Gilbey on Film: casting Kurt Cobain

Exclusive details of the forthcoming movie about the life of the Nirvana frontman.

Nirvana enthusiasts may run weeping to find solace in their original vinyl copies of Bleach at the news that a Kurt Cobain movie is on the cards. Or a second Kurt Cobain movie, if you count Gus van Sant's woozy Last Days (which began life as a film about the Nirvana frontman -- much as van Sant's Elephant started out as a Harmony Korine-scripted picture specifically about the Columbine shootings -- before mutating into something more amorphous).

But I think grungeheads (who will be wincing even now at my use of the word "grunge") can rest easy. The film is being written by Oren Moverman, the 44-year-old Israeli film-maker best known in this country for co-scripting Todd Haynes's fractured Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. He received a Best Original Screenplay nomination (with Alessandro Camon) for The Messenger, about two men working in the US army's casualty notification service, which Moverman also directed. (The film has yet to open in the UK.)

I spoke to Moverman last week, when he revealed exclusively this information about the Kurt Cobain biopic, which he is currently writing:

Working on the Cobain script is an enormous responsibility. You're basically saying you're going to find a two-hour representation in movie form of one man's entire life. It happens to be an extraordinary, creative life and I've got to stand by it and say, "This is how it happened." Well, you can't do that. Even with someone like Cobain, who only lived 27 years, there was so much going on, he was so complicated. The question is: how do you fit that into a movie?

It'll be raw and chaotic, which is what Cobain's life was like, but it's more linear than I'm Not There, in the writing stage at least; it'll take you from A to Z, it's not a jigsaw puzzle. The most important thing with a biopic is to let the subject dictate the form. You have to take your cues from the subject, and find what will enrich our understanding of him and his work. Musical biopics, or ones about artists, like Pollock or Love Is the Devil, they address the same impulse -- to find out how a person becomes creative, and how he or she arrives at the output they give to the world and which makes them famous. It's about creativity, the creative mind: what's the story behind someone who lives that life? What don't we know?

That's my approach to Cobain, because there's so much I didn't even know. I realised this is a fascinating person who has a side most people didn't even know about. People know the shortcut version -- he took a lot of heroin, wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit", married Courtney Love, became the biggest rock star in the world and killed himself. Those known things about him are, to me, the least interesting. I mean, I liked Last Days, and the way it was influenced by the idea of what Kurt's final days were like, but for me the suicide is not the most interesting thing about Kurt Cobain. It's the life that I'm aiming to look at.

What's interesting is what he did as an artist when he thought no one was looking -- not just as a musical artist, but a visual one. Also, while his relationship with celebrity was different to Dylan's, and you want to try to reflect that, his reluctance was not dissimilar. It's that push-pull desire to be so famous, yet not really wanting it. It will be about a man's life, his creative impulses, where they come from and what they say about him and his country, the world he walks into. Hopefully it will leave you with images you've never had before of this man and what he's done.

Moverman told me that he had previously warned Haynes off the idea of making a Dylan biopic when the idea was first mooted. "Being the visionary that I am," he said jokingly,

but also the careful friend, I said to him I thought it was a really bad idea. He asked why and I replied that if he makes a film about Bob Dylan it's basically going to be a film about casting, about the question of: "Where did you find this amazing guy who looks like Dylan, sounds like Dylan?" The truth of the matter is that even Dylan couldn't tell you who he is. I said, "Wouldn't it be more interesting if you had, say, ten different characters and they weren't Bob Dylan but they all played different aspects of his life? And together they could add up to the Bob Dylan experience." Todd looked at me and said: "Now that sounds like a Todd Haynes film!"

I pointed out that any film about Kurt Cobain will need to overcome exactly the same sort of hurdle. "Absolutely," Moverman agreed.

That's the worst part of it. Because there's only one person who can really play him, and he's dead. Other than the actual person, everything you do is imitation. It's a terrible thing because you want to tell a story, and be as interesting as possible, and yet you have this limitation which most biopics labour under, I'm Not There being an exception, which is that someone has to look and sound like the subject. How do you transcend the casting part of that, and make a movie interesting and deep enough that you can forget that?

I can't wait to find out.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge