Interview: Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin on Giving a Legendary Singer the Final Word in “Tina”

It’s remembered towards the end of Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s “Tina” that Tina Turner caused a bit of a stir at the Venice Film Festival in the fall of 1993 when she admitted that she hadn’t seen “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and was unlikely to.

“I’m not so thrilled about the past,” she said to the surprise of those assembled, who could assume that the film had received her endorsement when she was all smiles sitting next to Angela Bassett, whose performance as Turner would receive an Oscar nomination, and director Brian Gibson. Of course, any history of the thunderous singer would need to include her relationship with Ike Turner, her abusive ex-husband with whom she rose to stardom, and while the film was adapted from the memoir she wrote with Kurt Loder, she was loathe to revisiting that time in her life.

Like every moment of success Turner had since splitting with Ike in 1978, the rapturous reception of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” came with nagging questions that continued to tie her to him well after she had thought she had broken free and if nothing else, “Tina” would seem to be a triumph simply from presenting Turner now seemingly at peace in an idyllic home in Zurich, Switzerland, retired from performing and essentially saying goodbye to her public life, giving a final interview to Lindsay and Martin following a final walk on the red carpet for the Broadway premiere of “Tina: The Musical.” But besides offering a regal-looking Turner in a rare mood to reflect, “Tina” has the kind of impact akin to one of her power ballads in serving not so much as a retrospective as a reckoning, untangling her experience from the narrative that was created around her, having to constantly battle being seen relative to Ike.

“Tina” covers her tempestuous relationship to Ike, from the moment the 17-year-old Turner, then known as Anna Mae Bullock went to see a series of his shows in St. Louis hoping he’d take notice of her to reaching the top of the charts with “Proud Mary,” but it exposes how she grew into her own person even when she was married to him, taking an interest in Buddhism and exploring her own sound (yielding “Run Deep, Mountain High”), and that even after their divorce, she could play to stadiums on the strength of her solo work yet still couldn’t get far enough away when she was reminded of Ike in any press she’d do. Lindsay and Martin, who thoughtfully contextualized the chaos of the L.A. Riots in their previous film “LA 92” and broke out with the extraordinary high school football doc “Undefeated,” make a number of subtle but unexpected storytelling choices that clear the way for Turner to do what she does best — giving her the mic and letting the reverberations of that powerful voice be heard.

With the film airing stateside on HBO this weekend following its premiere at Berlinale, Lindsay and Martin spoke about trying their hand at something new in a genre where so much can seem preordained, being careful in how to acknowledge the shadow of one story on another without falling into it, and how they could bring emotionality out of the archival material they were using.

When you’re approached with this, what gets you excited about it?

Dan Lindsay: We had some hesitations honestly at first. Simon [Chinn, the producer] approached us after making a deal with Tina to do it, and there were several calls from Simon and Jonathan [Chinn] saying, “Guys, guys, we need an answer.” But the final spark, at least for me, was coming to this realization that even if we didn’t know what the approach was that we were going to take, something about the documentary form felt like the most proper form to tell Tina’s story — to finally hear this story from Tina herself and through her voice — even not [being] familiar with the details but understanding the broad strokes, knowing the emotionality of it would be so heightened because you’re actually hearing it from her. You’re seeing her perform as opposed to somebody else performing as her or [hearing it] in somebody else’s words.

The film grapples with how Tina’s story is inextricably linked to Ike’s, but did a lot of conversations happen over how best to frame this? You introduce the film with the 1981 People Magazine interview that’s an act of liberation to put the past behind her, yet it still is all about her history with Ike.

TJ Martin: Yeah, there were 70 different versions of the opening of this film. [laughs] It was extremely hard to crack because to your point, [the opening] sets up the POV for the entire film and it’s the only way to understand there’s essentially two origin stories. You’re watching the story of Tina Turner, but you’re also watching the story of the story of Tina Turner and these two wrestle with each other. For the longest time, we thought the first time that she came forward with her story was through [her memoir] “I, Tina,” so the discovery of the People Magazine article was, from an inside baseball filmmaking perspective, [a curveball where we thought] “I wish it could just be the book because now we have too many iterations of her coming forward and telling her story.”

It actually ended up being a blessing in disguise in the sense that it underscored the tension of the film, which is the intent of going forward with the People Magazine article was to separate herself from Ike, but what ended up happening was it set us off on a journey that the story of Ike and the relationship with Ike actually cemented the narrative of Tina Turner. There were a lot of openings where we were almost forcing our hand, trying to do too much of the meta stuff. We had versions where we had behind-the-scenes footage of her seeing some of the rehearsals of the musical [“Tina” on Broadway] and we were drawn to that idea of someone looking at their story reflected back at them, but it just started getting really confusing. So when we understood and discovered the 1981 People Magazine article and the intention behind it, it just made so much more sense. It really clarified what the film is that you’re going to watch.

When the Chinns get the life rights for one of these biopics, does that actually involve a “box” of archival stuff along with the participation of the subject or does it just mean it’s an authorized biography?

