In the wake of the FX/Hulu documentary’s widespread impact, ‘New York Times Presents’ showrunner Mary Robertson, senior story editor Liz Day and director Samantha Stark discuss the questions they still want answered and which ’90s and aughts stars they’d also like to revisit.
“What if we made OJ: Made in America but for Britney Spears?”
According to New York Times Presents executive producer and showrunner Mary Robertson, that was the pitch — from NYT senior story editor Liz Day — that kicked off the process of making Framing Britney Spears, a documentary that has brought the #FreeBritney movement to the mainstream and prompted a widespread reexamination of the media’s treatment of the pop superstar.
Since the documentary premiered on Feb. 5 on FX (it is streaming on Hulu), Spears and the project have been tweeted about over a million times, with stars including Kacey Musgraves, Sarah Jessica Parker and Miley Cyrus speaking out in support of the star while Spears’ former boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, has apologized for his role in an early-2000s breakup media narrative. The documentary’s look at Spears’ unique legal conservatorship has in the meantime refocused attention on Spears’ ongoing court battle to change the terms of the arrangement. Though Spears did not participate in the film, some speculated that the pop star addressed the documentary in a recent Instagram post that stated “each person has their story and their take on other people’s stories.”
The reporting behind the film that led to this cultural moment involved creating a spreadsheet of around 1,000 people to contact, watching hours of paparazzi footage and attempting to spotlight the women involved in Britney’s career, Robertson, Day and documentary director Samantha Stark say. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the three filmmakers discuss how they gathered sources and avoided widespread “assumptions” in their reporting. They also reveal the ’90s and aughts stars they’d also like to revisit as well as whether they are interested in doing a follow-up to Framing Britney Spears.
What sparked your interest in tackling this topic in the first place?
Liz Day: I had long wanted to do and see a documentary made about Britney Spears because we’re in a similar age range, so I’ve always felt a sort of nostalgic connection to her. When I was in high school, she was very much America’s golden girl, Miss Perfect, the girl everyone wanted to be. And I also remember in my early 20s, watching her go through her public struggles and just be absolutely battered by the paparazzi and the tabloids and become a national punchline. I certainly felt a little complicit in that I was reading Perez Hilton and TMZ and laughing along at the different memes of Britney — “If Britney can get through 2007, you can get through anything,” whatever. I was also inspired by the trend in recent documentaries and journalism projects to reexamine prominent women like Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, Princess Diana, and go back through the media coverage at that time and see what we can learn about ourselves now by doing that. And then lastly, I would also just say that the mystery of the conservatorship had always fascinated me because something about it seemed to be an inherent contradiction and not really add up: How could this person be both so supposedly severely at risk and unable to take care of herself that she needs to this intense level of legal protection but at the same time perform at a very high level in Las Vegas, making millions of dollars, appearing on television — how could those two things both be true at the same time?
Mary Robertson: So cut to Liz walking into our virtual conference room and say[ing], “What if we made OJ: Made in America but for Britney Spears?” And I thought it was a brilliant pitch, for all the reasons Liz just laid out, but what I took from the OJ: Made in America reference is that one of the things that film did so brilliantly is start the story decades before the trial so that by the time you as the viewer are receiving the information surrounding the trial, you’re bringing enhanced perspective, new sympathies, new empathies to your understanding of the individuals and the forces that are swirling around them. And I thought, what if we did that with Britney Spears, too? So l loved it and did my part to say, “Let’s do this, let’s flesh this out.”
Samantha Stark: One of the first things I did was I asked everybody I knew, “What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Britney Spears?” And a huge majority of the people said, “When she shaved her head.” To look at somebody who has this whole life and all these people who love her and just kind of take her down to a single still frame pissed me off, so I wanted to figure out what was outside that frame. I have a theory that that single frame has affected her since it happened, is still affecting her now — this assumption from the tabloid headlines over that frame that she’s crazy and that that means that she’s incapable of making her own decisions and you don’t have to listen to her and you can make fun of her. So I wanted to figure out what was outside that frame, what was really going on, and we talked to a lot of people and did a lot of research. Liz and Melanie Bencosme, our associate producer, had this gigantic spreadsheet calling everybody and once we could connect with people, we started to get a completely different picture of everything about Britney Spears basically.
