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Nina Simone's Biopic Moving Full Speed; Screenwriter Talks Zoe Saldana, Love Story & Challenges

by Vanessa Martinez
August 25, 2012 10:49 AM
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Nina Simone

I just found this interview with Cynthia Mort, screenwriter of the upcoming Nina Simone biopic, which has been the focus on several of our posts in the past two weeks.

We know the Simone film, a love story between the late icon and her nurse turned manager Clifton Henderson and starring Zoe Saldana and David Oyelowo in the respective roles, begins shooting in mid October.

According to this Entertainment Weekly interview, filming will take place off the Lost Angeles and Santa Barbara coasts, which will represent the south of France, where Simone spent her later years, from the early 1990's until her passing at age 70 in 2002.

Many of us have been questioning if the response to the film by Nina Simone's daughter will slow down, or halt the production of this project altogether. To recap, Simone's daughter and owner of her estate said that although she spoke to Mort in one occasion, she wasn't consulted for the making of the biopic; further attempts to contribute to the film were ingored by the filmmakers.

Well to the chagrin of many, the project is moving full speed. Mort, who co-wrote 2007 revenge thriller The Brave Onesays that recreating the musician's life on film is "a beautiful genre, if you do it right, and capture the essence of that person.”

And, that sounds wonderful, but what about her daughter's remarks, who says relationship between her mother and her homosexual assistant Clifton was strictly platonic? We know Mort's script is a love story between Simone and the much younger man (If you missed my breakdown of the script, read it HERE).

Well Mort says that Oyelowo’s character is a “composite of people,” and adds that, “Without sounding ridiculous, the love story is between Nina and her journey, like most artists. The male nurse character is used to show some incredible moments in her life.”

As far as Simone's daughter, Mort says that she has spoken to her but “Any creative decision is difficult," adding that, “It’s complicated. It’s her mother. I’m a mother and a daughter. I feel very strong about it in every way. I feel like we’re honoring her, Nina Simone.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, she obviously admits she took creative liberties, and that her script is inspired by Simone's life not based on it. I really hope she makes that clear in the film's marketing materials.

Mort says the romantic storyline of the film is a way to explore Simone's life. Perhaps she felt that a passionate romance was a more gripping way to humanize her character. So, sex sells no surprise here folks!

And what does Mort say about the mis-casting of Zoe Saldana?? She feels that her natural beauty along with her musical side are a great fit. “I think it’s a big role for anybody. Nina Simone was large, in many ways. She’s iconic and brilliant and talented,” She adds that she finds Zoe "incredibly compelling," and that "she has a lot of great qualities.”

And for those of us who wonder why is Mort, better known for her writing gigs in TV's Roseanne and Will & Grace, involved in this Nina Simone project; apparently Mort, a long time fan of the High Priestess of Soul, assisted Simone on a photo shoot in the mid 90's at Simone's then Hollywood apartment.

Mort also addressed the challenges to securing the song rights, which I'm surprised she was able to do. “Getting the song rights is complicated,” said Mort, who also says Nina's guitarist Al Schackman has been "incrediby supportive" of the movie. “With an artist like Nina, it’s scattered. We have secured the rights to a number of songs."

Like I mentioned previously, production is well underway. Mort says that the costumes and jewelry to be worn by Saldana are "unreal." Designed by Magali Guidasci (Zombieland), the screenwriter says they are going to be "insane and fantastic,” she adds, “It’s a big part of the music, also because it’s original. What Nina wore is not what anyone else could wear.”

At this point, I only hope Mort and the filmmakers are honest about making it very clear that this project is a recreation of Simone's later life and only inspired by it.

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  • brooklyn70 | August 27, 2012 1:26 PMReply

    when i first heard that jamie fox was going to be ray charles in a biopic about his reaction was --"um..what???!!!" when i first heard leonardo dicaprio was going to play j. edgar reaction was---"um..what???!!! when i first heard that will smith was going to play mohammed reaction was---"huh??" i didn't love these films, but all the actors did a terrific job at transforming themselves. do you see the point i'm trying to make. i've noticed a pattern on this blog that i find frustrating. it critics films that are not even in production yet!!!??? this baffles me. hollywood has always taken liberties with biopics/historical films and they always will. have you seen pearl harbor??

