Most biographical documentaries progress in straightforward style — talking heads spouting praise and listing accomplishments, a chronological journey through the main character’s life hitting all of the highs and the lows. But in the hands of veteran documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, who in previous films delved into the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Bobby Fischer, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is a complex portrait of a complex woman.
The film, Netflix’s first original documentary, relies on archival footage as well as select interviews to capture Simone’s musical career, tempestuous home life and role as a civil rights activist. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is streaming on Netflix beginning today.
Indiewire recently chatted with Garbus about the challenges of bringing Simone’s story to the screen, how she attained so much archival footage and why she was the right woman for the job.
It’s challenging with a biographical documentary to not follow a straightforward timeline. Nina Simone had such an incredibly full life. Were you nervous about capturing this very sprawling life in one documentary?
I think when you embark on projects like this, you have to believe, and you have to kind of take those leaps of faith. But certainly, if you’re working on a film about an artist as great and as influential as Nina Simone, you feel a great sense of responsibility to get it right. I’m not so concerned about including every biographical detail of someone’s life. I’m concerned with finding the heart of their story. I relieved myself of the burden of fitting everything in in lieu of finding the story that I feel like encapsulates something of the truth, the heart of that person.
Yes, definitely! Entirely. I think that’s one of the reasons why the film works so well. Because it wasn’t like, “and then this happened and then that happened.”
Right. And I think what’s cool is that because we approached it from this very archival point of view, and I had so much of Nina to listen to — we had dozens and dozens of hours of her telling her story — that I could rely upon her for that guidance. Because there were stories she came back to and came back to and came back to that clearly she was working through, and were kind of psychologically temples for her. So I could use her to guide me in that way. Because if she’s talking about something in 1959 and then again in ’68 and then in ’76 and then in ’88 and then in ’92, you know that this is something important for who this person is. So I was able to kind of evaluate her on her own terms.
In this particular way, the film reminded me of Brett Morgen’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” since both films rely on the archival materials – and in some ways, the subject of the documentary – to tell the story.
That’s right. And with Brett’s film as well, which I’m a big fan of, there are very few interviews. I appreciated in his film — that I think was also something that was important to this film — the people who are talking are people who are very intimate with that person and have a very deep connection to them. You’re not hearing just talking heads like,”Oh, he was crazy backstage!” It’s much more internal and psychological.
When you set out to make this, did you know that it would be so heavily reliant on archival material?
I knew it was a goal. I knew it was something I wanted. When I started working on the film, I went through everything I could find on YouTube of Nina. And she’s so powerful, I felt that as much as I could get out of the way of that footage — I mean, of course you’re always kind of imposing your point of view and the storytelling –but as much as that footage could sing, pun intended, it would be the better for it. And it was interesting coming off a film about Bobby Fischer. He was so reclusive, and there was so little of him, that I felt so fortunate to have so much of Nina because she’s so open and honest and raw. I was like, “God, I need to find and use all of that.” And get out of the way of it, if I can.
Was that a challenge, in terms of getting access to the archival material? Or was that only through the material of the family? How did that process work?
Actually, most of the archival material we ended up finding was not from the family. The family gave us some incredible stuff. We got boxes and letters and photos. But some of the great finds — most of the great finds, actually — came from third parties. All the audio interviews that we use, so that Nina is essentially narrating her own life story, came from journalists or writers who had spent time with Nina Simone. There were some university students at the University of Nebraska who had interviewed her and they kept her tapes. There was a woman down in South Carolina who had spent time with Nina in the ’80s who had done some interviews and kept those tapes. So we were able to pull from these. And then of course, there were these very early radio interviews with Nina, in the early ’60s and then moving into the late ’60s. Those treasures were found from journalists who, thankfully, preserved their work.
Did you hire an archival expert or researcher to be in charge of that?
