Brett Morgen and the Dark Side of the 1980s

Published January 30, 2017

Writer, director, and producer Brett Morgen is no stranger to Sundance. Over the last 17-odd years, the documentary filmmaker has premiered myriad projects at the festival, including On the Ropes (1999), The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), and the recent Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck (2015). This year, however, Morgen brought something a little different: the pilot of his first narrative television series, When the Street Lights Go On.

Set in the final days of the summer of 1983, When the Street Lights Go On begins with a violent double homicide in an affluent suburban community. The pilot is cinematic and absorbing, with a stellar young cast including Nicola Peltz as the ill-fated cheerleader Chrissy Monroe, Australian actor Odessa Young as Chrissy’s younger sister Becky, and Max Burkholder as their neighbor and the show’s narrator. Though Morgen and the writers have the first three seasons mapped out, the pilot screened as an acquisition title, and will most likely not go to series unless picked up. “I didn’t know if anyone would ever see it, but I thought we did some really nice work and that people would appreciate it,” explains Morgen over the phone. “I was talking to Odessa, and she said, ‘Even if this show never moves forward, this will give me the closure I need,'” he continues. “We were all so invested in the making of the show, to never have an opportunity to put it in front of an audience would have left us with a sour taste in our mouths.” 

EMMA BROWN: I know you come from a non-fiction, documentary background. How did you become involved with When The Street Lights Go On?

BRETT MORGEN: My documentaries have always been very much constructed in the spirit of dominant cinema. From the time I started making non-fiction, I was mainly interested in designing and creating documentaries like fiction, so it was a natural evolution to try and embark on doing a dramatic narrative. I started directing commercials back in 2000 for Anonymous Content. After The Kid Stays in the Picture [2002], I was being sent a bunch of scripts. I would go out to meetings and they would say, “He gave a great pitch. His notes are fucking amazing, but will actors work with him? Can we get financing with him?” Finally, my agent sent me the script [for Street Lights]. I called him the next morning and asked if anyone was producing it and said I wanted to buy it. I didn’t know what it cost—I didn’t know what film scripts cost—but I had some money from doing commercials, and I thought what better use of Pizza Hut than to take money from hidden camera pizza commercials and invest in my own feature. I purchased the script—it was written by two AFI students and number two on the Black List.

What I responded to initially when I read the script was that I’m fascinated by the role of the individual in the community, and the community’s role in the lives of individuals. My thesis in college was called “John Ford in the Midst of American Civilization,” and it was very much about small towns. What I saw in Street Lights was the perfect metaphor for growing up in the ’80s: on the surface, it’s a Norman Rockwell-esque community, but just beneath the surface, it’s crumbling because the parents, who are part of the boomer generation, are so narcissistic and so into themselves that the children have to raise themselves and figure out the ways of the world on their own. Ultimately, the show is about connecting or lack thereof. Almost every scene is about two people trying to forge a connection and being unable to.

In my longform work, like I said, I try and make non-fiction films that feel like fiction, so I’m always looking for the subtext and that’s what really excites me. Doing a show about teenagers and alienation and connection, I really wanted to find visual expression for that. There’s a photographer named Gregory Crewdson, whom I have greatly admired for years, and another guy named Todd Hido, and in their work I was able to find a visual expression to externalize the internal landscape of these young adults.

BROWN: So Street Lights was originally written as a film rather than a television series?

MORGEN: Yeah, it was written as a feature. We tried to do it as a $7 million feature around 2012, 2013, and we would’ve been a lot better off selling it as a $20 million. We had the biggest actress of her generation attached in the lead and we still couldn’t get financing. Then, shortly thereafter, someone at Paramount TV read the script, called Anonymous, and said, “Would you guys like to adapt this?”

I think one of the things that makes Street Lights special is that I’d never directed television before; Ellen Kuras, the cinematographer, had never shot television before; Eddie [O’Keefe] and Chris [Hutton], the writers, hadn’t done anything before; and all of my department heads came from the feature world. We were working with a sort of new studio—Amy Powell comes from the independent film world in a way, and she’s been at Paramount, but she was working in their lower budget division. Everybody from Anonymous, Paramount, and our production team treated it like we were making an independent film rather than a TV show, so they let us do what we wanted to do, which is unheard of and amazing. As a result, Street Lights really doesn’t feel like standardized television. I had a conversation with Ellen on the last day of shooting—and Ellen’s done some amazing films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I asked her if we were doing this as an independent film or a feature, would she have done anything different, and she looked at me and was trying to think and said, “I don’t think so.”

BROWN: One thing that would scare me about adapting it as a television show is that it opens up so many more possibilities. You have to expand these characters beyond the page and think about where they might be in five years.

MORGEN: That was really interesting, particularly with Becky, Odessa Young’s character. Odessa is beautiful and an amazing actress, but we knew that Season One was going to be about her transformation. When we meet her in this show, it’s prior to the transformation; [we decided to] be patient and arc her out and not force it all into one episode.

