Examining one amazing life defines this year’s lauded non-fiction contenders. In the documentary or nonfiction special category, all the nominees are films about one hyper-creative person. Although the groundbreaking artists have died, in various ways they all participated in the making of their respective nonfiction portrait.
The Emmy-nominated makers of “Listen to Me Marlon” (Showtime), “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures” (HBO), and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (Netflix) crafted their intimate stories without ever meeting their subjects. Jacob Bernstein tackled the life of his mother on-and-off the page in HBO’s “Everything Is Copy — Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted.” The last on-camera interviews with helmer Mike Nichols are the foundation of Doug McGrath’s “Becoming Mike Nichols,” (the third HBO contender in the category) a look back at the groundbreaking comic performer and director’s outstanding showbiz debuts.
Access to legendary actor Marlon Brando’s archive of personal cassette recordings held by his estate bolstered Stevan Riley’s approach to “Listen to Me Marlon’s” structure. “I wanted to do as much in Marlon’s own words and have him tell the story,” he says of the Showtime-financed/Passion Pictures-produced documentary. “The estate was encouraged that Marlon would have a big voice in the film, I’m not sure they were aware it would be a complete voice.”
Riley tracked down “every scrap of audio” from Brando’s recorded interviews to his audiotapes, many of them self-hypnosis sessions. The film’s tone is highly introspective and interweaves film clips, stills and on-camera interviews but no outside talking heads. “Marlon has a ghostly presence throughout the film, it’s almost as though he’s conducting a post-mortem on his life,” Riley says.
“Everything Is Copy” similarly uses the subject’s voice to narrate key segments. Ephron’s son, a New York Times style desk features writer, explains his approach to capturing the story of a writer who made her most private moments public. “She had done her last two books on tape and by using those to narrate the documentary, it would allow her to be the star,” Bernstein says. Ephron’s famous wit shines throughout. The first-time helmer benefited from sage advice. “Her agent, Bryan Lourd, said to me, ‘make sure you know what your movie is,’” notes Bernstein, who reveals the throughline of his mother’s life. “I think it’s a story about resilience and ambition; I hope that it’s ultimately about ambition meeting up with humanity.”
Editing down and compressing a prolific artist’s cultural contributions to primetime documentary length was the challenge each of the Emmy nominees navigated with skill.
“I always thought of it as stand-in for his autobiography,” McGrath says regarding “Becoming Mike Nichols.” Nichols — who got his start in improv and sketch comedy — famously turned back an advance to write his own biography. McGrath adhered to the format of “letting Mike be Mike” in shaping Nichols’ interviews with theater director Jack O’Brien recorded at the Golden Theater in 2014 that are the core of the documentary.
Nichols was most passionate about discussing his early life as a performer and the process of making his first two films, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Graduate.” “I was not interested in trying to uncover anything, I was not interested in his personal life; I really wanted to have an in depth discussion, and enunciate what the process of making a great work of art is,” says McGrath. McGrath was able to afford clips of complete scenes, rather than just excerpts, to illustrate Nichols’ spot-on recollections. “I really wanted it to be a pure and unfiltered window into the mind of a great artist. I wanted audiences to be able to see into that head, and then see through those eyes the world he saw and created.”
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato believe they were able to create a sense of intimacy with their subject, Robert Mapplethorpe, by relying on the controversial artist’s video and audio recordings as much as possible. “He is the main voice of the film, the guide narrator,” says Bailey of “Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.”
“We took the same approach to making ‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye,’ to really immerse ourselves in the voice, the vision and the life of our subject,” adds Barbato. From that immersion, he says, an objective portrait emerged.
Both veteran filmmakers and reality TV producers were surprised that Mapplethorpe’s life had previously never been fully explored. HBO’s Sheila Nevins suggested they take a look at Mapplethorpe going beyond the outrage his works produced. “We wanted audiences to recognize his artistry, to experience an artist who was overexposed but under revealed,” Barbato says. The film doesn’t shy away from Mapplethorpe’s dark side and complications; rather it presents a 360-degree experience in a not always glowing light, per Barbato.
Mapplethorpe’s artworks are shown without artifice or “tricksy effects,” notes Barbato, opening with museum curators reverently examining one of the artist’s provocative portfolios at the Getty.
“We spent a lot of time composing the look of the film,” Bailey adds. (The documentary is also nominated for cinematography). Interviews were set-up and shot as formal portraits; interviewees were introduced through the lens of Mapplethorpe’s camera of choice, the Hasselblad. They also placed his sexually themed works in the context of his life — as a pioneering fine arts photographer and gay man in the sadomasochistic milieu.
The life of singer and activist Simone, who died in 2003, embodied important social and artistic conflicts, which heightened Emmy-winning director Liz Garbus’ interest in telling Simone’s dramatic biography. “Her life story represents themes I’ve explored: art, genius, and racial relations,” Garbus says. The singer’s career suffered in part because she was willing to use her distinct voice and performances to address social issues.
Garbus began her filmmaking process by relying on verite footage and researching everything that Simone recorded, beginning with 40 years of concerts and performances, to interviews and unpublished audiotapes conducted with a potential biographer. The film also garnered an Oscar nomination for doc. “I didn’t shoot an interview before going through all the material; those outside interviews help bridge the gap between all the extraordinary material we gathered,” Garbus says.
“I wanted as much Nina in the film as possible,” says Garbus, who believes that because of the extensive archival materials, “I felt I got to know her and was able to make something much more intimate.” As with each of this year’s nominees, the doc makes a memorable and compelling personal connection with the formidable subject for audiences.