Thursday, October 27, 2016
  • Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016
A Tale of Two Cinematographers: Martinovic, Morrison Team On "What Happened, Miss Simone?"
Igor Martinovic
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A SHOOT conference call with Igor Martinovic and Rachel Morrison marked the first time the two cinematographers had “met”--albeit just on the phone (Martinovic was overseas on a project at the time of the SHOOT interview while Morrison was stateside). What’s remarkable is that despite not having been together or talked before, they had both already contributed to the lensing of What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix) which went on to be nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar and is currently up for six primetime Emmy Awards, including for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, Outstanding Directing for a Nonfiction Program (Liz Garbus) and Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program.

The plaudits for the documentary despite its two DPs having not personally connected until recently this awards season speaks, said Morrison, to the art and craft of others such as Garbus, producer Amy Hobby and editor Joshua L. Pearson, who’s also nominated for the Outstanding Picture Editing for a Nonfiction Program Emmy. “Everyone contributed to creating something cohesive from so much material. There was a continuity throughout despite all the different hands involved,” observed Morrison.

The awards recognition is also testament to the compelling story of legendary recording artist Nina Simone--a story spanning not just her music but her social activism, the sacrifices she made for that activism, and the inner mental health demons she struggled with long before being bipolar was even recognized as a viable medical diagnosis.

While Martinovic lensed all the interviews for What Happened, Miss Simone?, Morrison shot new sequences. These different elements captured separately by Martinovic and Morrison had to blend naturally with the considerable volume of archival footage gathered for the documentary. Garbus and her team scoured the globe for archival material--extensive footage of Simone, TV and radio interviews, audiotapes from interviews done for Simone’s autobiography (which she collaborated on with author Stephen Cleary). This exhaustive search conducted over a year for this archival material was designed so that the documentary would have the feel of Simone telling her own story.

Garbus, who earned her first career DGA Award nomination on the strength of What Happened, Miss Simone?, said that she wanted to develop a shooting style for the interviews that would keep them feeling “tied to the archival world of the film.” Towards that end, Martinovic sought out a hard-to-come-by Cooke lens that still had uncoated glass. This was deployed in concert with a Sony PMW-F3 camera. The digital camera was selected for, among other factors, its ability to shoot continuously for an extended time as interviews with Simone’s friends, colleagues and musicians in some instances lasted for hours. Also helping the interviews to naturally mesh with the archival fare was an approach which Martinovic described as “different than usual. We didn’t do talking heads. All the interviews had wider shots--not just closeups--to incorporate the environment, mirroring the existing footage. We went to closeups only at emotional points in the interviews.”

Meanwhile Morrison was shooting 16mm and 8mm film “because we wanted a visible, palpable grain.” Her footage not only had to match earlier filmed material but more often than not the spirit of audio interviews.

Golden opportunity to work with Liz Garbus
Martinovic said he had long wanted to work with Garbus--the two had missed connections on a prior project. “I love her dedication to the work. I also was thrilled to learn about Nina Simone first hand from the people who knew her really well and intimately. It was a beautiful experience to be present when people were remembering special moments with her, who she was as a person and an artist.”

Morrison chimed in that she was a bit “envious” of Martinovic having the chance “to meet and hear from so many people who knew Nina Simone.” That envy is grounded in Morrison being a self-described “big fan” of Simone and her work. Additionally Morrison greatly admires Garbus. Morrison was grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to collaborate with Garbus. The DP conjectured that she got the Miss Simone gig in part because of her extensive experience shooting on film the past few years with some of that work being done on projects for RadicalMedia which teamed with Moxie Firecracker Films (Garbus and producer/director Rory Kennedy’s production company) to produce What Happened, Miss Simone? for Netflix.

Both Martinovic and Morrison said it was particularly gratifying to be able to contribute to a story that carried social relevance.  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).”

“Anytime you can contribute to something that has social relevance and works as a whole is reward in and of itself,” related Morrison. “To be nominated for an Emmy for this work is just an incredible bonus. I’m honored to be in the company of Liz, Igor and everyone else who worked on the film.”

This marks the first career primetime Emmy nomination for Morrison, the second for Martinovic. In 2014, Martinovic earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series on the basis of the “Chapter 18” episode of House of Cards.

Morrison does have a News & Documentary Emmy Award nomination to her credit; it came in 2006 for Outstanding Achievement in a Craft: Cinematography as a DP on Rikers High.

Among Morrison’s other notable work is director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station which won the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and Best First Feature distinction (for Coogler) at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Martinovic’s body of work includes the 2009 Oscar-winning feature documentary Man on Wire directed by James Marsh. Additionally Martinovic has received recognition for his directing. Back in 2011 he was included in SHOOT’s New Directors Showcase on the basis of an Adidas spec spot entitled “Dream.”