This week, TINA hits the virtual screen at the famous Berlin Film Festival. To celebrate the occasion I had the chance to talk to two times Oscar winner and producer of the highly anticipated new documentary, Simon Chinn.
First things first: the movie is a masterpiece! My jaw dropped to the floor; I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. It’s modern, it’s big, it’s aesthetic, it’s sincere and painful – all at the same time. It’s the ultimate Tina documentary, both for the big audience and for the fans. The balance is perfect.
I’m really pleased you say that. The challenge with this story is that it’s so widely known. Our ambition going into this was to tell the story in a way it has never been told before so I’m glad you feel we achieved that!
Our instinct was that if we get the right team together and if we have the access, the time and the resources, we will be able to add something to the narrative that’s already known. I do feel very proud of the film in that respect. A lot of work went into it and the directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, in particular, deserve huge credit.
How did the project start? Who took the initiative for this film to be made?
I actually met with Tali Pelman (producer of the Tina musical) at a dinner for a mutual friend in 2017. She asked me whether we’d be up for doing some short films, sort of ‘behind the scenes’ material, to promote the musical. She didn’t want them to look too promotional, so she was looking for documentary makers to produce them.
It’s not a project that we would generally take on. However, I said to Tali that if there was an opportunity to build a relationship with Tina, and at the end of it she might be interested in doing a feature documentary, we would do it.
We ended up doing the shorts on a shoestring, but we put one of our Oscar-nominated directors on it – and they turned out great. And I think we did impress Tina and Erwin.
But still in the beginning they were a bit reticent. Then I told Tina and Erwin about our ambition and the documentaries we’ve done in the past
I think that’s when the penny dropped, and finally, they were on board. And I can say without hesitation that they have been nothing but supportive since then. They were amazing partners.
So how involved were Tina and Erwin during the production of the documentary?
I felt it was crucial to make sure that, at every step of the process, they knew what we were up to. When someone entrusts you with their story, you don’t expect them to just let you get on with it. So however trusting they may be, it’s so important to bring them on the journey with you.
Tina’s husband Erwin is very much the gatekeeper to Tina’s world and we knew that he was going to be absolutely invaluable to the success of the film in terms of introducing us, vouching for us, to those closest to Tina. We really needed him for that.
I must say however that the objective of these kinds of films isn’t always to make your main subject happy. Tina and Erwin had no creative control over the film. That was a precondition of ours doing it.
I mean, you do want them to be happy, but you want them to be happy because they feel the film is fair and authentic to them and their story. Of course, there’s no way we would have made a film that wasn’t in some sense a celebration of Tina. But also, equally, there are things in it that are a bit less comfortable for her. But Tina is a very content and grateful person and found peace with her past. So it was possible for her to accept those things as part of her story.
Can you tell us more about the directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin?
We produced a feature documentary, which they directed called LA 92, which went on to win an Emmy. They were amazing in terms of the way they approached that film. They took that basic idea we came up with and really made it their own and didn’t rest until it was as good as it could possibly be. They are master craftsmen.
Dan and T.J. came on this project based on our relationship with, and access to, Tina. They were looking for their next project and when I first pitched it to them, I sort of said: ‘Look we’re collaborating with Tina. I don’t know what it is yet, all I know is that a documentary about Tina Turner at this kind of level, of this scale, needs to be made. It hasn’t been done and it needs to be done.’
Documentary-making at this level is incredibly painstaking, sometimes it can feel like running a marathon and can be very challenging! However, I’ve rarely worked with directors who are this rigorous and thoughtful about everything they do. They’re never satisfied. They’re not even satisfied now – that’s always a good sign!
As you said earlier Tina Turner’s life story is very well known and has been told many times. How is the approach you took for this movie different?
I had a feeling that if we could bring in the right team, the right directors, raise an ambitious budget and get a certain amount of access to Tina and those who were the closest to her, then we could do something that had never been done before. Something that feels creatively distinct from the musical, from the movie What’s Love Got To Do With It and from anything else that’s been written about her.
The directors Dan and T.J. started reading. They became really intrigued by the details of her story and particularly the specifics of how Tina left Ike, and the difficult period between the end of the relationship, resurrecting her career and the subsequent success. That’s when it became a relatable, universal story about overcoming adversity for Dan and T.J. and they felt they could do something with it.
But the real turning point for them was when they first went to meet Tina at the end of 2018. There is something about her that they discovered – this interesting paradox where on the one hand in many ways that she is defined by the story of her abuse at the hands of Ike in the public mind but on the other hand she herself never wanted to be defined by it and she just wanted to sort of reject that story.
Unfortunately, all her attempts to put this story to rest, writing the book, the movie, were unsuccessful as people came to identify her with this triumph over adversity. However, in the latter years of her life she has reached a form of acceptance.
How much time did you spend with Tina?
As filmmakers, we were very aware that we didn’t want to subject her to anything that she felt was going to be traumatizing. I think we were respectful, and we always understood very clearly from the outset that she was only going to give us a certain amount of time. But in a weird way these challenges do end up becoming opportunities.
