Like many prolific documentarians at the top of their game, New Yorker Liz Garbus, who founded Moxie Firecracker Films with partner Rory Kennedy in 1998, is often juggling more than one project at a time, editing one film while out shooting another. “It’s a layering process that actually seems to work,” she told me in a phone interview. During the year and a half she was making the Oscar-nominated “What Happened, Miss Simone,” which opened Sundance a year ago with an intro from Robert Redford and a concert by John Legend, she was also finishing “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper,” which wound up as this year’s Sundance entry. (It will air on HBO on April 9th.)
“Projects demand their time when they demand it,” she said, “and then stretch out. And sometimes they need time to nurture.” One key interviewee on Nina Simone, the singer’s long-time guitarist, said no to Garbus for four to five months before finally agreeing to talk. “It was so important, I kept at it,” said Garbus. “I was optimistic. You have to believe you’ll make it through and find a way. I interviewed a lot of his friends who came out saying, ‘she’s a good person, trust her.’ It took that long for him to feel comfortable.”
It took six months before Garbus found audiotapes of Simone telling her autobiographer her story, which became the crucial audio narration of the film. That took time, locating the rights holder and allowing the filmmakers use the tapes. Garbus’s insatiable producer, Amy Hobby, combed the planet earth for anything she could fine on Simone. They tracked down Nina Simone concert footage shot at the Village Gate in New York in 1968 by an NYU student who gave up his work print, that had never been seen before.
When you’re telling a real person’s story, with music, a fractured estate proves another obstacle as various parties don’t necessarily have their act together. “This often happens with these iconic figures like Marilyn Monroe, which is still going on more than 50 years later,” said Garbus. “The blessing of the estate of the Simone family took a long time. Nina died in 2003 and Lisa Simone did want her mother’s story out there. It took until we met for her to feel comfortable letting go and handing over control of that story. I was clear that I needed to make my own film and find my story. And after several false starts she was ready. Unlike other stories where the estate herds everything, with the estate fractured the materials were all over the place.”
Structure in a documentary is everything. The movie’s intense opening scene asks a question. Shot at the jazz festival in Montreux, Switzerland, Simone is silent, staring down the camera lens, saying she’ll never do another concert.
“What happened to bring her to this place?” said Garbus. “What does she mean, graduate to a higher plane? We ask the question. When we pull back to the last 20 years of her life you get the answer. The film is the folding away of the question Maya Angelou asked in her essay, ‘what happened?’
“Many things happened. Nina Simone made many things happen. Antagonism toward her music infected her, the rejection of being a jazz singer, her empowerment as a woman and activist, and domestic violence in her family, all led to her leaving America. The number one thing of many things was her experience as a piano prodigy in the Jim Crow South, her dreams of being a classical pianist crushed by racism, all those things brought Simone to that place on that stage on that day.”
Garbus is always seeking perfection in her films. “Sometimes I think about a film as a mound of wet clay; all these materials make a beautiful perfect vase. It’s in there. It’s perfect. Your job is to scrape it away and find it. I was not making a 70-year long film. Many moments in her life are not in the film. My desire was not to have one answer to the question, but to balance the experiences of her life, to see them as a symphony together that created Nina Simone. Did racism in America cause mental illness? Did that cause her to leave the industry? It’s not simple, all the things merge together in a delicate balance.”
The trick, for Garbus, is to avoid a cut from one interview to another moment and imply causality. “I want to keep all the threads together and don’t forget all the other things. That was the challenge: to not make anything seem like a simple answer.”
And then there’s the need to keep the audience entertained. “Every good doc should do that,” she said. “I don’t want exposition up front and unfolding, I want to tell the story with narrative tension and lead somewhere that hopefully is as complex as the world and the subject you are representing.”
While Garbus’s standards are high, she’s telling a story, not thinking about what the Academy likes or doesn’t like. (She’s been nominated for one other Oscar, for 1998’s “The Farm: Angola, USA,” and three Emmys, winning for Kennedy’s “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.”) “I figure out what’s best for my story and how to tell it in the most unique, impatient, and entertaining way.” And she’ll use reenactments to tell that story, because documentaries are a visual medium. “The style is important, to not have it be spinach,” she said. “It’s meant to entertain and rock and be unforgettable. It’s important to find new ways of telling that.”
For Simone, Garbus created a number of scripted dramatic scenes, shooting the young Simone in a church, walking across railroad tracks: “You have to have a way to have exciting visual storytelling when there is no visual archive of Nina as a child in a town North Carolina. She’s talking about her white piano teacher and walking across the tracks. Are we going to flash to talking heads the whole time?”
“What Happened, Miss Simone” is a hard act for Garbus to follow. She loved shooting it. “It’s hard for me to settle on the right topic for what’s next,” she said. Instead she’s exploring scripted filmmaking, returning to her film school roots making live action shorts. “I feel like there are certain stories I can’t tell in the doc space; there are other ways to tell the stories I want to tell.”
Has the documentary space started to feel too crowded?
“I’ve been doing this a while,” she said. “Different outlets pop up and go away, some are constant like doc stalwarts HBO and PBS. Others seem to come and go—it’s a robust moment with Amazon and Netflix making more competitive films, and Showtime putting themselves in the middle of it all. It’s a good time for filmmakers to have all these options and competition for our skills. And the public’s desire to consume non-fiction storytelling is higher, and films are doing so well. Maybe it’s a change that will last for some time. When the level of practice of the game with so many people in the inner field is so high, it’s good for everybody.”