Movies

Chicago 10 Animates ‘Woodstock of Politics’

Protests in the parks, bloody battles in the streets and ideological warfare behind closed doors — history buffs consider the events surrounding 1968’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago a clutch moment in one of America’s most tumultuous decades. Grizzled hippies remember it as the Woodstock of politics.

But members of the under-30 set, if they know anything at all about the convention and the subsequent trial of Abbie Hoffman and his fellow protesters in the so-called Chicago Seven, probably write it all off as another grainy slice of boomer nostalgia. The hybrid animated documentary Chicago 10, which opens Friday in select cities, reheats the controversial subject to serve it up to a younger audience.

Writer-director Brett Morgen, the Oscar-nominated creator of On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture, translates the events in Chicago into a style he hopes today’s college students will grok.

Chicago 10 mashes together rotoscope animation, vivid and sometimes shocking archival footage, transcripts from the legendary trial of culture jammer Hoffman and his Youth International Party, or Yippie, pals, and music by the Beastie Boys and Eminem. Morgen calls his style “mythomentary,” and Chicago 10 is an inventive, entertaining and stirring portrait of the ’60s protest movement at its peak.

In a phone interview, Morgen disses documentarian Ken Burns, relays the challenges of reaching the YouTube generation and explains why the phrase “animated documentary” is no longer an oxymoron. Chicago 10 features voice work by Hank Azaria, Nick Nolte, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider (who passed away this month), Liev Schreiber and Jeffrey Wright.

Wired: To a 22-year-old, the events in Chicago probably seem like ancient history. But with the punk soundtrack and the animation, you obviously wanted to get this story to a new generation.

Brett Morgen: That’s the challenge. How do you present a fresh take on one of the most mythologized and written-about periods in American history? My approach was to try and smash all of the conventions of historical documentary filmmaking. Replace the music of the time with a more contemporary soundtrack. Do away with talking-head interviews with aging boomers and present a film that would be perceived as radical as the culture that I was trying to document.

Wired: But why?

Morgen: This is a movie about the rebellious spirit that’s inherent in youth culture. I took the iconography of the ’60s and transplanted it into a language that’s relevant today. I think if Abbie and the others were around today they’d be punks. Would they be listening to Buffalo Springfield or Rage Against the Machine? They’d be listening to Rage Against the Machine.

At the time I began thinking about the film, we were embarking on a war, and there was very few protests, at least few that were covered by the media. By the time we started developing the film, there was a vacuum in terms of inspiring leadership, of people who knew how to mobilize the anti-war movement. So it was like, “Let’s bring Abbie back. But we’ll bring him back as a punk-type character.”

Wired: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

Morgen:
I was talking to some college kids today and what I don’t want them to take away is a sense of how passionate the Yippies were and how complacent college kids are today. Not everything the Yippies did would resonate today, but there are certain lessons we can extract from that period. One is the sense of fun, the sense of comedy and the kind of theater they brought to the anti-war movement. What they did feels fresh and contemporary. So where did that energy go?

This is an incredibly important moment in American history. For whatever reasons, (Chicago 10’s slice of history is) a story that most Americans under the age of 45 are unfamiliar with. So there’s a need to reintroduce that story into our culture. That alone is enough for me to tell that story.

Wired: Isn’t that the kind of thing Ken Burns does, tell the essential American stories? I think of you as more of an innovator.

Morgen: Fuck that! I’d rather drown myself than see the (Ken Burns) version of this story. I mean, that kind of filmmaking serves its purpose, but I have no interest in it. Actually, a lot of what I’m trying to do is inspired by a lecture Ken Burns gave in 1987 or ’88. He said, “History, going back to the dawn of man, has always been in the oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next. Each generation puts its own spin on it, and so it becomes mythology or folklore.”

I wanted to return to that, to make history more animate. Somewhere along the line, Burns’ films have become stodgy and formulaic. But I take what he said as the root and inspiration for all of my documentary films right now. History presented as mythology…. The style is a reflection of the subject. So when the subject is (legendary movie producer and subject of The Kid Stays in the Picture) Bob Evans, the film stylistically becomes a reflection of who Bob is: glamorous, a bit kitschy, seductive. In Chicago 10, the style becomes revolutionary, it becomes anarchistic, in your face, a personification of Yippie, a celebration of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Wired: What would the Yippies be doing right now? Probably more than sending out e-blasts, which is what a lot of the action from the left looks like these days.

Morgen: I think they would be operating virally. They’d be using film and video to get the message out. Abbie was on the cusp of that at the time. He clearly understood the power of the media, the whole movement understood the power of imagery, and the modes of communication, and the underground film circuit. I think Michael Moore has inherited the mantle from Abbie. He’s certainly not as sexy or charismatic, but he uses films as an entertainment vehicle to illustrate political ideals.

Wired: Honestly, what’s the chance you’ll get college kids to watch this?

Morgen: That’s a brutal question. We had overwhelmingly positive response from the distributors at Sundance, but they all had the same response, which was, “We think this film would play great with a young audience but don’t think we can reach them without spending millions and millions of dollars. Even then we don’t know if they’d show.” It was a reality check…. People have a lot of choices. The day my movie opens, they can see Semi-Pro. They probably are going to see Semi-Pro.

Wired: You started filmmaking in the vérité style — the fly-on-the-wall, purist method of making nonfiction films. Now you are making animated documentaries — the other end of the spectrum. What changed?

Morgen: I’ll tell you what changed. Technology changed. In 1991, you could count on one hand the ways you could tell a historical story. You could use archival footage and interviews and that was about it…. For Kid Stays in the Picture, we used photo animation to bring the past to life. Four years later, we used motion capture.

Anyone can do photo animation and After Effects on a laptop. From the time Robert Zemeckis did motion capture on Polar Express to the time we used it on Chicago 10, it became totally affordable. All of these new technologies first created through Hollywood eventually trickle down to us documentary filmmakers. Now, we can do Flash animation at a fraction of the cost of cel animation, and that opens up the doors to different ways of telling stories. It is an absolute aesthetic revolution that’s completely married to the technology.

Wired: After all of your success, you could probably direct fiction films. Why aren’t you?

Morgen:
Documentary filmmaking, even at the scope I do it, is really DIY filmmaking. You don’t have to wait around for financing. I’ve been involved in fiction films and spent months writing, casting, [story]boarding, only to have the rug pulled out from underneath us. I like the fact that in documentary, there are stories I can tell that I can go out and do.

They require money but I can still research while we are securing the financing. I love that there are no rules. This is the Wild West. You can do a film with live action and animation and motion cap and archival footage. It’s as exciting now as I imagine the French New Wave was at its time.

Source: Wired10