For reasons you present in the film, I would imagine people in Britney Spears’ orbit have a distrust for the media. How did you convince people who are close to Spears to take part in the documentary?
Day: We started reaching out to people and I believe our original pitch was pretty general: It was something along the lines of “we’re interested in reexamining Britney’s story and correcting a lot of the misperceptions out there about her.” That resonated with a lot of people. A surprising number of people were willing to talk on background. It was obviously a lot more difficult to get people on the record, and then on camera beyond that was even more challenging. But yeah, there were a lot of different factors that made it difficult to truly get people willing to talk and those include attorney/client privilege, medical privacy, an ongoing court case, NDAs, complicated family dynamics as well, and then I think a lot of people felt they didn’t trust the media to report on Britney accurately or fairly. Because there’s a lot of different coverage of Britney, spanning from tabloids to mainstream, different standards for using anonymous sources and confirming things that someone tells you anonymously. And we really had to earn the trust of people for making the pitch to them in why they should talk to us. I’d probably argue that the most hard-won trust that we got was Felicia [Culotta], which Sam brokered.
Stark: It’s very difficult as a journalist ethically to try to make a piece about somebody who’s not participating. That really bothered me, and so one thing we really wanted to do was make sure was that we were never assuming what was inside Britney’s head in any of our reporting or interviews or conversations with people. There’s so much reporting that has been done on Britney that is with one anonymous source where who knows who that anonymous source is — it could be a PR person, who knows who, and then it gets reported over and over and over again. Like a lot of people assume Britney has a mental illness and that they know what it is and we found in really trying to look through this that you can’t know. It’s private medical health records, it’s HIPAA, they’re all sealed. This is people making assumptions and then the assumptions turning into more people thinking it’s reality when it’s not.
We really also decided on our first day when we were all together that we were never going to make fun of Britney Spears in the piece. We had an all-female producing team and researcher team, and I think that struck a chord with people. We were looking at all the coverage that has happened so far to Britney Spears: It appears that men are the ones who are leading the coverage. And also a lot of the voices who are the ones who give interviews are men. So when we were looking to learn about her early career at Jive Records, we talked to some of the male executives, and it’s kind of the same people who always talk about her, and we really were like, okay, we need to find more women who can speak to her early career, like, I know they’re there. So we found Kim Kaiman, who I think we had written off because she’s a marketing director and what does that mean? But when we talked to her, we realized, oh, this is the person that really created Britney’s image as a teenager. She’s so important and no one ever tried to talk to her, really. And she was impressed with our female team and the questions we were asking that were different, so she was the one who brokered the relationship with Felicia. She reached out to Felicia. We had reached out to Felicia many times with no response. Felicia just doesn’t respond to those things because she gets them all the time, she hasn’t spoken in many years and so I think that was the thing that helped.
The documentary shines an uncomfortable light, of course, on the paparazzi’s relationship with Spears. What was the process like to get some of those people that were part of that — like celebrity videographer Daniel Ramos and former photography director of Us Weekly Brittain Stone — to speak for the documentary and reflect on their role?
Stark: We had [members of the team] doing original research for this and they were looking for how we could see what the paparazzi looked like. Almost everyone was taking still photos, so you just see what’s inside that frame. But to see outside of it, we wanted someone who had video. And so Daniel Ramos was one of the only people who had a video camera. He actually started doing this because he wanted to make a documentary about the paparazzi so he started following around the paparazzi filming then, but then, as he says in the film, he got overtaken by the idea of how much money he could make by putting the camera onto Britney or the celebrities and then ended up doing that for many years. He was really willing to talk to us. And also Brittain Stone, who’s the Us Weekly photography director, I feel in some ways they are the most open of all the people who did this. So they are the ones who are the most self-reflective of anybody, which is saying a lot. But I was surprised why either of them would say yes.
After doing the research for this documentary, to what extent do you think that the relationship between Britney Spears as a star and the media was symbiotic — was it ever, and if so, when did it turn from that to parasitic?