The question of how we were going to find Tina’s voice in the film in the absence of much testimony from her, certainly in terms of what we shot, drove us to those tape recordings.
Those tapes are recordings of interviews that Carl Arrington did for People magazine in 1981 and Kurt Loder for the book I, Tina. Can you tell us more about how you found those?
We became aware of the Kurt Loder material early on in the process because we were interested in talking to Kurt as a potential interviewee in the film. We had to do a little bit of a job persuading him to let us use the tapes, that we were trustworthy and that it was going to be a worthwhile enterprise for him to be associated with.
Similarly with Carl Arrington, who was more of a discovery actually.
The tapes became absolute cornerstones of the film. I don’t think anybody has ever heard Tina talking like that before. The truth is that these recordings are amazing because of what they inherently are and that they were never intended for publication. They are incredibly unguarded intimate moments, sincere and very painful.
How did you decide which people should be interviewed? Rather than big names from the industry you decided to mostly feature people that were more intimately related to Tina, but might not be known to the larger audience.
Dan and TJ had this idea about ‘how her story was told and by whom’. So everyone in the film who’s not an associate or a friend of Tina is actually in some sense a storyteller of Tina’s life.
Angela Bassett obviously for the movie, Carl Arrington for the People article, Kurt Loder for the book, Katori Hall for the musical and Oprah, who as a storyteller has been responsible for bringing Tina’s story to a wider audience.
We were most interested in how they had tried to tell aspects of Tina’s story and bring it to the fore in different ways.
The documentary also features Tina’s friend and associate Rhonda Graam, who recently passed away. How was your collaboration with her?
Rhonda was unwell for a lot of the production and I have to pay special tribute to her. The directors built a very good relationship with her and she was incredibly supportive of the project and turned over her meticulous archives. A lot of what you see in the film in terms of archive, certainly a lot of the rarer material, is Rhonda’s.
In one of the moments when she was better health-wise, she gave us an extraordinary interview. We weren’t actually expecting it. The fact that we managed not just to get an interview with her, but such a strong interview where she really does look great and speaks with such wisdom and intimacy about Tina, is incredibly poignant at this point.
When did you screen the movie to Tina?
At first, it wasn’t clear if Tina would be up for watching the film because obviously, these are difficult things for her to see and hear about. Erwin however had already seen several versions of the cut and at a certain point, he felt that she would be ready, and he talked to her about it.
By the time we screened the documentary to her, it was already finished. I made it clear to Erwin that he needed to tell Tina before she looked at it that it was the final product and that we couldn’t change anything! This was in autumn of last year. I would have loved to have gone to Zurich for it, but with the lockdown, it wasn’t possible. So, Erwin and Tina watched it and then we got on a Zoom call with them both immediately after the screening.
I was slightly trepidatious getting her immediate reaction to it, as you can imagine. But the minute I saw her, I knew that she was happy! She had a big smile on her face and honestly, I couldn’t have been happier. It was a lovely experience for me, I felt very privileged. It felt like a historic moment.
What are your hopes for the movie?
I’m just excited really, it’s high time the film is unveiled. I feel there’s a big in-built audience for this film, among Tina’s fans and those who remember her in her heyday. There’s a huge amount of love and respect out there for her.
I also hope that the film will travel beyond this audience. Maybe some people who wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to a film about Tina Turner will hear that it’s a film that they should watch and will discover or re-discover Tina through it.
Growing up in the 80s, a lot of people of my generation associate Tina with her extraordinary solo career. But what many people don’t remember is what happened before, and what an extraordinary trailblazer she was as a young performer. The full trajectory of her life as a performer, when seen in this way, is going to be a surprise to many. And even for the fans who know the whole story by heart, I think it’s going to be very powerful.
Any Oscar hopes?
It’s really too early to say and it’s such a competitive process. I’ve been through it many times, both as a winner (Searching for Sugar Man, Man on Wire) and a loser. You just never know the films that are going to get into the conversation or why they get into the conversation. But who knows!?
Available on HBO Max March 27 in the US and internationally in select cinemas and at home this summer
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Lightbox
Distribution: HBO/HBO Max, Universal, Altitude (streaming in U.S. March 27; in select theaters and VOD internationally this summer)
With: Tina Turner, Carl Arrington, Angela Bassett, Ann Behringer, Terry Britten, Roger Davies, Rhonda Graam, Katori Hall, Kurt Loder, Rupert Perry, Le’Jeune Richardson, Jimmy Thomas, Oprah Winfrey
Directors: Dan Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Producers: Simon Chinn, Jonathan Chinn, Diane Becker
Co-Producers: Vanessa Tovell, Ben Piner
Executive producers: Erwin Bach, Tali Pelman, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller, Will Clarke, Andy Mayson, Mike Runagall, David Gilbery, Charles Dorfman
Directors of photography: Megan Stacey, Dimitri Karakatsanis
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Juuriaans
Editors: Carter Gunn, T.J. Martin, Taryn Gould