was not a love story between a man and a woman but between a woman and her work and at the end of the film, when she realises this is what my life’s work is meant to be, we finish her story.’
Jane is in a way a collaboration between three people, all equally devoted to their life’s work — perhaps that’s why it’s so affecting. There’s Hugo van Lawick, from beyond the grave. There’s Jane herself. And there’s strange, intense Brett Morgen, who also has the gift of putting his subject first.
When Jane first saw the final finished film, she was sitting beside Morgen. ‘It was without question one of the highest moments in my career,’ he says. ‘Oh, without question. We had very humble expectations for this film, very humble, like maybe we’ll get into a movie theatre for a day or two but it’s probably a television documentary, I don’t know. When we took it to Toronto, the movie place, the second it cut to black at the end of the film, before the first credit came on, 800 people rose to their feet and stayed there for five minutes. We never ran the credits. Jane was sitting beside me and I was swept in this tide. I can’t believe what’s happening, so I stand up and start looking at her and applauding and then she stands up and looks at me and we both have tears in our eyes.’arts