Day: That [symbiosis] was something we heard a lot and you hear Danny voice in the film, “She needed us and we needed her.” That obviously is true of the celebrity paparazzi or tabloid relationship to a degree universally in that celebrities benefit sometimes from their photos being out there and the publicity that generates. But I think that what we learned from Britney, or what we heard, is that she was very sweet and nice in a way to them at first as a way to make the best of the situation and to cope with the attention that she was given. And then the relationship really started to get way more extreme around the time that she had her children, and that’s where you saw the tabloid narrative really turn. And I think that’s around the era where you start to see the footage that we include in the film where she’s trying to walk across the street and she’s getting absolutely swarmed by a sea of men and she’s not able to walk two feet without having potentially her safety endangered and it’s really extreme. And then obviously once she started having more public incidents like the umbrella or shaving her head in 2007, the paparazzi only became more intense, culminating in that Jan. 2008 month where she has two psychiatric holds in one month. An interesting thing about the conservatorship is they’ve really locked down the paparazzi coverage of her. You’ll sometimes see TMZ catch her and Sam or X17 or Hollywood Life, whoever’s the iterations of them that are still around, but really the conservatorship siphons her off from that sort of coverage and ultimately we’re just left with her social media now to see her life and figure out what’s going on.
Stark: Liz, Mel and I were all watching these hours of paparazzi footage and we were so angry. We were texting each other with these rageful feelings. Because when you look at it, something that really struck me was how we were watching Britney negotiate how to move through space in a way that you might imagine someone having to negotiate with an abuser. So there’s all this footage of her in her car with dozens of men standing, blocking her from getting out of the parking lot. You see her try to flirt with them to get them to move, try to ask them nicely, laugh, joke — watching her try to flirt with them so she can physically move to where she needs to go was so jarring because you never see that when you see the picture of Britney raising an umbrella or shaving her head. People were always like, “Well, why do you do it then? Why do you play with the paparazzi? Why do you pose for the paparazzi?” And in an interview we saw, she said, “Well, if I didn’t, I would be trapped in my home” because anywhere she went, they were there. So I think it’s kind of rebellious for her to say, “I’m going to go to Starbucks anyway.”
Day: I would just also add that there’s so much paparazzi footage and material that we didn’t even include, either. I’m obsessed with this incident that [occurred] two months after she gives birth to her second kid, I think it’s in November 2006, the paparazzi take a very graphic upskirt of her not wearing underwear and the reaction at the time among the public is just to laugh like, “Oh, Britney’s a mess,” whereas today that would be illegal in a lot of states for the paparazzi to take a nonconsensual nude photo of her, even if it’s in public. There was just so much footage of them yelling at her, trying to get a reaction from her, screaming “Britney, sleep with me! Britney, are you trying to kill yourself? Britney, are you crazy?” It’s jarring to watch that in 2021 whereas like the paparazzi just aren’t like that anymore — laws have changed, social media, a million different reasons. It feels like a fossil from 100 years ago, but in some cases it’s just from 10 years ago, which is really shocking.
Robertson: I remember us looking really diligently for commentary circa the upskirt photo in which anyone was questioning or criticizing the paparazzi’s choice to take a photograph of her genitals. And maybe it exists, maybe someone will find it, but we didn’t find it. All of the criticism was directed squarely at her and her contemporaries and the suggestion that we read and heard over and over again was that she was doing this as a “solicitation” and should be criticized for that tasteless choice.
There have been some recent developments in the Britney Spears conservator case, most notably the court filing last summer where Spears’ court-appointed lawyer said she “strongly opposed” her father as a conservator. Did any of this information drop while you were filming and, if so, how did that change where you took the story?
Stark: When we first started, it had been about 12 years since we had heard anything publicly filed by a lawyer stating that Britney wanted anything in the conservatorship to change that we know of. When these court filings first started coming out, we were so surprised. We cannot overestimate what a big change this was, how huge this was, because we had never heard anything from this. I had already been filming with the fans and they had been going on this gut instinct that they thought Britney wanted something to change, but we didn’t know that, so it was lot of like, “How do you know? What if you’re saying something she doesn’t want, this is a ‘conspiracy theory.'” And then in one of the filings it came out where it said “Britney welcomes the well-informed support of her fans” and that really changed everything for the part of the #FreeBritney movement coverage because we saw them get this vindication, well at least something we thought was right, so then we could focus and tell that story as well as the original story, together.