  • Donella | August 26, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    Nina Simone, if she could rise to defend her name with her own voice, never would have stood for this. For shame, Cynthia Mort. Zoe Saldana, if it is at possible to separate yourself from a project already identified as phony and inauthentic by the target audience, please create a "scheduling conflict" as soon as possible and save your professional reputation.

  • Ava | August 26, 2012 2:45 PMReply

    "Unreal" seems to be an apt word for what seems to be occurring with this movie. When I read of the location of Santa Barbara standing in for the S. of France, it seemed highly symbolic of this film. I know that many films have stand in locations that are supposed to represent somewhere else but my immediate thought was that this was perfect symbolism. A story built on a premise that is superficial and fake meant to represent a legendary icon that represented several layers, right down to the unvarnished truth (I wonder what the musical icon who composed 4 Women would think of this film). As a fan of Nina Simone's music, I can't help but to quote one of her songs...'I'm awfully bitter these days...'

  • LeonRaymond | August 26, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    Cadillac Records had three powerful performances 1 decent one and Beyonce was horrific but at least Minus her all the actors reminded us of the characters they were playing. This will not be the case. Ask BB King about moving ahead on a project with permissions fro the family -He sued and stopped the project about him

  • and this too shall pass | August 26, 2012 11:06 AMReply

    sorry about the typos know should be "known"
    one should be "on"
    and can continue "to" invoke

  • and this too shall pass | August 26, 2012 11:02 AMReply

    Well, I can say this for sure, if they go through with this film, which I am sure they will, and being that Nina Simone has transitioned and was a High Priestess her SPIRIT will be ever present on the set. If she is unhappy with the way things are happening I am a firm believer of DIVINE INTERVENTION and need be SHE will make it know that this project must not go one...or sales could go horribly awry. With all that said those that are believers in a higher power can continue invoke her energy to just allow her-story to be told as honestly, respectfully and unabashedly as possible; if not in this movie then some other movie...and remember, this too shall pass...

  • renny | August 26, 2012 8:18 AMReply

    Great choice on Zoe, can't wait, she's a great actress who commands your attention in every scene she's in.

  • starry118 | August 25, 2012 9:53 PMReply


  • FIONA | August 25, 2012 7:32 PMReply

    Sorry but this film will be a failure!

  • ojie King | August 25, 2012 6:42 PMReply

    I have had a second think about this whole Zoe Saldana issue. To be honest, she would not have been cast if the directors did not think she had the ability to portray Nina according to her vision. To be honest, another and another film about Nina Simone can always be made. Afterall, there have been several version of the same Nelson Mandella story, even though we know the whole story and how it ends, they still keep on making more. The latest is with Idris Elba. So, lets all take a chill pill, wait for the movie to come out and then we'll take it from there.

  • Nemesis | August 26, 2012 2:28 AM

    @Sandra, I thought the source material was a book written by this Clifton character (i.e. the real-life character, not the fictitious composite character) - in which case, who's to say she's not being true to the source material? It may be BS - a figment of his imagination, or just an attempt to ride on the coat-tales of a legend, but it's clearly enough to get someone interesting in making a movie based on it. And let's not confuse respect for a project (which she clearly has) with respect for the subject (i.e. Nina, which she claims to have). I see this Nina project as being on par with My Night With Marilyn (starring Michelle Williams in the titular role, and she doesn't exactly look like Monroe, though she did an amazing turn in the role). The film is based on a book by a bit player in her life during a period of about a week. A week! A lot of people felt that he was talking absolute bollocks and that he imagined himself to be more important in this phase of the screen icon's life than he actually was, but it was an angle that appealed to the filmmakers, a angle in which someone claimed to have witnessed, first hand, the vulnerability of a troubled icon and to have not only witnessed, but been a source of comfort and support. A film is the last place I'd look for honest, true to life depictions of historical or cultural figures. Films are about telling stories... in both senses of the phrase (i.e. a bit of truth narration mixed in with a bit of non-truth/fantasy). We may not like it but it's allowed and, I'm guessing, she'll take as many "artistic liberties" as she pleases.

