Stuart- It was a very Long and windy Road. Cynthia Mort pitched the idea to me in 2003. I loved the idea immediately and the pitch was not a bio pic. Having previously read a biography on Nina Simone and been a huge fan, the idea of a biopic was in my mind off the table. To capture Nina's life which encompassed her child hood, Philadelphia, Atlantic city, Selma, Martin Luther King, her marriage, Westchester, NYC, years in Barbados, years in Liberia, LA ,france, mental health issues, her trials and tribulations...in essence her life had just too much to capture in a feature film.
I had an office at Paramount on a first look deal at the time and. After we developed the script we had Mary J. Blige attached at the time however Paramount was not prepared to make the film. We took the project all over town and no one would Finace the film. The film had a number of false starts and just could not get off the ground. Years and years went by and loads of attempts to gain financing from the Studios and independent studios lead nowhere.
Ealing studio, a small independent studio in England read the script and wanted to make the film. We were able to get the film in turn around from Paramount. Mary j. Blige was off the film. We went out to loads of great actors in fact this including Viola Davis, who passed on the project at the time. Zoe was offers the role and passed. We went back to her again a year or so later and she finally agreed. This was so exciting as she was so committed from day one, including the amount of both money and time she gave up to do our small independent film , I can only imagine! She truly threw herself into it and selflessly between the singing lessons, rehearsals, false starts and just a serous time commitment was truly remarkable as was her talent.
One day I got a call from the director she was in preproduction as was this was Ealings directive as she was told to start the following Monday, I had to explain to her, sadly Ealings interest in the film was great but quite frankly, they don't have any money to pay for the film to start, so there was another delay. I went out and raised the money through some people that loved the script, the project and honestly, I could have not have had better investors. Once I had personally raised 100% of the financing, Ealing found a matching investor and we had more money, still a tiny budget which still needed Zoe's star power to actually pre sell the distrobution of the film in several territories which was imperative to the films budget because we needed the advance money to have enough to make the film. We also obtained a tax credit from the state of California which was like getting another $850k for the budget. We needed every penny.
After we had finally made the film the director started to work with the Editior. Around 5 editors later, couple dozen edited versions of the film we had what no one was happy with. While this was going on we had no idea that a part of Ealing was being purchased by one of the new partners and they had there own issues going on.
No one including the actors liked a single version of the film. The film finance company was telling us they were taking the movie back if it wasn't finished because they were on the hook for the bond!!! So film finance grabbed the film and edited their own version. No one was happy with the film.
We sold the North American distrobution rights for NINA to RLJ. The version that every one was not happy with. It was beyond frustrating. Even as a producer I had contractually no final say no matter how loud I screamed. The director was the going to sue Ealing. It was a nightmare that wouldn't end. The gift that kept on giving.
I managed to get the investors to agree, even after it was sold, that we had a great film in the can if it could be reworked. Everyone agree and , too believed we had something in the can and with the proper editor we could create a great film. My investors could not have been more supportive financially, the best pet era I could have asked for. with the support of the investors and the cast we went to Ealing and they agreed to give me final cut and complete control of the film. I then went back to RLJ And told them I was financed to re doe the film and had complete support from Zoe, David and the investors. They agreed to give me more time.I then went and hired an incredible editor Mark Helfrich. He had watched the current version of the film and gave me his notes. They were beat wise identical to mine so he set off to edit the film. 3 weeks later We had a completely new edit of the film. We loved it, me, the investors, Zoe Saldana, David Oyelowo, Ealing everyone was all on the same page I had very few notes and I took a few from both David and Zoe. It was back to a slice of Nina Simone's life and cohesive. I hired a new person to score the film, color corrected it. Zoe went and reworked some of the songs, added some songs and Most of the adr was re done, spent a ton of money on VFX to clean up the shots and her make up, you wouldn't believe what it looked like before!! Then I personally remixed the entire movie.
When the film was complete everyone was very happy. One of the producers BEN jones after signing over the creative control agreement to me and now a partner in Ealing disappeared , I have yet to hear from, receive an email and it's like he fell off the face of the earth. The other partner in Ealing Barnaby Thompson thankfully remained in full support and supported the film.
After all of this was completed the film NINA the finished version in hand and we are seemingly moving forward, we show the film for the first time to tastemakers, some bloggers, writers in nyc. We go to screen the film, after some serious public outcry that has been never based on seeing the film as NO ONE had seen the film, NO ONE. I announce the film to the audience ,I leave theatre go outside to use the restroom. I spoke to my daughter and come back15 minutes later only to see from the projectionist room the lab has sent the wrong DLP version of the film!!!!! Someone at the lab wasn't paying attention so the first people to actually see the finished version of the film Nina finally saw the wrong version, unfixed. It's been running for 20 minutes....
My first foray into independent film making not a studio film. My heart sunk. So the first actual people that spoke or wrote about the film did not see the real finished authorized, Bonafide, corrected film!!
I have personally never learned more about film making then with this picture. The worst or most difficult , crazy experience was probably the best one I have ever had.
When I hear from someone in Rome " wow, I didn't even know you had anything to do with Nina, God I loved it" and I have heard this from so many people including our cast, I am very happy to have been able to create this film and feel blessed, truly.