BROWN: When you were adapting it, did you map out the first season, or the first three seasons? How did you go about planning the narrative?

MORGEN: Most of the architecture for Season One, Season Two, and Season Three bibles were done by Eddie and Chris, with consultation from [producer] Chad [Hamilton], Anonymous, and myself. We have a plan to take the show forward for the next four years, god willing.

BROWN: At the beginning of the pilot, Charlie sets the scene by explaining what was going on in America in 1983. Can you tell me a little bit about how you decided what images defined that particular year for you?

MORGEN: I grew up in the ’80s. I’m the same age as Charlie, the character in the series—I was 15 years old in 1983. If you grew up in the ’80s, you hated the ’80s. If you didn’t, there’s something wrong with you. The only people who really love the ’80s are millennials. We had Reagan and Bush for our entire youth, the culture was terrible, the fashions were terrible, the movies were terrible. There were exceptions like Blue Velvet and some bands, but the main culture was untouchable. Oftentimes when people make movies about the ’80s, they go back and look at ’80s films, [but] those look nothing like the ’80s. It’s some watered-down version of reality. It was very important to me to try and deconstruct that. We found all these old photographs of the ’80s as I remember them, which was drinking beer in the back of a pickup truck. I wanted to go there straight from the beginning and set up the dream world of Charlie’s existence. The opening montage is very much about setting a tone. There’s something lurking just underneath the surface. It’s this picturesque town, but like the cicadas that emerge every 17 years and seem like they came from hell, there’s something evil here.

In that period, the boomers had become the parents, and the narcissism of that generation was so intense. When I grew up, we had no babysitters and nobody every observed us. People don’t parent like that today. They’re very hands-on; kids are constantly being supervised. The undercurrent—the darkness that’s right under the surface—was personal for me. During the second act of the show, without giving too much of a spoiler, when the cop is called to the crime scene and that scene is intercut with the parents who are drinking, that was something where I was simply trying to say, “Here’s what these fucking people are doing while their daughter is getting fucking killed. These are the people who are supposed to be watching us and protecting us and taking care of us, and they have failed us. They have failed miserably.” I have the sheriff enter the shot like in a classic John Ford film, because I wanted to play off of that iconography—the small town iconography. In film history, the small town was a Jeffersonian democracy, it was the place where everyone took care of each other, everyone nurtured each other. That’s the essence of the American experience. But in the ’80s, we went away from that, and the suburbs fell apart. Every kid I knew was molested, every kid I knew was on drugs. It was a fucking mess. So this became very personal.

BROWN: There’s a very unsettling moment when Chrissy and Becky’s dad describes Chrissy to his friends as the high school’s “top cheerleader.”  

MORGEN: I came up with that the night before we shot that scene. I came up with this backstory between the father and the daughter that began with the idea of the father objectifying the daughter. That’s how she’s used to relating to and interacting with men. They don’t see her for what she is, they just see the surface of this girl. She’s about to go out with her fricking school teacher and get massacred, but the parents are so lost in their own cocktails that they can’t see what’s in front of them. The way the father was objectifying her in that scene, she then presents herself to her lover in the same sort of manner. She’s playing the role, because that’s the only way she knows how to relate to men. You can see that there’s a sadness to her in that scene, there’s this pathos where she’s the all-American girl, but there’s something terribly wrong.

BROWN: You’ve talked about how the ’80s generation was raised, and now that people of that era have children themselves, it’s interesting to think about how their parenting style compares.

MORGEN: We went 180 degrees. I have three children, and they have never spent a minute unsupervised in their lives. My generation overcompensated like mad. I’m not even joking, every kid on my street [growing up] was molested. My kids would not have had an opportunity to molested, because they’ve never been alone, which is going to create a whole set of problems. As a generation, Generation X or whatever we were called, we were not being nurtured. We didn’t have Obama. We didn’t have Bill Clinton. We didn’t have any politicians that you could look up to, nor did we have parents. Montage of Heck, the Kurt Cobain documentary, is very much a very close cousin to the world of Street Lights. They’re very similar landscapes, it’s just a suburban-rural versus the world of Washington where Kurt grew up. The parents are the same. The scene where Charlie’s dad talks to him was written as a father-son bonding scene and I tore it inside out. “Let’s actually make this about disconnect. Let’s make this about the walls between them.” This kid is in such pain, but his father has no ability to reconcile it, empathize with him, connect with him, or nurture him. The founding fathers of that community, Chrissy’s parents, the cops, the school—they’ve all got blood on their hands.

BROWN: You mentioned that most ’80s films are not a good reflection of that time period. Are their any exceptions?

MORGEN: The one film that nailed it was Risky Business, which is kind of Marxist critique on capitalism. That film totally got the idea of the parents. This kid’s life is in jeopardy and all the mom cares about is the fucking crystal light. That became the symbol of the film. That and Blue Velvet, while not being about kids, really understood the time and the place. But there were very few films. When you think of the John Hughes films, those parents were all fucking rosy-dosy.