  • sandra | August 25, 2012 10:28 PM

    @OJIE and D.C. Kirkwood - Just because the filmmaker is "passionate" about a project does not mean she should be above criticism. It doesn't matter how many other projects used inaccurate portrayals; it doesn't excuse what she is doing now. It's worse if the filmmaker is passionate, as she claims to be. Why not take the time to do things right and be honest to the source material. Creating a false romantic relationship with a gay man... smdh What other "artistic liberties" will she take? Why stop there? I think Mort is the one who should take a "chill pill" as you put it, and do some research. Why should we be grateful for her half-baked approach just because she felt a "connection" to Simone? Why can't black people be allowed to express themselves honestly without being told to relax, take it easy, or take a "chill pill"? Mort is not doing black folks any favors. Why should we refrain from speaking our minds just because the possibility of other Simone films exist? I understand this is not a documentary, but she should show some RESPECT for this project that she is supposedly so passionate about.

  • D.C. Kirkwood | August 25, 2012 7:16 PM

    I agree OJIE. Nina Simone obviously made an impact on this woman and she's a fan. The project has been in limbo for quite some time. It's not a rushed fly by night deal. I think this says that maybe the women is sincere in her desire to create this movie based on her VISION. If she is willing to put her time and money into the project. I say let's atleast give it a chance. Just like with Cadillac Records, a phenomenal movie. Beyonce was used to promote that movie and you had people jumping up and down about that. I think that it was an important story that needed to be told and everyone gave a decent performance. But many people said that the movie had a lot of inaccurate material in it. My point is the cast drew me in. I enjoyed the movie and I learned somethings about the music industry and the artist of that time. I think that should be one of the purposes behind these films to draw in people who may not be familiar with a particular artist and their struggles in the entertainment industry. Let's wait and see.

  • SAB | August 25, 2012 6:03 PMReply

    Cynthia Mort is a con artist at heart if she thinks she can sell an absurd tale that Nina Simone had to impose herself on her gay nurse for sex. It's hard to imagine anything more out of character for a tireless civil rights champion who refused to play segregated venues. Clifton was nothing like the men in Nina's life. If Cynthia Mort does not know that she either never met Clifton or she is unconcerned with the truth. The premise of this film isn't merely stupid, it's insulting to Nina Simone's legacy.

  • Miles Ellison | August 25, 2012 4:51 PMReply

    By the time this gets made, the film is going to be about the life and career of guitarist Al Schackman. Nina Simone will be a bit player. On a more serious note, if you're going to film some made up love story, why attach Nina Simone's name? Just make a cheap Lifetime movie.

  • Nemesis | August 25, 2012 2:37 PMReply

    OK, has nobody heard of artistic licence? So they didn't get her daughter's/estate's approval to make the film. Um, they don't actually have to... not even if it were a documentary. I balked somewhat when I first heard Saldana had been cast for the part but, then again... A young black boy and a woman were cast, among others, to portray Bob Dylan, the legendary folk singer who is neither black nor female and whose status as an artist is just as iconic as Nina's. And, personally, though the idea of a film that's been "approved" by relatives and stake-holders of any sort kind of puts me off somewhat, they can always grant themselves approval to make a movie of their own if they feel that strongly about it.

  • Nemesis | August 26, 2012 1:55 AM

    Haven't looked at the Artistic Licence Rule Book recently, but... yep, sounds like artistic licence to me!

  • Skrim | August 25, 2012 4:04 PM

    "Artistic license" and a total fantasy are 2 different things. If this is going to be a loose depiction of Nina Simone's life, what the hell do they need the music that she literally recorded for? They want to have it both ways and get credit for using the songs that built her legacy, but go cheap on the details of everything else about the total woman she was.

  • AI | August 25, 2012 2:10 PMReply


  • SHEBABABY | August 25, 2012 1:44 PMReply

    She's delusional. There's really no other way of putting it.

  • No | August 25, 2012 1:18 PMReply

    So, Zoe Saldana, who even remotely resemble Nina Simone, looks and skin complexion, is going to play the late singer in a film that is "inspired"? I think the production can "legally" get away with this and not defer to her estate since Nina Simone was a "public person," meaning, a public record of her exists. However, there is the question about access to music. Personally, I'd be happier if Viola Davis, who is closer to looking like Nina and has greater acting chops than Saldana, were playing her, but I'm not producing the script. Good luck!

