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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories