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Director Brett Morgen on ‘Chicago 10,’ Jeremy Blake, and Gagging Sam Jackson

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The latest documentary from director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) chronicles the circuslike trial that ensued following the arrests of ten famous activists presumed to have caused the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The wild, resultant film fuses sobering footage of the riots with animated reenactments of the closed-door courtroom sessions — with the parts of Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and their cohorts voiced by a cast including Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Hank Azaria, and the late Roy Scheider, in one of his final roles. Morgen checked in with Vulture on the eve of the film’s release.

The Chicago 10 voice cast is like a director’s wet dream. Did you ever think you’d get such an amazing group of actors?
At first I wanted all nameless actors because I thought it would be distracting for the audience to watch the movie and be like, “Oh that’s Nick Nolte!” so I started casting people who work in animation. But a lot of the dialogue is really heavy and needed to be really well acted, so about nine months into the process I said, “Okay, this isn’t working, let’s just try to get the best cast we can find.” I wrote a dream list and literally just started calling people cold. We had no money to offer, just SAG minimum, which is like $700 a day, but it turned out a lot of them were really into the politics and the message of the film. So suddenly I was in a booth with, you know, Mark Ruffalo, Roy Scheider, Hank Azaria…. It was amazing to watch someone like Liev Schreiber rip through seventeen pages of dialogue in fifteen minutes and turn to me and go, “Now what?”

Was there anyone you desperately wanted that didn’t pan out?
I got pretty much everyone I wanted for the main characters. I did screen the film for Samuel Jackson and talked to him and his people about playing Bobby Seale, but a lot of Bobby’s dialogue happens when he’s gagged. I think the line his manager came back with was “Sweetheart, we’re not going to let you gag Sam Jackson.”

What inspired you to focus on this particular moment in history?
The idea for the film came out of a conversation I had with Graydon Carter in 2001 or 2002. The U.S. had already invaded Afghanistan and was talking about going into Iraq, and Graydon was like, “What’s wrong with your generation? When I was a kid, we had the Chicago 7 — they were like rock stars, they were our heroes! What do you think about making a film looking back on all that?” As we went into it, I said, “Look, this is one of the most heavily documented periods in contemporary American history, so if we’re gonna do it, what can we add to the canon of work?” To me it was about doing something that would capture the experience and energy of Chicago something uniquely cinematic. A sublime, visceral attack on the senses.

Everything about the movie feels very young — particularly the soundtrack. Was that your goal?
The movie is not about 1968. There’s no context. There’s a war going on, there’s opposition to the war, and there’s a government trying to silence that opposition. Basically this is a movie about today, so the soundtrack is the soundtrack of today, of my life, rather than my parents’ generation’s life. And also I just don’t think we really need another documentary featuring “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield.

I understand that [late artist] Jeremy Blake did the final film poster. How’d that come about?
We had a screening at the Guggenheim in May, and they asked Jeremy Blake to work on the poster for the event. I was familiar with Jeremy’s work from Punch-Drunk Love and some other stuff, and I was thrilled that he was interested, so we screened the film for him and he totally got what I was trying to do. He wanted to use an image of Abby with an American-flag gag over his mouth and design the poster as an homage to the Fillmore East posters from the sixties but give it a more sort of contemporary digital feel. And I was like, “That is exactly what the film is about!” Sadly, I think it was one of the last things he did, if not the last thing he ever worked on. One of the last things he said to me was “I wish I could have seen this movie when I was 17 years old.” A few weeks afterward, he passed away.

That must have been so hard.
It hit me really badly for a number of reasons. One, it was amazing working with him. And two, he happened to take his life about five blocks from where I live — on the beach in Rockaway. Later, as we went down the road with the film, none of the poster images were really working for me so I said, “Listen, can we please go back to Jeremy’s poster? I think he nailed the essence of the film, and I think it would be a wonderful tribute to him.” I’m pretty confident he would have loved it. —Sara Cardace

Director Brett Morgen on ‘Chicago 10,’ Jeremy Blake, and Gagging Sam Jackson