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Netflix’s ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’

The documentary feature from filmmaker Liz Garbus tells the artist and activist's story in her own words.

Classically trained pianist, dive-bar chanteuse, civil rights activist and legendary recording artist Nina Simone lived a life of brutal honesty, musical genius and tortured melancholy. What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary feature from filmmaker Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA and Bobby Fischer Against the World), tells the artist and activist’s story in her own words.

The film uses never-before-heard audio tapes, recorded over the course of three decades, of Simone telling her life story to various interviewers and would-be biographers. From more than 100 hours of these recordings, Garbus weaves together Simone’s narrative. Rare concert footage and archival interviews, along with diaries, letters and interviews with Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, friends and collaborators make this an authentic, personal and unflinching portrait of the extraordinary life of one of the 20th century’s greatest recording artists.

Nina Simone

Produced by RadicalMedia in conjunction with Moxie Firecracker Films and Netflix, What Happened, Miss Simone? premiered on the streaming service on June 26.

Igor Martinovic, serving as the documentary’s cinematographer, employed a RED EPIC outfitted with uncoated Cooke zoom lenses to capture 16:9 footage of seated interviews with Nina Simone’s daughter, as well as friends and collaborators such as Gerrit de Bruin and Al Schackman.

Perhaps best known for his Emmy-nominated work as director of photography on the second season of the Netflix original series House of Cards, Martinovic is no stranger to documentary work. With a long list of commercial and feature credits to his name, the New York-based, Croatian-born cinematographer shot Addiction Incorporated (2011) and The Tillman Story (2010), as well as the 2008 Academy Award- and BAFTA-winning documentary Man on Wire, about tightrope walker Philippe Petit. He is currently working on a project about Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

“We knew that we needed to do a series of interviews and that the idea was to be as simple as possible and not to come up with any imagery that looked overly stylized. At the same time, we wanted to avoid a classic documentary setting where we would put a person in front of a backdrop and just film close-ups,” Martinovic says of his approach to capturing footage of the seated interviews. “We started to shoot a little bit wider, using medium shots where we could see the people’s gestures and not just the facial expression.”

Filming in Paris and New York, Martinovic sought to create a look that would work in a theatrical setting as well as help to unify the archival footage used throughout. “It was important to create a look that went with the rest of the footage,” he says. “Obviously, we couldn’t match it completely, but I decided to go with an uncoated Cooke zoom lens that was frequently used in the ’80s, which I thought would be a good match because of its color aberrations and shallow focus on the sides. The lens creates an interesting effect where it darkens at the edges and loses focus, drawing the viewer’s eye to the center of the frame, where we usually place our subjects.”

Material was shot in raw format with a standard HD Rec. 709 color space used as a reference. “Color correction was very minimal; it was basically applying the look that we created on set,” Martinovic recounts. “I think the camera is just a device. The look comes mostly from the lenses and uses of lighting and framing rather than the camera itself.”

Martinovic and his team relied on natural light as much as possible. “We didn’t want to use too much backlighting,” he says, adding that the lights they did use were motivated entirely by practical light sources.

“When I work, what I usually do is play with the color temperature of the camera in relation to the light,” Martinovic says. “Sometimes we would use color gels to add color in the background, and then change the color temperature in the color itself, and that would be our look. It’s a very simple approach. Other times we might decide on a color scheme and then accent the background with a little bit of warmer light—yellow, or even red—just to add a little bit of a color.”

Martinovic had felt a great deal of affection for Simone and her work prior to undertaking the project, but he says that the film allowed him to develop an even deeper appreciation of the artist and her music. “Being able to come this close is truly a wonderful opportunity,” he says. “Just working on documentaries in general, I think, it’s a great privilege to come close to people who you admire, who you like, and who you would never, ever have a chance to come close to or to hear things firsthand. I think that that’s why I still do documentaries, and why I like to watch them as well.”