"...you should be in the papers twice in your life: When you're born and when you die. That's the unspoken family motto."
What drew you to this story about your great aunt? How did you first discover her?
I was about 8 years old and we have a family tree, a record of the Rothschilds over the past 200 years. And to my astonishment I saw the name "Kathleen Annie Pannonica" -- she was my grandfather's sister and I'd never heard of her. And I started asking and my father said "Yes, she's my aunt but I don't know anything about her. I've never met her." So it was at an early age that the idea of her lodged in my head. Then in my late teens, like many people, I felt I didn't really fit in and was looking around for a kind of alternative way of living, a kind of role model and her name came up again. I heard she'd been a friend of Charlie Parker's and Thelonius Monk's and I went and found out who they were. I heard she flew Lancaster bombers during the war and I went and looked up Lancaster bombers - this was long before the Internet so it was much harder in those days. I joined the BBC in my early twenties to make films and was sent to New York, the first time I'd been to America, and got her number from another relation and rang her up cold. She said: "Wild! I'll meet you at 12 o'clock." - and she meant midnight! That was in 1984 and she died in 1988 so we had a four year friendship. I'd come to NY as much as possible and she'd take me to clubs. And in between she'd send me records and letters telling me "you must listen to so and so, you must go buy this record." She started to try and educate me. As it happened, our lives turned out very differently and she didn't turn out to be a role model in the practical sense, but she was a spiritual role model. I loved her bravery: that she was prepared to be different and stand up for what she believed in.
At what point did you decide to do the film?
The late 80s, quite soon after Nica died, her sister Miriam was wheelchair bound and I thought oh my God, a whole period of family history is about to disappear. So I started filming [Miriam] on a little children's video camera, not knowing what I was going to do with it. And then I saw a jazz great die, and another, and I decided to interview people every time I went to America. So I started gathering the research and the material quite a long time before I knew I was going to make a documentary. I went straight from Oxford to the BBC so I was making films about other people. In some ways making a film about a member of your family is very obvious and in some ways it's unobvious because it seems slightly indulgent. Even once I decided to make the film, although I worked at the BBC, I couldn't get anyone to commission it. I spent four years trying.
It seemed it was hard to find out much about her from your family. Why was that?
The family is very private. They believe you should be in the papers twice in your life: When you're born and when you die. That's the unspoken family motto. But I think trying to protect her almost fueled worst fears -- people thought that the truth was much worse than it was. In the end I had to rely on the musicians rather than the family to find out what that truth was.
How much time did she actually spend in jail?
She spent only a night in jail. And that's a very good example of something I've only recently, even since I've finished the film, been able to pinpoint that. Trying to get prison records from that period, 1962, was not easy, but I'm now nearly 100 % sure she was only there for a night, possibly two nights. Then the case went to appeal and she got off on a technicality as you see in the film. But in her mind, for that year and a half while she was waiting for the final appeal, I think that was a very difficult period for her because she had no idea if she was going to get off or not.
Did you have any theories about what it was that drove her to be such a champion of these musicians?
She'd fought in the war on the side of freedom. Some of her relations and lots of friends had been killed in camps. The war ends in '45 and she's in NY in '61. I'm not likening racism in America to the Holocaust in Europe; those are very separate things. But if you've devoted five years of your life to fighting for freedom and equality to then see a different form play out in front of your eyes, you go on fighting.
What was one of the biggest challenges of putting the film together?
"I think she was in love with him. There's no doubt about that."
Number one you're dealing with someone who's not alive anymore. You're relying all the time on second-hand information apart from things she's written or interviews she turns up in. It was a vastly complicated story. I went in knowing nothing about American jazz or history, and not much about my family. So trying to be objective and weave all of these elements together was hugely challenging. I had hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews, archive material, photos, soundtrack - all with various rights limitations. It was a complex jigsaw puzzle that also had to be entertaining. So trying to corral the material together into a form that was going to interest people was the most difficult.
Do you believe Nica and Monk had a platonic relationship?
I do. I think she was in love with him. There's no doubt about that. It comes across in all of the photographs and bits of archive and everything she writes about him. I actually think he was not in love with her. I think he was thrilled that this woman thought he was so fantastic and was so prepared to do almost anything for him. But he loved his wife actually. I think it was that simple. By the time they met she was forty plus and had five kids and he was in his late thirties. I don't think she was looking for a passionate sexual relationship. I think she was quite happy being his very special friend, of being the one who's closest to the genius. It's not very fashionable these days, to say; you can't even buy a tube of toothpaste without being told it's about sex. But not everything is about sex. Lots of relationships are platonic and are just as valid and interesting. If I told my closest girlfriend our relationship doesn't matter because I don't sleep with you - that's a mad thing to say, isn't it?
It was interesting that Nica "got" Monk's music before the critics did.
Absolutely. 'Round Midnight,' the album that changed her life, was completely and utterly lambasted by the critics for the first ten years. Monk's friends and protégés Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker got most of the credit for inventing bebop but he was the one they used to come to for advice; they were selling out to huge auditoriums when Monk couldn't fill a small club. He wasn't really recognized until the '60s by which time rock and roll had come along and you had a whole new raft of superstars from Elvis to Hendrix. It's quite unfortunate; Monk was largely overlooked during his life. His reputation has grown since.
How did Helen Mirren become involved?
I was lucky enough to be introduced to Clint Eastwood and Bruce Ricker who had made a documentary 'Straight, No Chaser' in which Nica appeared and Clint and Bruce knew Helen and got her a copy of the rough cut and the script and she said she'd love to do it. So that was a bit of good fortune. Huge bit of good fortune. Let's not be British about this. It was fantastic! And she doesn't like doing narrations, she very much saw this as a part and did it brilliantly.
One last question: Did she really have 306 cats?
It was unbelievable! I was at that house. And you can see, it wasn't a huge house. And I'm a dog person, not a cat person. I have no idea if there were 306 or 104 or 98 but I can tell you there were a helluva lot of cats.
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