There’s a scene in the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears which revisits a 2008 episode of US gameshow Family Feud, where the host, John O’Hurley, asks the competing families to “name something Britney Spears has lost over the last year.” Without skipping a beat, a contestant buzzes in to answer “her husband”, before their fellow competitors chime in with “her hair”, “her sanity” and “her virginity”.
The clip, which was filmed in the aftermath of pop star Britney Spears’ highly publicised breakdown, was originally placed at the start of the documentary, NYT Presents showrunner Mary Robertson tells RadioTimes.com for The Big RT Interview. “I was blown away and I remember saying, ‘Holy cow, this is going to be amazing.’
“In that moment, I think you saw the distinct public cruelty that was directed towards her story. We ended up moving the clip but it still packs a punch.”
Arguably one of the most talked-about documentaries of 2021, Framing Britney Spears aired on US channel FX at the beginning of February, examining global superstar Britney Spears’ rise to fame, the misogynistic treatment she often received from the tabloids and the conservatorship in place since 2008, which gave her father Jamie Spears legal control over her finances until a co-conservator was appointed last year.
The film, which also covers Britney’s failed legal requests to remove her father as a co-conservator and her fans’ campaign to dissolve the conservatorship, finally crossed the pond to the UK earlier this week, smashing Sky Documentaries’ viewing record in less than 24 hours when over 220,000 watchers tuned in for the premiere.
Framing Britney Spears executive producer Robertson and director Samantha Stark sat down with RadioTimes.com to chat about the reaction to the film, with Stark saying she was “floored, totally surprised” by the response from viewers – especially considering she thought they’d have the same attitude as those 2008 Family Fortunes contestants.
“I had no idea this would happen at all, particularly had no idea that people would get what we were trying to convey. So many people make fun of Britney Spears. It has been the norm to make fun of Britney Spears honestly, in my opinion, until about two weeks ago when this came out.
“I remember mostly before it came out worrying that people would have the same reaction to the archival footage that they did in 2007 and say she was ‘crazy’ and make memes out of the footage we replayed. That was what I was worried about. I was so overwhelmed and surprised and touched when the opposite happened, people saying, ‘We are sorry Britney.’ That was the most incredible thing that happened. I could not believe it.”
Robertson adds that she’s not sure how they’ll continue as filmmakers as the documentary has done so well. “Every little intention we put down in the film has been picked up by someone somewhere. It’s extraordinarily powerful.”
Stark and Robertson began developing Framing Britney Spears after Liz Day, the Senior Story Editor at the New York Times who appears in the documentary, came up with the idea of making a film similar to ESPN’s O.J: Made in America, but about the Baby One More Time singer.
“I thought thought that was an utterly brilliant pitch,” Robertson says. “What was brilliant about Liz’s pitch is the essence of this idea that we could begin the Britney story at the beginning of her life and not begin it in 2008 when she has what is characterised as her public unravelling. So that by the time you land in those moments in 2008, you’re understanding more fully the set of circumstances that surrounded her and possibly precipitated this. We were no longer looking at her in isolation, and you’re able to offer this robust cultural criticism too.”
Stark was brought on board to direct the documentary and found herself attracted to the story given her similarity in age to Spears. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how watching my peer be treated in such a misogynistic way must have affected my development and my classmates’ development growing up. So, it’s been very emotional to look back at it.
“Of course, there is this question of justice and the conservatorship that she is in right now where she is really unable to make really basic decisions about her life, and her fans coming up to fight for her without quite knowing what’s happening, I think those elements really make for something really interesting and emotional.”
As for the documentary’s title, Stark says that, while titles usually take “weeks and years and months” to decide on, she began writing Framing Britney Spears at the top of production papers. “It has a lot of meanings, but the way I see it is that we are constantly putting Britney in this frame of what we think she is. She’s the person having a meltdown who shaved her head, that’s a frame.
“We think she’s incapable of making her own decisions because she’s in a conservatorship, that’s a way we’re framing her. There’s so many different ways to do that and we tried to echo that in the way a lot of the material is framed in the piece. We wanted to show you what was outside that frame of judgement and assumption about Britney,” she adds. “Everyone wants to frame Britney Spears for something.”
The entire documentary was filmed during the pandemic under strict COVID safety laws, which required all interviews to be shot outside. Stark reveals she “passionately poured” over Britney’s Instagram for ideas to avoid making the outside interviews look as though they were a “really unmotivated stylistic choice”.
