How Having a Heart Attack Changed David Bowie Documentary—Director

Director Brett Morgen says if he'd made his David Bowie documentary before his heart attack, it would have come out very differently.

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker is the writer, producer, editor and director of Moonage Daydream, which recently opened in movie theaters to rave reviews. He'd been planning on making the documentary for years, but in January 2017 he suffered a near-fatal heart attack and was in a coma for a week. After surviving that ordeal, he recovered and came back to finish his film.

Morgen spoke to Newsweek about his near-death experience, the part of making Moonage Daydream he found "traumatic" and his unique next project involving a Hollywood actor.

"This entire movie reflects what I've been going through over the last five years," Morgen said, recalling his heart attack. "If I'd made this film in 2010, it would not bear any semblance. It might in terms of the form, but in terms of the content, there was no way.

Brett Morgen and David Bowie images
Brett Morgen, who wrote, directed, produced and edited the new David Bowie documentary, "Moonage Daydream," had a near-fatal heart while making the film. "This entire movie reflects what I've been going through over the last five years," he said about the experience. Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images / NEON

"I had a heart attack," he continued. "Then I began listening to Bowie, and it was at a point in my life where I was asking myself some very deep questions about how I had arrived here. And I knew how out of control I was.

"Then suddenly I'm listening to David, who I had no idea was so wise and profound. He had established an approach to life that mirrored his approach to art that enabled him to lead a completely fulfilling and satisfying life—one might argue one of the greatest lives ever lived," Morgen said.

Bowie died in January 2016, succumbing to liver cancer, which he had been battling privately. Morgen said he had met Bowie when he pitched a movie idea to him in 2007. That connection eventually led to Morgen getting permission from Bowie's estate to produce Moonage Daydream, the first documentary about him to receive its blessing.

In 2017, the estate handed over to Morgen 5 million assets that he could use for his movie. They included rare and never before seen drawings, recordings, films and journals. Morgen spent four years assembling the film and another 18 months designing the soundscape, animations and color palette.

Moonage Daydream has no third-party narrator and no talking head contributors. It consists entirely of existing footage, reordered, edited and structured to showcase Bowie's life in a kaleidoscopic manner. "If you can put it in a book, I don't really want to put it in a film," Morgen said.

Based on the results, words on a page couldn't do justice to the spectacle on view in Moonage Daydream.

David Bowie still Moonage Daydream
"Moonage Daydream" contains rare and previously unseen footage of David Bowie. NEON

Not using outside voices was not without its challenges, though, and proved to be a constant strain on Morgen after he decided on this approach to the film. He had frequent moments of regret.

"It was a nightmare," he said about his chosen storytelling method. "It was traumatic. It was completely traumatic, just from a production standpoint."

Morgen described a particular struggle he had when trying to introduce Bowie's second wife, Iman, into the film. "I just needed a transition. Like a line to get me from here to there," he said.

"Twenty-six days. Going to work in the morning and coming at midnight with nothing to show for it. On the 27th day, I found four words: 'Then I met Iman.' That took 27 days. That was just cruel. That was like a month I'm never getting back. Perhaps if I was collaborating with someone they would have tipped me off to that a beat earlier," he said.

Brett Morgen in front of Bowie
Director Brett Morgen attends the "Moonage Daydream" premiere in London on September 5. Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

During the lengthy production process, Morgen considered adding a narrative to the film. Among the "abstract" ideas were making the movie as a transmission from the 20th century across the galaxy to another sentient life form living on a Star Wars–like planet. In another scenario, the film has been dug up in a desert 5,000 years from now.

Morgen eventually came up with the idea to have the rock star tell his own story over previously unseen footage. He followed one of Bowie's practices and took a train ride to clear his thoughts. "So I headed LAX, took a plane to Albuquerque. Got on the train heading back to L.A. I thought, I'm just gonna ride the rails until I crack the script.

"The second the train pulled out of the station, the whole thing started pouring out. By the time I got back to L.A., I had the film that we are now talking about," Morgen said.

Moonage Daydream has been a smash with movie critics, which has pleased Morgen to no end. He thought the movie would mostly appeal to Bowie fans, but he's thrilled to see its popularity is far broader.

Morgen's last film was the 2017 Jane Goodall documentary Jane, and he said his next project will come around much quicker.

"Without divulging names, I sold two years ago a film about an iconic actor. I was going to do my thing, with these archival films. The day before I flew to Cannes this year he came to my office and he said, 'Look, I've seen all your movies and I've read all your interviews. And the only thing I don't know is who you are.'"

At that point, Morgen said, he stepped out of his comfort zone, as urged to by Bowie.

"I said to him [the unnamed actor], "I'm going to pitch you something that's gonna be as terrifying to you as it is to me. I'm gonna move in with you for four months and do a cinema verité film in the spirit of Frederick Wiseman, called Actor.

"You can never tell me when to turn the camera off, except when you go to the bathroom. It couldn't be further than anything I've done in the past 25 years," Morgen said.

What was the anonymous actor's reaction to this proposal?

"He's all in. He loved Moonage Daydream, and he wrote me a letter afterwards saying, 'Whatever you want to do, I want to be in an art project.' So he's all in."

Sharing a few more clues about the actor's identity, Morgen continued, "I can't reveal his name, but when you see it's gonna make perfect sense, because he's an actor that has tremendous courage, and, ironically, he's made some choices that are not that different than David's and how he approaches projects. So to be continued, I suppose."

Moonage Daydream is being shown in IMAX theaters as well as other theaters. It's expected to be released by HBO Max next spring.