Emmys: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' Director on the Process of Getting to "the Heart of the Person's Story"

7:00 AM 8/19/2016

by Anna Lisa Raya

"A 100-minute account of a person's 70-year life will always have ellipses," says Liz Garbus, as she and the creators of this year's nominated doc specials discuss the challenges of editing down a subject's essence to feature length and the decisions they undertook in the process.

What Happened, Miss Simone? - Simone performing New York’s Westbury Music Fair in 1968 - H 2016
Courtesy of Netflix


  • Becoming Mike Nichols

    "Before we shot the documentary I anticipated the film would cover the full range of Mike Nichols' amazing career. The biggest surprise was that the years and the work Mike most wanted to discuss were the early ones. Though he answered every question asked — and he was asked about all the work, including Silkwood, Carnal Knowledge and Angels in America — what he was most passionate about discussing was his first decade or so: his landmark collaboration with Elaine May; his amazingly assured and successful beginning on Broadway with two of Neil Simon’s biggest hits, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, and then the astonishing one-two punch of his debut as a film director, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. I think he knew that in those years, and with that work, he was discovering all that he would later use as an artist. So he didn’t find it necessary to discuss the other work because the secret to all of it was in the beginning — in the becoming.

    The advantages and the drawbacks [of making a nonserialized doc series] are the same: Without the luxury of time and length, you have to cull and focus — you have to search for what’s essential and let the heart of it speak for the whole of it. Sometimes that serves the material — some stories don’t need eight hours. But in the case of the brilliant O.J. miniseries, the length was an asset and a strength because they could put so much of what happened in context. 

    The biggest debate [in the editing room] — and luckily it wasn’t that big because HBO was wonderfully supportive of the vision for the film that both Frank Rich and I had — was whether the documentary should have the usual parade of stars coming through to tell their stories about Mike. But I felt early on that we had a rare chance: We had Mike Nichols himself willing to sit and answer any question about his work and, in many cases, to talk at length about it. We give almost 18 minutes to The Graduate, almost as much to Virginia Woolf. I couldn’t have done that if I had to make space for various actors and collaborators to tell their stories. I love those kind of docs. My film His Way about Jerry Weintraub is exactly that kind of doc. But I felt that approach was wrong here and would have diluted our central strength: Mike himself. One of the cliches about Mike was that he was always the smartest guy in the room. Well, we had him in our room, and I didn’t want anyone else to distract us from that rare pleasure. By keeping the focus entirely on him, I think it gives the audience detailed insight into how some of the smartest, funniest, toughest work of the '60s was created." — Doug McGrath, director

  • Listen to Me Marlon

    "I knew well enough that Brando had revolutionized cinema through the method form of acting, but I was surprised to discover his pioneering role in the civil rights movement and the modern celebrity trend toward social activism. Brando earned the confidence and friendship of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as senior members of the Black Panthers, speaking publicly against white prejudice in spite of fierce backlash and repeated threats on his life. White America was ultimately compelled to sit up and pay attention to their most vaunted star. It’s little wonder that 'Marlon' became a popular choice of name for African-American babies of the era.

    In a similar trailblazing vein Brando was the first mainstream celebrity figure to turn the spotlight onto the plight of the Native Americans. At the pinnacle of fame in 1973 he refused an Oscar for best actor for his role in the Godfather, in protest for Hollywood’s misrepresentation of American Indians in Western movies. Only in recent years have the boos and jeers that he endured from the Hollywood establishment faded away, proving his credentials as a brave social visionary, decades ahead of his time. Both documentary feature film and docuseries are equivalent in that they each need to be underpinned by strong narrative. Multiple episodes inevitably allow for gentler pacing and deeper character exploration. As a nostalgic for feature films and cinema, I’m still drawn to the challenge of crafting a stand-alone story arc that can be enjoyed within a single sitting. Compressing the entire complex life of Marlon Brando into 90 minutes presented huge challenges in terms of narrative focus and economy. Mark Twain’s apology for having written a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one most definitely applied and hopefully helps excuse the fact that the edit took nine months to complete.

