Thursday, April 26, 2018
  • Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016
6 Emmy Nominations Join An Oscar Nod For "What Happened, Miss Simone?"
Justin Wilkes, producer of "What Happened, Miss Simone?" and an EP on "Park Bench With Steve Buscemi" (photo courtesy of RadicalMedia)
Producer insights into the Liz Garbus-directed documentary; EPs weigh in on short-form web series "Park Bench"; production designer lands 5th straight Emmy nod for "The Voice"

Justin Wilkes, president of RadicalMedia’s entertainment group, has long had a deep-rooted appreciation for Nina Simone, the late, great, legendary recording artist. “I’ve always been a fan of her music,” recalled Wilkes. “I grew up in Woodstock, New York. Her records were a fixture on my parents’ turntable and would play every afternoon. Admittedly, I knew nothing about her story, the trials and tribulations she went through. I just knew and loved her voice.”

Wilkes would, though, come to know much more about Simone and the resonance of her voice on a different front. Sparked by a call from an old friend--Jayson Jackson, a music manager who used to work with Lauren Hill--Wilkes began to delve into Simone’s life. “Jayson’s and my paths had crossed before and he told me he was working with Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who felt the time was right to finally tell her mother’s story," related Wilkes. "Jayson approached me about partnering on a documentary.”

That film turned out to be What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar and more recently landing six Emmy nominations, including for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, Outstanding Directing for a Nonfiction Program (Liz Garbus), Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program (Igor Martinovic, Rachel Morrison) and Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program (Joshua L. Pearson). As a producer, Wilkes is one of the nominees in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special Emmy nod, along with executive producer Sidney Beaumont, and producers Garbus, Amy Hobby and Jackson. What Happened, Miss Simone is a RadicalMedia production in association with Moxie Firecracker Films (Garbus and producer/director Rory Kennedy’s company) for Netflix.

Wilkes said the selection of Garbus to serve as director was key. “We needed,” said Wilkes, “the right documentarian, someone who could bring Nina Simone’s story to life--spanning not just her music but her social activism, the sacrifices she made and the price she paid for that activism, and the inner mental health demons she struggled with long before being bipolar was even established as a medical diagnosis.”

Critical acclaim and the awards show circuit underscore the fact that Garbus was indeed the right filmmaker to do justice to Simone’s story. Earlier this year, Garbus earned her first career DGA Award nomination, on the strength of What Happened, Miss Simone which was also nominated for the International Documentary Association’s Video Source Award as well as the IDA Award for Best Feature. The Best Feature Documentary Oscar nomination for Miss Simone is Garbus’ second such nod, the first coming back in 1999 for her first documentary (co-director and producer), The Farm: Angola, USA. On the Emmy front, the latest noms for Miss Simone add to TV Academy recognition for Garbus which includes winning the Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Special for Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (produced by Garbus, directed by Kennedy) in 2007, and Emmy nods for Outstanding Nonfiction Special for The Farm: Angola, USA in 1999 and Bobby Fischer Against the World (with Garbus as director-producer) in 2012.

Asked what was the biggest creative challenge that What Happened, Miss Simone? posed to him as a producer, Wilkes related, “We decided up front that it would be great if we could find material of Nina actually telling her own story. That would be the most honest way to do justice to her. How great it would be, we thought, to put an audience in front of a present tense narrative being told by Nina. But unlike other artists’ estates, there was no magical archival source. We brought in an archive team, scouring the globe for material. We didn’t know what we would find--or for that matter if we would find much of anything. That was the big challenge for me as a producer. We had to find the right people--friends, associates, colleagues, musicians, confidantes, to see if they had the right material. As it turns out, several did and had been safeguarding it, waiting for the right opportunity. Fortunately we were the beneficiaries of this. We also came across audiotapes. We contacted the co-writer [Stephen Cleary] of Nina’s autobiography, ‘I Put A Spell On You.’ He could not remember if audiotapes existed of his interviews with Nina. Lo and behold they did, which turned out to be a great treasure trove for us. This led us to other people who had spent time with her. We unearthed newsreel footage, a radio interview she had done. We came across personal diaries. Over the course of a year, we amassed a robust archive of Nina telling her own story.”

And for Wilkes the Oscar and Emmy nominations ultimately recognize the beauty and gravity of that story. “Sure, the honors are a testament to the filmmaking but even more to Nina herself, her story, her lyrics, her message which remain very relevant today,” affirmed Wilkes.

Simone was one of the few performers at the time who was willing to use music as a means for social commentary and to help promote progressive change. She openly addressed racial inequality with the song “Mississippi Goddam,” her impassioned response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and the Alabama church bombing that killed four African-American girls. On the same “Nina Simone in Concert” album (which took place at Carnegie Hall), she performed “Old Jim Crow” addressing the Jim Crow laws. “Mississippi Goddam” was banned throughout the South. She sung the song at one of the historic Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Alabama in 1965. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Simone performed “Why (The King of Love is Dead.” 