“So much of Britney’s Instagram takes place in this gorgeous Californian backyard. There’s tonnes of roses, roses are everywhere, flowers everywhere. I wanted the interview set-up to look as if they were filming in that world,” she says. “Also, with Britney’s Instagram, you don’t know what’s real and what’s not. So, we wanted the backgrounds to look like that, maybe it’s real, maybe it’s fake, and at some moments we pull out and you can see it is a set.”
She adds that the abundance of flowers in the documentary has nothing to do with Spears’ ‘Project Rose’ – an upcoming project the pop star has hinted at on social media. “We didn’t even know there was a rose project before we started doing all this,” Stark says.
While making Framing Britney Spears, the pair spooled through hours of archival footage, from interviews with the pop star and paparazzi shots to clips from her early career as a child actress to find the right videos and, while many scenes included in the film proved to be shocking for viewers, Robertson and Stark reveal there were moments they chose to leave out.
“We could have included a 10-hour cut of people being mean to Britney Spears,” Stark says. “We only wanted to use enough to get the point across and confront the audience with it without re-traumatising Britney over and over again.”
She adds that they didn’t include an up-skirt picture of Britney from the early 2000’s – a picture taken up her skirt without her consent by a photographer just six weeks after she’d given birth. “Two things stand out about that. One, the criticism was with Britney for not wearing underwear. Not about the photographers who took a picture up a woman’s skirt, which would be illegal now.”
“So many things that happened to Britney would be illegal if you conceptualise it differently. If one of the people were following her around as much as one of the paps were, that would be stalking. But with Britney, it was basically shaming her for not wearing underwear.”
Stark adds that they also left out a picture from 2007, in which Spears, who’d shaved her head by this point, was seen hiding a paparazzo’s car with her umbrella. “She was caught in one picture wielding this steel umbrella, but what we can do with the film is looking beyond this one still frame and see what happened, and what happened was she was trying to see her kids that night. And so, she was so angry that this guy was following her around asking questions about it in the most devastating things that could happen to you as a parent not being able to see your kids. It gives you a whole new perspective on Britney.”
Has celebrity culture changed since Britney’s experience in the noughties? Robertson thinks it’s “largely the case” that it has.
“If someone was to ask a 17-year-old about their breasts on television today, they would likely receive a lot of criticism,” she says, referring to an archival interview seen in the documentary in which a talk-show host tells Spears everybody is talking about her breasts.
“I think we should be asking ourselves whether the conversation and the manifestation of misogyny has, in the post Me Too-era, whether it has been eradicated, poof, whether or not it has diminished, or whether or not it has shape-shifted and changed forms.”
She adds that, while explicit misogyny is less likely to manifest on tabloid covers and in newspapers, women receive a lot of nasty and hostile responses in direct messages and semi-private formats online.
Stark agrees, saying: “Now it would be dangerous to say something with your face attached to it. But a lot of these things have moved online. I’m not very popular on social media but from this, I’ve seen several people make fake profiles just to tell me how wrong I am, and how women are taking advantage of men and stuff like that.”
As for Britney Spears’ reaction – or rather lack of – to the documentary, Stark says it’s hard to know what she’s thinking due to the “tight circle” around her and the conservatorship. “It’s always unclear even through her Instagram and Twitter if she’s saying something unfiltered or not. And I think one of the big ethical issues of the film was to make a film about Britney Spears without Britney Spears.
“And so, the way we decided to make sure we were doing it ethically is to not ever assume what is in Britney’s head in any point. So, we rely on people with first-hand experience telling their experience, people commenting on our culture, the culture around that, or facts. We’re never assuming what’s going on in Britney’s head. We’re also never assuming Britney has a medical diagnosis.”
Finally, after the impact the documentary has made and the continuing developments regarding the conservatorship of Britney’s financial affairs, would the pair consider filming a follow-up to Framing Britney Spears?
“I would be passionately excited about that idea,” Stark says. “I would be into it. There’s definitely more to say. We’ve already started getting tips from people for new information.
“There’s more to the story, and there’s more to say how she got into the conservatorship and what’s happening in the conservatorship as well.”
Framing Britney Spears, part of the documentary series The New York Times Presents, is available to watch on-demand on Sky Documentaries and NOW TV. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.