Liz Garbus Q&A: ‘What Happened Miss Simone?’ director/producer
“It’s immensely satisfying for all of us who worked on the film,” admits “What Happened Miss Simone” director/producer Liz Garbus as we chat via webcam (watch above) about the six Emmy nominations for her acclaimed RadicalMedia Netflix documentary, which also competed at the recent Oscars. “To the extent that awards acknowledgement extends the life of a film is thrilling,” she adds. “The film continues to be in the conversation, so people will continue to go and seek it out.”
Garbus, who has made biographies of Marilyn Monroe (“Love, Marilyn”) and Bobby Fisher (“Bobby Fisher Against the World”), says she has long been fascinated by Simone, a pioneering musician and Civil Rights activist who struggled with mental illness until her death in 2003. “Within that complicatedness of Nina, what you saw was the history of our time,” she explains. “You saw the way that racism and injustice affected a human being, on top of psychological factors that have always interested me, like the relationship between art and genius.”
Through the use of archival footage, audio recordings, interviews, and diary entries, Simone tells her story in her own words. “As much as possible, Nina guided the storytelling,” Garbus reveals. When structuring the film, the director “focused on the stories that Nina continually went back to, because clearly those were the ones that she felt made her who she was.”
She also allowed Simone’s musical performances to help enrich the narrative. “Nina’s songs always had an arc to them,” she declares. “She was telling a story.” Therefore, “we structured the film as a musical, so that every song is telling a part of the story.”
Garbus won an Emmy for producing Rory Kennedy‘s documentary “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” (2007), and contended here for both the Oscar-nominated “The Farm: Angola, USA” (1998) and “Bobby Fisher Against the World” (2011). Will “What Happened, Miss Simone?” bring her more Emmy gold?