Nina Simone biopic director, producers stand by casting Zoe Saldana in title role

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Zoe Saldana

Zoe Saldana and Nina Simone. (Photos: Getty Images)

Like Rocky, which initially opened in only three theaters but became a cult classic, Kirkwood believes a small budget picture like Nina, made for between five and six million dollars on a 24-day shoot, will significantly benefit from word of mouth.

He welcomes the early attention it’s getting, despite the adverse messaging.

Mort agreed. “We are going to get eyes right?” she said. “Good, bad, or indifferent. It’s a big thing to take on, but I’m glad there’s going to be a movie about Nina Simone.”

New developments: Will Dr. Dre score the film?

Currently in post-production, the next steps for Nina include creating a score that captures Simone’s dynamism. Kirkwood hopes to secure an extremely heavyweight producer for the task.

“If we can get Dr. Dre involved, it could be very modern arrangements” that make up the score for Nina, Kirkwood said. “He’s going to see a rough cut in about a week and a half. I would love for him to do what Quincy did with In the Heat of the Night and [what] Quincy did with In Cold Blood. Quincy did a lot of scoring. I would love if Dre’s next step would be to score it. That would be a great challenge.”

Kirkwood is thinking bigger still. He has connected with an online broadcast network known as Bite Size TV based in Silicon Valley to do tie-in promotions for Nina. Kirkwood will build awareness about the movie through sharing scenes and interviews with online audiences, allowing people to discover Nina before it comes to theaters.

“When you see the picture, [Nina] had a lot of other problems going on,” Kirkwood said. “This examines her as a person, as a human being, what she had to go through in her love life to make her music and to get her music heard, and it’s a part of her life that was very misunderstood[.]”

Helping audiences give Nina a shot

Nina will look at her as a singer, as a woman, and as a complex being discovering inner truths through love and personal conflict. Plus, there will be a focus on Simone’s mental and emotional struggles.

“Nina was bipolar,” Kirkwood continued. “She was kind of out there, and it’s about this relationship with this male nurse she picked up at Cedars, and he didn’t know what he was getting into.”

Online marketing will give the film “a shot,” he believes, by helping audiences preview her life narrative in a new light.

“I would have made this movie if it wasn’t Nina,” Kirkwood said. “If you had just given me this script and it was just complete fiction, and she had never existed, I would have said, ‘Yeah, let’s make this movie.’ It’s almost like The English Patient. It’s not what you think it’s going to be.”

What does Kirkwood hope audiences will take away from Nina?

“I want them to come out wrecked in a good way,” he said. “That’s how I always saw it, that was my drive. From now on when you hear Nina’s music, you’ll really listen to it.”

The director’s hopes for Nina

For her directorial debut, Mort does not want to take on the entire legacy of Nina Simone. She only wants to illustrate an important facet of it that everyone can relate to, which also shaped her artistry indelibly: her little-known love life.

“In an interview, a version of which we used, Nina said, ‘Sometimes people forget that I’m a woman, and I sing as many love songs as I do,’ and I think that’s a really important quote,” Mort explained. “Her civil rights stance comes from not only her uncompromising belief in civil rights, and her belief in strength and power for everyone, but I think it also comes […] from a need to be heard, and a need to be seen and the power of words, which she took very seriously, which you hear in all of her music. And I think that’s a very interesting quality.”

Mort stresses that the movie does not reveal all the days, nights, laughter, tears and turmoil that brought Simone to the forefront of the music business and Civil Rights Movement. Instead, it serves as a window capturing moments that empowered her heart.

“I like a lot of things that [the film] says about being an artist, about being a woman, about that brilliance, about love,” Mort mused. “It’s clearly not a biopic as much as I think Nina Simone is amazing… I liked her life. I liked what she stood for. I liked that she’s uncompromising… I was taking on something else that I felt was universal to everybody. That doesn’t take anything away from who she is or who she was.

“I hope people see Nina,” Mort affirmed. “I hope they see her heart and her soul.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @courtgarcia