Between this documentary, the Jessica Simpson memoir and the Paris Hilton documentary, we’re really having a moment where people are starting to reframe the treatment of female celebrities in the ’90s and aughts. Why do you think this happening now and are there any people who you would want to revisit who haven’t been revisited yet?
Robertson: We have a list of others we think are worth revisiting. Maybe I won’t go through all of them in this particular form, but I do think that it’s notable that when the film came out, we saw a lot of women who were incredibly famous in the ’90s and early aughts voice their support for the film and for Britney: Sarah Jessica Parker is one point of reference, Liz Phair. There were quite a few. I started wondering if the film was encouraging or stimulating them and I was wondering what was going on inside their heads and if they too were reframing their own narrative and what they would say if they had the opportunity to really tell their stories now from their own perspective. Of course, that’s what we don’t have in Framing Britney. So I’m ready to hear them tell us their stories.
And I think that we’re able also to look at this moment now and to see so clearly what existed then because change has been manifest and change has occurred. This is not to say that I think we’ve eradicated misogyny from our culture, but there’s certain language and here’s certain forums that have gone away. So certainly in the ’90s and the early aughts, you were seeing men on late-night talk shows essentially calling Monica Lewinsky a “slut,” as you hear in our film. I don’t think you would hear a late-night talk show host calling anyone a slut today. Which is, again, not to say I think these darker feelings or tendencies towards women have totally left our culture but I think that the #MeToo movement has been tremendously constructive in many ways. And I think that it’s meant that a lot of the gatekeepers have changed and mores have changed.
Given the response and the questions raised by your doc, are you thinking about doing a follow-up?
Day: I think we’d love to, there was so much we had to leave on the cutting room floor and in our notebooks just for time. And also since the documentary aired, we’ve gotten a lot of information that we’re interested in as well that we’re interested in pursuing and reporting out further.
I was going to ask if, as is usual with these cases, sources start popping up once the story is out?
Day: Yeah. And I think something’s that’s happened as well is the documentary has helped us earn the trust of even more people. As we talked about earlier, people have been very distrustful of the press because they’ve felt burned in the past and I think the documentary’s very sensitive treatment and respect of all parties and everyone helped us further.
I know you weren’t able to get in touch with Britney Spears or her team before the documentary came out. Have they been in touch at all since it was released?
Stark: Like her publicist and manager and stuff?
Yeah, like her team.
Stark: Not her team in that way.
Robertson: She may be sending us messages through her Scrabble board on Instagram. (laughs)
Stark: Her manager, her publicist, her lawyers have not contacted us.
And she hasn’t either, personally?
Bloomberg recently reported that Netflix is working on a documentary about Britney Spears. What would you like to see explored further, whether by you or someone else? What questions do you still have as the filmmakers?
Stark: I think there’s way more to learn about the circumstances of the conservatorship and how the conservatorship has been running and why, the people involved in its creation and running it. Right now, Jamie Spears is the face of this because he’s the person that was named in the court filings that were filed by Britney’s court-appointed attorney. But it’s clear that he’s not the only person who was working on this and that he’s not the only person that has benefited monetarily from this, so I think it’s important to look into everything. And of course it will be very important to keep following the court hearings as they keep happening.
Day: I totally agree with everything Sam just said and would just emphasize that Britney’s money is such a big part of this. The court values the value of her estate at $60 million but there’s a lot of speculation that her true net worth is much larger with royalties and intellectual property and there may be a substantial amount of money in a separate trust and I think the more that is learned about all of that, that should be really interesting. The next court hearing is March 17 and it’s excepted that Britney’s court-appointed counsel, Samuel Ingham, will be filing further detailed objections to the way Jamie has allegedly mismanaged her estate so I think we’re really interested to see what he’s objecting to and just watching more of those records become public.
Stark: And so, as journalists, we’re always looking for people with firsthand knowledge and experience, as Liz [often] says.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.