  • Daniel | August 25, 2012 1:09 PMReply

    The Los Angeles/Santa Barbara coast does not look like the south of France. The light and geography are very different. They are not working with a lot of money. Obtaining music rights is economics and politics. I can see the record company seeing this as an opportunity to increase sales of her music if even for a brief time. Also, because Nina Simone was a public figure/celebrity, there is a lot of leeway legally in the narrative depiction of their life; you don't always need permission. And once you have the music, the train is ready to go. There's a Hendrix film coming out soon and they filmed without the music rights or the approval of Hendrix Experience. That's an incredible gamble. When Mort says the film is moving ahead, I believe her. And I'm not surprised. Maybe if things like this continue to happen, our filmmakers with means and opportunity will make these films and cease complaining when others do it instead. But Gerima just said it, we don't work together.

  • sandra | August 25, 2012 12:33 PMReply

    I wonder how this movie will affect Zoe's career. Usually, serious actors do SOME research on a character who existed in real life. They usually try to find any living relative to aid them in inhabiting the skin of the subject. It's not hard to find out what Simone's daughter thinks. I'm just a little disappointed that Zoe still wants to move ahead. Based on Mort's words, she sounds disingenuous. Zoe's probably blinded by the inability to pass on a rare "meaty role".

  • Theodora | August 25, 2012 12:31 PMReply

    If it is based on Nina Simone, they need to remove her name from the film and her daughter should go to court and sue to have her mothers name removed from the script..

  • ALM | August 25, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    Who cares what her guitarist thinks? This isn't HIS life story. If her own daughter had a great relationship with her (and it appears that she did), and won't co-sign it, then the project should be cancelled. As for this quote, "apparently Mort, a long time fan of the High Priestess of Soul, assisted Simone on a photo shoot in the mid 90's at Simone's then Hollywood apartment." I can rest well knowing that Mort is qualified based on an 8 hr photoshoot. SMH

  • BluTopaz | August 25, 2012 12:27 PMReply

    Get ready for Zoe's 'Nina La Exotique' fashion shoot for Vogue. I also wondered how the hell this culture vulture got her claws on Nina's music, looks like she has help on that end. #more and more disgusted

  • Priss | August 25, 2012 12:12 PMReply

    Very much in agreement. And this Cynthia Mort sounds like a nutcase. Why use "composites of people" and tell a story "inspired by" Simone's life, when her real-life was SO complete and multiple-faceted and amazing. You only do that when you want what you want with no regard for truth and integrity. This project represents the worst of Hollywood.

  • LeonRaymond | August 25, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    I love Zoe Saldana, this is not about her acting, in which I know she can act superbly,this has become bigger in issue, I feel, we are about to witness some one about to do serious harm to their career by taking this role on, some one any one needs to warn her that this might not be the role she should step into. Her audience and cross over audience will deeply ask Why, remember when Denzel was to play Malcolm X both he and Spike were very nervous and Denzel had 2nd and 3rd thoughts about moving forward and it was only after the serious discussion in person with Minister Farrakhan that he went ahead, and even then The Minister issued a terse warning "My arms are but so long, to be able to protect you from the wrath" The same will happen with this project. I am as big a supporter of Latino films and projects as they come. And my concern has and this has nothing to do with her being Latino. This is about inhabiting an Icon an international one at that. But this is one that sadly for her is the wrong move. And the sadness is that doing this will not even put her on the A-LIST

  • Laura | August 25, 2012 12:52 PM

    @LeonRaymond. And remember, Denzel had played Malcolm X on stage in the play "When Chicken Come Home to Roost" before he was on television (I saw a clip of it on Gil Noble's "Like It Is" when I was a kid) And he was STILL nervous doing the screen version of Malcolm X.

  • Laura | August 25, 2012 12:49 PM

    Does Saldana know what she is stepping into? Nina Simone was musician/activist. Big on the activist part. A High Priestess. If and when Saldana goes on the press tour, film journalist are going to ask her Simone related questions. How is she going to answer them, when the script is dodgy. They going to ask her about Nina Simone's daughter's participation. What is she going to say to that? It may not happen in the states because I just doubt that there is enough of an audience for a Nina Simone bio and I don't think Saldana can put butts in the seat, not yet. But overseas where Nina Simone is more well-reknown and people have a deeper knowledge and appreciation of her work, they are going to ask. No one knows who's Cynthia Mort. But they know Saldana. If the Simone story is a success then Mort will get the credit, and her profile goes up. But if it's a flop, people will be looking at Saldana, not Mort.

  • B | August 25, 2012 11:59 AM

    Yours is one of the best comments I've seen so far about this controversy. I think you are absolutely right. She is sort of risking her credibility as an actress by taking this role that she is so wrong/mismatched for.

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