My producer, Amy Hobby, is a rockstar. She had some folks helping her, but Amy and I together were leading that hunt. You can hire an archival expert, but, truthfully, it’s all about what’s not been found already. For instance, some of my favorite footage in the film came from a film that an NYU film student shot in 1968 at the Village Gate of Nina. Amy Hobby got on a plane — the man who produced this lives in Florida — she sat down and talked to him. We ended up getting him to collaborate with us and got his workprint from the late ’60s. So it’s about being that dedicated. Similarly, there was a source in Switzerland who had many photos, and Amy and I went there and talked to her. So it’s about doing that, and taking the time, and, of course, having the resources, which it was great that Netflix was involved to pursue all of those avenues.
At what point did they come aboard, and did you approach them or did they find out about the project and approach you?
Well, Radical Media was the production company on the film, and very early on we pitched it to a bunch of different potential financiers and Netflix was just super enthusiastic and aggressive right from the beginning. So, yes, they were involved right from the get-go, and we did pitch it to them, but they were just really enthusiastic and supportive right from the get-go.
How would you say Netflix’s entry into the documentary field has changed things for documentary filmmakers?
It’s great to have another outlet that’s making documentaries part of their strategy and that they’re very much front and center. It’s such a good thing for filmmakers in the industry right now. And, you know, competition’s a good thing.
Definitely. And getting back to Nina and her life, what in particular initially sort of hooked you to her life story?
When I first was approached about doing this film, I had been a fan of Nina’s, but Radical brought me the idea, and said, “Would you be interested in doing this?” So I thought sure, I’m a fan, but what is the story? Because I didn’t know Nina’s story; I knew her music. And there can be plenty of artist out there who have, you know, incredible work, but lived a quiet life or wouldn’t make such a good film. But as soon as I started to peel away the layers of that onion, I realized that this was a story that had all the teeth and the drama and the political relevance that I could hope for in a subject. And it had it in spades. So, I was very drawn to it.
In what way does this film explore some of the same issues you explored in documentaries over the past 15 years?
Having made “The Farm” and having worked on “Girlhood” and then a film like “Bobby Fischer” and one about Marilyn Monroe — Nina lived through everything in some ways. So in her life you see the legacy of slavery in America. In her life, you see the pigeonholing of the female entertainer. You see the glass box that a prodigy like she and Fischer were put in, that makes it really impossible to survive. So there are really these prisons of the mind, and then prisons of life, and then the legacy of racism and slavery, and then also the radicalism and the power. The boundary-busting. So it had all these things I’d been exploring and interested in. I probably couldn’t have known all of that right at the beginning, but I certainly know that it was screaming out to me that I wanted to make the film.
As far as the overarching narrative, did that change along the way? Or did you pretty much go in with an idea of what it would end up like?
No, it always changes along the way…I think the interplay of the forces of musical ambitions, the [civil rights] movement and its promise and then its ultimate, as she saw, failure, a violent marriage and a violent family life — all of those, I didn’t appreciate when I walked into this , the intensity of those various factors and how they all played out.
What would you say was the biggest challenge in terms of the actual production? Or post-production?
In terms of production — Nina was really special to a lot of different people, and a lot of people held firm to their vision of her and their kind of understanding of her narrative and her journey. And she was also a very polarizing figure, and you can imagine that she rocked the boat with a lot of relationships as well. For us, it was just kind of trying to prove ourselves in some ways that we were open. Open to learning and listening, and we weren’t coming in with some preconceived agenda about Nina. We weren’t doing her daughter’s agenda, or her husband’s agenda or the music industry’s agenda. Or that we were open to the complexities of her life, and all these different things she meant to all these different people. We constantly had to make that case for ourselves because there was a lot of skepticism, because people felt so protective of her and their versions of her.
Do you have any tips for filmmakers who are setting out to do an ambitious biographical documentary?
I think that you need to be honest with yourself, and then be able to present that honesty to other people — who you are and what you’re doing. And, if you do have some agenda, or if you walk in with some preconceived idea of what you’re going to prove about this person, you’re probably going to lose some people along the way. So I think coming from that place of openness and willingness to be wrong, willingness to look at the person and their gray areas, is really, really important. If you believe that and you’re doing that, you will get people to go on with you. And you need the collaboration of all those people who knew that person — stakeholders who have photographs, who have letters — you’ll really need to check yourself and be honestly expressing your desire to listen and hear from them about who this person was.