Not only was the late Aretha Franklin the “Queen of Soul,” she was also Mother Nature, at least for a couple of minutes.
In the early 2000s, Durango native Jack Turner was growing his company, Snow Monsters, which he started in 1996 as a way to promote snow activities for children at ski resorts.
One of the company’s films, 2002’s “The Snow Monsters Meet Mother Nature,” featured Franklin, who died Thursday at 76, as Mother Nature.
Turner said he was able to get her for the role because her career was in a lull – this was a few years before she performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“It’s an amazing story: I had been doing a lot of work besides my films with record companies, and somehow, I had gotten a hold of her agent in California,” Turner said. “I told him I’d written a screenplay for this film based on the lyrics to the song ‘Respect’ because the film was about protecting the environment, how ski areas do that and why it’s important to the kids.”
The agent gave Turner Franklin’s phone number and he made the call.
Initially, Franklin wasn’t entirely sold on being in the film, which is about children who travel all across the country to meet Mother Nature, who sings “Respect.”
After some persuasion, Franklin agreed to be in the film, Turner said. The production included local residents. Franklin’s costume was made in Durango, and the throne she sits on was made here as well.
When it was time to shoot her part, the crew rented a studio in Detroit because Franklin wouldn’t fly; she’d only travel by bus.
Once in Detroit, they were invited to Franklin’s house on Easter Sunday.
“It was raining like hell in Detroit,” Turner said. “I was sitting there going, ‘I cannot believe I’m sitting here.’ And the whole time I’m thinking, ‘What if she doesn’t want to do it? What if she backs out at the last second?’”
She didn’t back out, and the next day, everyone arrived at the studio.
“I was preparing for how long it was going to take,” Turner said. “I had a CD player with ‘Respect” on it, we hired a backup cameraman so we had two copies. We get all set up, and I said, ‘OK now, I want to do this twice. Once standing up and once sitting down on the throne.’
“And this is the funniest part: I said, ‘Don’t worry if it gets out of sync or messed up because we’ll edit it all in the studio.’ In hindsight, I’m going, ‘How stupid was it to say that? This woman has sung this song 10,000 times minimum.’”
Then the camera started to roll and the music began to play.
“She’s like 3 feet away from me, and I’m telling you, it was perfect,” Turner said. “I’m just sitting there with chills going down my spine. She goes through and never misses one word. And we’re only six minutes into the whole shoot. Then it was over.”
Once it was done, the reality of what he’d just witnessed hit Turner.
“She did two perfect recordings,” he said. “As I’m leaving the studio, I stepped outside and I was literally, ‘Oh my god, I cannot believe I pulled that off.’”
Because Franklin’s part was filmed in Detroit, the crew shot her in front of a green screen. They had to fill in the background with a winter scene, but it was already springtime in Durango and Purgatory had closed for the season. The crew had to improvise, Turner said.
“We brought the chair and the gown and the crown back to Durango and drove up to the top of Coal Bank,” he said. “We got that throne put up in the snow and we put my dad in her outfit” and filmed the scenery from over his shoulder.
In spite of Franklin’s reputation for being difficult to work with, Turner’s experience was completely different.
“She was awesome,” he said.