Dan Lindsay: It’s a little bit of both. In this case, there was a little bit of a box of stuff that got dropped off at the office and I think we were hoping that there would be a treasure trove of stuff, but many of the boxes in that big box were just like multiple copies of “Wildest Dreams” records. [laughs] But what Tina’s participation beyond being in the film obviously means is really she was saying “I trust that these people can tell my story,” so that allowed us access to things that would’ve been harder if we were to try to do this without her. Roger Davies, her manager, has an incredible part of her story, and it still was really difficult to get him to sit down and do it, and Lejeune [Fletcher], who’s a friend of Tina’s and was a backup dancer both in Ike and Tina and in Tina’s solo years, and I think without Tina saying, “I want to do this,” they never would’ve sat down and done interviews because they don’t want to revisit this stuff [because] they have the same experience as Tina in terms of people wanting to sensationalize her story, so their reaction over time has been just to say, “I don’t want to talk about it” just like Tina. Ultimately, that’s really what Tina’s involvement [entailed]. It’s not like she was watching cuts or calling us and saying, “What about this? What about that?” She said, “Okay, let’s do it. I’ll do the interview” and we went and made the film.

One of the amazing things you do – and it’s quite literal in the airy environments you see the people you interview, but you keep the circle of interviews small, so you really give the space to those who are speaking. Was it much of a decision to limit yourself in that way and really allow the people you have on hand to have the floor to themselves?

TJ Martin: Yeah, so much of that is just once we landed on the POV of the film, we had a long list of possible participants in this, but it ended up casting itself in the sense that we ended up leaning on the scribes — the people who have told her story before or have embodied Tina in Angela’s case by playing her — so it was really a combination of people who somehow embodied her narrative with people who were actually present in those moments in her life. Because it was such a specific lane that we were going for, the moment we tried to go into a little bit more typical rock doc aspects of it, talking about her artistry and the influence she had on the music industry, it was not the film we were making, so we didn’t feel the need to populate it with additional voices.

Also, at the end of the day, even with the voices that we did use, if a piece of archive is doing a lot of the heavy lifting and allowing you to pick up on the subtext or intent of the scene, there’s no reason to then support it by someone being really didactic and explaining it to you, so a lot of our films, we’ll populate it with voices and then just start stripping away, so the whole thing feels a little bit like a cinematic journey and not someone telling you how you should feel.

This may be too abstract to ask about, but I was curious whether you feel like you could use the archival material almost like fabric – the quality of the elements you had for “Run Deep, Mountain High” almost feels like you were working with emotional textures.

TJ Martin: A hundred percent, though so much of it is instinctual. You experiment with it until it’s something you feel more than anything. It’s funny you point out that particular scene because there was very limited archive of her performing that song, so it was this reworking of how to keep it alive, but always trying to support the intention of the scene, which was to remind you that she’s actually feeling a sense of liberation for the first time and getting a taste of what life is like without Ike and maybe sing differently. You’re also getting a real insight into what freedom might feel like, so the visuals and the materials that we’re working with somehow have to emulate that, so a lot of that is trial and error.

Dan Lindsay: The film itself has these two [modes] – there’s a stillness to it and there’s a kineticism, as Tina’s story has – there’s triumph and tragedy. So there were times where we’d just need to stay on one picture and let that be the thing and then there were other times where…I joked at one point, this film was going to be subtitled “Tina: How TJ Learned to Love Cross-Dissolves.” I don’t think we ever had a cross-dissolve in any of our other films and they’re all over it in here, but that was intentional [in] how do we speak to this part of Tina. When we finally landed on the beginning [musical number in the film] before we get into any of the People Magazine [interview], it’s like how do we honor the fact that she’s a massive, iconic performer and get people excited to watch this film, but [without] showing a performance clip? Because that’s disingenuous to the film were making, so [we thought] can that performance footage almost disintegrate into something that takes on new meaning, so we never step away from the performance, but everything around it starts to shift? You’re watching this iconic performer [projecting] strength, and a minute later, there’s a ton of vulnerability, and I’m seeing something behind the way she’s on stage and I think you’re articulating it really interestingly — that is about fabric and stitching that together in a way that gives it new meaning.

One of the other really great touches is how you wander through the house she once shared with Ike in Los Angeles that feels as if it’s haunted when you revisit it in the present day versus seeing the vibrant house she lives in now in Zurich. How did you even know that her former house in L.A. was still standing?

Dan Lindsay: The interesting thing is that [Los Angeles] footage existed [before our film]. This is more just luck and serendipity on two levels – one a filmmaker who realized that house was going to be up for sale in 2017 and was a big Tina fan went and filmed it. He was going to make a film – and still might – that was more about the person who took ownership of that house from Ike and Tina and preserved it. He was a dentist who never really changed anything, and when we learned that that [footage] existed, we were like, “Oh man, we’d love to see it.” And when we saw it, we [thought] this is like a stroke of luck because it was how we were already shooting and we talked a lot early on about could we go into the spaces where a lot of these things happened but still have them aged. We never wanted to do recreations. We wanted to just bring you to a space and allow your imagination to work in the past there. There were versions of the film where we got a little too on the nose with our metaphors because [the other filmmaker] filmed the house being demolished, but that was just a stroke of luck.

What’s it like to get to the finish line?

TJ Martin: We were really fortunate in that Tina had a very, very positive response to the film. She felt it was accurate and authentic to the way she remembered her own narrative and more importantly, she said it was easier to watch than she thought it would be, so there may be some truth in the journey that she goes on in the film of accepting her narrative. At the end of every film, it’s always a relief and then you’ve got a short window of relief and respite before you go into pure panic attack and anxiety because now people are going to see it. I’m genuinely curious to see not necessarily how audiences react to the film, but what the engagement is going to be with Tina again. Hopefully, we can put ourselves aside and look at what that relationship is like for the public and Tina.

“Tina” will air on HBO on March 27th at 8 pm.