This is a big theme with Morgen, and it's evident in much of his work. With The Kid Stays in the Picture-which he did happen to screen once with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson at Robert Evans' Beverly Hills home-Morgen and co-director Nanette Burstein combine Evans' off-camera narration with stock footage and digitally enhanced photos to create a kind of 3-D third-person biography, which was generally praised by the critics.
Not unlike Evans' epigraph at the beginning of the documentary-"There are three sides to every story. My side, your side and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently"-Morgen explains that his filmmaking "is about finding alternative ways to tell stories that question the viewer's perception" and to also "be funny and heartfelt without being condescending."
Morgen has sought to apply his alternative principle, in some form, with every commercials project, most notably with the "Nimrods" spot. Part of ESPN's "Without Sports" campaign, from W+K/N.Y., the spots depict residents from the tiny Upper Peninsula town of Watersmeet rooting for their oddly named high school basketball team, the Nimrods. Tagged "Without sports, who would root for Nimrods?"-and with no contact information listed-the ads prompted people from all over the country to call the school for Nimrod-themed merchandise. With several articles in major newspapers and a segment on The Tonight Show, merchandise sales have hit near $400,000 and Morgen now has a Nimrods television show in production with the Sundance Channel.
Morgen's other commercials may not have reached the mythical status of Nimrod Nation, but he still looks for that "is it real?" response from viewers, as he did with the commercials he directed for Mother and Egg, a British financial services company. Unlike mockumentarian Christopher Guest, Morgen always tries to steer clear of the faux documentary look that mimics the real thing by having subjects look straight at the camera. The Egg spots focus on a fictitious company with complicated schemes to screw people out of their money. Morgen was forced to use actors but threw away the scripts, ad-libbed the dialogue and used more natural lighting that he says made the spots feel more "organic and authentic," yet still questioned their authenticity.
Morgen comes from a progressive educational background, beginning with the alternative Crossroads High School in Santa Monica, where in ninth grade he began studying film and the work of Godard and Bertolucci. This exposure continued at Hampshire College in Amherst, a school with a reputation for turning out creative types, including author/adventurer John Krakauer and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. There, Morgen accidentally found himself in a documentary class where he remembers studying films like Nanook of the North, The Nuer and Sherman's March, as well as the work of John Cassavetes.
Morgen says, "Outside of maybe Michael Moore and Roger and Me, I'd been used to documentaries that were mostly fairly academic-more an extension of broadcast journalism. After being exposed to things like the French New Wave and other alternative film techniques, I decided to explore whole new ways to represent reality and to create nonfiction that breathed like fiction." Morgen's first documentary, again with Nanette Burstein, was On the Ropes, a film about amateur boxing that chronicled the lives of Brooklyn trainer Harry Keitt and three of his young fighters. Shot, edited and scored to feel like a fiction film, On the Ropes was a cinematic knockout, nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar, and the winner of the Special Jury Award at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, and the Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Documentary. After signing with Anonymous in 1999, Morgen landed a job with Wieden + Kennedy, an hourlong Nike-sponsored documentary about boxer Roy Jones Jr. that aired on ESPN2. "It's not like I was going to be able to sell Crest," Morgen says of the transition. "My work didn't really lend itself to the traditional commercial."
But it has worked for traditional brands like Budweiser. DDB/Chicago gave Morgen just five black-and-white photos and a Busch family member's audio reminiscences for a recentspot. Morgen, in turn, combined the track and post-enhanced the photos to create an abbreviated brand history.
Morgen, whose upcoming feature projects include Addiction Inc., about Philip Morris whistleblower Victor DeNoble, likens his initial shift from a two-person documentary set to big-budget commercials productions to "being a painter with only a pencil to an artist given 356 color crayons." He says he'll continue to bounce back and forth between features and commercials; as almost every features director discovers, the variety of projects and the possibilities of experimentation that come with the shorter format are irresistible.
"Every campaign uses different tricks of the trade, and there's always a new and different way to present things. I never want to become another trendy director of the moment." Morgen is repped by Anonymous' Gisela Knijnenburg and Tara Averill on the East Coast, David Wagner in the Midwest and Michael Di Girolamo on the West Coast.