    I was both editor and director, so I spent the majority of the time in a tiny room with Marlon’s voice channeling through my headphones. The biggest debate I undertook personally was whether I could actually relate to Brando or even like him. There were some fairly damning written appraisals of him by ex-lovers that were potentially off-putting. Through various means — whether in deep consultation with his friends and family, or listening to over 300 hours of Marlon’s personally recorded audio material — I came to understand many of his apparent contradictions and complexities. Marlon was deeply self-analytical and eloquently explored his own dysfunctions. I became convinced of the sanctity of his mind and intentions. As odd as it may sound, he became a close friend, and it was with some sadness that I waved him goodbye in finishing the film." — Stevan Riley, director

  • Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

    "It's always a challenge when your subject is deceased. But finding myriad interviews Mapplethorpe gave during his life made it possible for him to be present throughout the film. These interviews were a shocking revelation, and because he was so consistently clear and honest about what he was doing and why he was doing it, we were truly able to reveal the man and his work.

    The biggest discovery of all was that he said his life was more important than the pictures he was taking. His life — and death — was the work of art, and he documented that in his photographs. Mapplethorpe's story is so much more than just the story of his life. He helped turn contemporary photography into fine art when few took the medium seriously. He documented the AIDS epidemic through the lens of his personal experience at a time when others shrank from it. He triggered a culture war that reverberates to this day. His story consists of so many layers it was challenging to compress them into a single feature-length film.

    In the edit room the biggest issue we faced was what to show. His body of work was so vast it was impossible to show everything. We made the choice to focus on the sex pictures because Mapplethorpe himself said they were the most important pictures he ever took. So then the debate was how far should we go? Even today the pictures can shock and offend some people. But we decided not to self-censor or shy away from anything. To their credit HBO didn't ask us to remove a single image. After that the biggest challenge was what to call the film! Although we always knew we would bookend the film with Jesse Helms' outraged condemnation to just ‘look at the pictures,’ it wasn't until quite late in the day that we realized that that was the perfect title: 25 years later we can finally just look at the pictures, and look at them the way the artist intended us to. Ironically it is because of the controversy — artfully orchestrated by Mapplethorpe as one of his last acts during his life — that he is still remembered. In short he wasn't just an artist, he was a work of art. We tried to convey that at every turn. Sometimes we got stuck and then we would ask ourselves, 'What would Mapplethorpe have done?' " — Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, producers  

  • Everything Is Copy

    "The most surprising revelation about making this special is that my mother whacked as many people as she did and got away with it. If you try now, as a journalist (or an entertainer), to hurl bombs you invariably become unemployable. (Although Donald Trump was doing fairly well at this until two weeks ago.) If we had decided to do a series about my mom’s life, she would have come back from the dead and said, 'Are you kidding?'

    When you have a person who killed his spouse, or was maybe framed for killing someone else, a multipart series makes sense because you can do a kind of episodic treatment of what happened: the back story, the killing, the trial, the aftermath. It lends itself well to a certain architecture that is different from portraiture, which is what I saw this as. And most of the documentaries I was inspired by — among them Bill Cunningham New York, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Valentino: The Last Emperor — were feature-length docs with a running time of about 90 minutes. [The biggest debate in the editing room] was how to get it to 87 minutes, which I think is the platonic ideal for documentaries such as these. Anyway, my terrific editor Bob Eisenhardt was off by somewhere like 98 seconds." — Jacob Bernstein, director 

  • What Happened, Miss Simone?

    "When we envisioned and pitched the film, I knew I wanted as much as possible for Nine Simone to be present, telling her story in her own voice. I believed that with months of archival work we would recover radio interviews that we'd be able to stitch together. As it turned out, during the six to nine months of archival searching we were able to find over 100 hours of Nina telling her life story that had never been heard before. From university students interviewing her in the 1960s to her co-writer on her memoir in the 1990s, I really feel that Nina guided us in the telling of her life story! 

    There is the inevitable question, 'Why didn’t you talk about the time when Nina did X, Y or Z?' which seems to deny the essential fact that a 100-minute account of a person's 70-year life will always have ellipses! But on the other hand, I feel the feature length focuses you on the heart of the person's story, your vision of it, and you can let that sing loud and clear." — Liz Garbus, director