In her own words, noted Wilkes, Simone once observed, “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

Park Bench With Steve Buscemi
Wilkes actually has two Emmy nominations this year, the other as an EP on season two of web show Park Bench With Steve Buscemi (AOL) which is up for Outstanding Short Form Variety Series. These two latest nods add to a career list for Wilkes which also features two previous Emmy noms--for Oprah’s Master Class in the Outstanding Information Series or Special category in 2013, and Under African Skies the year prior for Outstanding Nonfiction Special.

SHOOT caught up with two of Wilkes’ nominated EP colleagues on Park Bench: Jon Doran of RadicalMedia and Wren Arthur of Olive Productions. Olive--formed by Buscemi, Stanley Tucci and Arthur--teams with Radical to produce Park Bench which now has attained its second Emmy nomination, the first coming for season one in 2014.

In the show, filmmaker/actor/writer Buscemi sits on a bench in various New York locales and talks to a famous friend, an everyday person, a co-worker, folks from all walks of life. Also featured are Buscemi’s brother Michael and talk show sidekick Gino Orlando--with spontaneity being a regular guest. 

The origin of Park Bench is rooted in the American Express Unstaged show which pairs a director with a noted band or music act. One key installment of the show brought director Buscemi together with Vampire Weekend. A scene in a bar in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, led to a park bench just outside in McGolrick Park. There Buscemi met Orlando, a guy just hanging out that day. Buscemi pulled him into the scene with the singer Grimes and the talk dynamic was fun, lively and naturally engaging. From the music entertainment platform of AmEx Unstaged and related promotional content came what Doran described as this “magical nugget,” a 15-minute add-on which then became the Park Bench online talk show.

“It was really playful and sprung out of an organic collaborative process that Radical and Olive had working on American Express Unstaged,” noted Arthur. “Steve is an extraordinarily collaborative and spontaneous guy. This became the little project that could, born out of something else entirely. Now a few years later, we have two Emmy nominations--one for each season of Park Bench.

Doran loves the “run and gun” nature of the talk show set against the natural elements of New York, “covering a lot of material and characters, friends, family and storylines all over the city. New York is a central character as are New Yorkers. Steve is game for anything and everything.”

Olive Productions and RadicalMedia are also exploring new horizons, including teaming on Check It, a documentary about an African-American gay gang in Washington, DC.

And in the offing is a project that Arthur said she’s not at liberty to discuss publicly, only offering that the Olive-Radical relationship will be diversifying into scripted fare.

The Voice
For the fifth consecutive year, production designer James Connelly is part of a team on The Voice (NBC) that has been nominated for the Emmy honoring Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Nonfiction, Reality Or Reality-Competition Series. The most recent Emmy nod is for The Voice’s “Live Finale (Part 2).” Connelly shares the nomination with production designer Anton Goss, art directors Zeya Maurer and Lydia Smyth, and set decorator Stephanie Trigg Hines.

For The Voice Connelly does all the sets aside from the performance stage. He takes on, for example, the venues where coaches shape and groom contestants, various hangout spaces, and other sites. What makes this latest nomination particularly gratifying for Connelly is “capturing the journey of the contestants. In the submitted episode we took the camera and swung it around into different areas, strategically showing where the artists live, different parts of the environment they’re taking their journey through, digging deeper into each talent’s story and life. What you see on television is a result of environment plus the personalities involved. I help determine those environments for The Voice--it’s almost like the script for the unscripted medium you’re watching on TV. We’re showing the environment where the artist is getting ready for the audition of his or her life. We’re there to help subtly tell the story of the show and each artist. I still get chills when I drive on the Universal lot. I’m a kid from New Jersey living a dream. I want the artists to feel exactly that when they walk onto the Universal lot and head for the stage. We’re creating environments for each artist’s exciting personal journey.”

As for what this latest Emmy nod means to him personally and professionally, Connelly observed, “I never take any of the nominations for granted. It takes a lifetime to be nominated for achievement in any craft. There’s a challenge every season to make our show different and fresh, a new experience for the viewer each time. We are constantly re-evaluating the show’s identity. To be nominated five straight years is amazing. The bar has been set high each year and we’ve been able to raise the bar from one season to the next.”

Connelly actually has seven career Emmy nominations. Prior to The Voice, he was an Emmy nominee for the first time as an art director on the MTV Video Music Awards which was in the running in the Outstanding Art Direction for Variety, Music or Nonfiction Programming category in 2008. The following year he garnered another nom--again for the MTV Video Music Awards in the same category--and won the coveted Emmy.

This is the final installment of a 15-part series that has explored the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation and visual effects. The series will be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony on September 10 and 11, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 18.